On the Great Derangement and yearning for original fullness

Amitav Ghosh’s (2016) book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, is a commendable thesis on how the climate crisis is not simply a manifestation of physical geographical quantities but also a qualitative crisis in human geographical imagination. In other words, the climate crisis reveals an inability of the cultural imagination to face up to this reality and to envisage alternative possibilities and ways out. Ghosh is a highly accomplished Indian novelist whose catalogue of fiction is distinguished by its interweaving of global and historical political economy with personal narrative. He is thus well positioned in his criticism of the literary profession:

“That climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena is not hard to establish. […] When the subject of climate change occurs in these publications, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously by serious literary journals: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the grave of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.” (Ghosh, 2016: 7)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Ghosh (2016: 22) contextualises this myopia of literary imagination as born out of nineteenth century discourse on modernity as orderly and progressive; a discourse which also shaped the discipline of geology:

“The victory of gradualist views in science was similarly won by characterizing catastrophism as un-modern. In geology, the triumph of gradualist thinking was so complete that Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, which posited upheavals of sudden and unimaginable violence, was for decades discounted and derided.”

Narratives from fiction and nonfiction accordingly came to chime with the new regularity of bourgeois-dominated life, and yet the unpredictability of global warming now defies this conventional lens.

Ghosh (2016: 58-59) explains how the modern novel unfolds through a ‘setting’ – the construction of a ‘sense of place’ (as humanistic geography would understand it):

“settings become the vessel for the exploration of that ultimate instance of discontinuity: the nation-state. In novels discontinuities of space are accompanied also by discontinuities of time: a setting usually requires a “period”; it is actualized within a certain time horizon. […] It is through the imposition of these boundaries, in time and space, that the world of a novel is created.”

This fictive geographical imagining, a bounded and discontinuous spatial-temporal terrain, is contrasted with the holistic and fluid space and time of the Anthropocene:

“it was in exactly the period in which human activity was changing the earth’s atmosphere that the literary imagination became radically centered on the human. Inasmuch as the nonhuman was written about at all, it was not within the mansion of serious fiction but rather in the outhouses to which science fiction and fantasy had been banished.” (Ghosh, 2016: 66)

The setting of the novel, Ghosh (2016: 131-133) contends, mirrors a dominant culture of politics, economics and literature that has exiled the idea of the collective in the search for personal authenticity and (at best) a career in personal political virtue – impeding effective resistance to, and reimagining of, the climate crisis:

“the public sphere, where politics is performed, has been largely emptied of content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a forum of secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world-as-church. Politics as thus practiced is primarily an exercise in personal expressiveness. […] Of late, many activists and concerned people have begun to frame climate change as a “moral issue” […] When framed in this way, authenticity and sacrifice become central to the issue […] To think in those terms is to accept neo-liberal premises.”

Ghosh (2016: 129) continues, “the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction” in imagining alternative futures has been lost in its orientation towards the self and away from the human collective and the nonhuman; he astutely asks:

“Consider, for example, the stories that congeal around questions like, “Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?” or “where were you on 9/11” Will it ever be possible to ask, in the same vein, “Where were you at 400 ppm [parts per million]?” or “Where were you when the Larson B ice shelf broke up?””

Echoing the title of the book, Ghosh (2016: 11) proclaims:

“Quite possibly then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”

Ghosh is keen to distinguish himself from those who attribute the climate crisis to capitalism alone, since, he claims, this underplays the central role of empire and imperialism. He argues:

“To look at the climate crisis through the prism of empire is to recognize […] that the continent of Asia is conceptually critical to every aspect of global warming: its causes, its philosophical and historical implications, and the possibility of a global response to it.” (Ghosh, 2016: 87)

He elaborates:

“The factor that gave the carbon economy its decisive shape was not the provenance of the machines that ushered in the Industrial Revolution: these could have been used and imitated just as easily in other parts of the world as they were in continental Europe. What determined the shape of the global carbon economy was that the major European powers had already established a strong (but by no means hegemonic) military and political presence in much of Asia and Africa at the time when the technology of steam was in its nascency, that is to say, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. From that point on, carbon-intensive technologies were to have the effect of continually reinforcing Western power with the result that other variants of modernity came to be suppressed, incorporated, and appropriated into what is now a single, dominant model. The boost that fossil fuels provided to Western power is nowhere more clearly evident than in the First Opium War, where armoured steamships, led by the aptly named Nemesis, played a decisive role. In other words, carbon emissions were, from very early on, closely co-related to power in all its aspects: this continues to be a major, although unacknowledged, factor in the politics of contemporary global warming.” (Ghosh, 2016: 108-109)

Whilst Ghosh recognises that both capitalism and imperialism are interconnected, he states that “even if capitalism were to be magically transformed tomorrow, the imperatives of political and military dominance would remain a significant obstacle to progress on mitigatory action” (Ghosh, 2016: 146). And yet if a movement successfully overthrew capitalist social relations tomorrow – and it would have to be a mass, labour-based movement that could achieve this – such a movement would also (in its nature of being successful) represent a profound democratic shift to the grassroots that has radically altered the political and cultural sphere. Ghosh does not indicate who crudely separates capitalism from imperialism. In the “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”, Marx (1999: 376) in Capital makes no such separation:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China”

On a movement for radical social resistance and alternatives to the climate crisis, it is not an organised mass labour movement that Ghosh (2016: 111) sees as the lever for change, despite at times recognising the fundamental role of labour’s antithesis, capital:

““Money flows toward short term gain,” writes the geologist David Archer, “and toward the over-exploitation of unregulated common resources. These tendencies are like the invisible hand of fate, guiding the hero in a Greek tragedy toward his inevitable doom.” This is indeed the essence of humanity’s present derangement.”

Instead, Ghosh’s (2016: 159) desire for future alternative imaginings is actually a turn to past imaginings – a rediscovered sacred, community and kinship – that the forces of religion offer:

“Bleak though the terrain of climate change may be, there are a few features in it that stand out in relief as signs of hope […] the most promising development, in my view, is the increasing involvement of religious groups and leaders in the politics of climate change.”

Religion represents, for Ghosh, transnational mass mobilisations of people capable of intergenerational, nonlinear and non-economistic thinking; but so too do capital’s gravediggers possess such potential imagination. Both the commonality and critical difference between the two can be explained by Marx (1977: 64) in Towards a Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right”:

“Religious suffering is at the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore the germ of the criticism of the valley of tears whose halo is religion.”

Ghosh’s hope in religion to move us beyond the present impasse reminds me of the words of Marx (1973: 162) from Grundrisse:

“It is ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint”

Rather than fixating in a nostalgia with the past, one must recognise the radical possibilities thrown up by the globalisation of capital (a global working class, a world literature, social intercourse in every direction, to paraphrase The Communist Manifesto) and sublate such potentiality out of capital’s heartbeat of profit-making from human and nonhuman resources.

Israel-Palestine: Two Nations, Two States 101

What do we mean by, and what’s the case for, a two states settlement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? On the academic and public Left, the history of this conflict is actually one of competing historical narratives, which differ in their selection and emphasis of key events and players. These historical narratives offer different perspectives on the nature of this conflict at present and on its potential resolution in the future.

Two highly significant dates in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are 1948 and 1967.

1948 is known by the Palestinian-Arabs as the al-Nakba, the catastrophe. Why? Because in 1948, Israeli-Jews took up their right to national self-determination. In one and the same moment, on one and the same land, the original occupants, Palestinian-Arabs, saw their right to national self-determination banish.

What do I mean by ‘right’ here? I am coming from the tradition and perspective of consistent democracy, which recognises that, as much as I am politically opposed to nationalism and strive for a world free of nation-states, all (without exception) self-defining national groups of people have a basic democratic right to fulfilling their wish for a nation-state.

The tragedy of 1948 is that one nationally self-defined group of people achieved their right at the expense of another nationally self-defined group of people.

In June 1967, the Israeli state came out of the Arab-Israeli 6-day war with more territory than its UN recognised nation-state borders of 1948. To date, that territory is the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Now, accepting the fait accompli of the nation-state of Israel on its 1948 borders, a further critical date then in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is 1967: that being the moment when the Israeli state occupation of Palestine, Palestine being Gaza and the West Back, commenced.

This is the historical understanding that then flows into the demand for a fully autonomous Palestinian nation-state of Gaza and the West Bank alongside the nation-state of Israel; meaning, notably, an end and reversal of the right-wing expansionist politics and actions of the Israeli state, that the Israeli-Jewish settlements of the West Bank must be reversed, and that the control of movement and space in, out, and through Gaza by the Israeli state and military must end.

A consistently democratic settlement to this conflict (and by this, I mean democratic for both working class people in Israel and in occupied Palestine) is that of a ‘two nations, two states’ settlement.

Conversely, the dominant historical narrative of the Left considers 1948 as the singular paramount date in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – this is when, it is argued, the colonial occupation of Palestine began and continues, with the territory gained by the Israeli state in 1967 merely an expansion of this occupation. The demand, ‘Free Palestine, End the Occupation’, means then the undoing (in some way) of the existence of the nation-state of Israel on 1948 borders. And after that, because we exist in a world in which the nation-state is the legal vehicle of political governance, some kind of one state settlement: be that under the guise of a binational state, a confederation, or so on.

What’s the right political answer here for the Left? Two states or a various configurations of one state. Certainly the answer for the Israeli political Right is one state.

In the run up to 1948, as stated by late scholar Maxime Rodinson, “the actual inhabitants of Palestine were ignored by practically everybody. The philosophy prevailing in the European world at the time was without any doubt responsible for this. Every territory situated outside that world was considered empty”. Zionism, Jewish nationalism, pursued its project in this climate and it gained reality because of the exodus of Jews from Europe escaping murderous anti-Semitism. A newly formed Israel existed in an era of decolonisation, which partly explains why Israel is uniquely singled out by the much of the Left.

Is it a just and realistic demand, seven decades on, to undo Israel? No. Is it morally bankrupt and unrealistic to demand a two nations, two states settlement on pre-1967 borders? No.

Again, Maxime Rodinson: “If the consequences of pressing a just claim are liable to be calamitous and unjust, and too fraught with practical difficulties, there may be grounds for suggesting that it be renounced. The wrong done to the Arabs by the Israelis is very real. However, it is only too common throughout history.” “Colonists and colonizers are not monsters with human faces whose behaviour defies rational explanation, as one might think from reading left-wing intellectuals … Who is innocent of this charge? … History is full of fait accomplis.”

There is no revolutionary solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but there is a consistently democratic one with the hope that the peaceful coexistence of two realised national groups of working class peoples might then transcend their national and religious identities for a cosmopolitan and egalitarian future.

Fetishizing Brexit’s working class rage

“Common sense is not a single unique conception, identical in time and space. It is the ‘folklore’ of philosophy, and, like folklore, it takes countless different forms. Its most fundamental characteristic is that it is a conception which, even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential, in conformity with the social and cultural position of those masses whose philosophy it is. At those times in history when a homogenous social group is brought into being, there comes into being also, in opposition to common sense, a homogenous – in other words coherent and systematic – philosophy.” (Gramsci 1971: 419)

 

“Many working class people believe in Brexit. Who can blame them?”, writes self-defined anarchist working class academic Lisa Mckenzie in her LSE blog post. Her narrative on working class support for Brexit is of a class long and systematically excluded from British cosmopolitan society fighting back. What is critically missing from Mckenzie’s narrative is a consideration of the politics which they are fighting back on. As such, she fetishizes the working class: they have been so downtrodden that their resistance is… well, what exactly?

“How depressing that now seems as chaos ensues in Parliament, the political system is at breaking point and rage is infectious. The only positive is that Brexit has at last broken the political and social hegemony that kept our population subdued and somewhat apathetic. They are no longer apathetic, and their rage has become unbearable to the Westminster political and media chattering classes.” (Mckenzie)

Is Mckenzie suggesting here, rage is good because it is working class rage?

The recent period has seen an ascendency of right-wing nationalist populist politics in Britain, the United States, and Europe: captivating significant sections of the sociologically working class through an anti-establishment discourse. “Take Back Control”, in retrospect, was a brilliant slogan because it had traction: it made common sense to people’s life experiences and conditions, to their reality of social and political exclusion. But, following Gramsci, common sense is not good sense. Mckenzie is right to emphasize that many who voted did so feeling politically empowered after years of disempowerment, but she fails to scrutinise the politics of “Take Back Control”. Worse still, she dismisses its racist current.

“I have written and argued in academic journals, and on panels at academic conferences, that for some working class people in the UK – those who had experienced political, economic and social exclusion – the question they saw on the ballot paper was not about leaving or remaining in the European Union, but was ‘Do you want things to stay the same, or do you want things to be different?’ Those people – whom the media has since named ‘the left behind’ – answered. They wanted things to change, they wanted things to be different. […] working class people had read, understood and heard the debates around the EU as exclusive, and elite, too often using language that diminished their own life experiences: ‘stupidity and racism’ has been the most common.” (Mckenzie)

The legacy of mainstream political parties in England and Wales long problematizing immigration meant that the EU referendum was a tinderbox-in-waiting: the spark to set off the nationalist populist Right and far Right. Enter UKIP, the English Defence League, and the rest. This is not to say that all people who voted Leave were racist; of course not. But it is to say that the common sense ideology of the right-wing Leave campaign was an exclusive and excluding racist nationalism – on this point, see Expounding racial hatred before and after the Brexit vote and Brexit’s inevitable racism.

Mckenzie deplores the disgraceful dismissal of her working class heroes as ‘stupid and racist’. Yes that’s a crude assertion, but the flipside of this notion isn’t analytically accurate either: that people voted Leave in a coherent and fully informed way and weren’t affected by its common sense ideology. What’s more, the working class – as perhaps distinct from Mckenzie’s working class heroes – are not a uniform group. The Lord Ashcroft Polls established that older people were more likely than their younger counterparts to vote Leave and black and Asian people were more likely to vote Remain. University educated people were also more likely to vote Remain. The working class who are classified sociologically lower middle class were fairly evenly split between Leave and Remain.

The nationalist populist Right succeeded in gaining a hegemony during and after the EU referendum.

The Left thus far has failed, either by pursuing Stalinist nationalist Lexit politics or by simply not winning the arguments wide and well enough. The progressive Left has failed in winning the idea that cosmopolitanism, the expansion of civil and political rights, feminism, environmental concern, globalisation, the internet, and immigration are not ‘the enemy’ of the working class. Further still, the progressive Left has failed to spell out that it’s in favour of globalisation as democratically controlled by international working class interests rather than the interests of big business, and in favour of freedom of movement of labour (in a world that allows freedom of movement of capital).

“Westminster, the media, and the academic world – all of which are solid bourgeois spaces devoid of working class people – are in full agreement: the past 40 years of deindustrialisation and aggressive policies of social mobility that marginalise working class life, pride and identity have no credence in the debate about the EU. […] Brexit has let those rational, liberal masks slip, and you are ugly.” (Mckenzie)

Mckenzie makes a false argument that the academic world is in full agreement that the past four decades of deindustrialisation and socio-economic and political exclusion of the poorest in our society had no bearing on the EU referendum. Of course it did. She is right that Westminster, the media, and the academic world generally ignored significant layers of the working class, yet she omits that the likes of UKIP readily stepped in and captured hearts and minds during the referendum. Again, the liberal and radical Left failed. Oswell (2006: 46), following Gramsci, reminds us that, “[in] order to change people’s mind and conduct, common sense must not be foregone in favour of an arid knowledge, rather it must be carried over, as it is that passion that forms the connection between the leaders and those who are led”:

“One cannot make politics-history without this passion, without this sentimental connection between intellectuals and the people-nation. In the absence of such a nexus the relations between the intellectual and the people-nation are, or are reduced to, relationships of a purely bureaucratic and formal order; the intellectuals become a caste, or a priesthood.” (Gramsci 1971: 418)

“Take Back Control” could have been the political slogan of the Left, successfully translated into the demand for a labour-led socialist united states of Europe.

Back to the fetishized rage of the working class. Is the demand not to be binded to a referendum decision made two and a half years ago political disenfranchisement of the working class? Is the demand to have a say on the actual political reality and options here and now undemocratic to the working class? No, it’s politics: the necessary on-going battle of ideas on how society is and how it could be. As Oswell (2006: 46) states, “common sense is not only the ground upon which ideological battles are fought, it is also that which needs to be contested and brought to bear under the weight of critical consciousness.”

 

Reference:
David Oswell (2006) Culture and Society: an Introduction to Cultural Studies. Sage Publications, London.

“The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood” by Belle Boggs

“If someone had told me, “In five years you will have a baby,” I would have been fine to wait those five years; I would have been grateful to have them, in fact, and would have gotten busy with some of my other goals. But no one could tell me that – the problem with infertility is that it is not a patient, serene kind of waiting, not a simple delay in your plans; it happens for many of us in the context of consuming struggle, staggering expense, devastating loss. It’s five (or eight, or ten) years of trying and failing, which erodes any feelings of confidence or anticipation of a positive outcome.” (Boggs, pg. 19)

Belle Boggs (2016) “The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood”. Graywolf Press: Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The precarious journeys that a hidden population find themselves on to desired parenthood – caught between a swinging dialectic of willed-for fertility and corporeal infertility – is laden with fantasy, longing, loss, and grief. For some, that twilight grief ends with a successful pregnancy or adoption; for others, the challenge is to find growth beyond a black hole. Belle Boggs’ book, while reflecting on her own journey, which included IVF, is a contemplation of social, cultural, and political questions that inevitably come up (in some form or another) during such journeys, but whose answers are only afforded in retrospect.

“We count on literature to prepare us, to console us, but I am shocked by how little consolation there is for the infertile, or even for those who are childless by choice and trying to live in a world that is largely fertile and family driven. Old ideas and prejudices persist – a woman without a child is less feminine, less nurturing. She is defined by what she does not have, and she confronts, again and again, a culture that reinforces the wrongness of her circumstances, which may be biological or social, temporary or permanent, something she treats or something she accepts.” (Boggs, pg. 41)

What is especially commendable about The Art of Waiting is Boggs’ ability to critique and contextualise and to raise difficult ethical questions without passing prejudicial judgement on the circumstances and decision-making of individuals. Exploring the multifaceted terrains of international and domestic adoption, gestational surrogacy, and IVF, Boggs touches upon the moral tensions, inequities, and exploitation of a capitalist political economy that those in search of family-making navigate. Amidst this complexity, a basic point is spelt out: for all of those who fall into the ‘infertility camp’, Plan B family-making is very far from easy. For gay people, for example, facing specific opposition and obstacles to their family-making from socially conservative forces, the experience of domestic and international adoption, or IVF, or gestational surrogacy, cannot be crudely and cruelly reduced to an unnatural and flippant shopping experience. The global and local capitalist networks that lock corporeal fertility and infertility with corporeal inequality and exploitation is laid down at the door of society at large.

“It’s easy to see, even in [US] states that have attempted to provide infertility coverage, who gets left out: people who have complicated diagnoses or need expensive treatment […]; people who are older; LGBT couples, people in unmarried partnerships, or women who have decided to get pregnant on their own. […] More than any other factor – age, sperm count and quality, egg reserve as measured by hormonal tests – the resources we could allocate to treatment appeared to determine our outcomes. It was a numbers game, I began to believe […].” (Boggs, pg. 185-186)

Boggs cites the psychotherapist Dr. Marni Rosner to help explain the emotional impact of infertility: “The losses are hidden. But with reproductive trauma, the losses can happen over and over again”; what’s more, “There are no clear norms for grieving the loss of a dream” (pg.103). Referencing 2012 research into the advertising of fertility clinics conducted by Professor Jim Hawkins, it is noted that IVF clinics emphasize the emotional rather than the practical side of treatment: with, for example, baby photographs alongside the word “dream” and/or “miracle” (pg. 199). What’s downplayed is the price-tag.

“IVF is an elective procedure with a poor success rate and an arguably unnecessary goal. But it is also true that infertility is an emotionally punishing experience as well as a disability […]. It’s hard to imagine that the stress of infertility isn’t compounded by the question of how to pay for treatment, so much that, almost against our wills, it crowds out other thinking. […] Will I max out these credit cards? Liquidate this retirement plan? Take out a second mortgage?” (Boggs, pg. 193-194)

With both a critical eye and an appreciation of the realities individuals steer to be able to afford ‘a chance’ of a positive outcome, Boggs draws a parallel between IVF payment packages and financial derivatives and credit default swaps.

The UK-based Access Fertility came to my mind when Boggs reflected, with nuance, on IVF payment packages.

This is The Art of Waiting at its very best: capturing the everyday emotional struggles for fertility amidst infertility which are thoroughly entangled with local and global capitalist networks and relations of power. Boggs asks some hard questions of the society that we live in whilst remaining deeply sensitive and committed to those on their waiting journeys.

“The life an infertile person seeks comes to her not by accident and not by fate but by hard-fought choices. How to put together the portfolio of photographs. How to answer at the home study. What clinic or doctor or procedure. Donor egg or donor sperm or donor embryo. Open or closed adoption. What country, what boxes to check or uncheck. What questions to ask, and ask again. When to start and when to stop. What to say when her child says, ‘Tell me my story.’” (Boggs, pg. 98)

Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on black anti-Semitism: sagacity for the Left today

“It is strange to see things for which Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty have long been despised and abused, among much of the left, the kitsch left, now being brandished as weapons against the Corbyn Labour Party by our political enemies. Certainly “left-wing” antisemitism, expressed as “anti-Zionism”, is a malignant and powerful force on the left. […] Those who want the destruction of Israel and advocate, or would support, an Arab or Islamic war of extermination against it should not be members of any working-class or socialist party. It is necessary to educate and re-educate the left and the labour movement, to get the movement to see, reject, and fight their “left-wing” antisemitism. […] Blatant and persistent antisemites should be expelled from the Labour Party. But more than that is needed. Jeremy Corbyn should take the lead in initiating an educational campaign in the Labour Party and in the broader labour movement on the complex of questions involved, including Israel-Palestine.” Anti-Semitism is a real issue: criticise the “left”, oppose the right (2018)

“I’m sure you know, millions more Africans were killed in the African Holocaust and their oppression continues today on a global scale in a way it doesn’t for Jews… and many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade which is of course why there were so many early synagogues in the Caribbean. So who are victims and what does it mean? We are victims and perpetrators to some extent through choice. And having been a victim does not give you a right to be a perpetrator.” Jackie Walker (2016)

““Anti-Semitism is a crime. Anti-Zionism is a duty” read the banner in front of the stage at Jackie Walker’s performance of her one-person show “The Lynching” at the Edinburgh Fringe in early August. […] She describes her play as “the one-woman show about a real-life witch-hunt: an attempt to destroy Jeremy Corbyn and an entire political movement.” According to the play’s publicity, the play tells you “what they wouldn’t let Jackie Walker tell you.” Who “they” are is not defined. Nor is there any explanation of why “they” are letting Walker tell you something in a play which “they” do not let her tell you in any other way. Or maybe that’s the power of the performing arts? The play is part of an ongoing campaign by Walker, according to which the allegations of anti-semitism raised against her are totally unfounded and are really an attempt (presumably by “them”) to silence critics of Israel (and destroy Jeremy Corbyn, and destroy Momentum). […] The banner draped in front of the stage on which Walker performed her play is the banner of the Scottish Palestine Campaign (SPSC), which also organised a speaking tour of Scotland for Walker in March. In the week preceding Walker’s performance the SPSC had been a news item in its own right, following the publication of “Jew Hate and Holocaust Denial in Scotland” by Jewish Human Rights Watch. The report’s author, David Collier, had researched the personal social media accounts of Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) members and activists. The bulk of the 160-page report consists of screengrabs of some of the antisemitic material which he encountered: Holocaust denial and Holocaust revisionism; the antisemitic trope of Israel as a behind-the-scenes global superpower; other traditional antisemitic tropes (rich Jews, greedy Jews, cunning Jews, etc.).” Jackie Walker’s questionable allies (2017)

Insightful context to the high-profile case of the twice suspended Labour Party member and former Vice-Chair of Momentum, Jackie Walker, is the book Blacks and Jews: Alliances and Arguments edited by Paul Berman (published by Delta in 1994); in particular, two of its essays by Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Below are extracts from each essay.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Cornel West: On Black-Jewish Relations

“Without a sympathetic understanding of the deep historic sources of Jewish fears and anxieties about group survival, blacks will not grasp the visceral attachment of most Jews to Israel. Similarly, without a candid acknowledgment of blacks’ status as permanent underdogs in American society, Jews will not comprehend what the symbolic predicament and literal plight of Palestinians in Israel means to blacks. […] The ascendance of the conservative Likud party in Israel in 1977 and the visibility of narrow black nationalist voices in the eighties helped solidify this impasse. When mainstream American Jewish organizations supported the inhumane policies of Begin and Shamir, they tipped their hats toward cold-hearted interest-group calculations. When black nationalist spokesmen like Farrakhan and Jeffries excessively targeted Jewish power as subordinating black and brown peoples they played the same mean-spirited game. In turning their heads from the ugly truth of Palestinian subjugation, and in refusing to admit the falsity of the alleged Jewish conspiracies, both sides failed to define the moral character of their Jewish and black identities.”

“Black anti-Semitism rests on three basic pillars. First, it is a species of anti-whitism. Jewish complicity in American racism – even though it is less extensive than the complicity of other white Americans – reinforces black perceptions that Jews are identical to any other group benefiting from white-skin privileges in racist America. This view denies the actual history and treatment of Jews. And the particular interactions of Jews and black people in the hierarchies of business and education cast Jews as the public face of oppression for the black community, and thus lend evidence to this mistaken view of Jews as any other white folk.

Second, black anti-Semitism is a result of higher expectations some black folk have of Jews. This perspective holds Jews to a moral standard different from that extended to other white ethnic groups, principally owing to the ugly history of anti-Semitism in the world, especially in Europe and the Middle East. Such double standards assume that Jews and blacks are “natural” allies, since both groups have suffered chronic degradation and oppression at the hands of racial and ethnic majorities. So when Jewish neoconservatism gains a high public profile at a time when black peoples are more and more vulnerable, the charge of “betrayal” surfaces among black folk who feel let down. Such utterances resonate strongly in a black Protestant culture that has inherited many stock Christian anti-Semitic narratives of Jews as Christ-killers. These infamous narratives historically have had less weight in the black community, in stark contrast to the more obdurate white Christian varieties of anti-Semitism. Yet in moments of desperation in the black community, they tend to reemerge, charged with the rhetoric of Jewish betrayal.

Third, black anti-Semitism is a form of underdog resentment and envy, directed at another underdog who has “made it” in American society. The remarkable upward mobility of American Jews – rooted chiefly in a history and culture that places a premium on higher education and self-organization – easily lends itself to myths of Jewish unity and homogeneity that have gained currency among other groups, especially among relatively unorganised groups like black Americans. The high visibility of Jews in the upper reaches of the academy, journalism, the entertainment industry, and the professions – though less so percentagewise in corporate America and national political office – is viewed less as a result of hard work and success fairly won, and more as a matter of favouritism and nepotism among Jews. Ironically, calls for black solidarity and achievement are often modeled on myths of Jewish unity – as both groups respond to American xenophobia and racism. But in times such as these, some blacks view Jews as obstacles rather than allies in the struggle for racial justice.

These three elements of black anti-Semitism – which also characterize the outlooks of some other ethnic groups in America – have a long history among black people. Yet the recent upsurge of black anti-Semitism exploits two other prominent features of the political landscape identified with the American Jewish establishment: the military status of Israel in the Middle East (especially in its enforcement of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza); and the visible conservative Jewish opposition to what is perceived to be a major means of black progress, namely, affirmative action. Of course, principled critiques of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, of Israeli denigration of Palestinians, or attacks on affirmative action transcend anti-Semitic sensibilities. Yet vulgar critiques do not – and often are shot through with such sensibilities, in white and black America alike. These vulgar critiques – usually based on sheer ignorance and a misinformed thirst for vengeance – add an aggressive edge to black anti-Semitism. And in the rhetoric of a Louis Farrakhan or a Leonard Jeffries, whose audiences rightly hunger for black self-respect and oppose black degradation, these critiques misdirect progressive black energies arrayed against unaccountable corporate power and antiblack racism, steering them instead toward Jewish elites and antiblack conspiracies in Jewish America. This displacement is disturbing not only because it is analytically and morally wrong; it also discourages any effective alliances across races.”

(Wikimedia Commons)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: The Uses of Anti-Semitism

“As the African-American philosopher Cornel West has insisted, attention to black anti-Semitism is crucial, however discomforting, in no small part because the moral credibility of our struggle against racism hangs in the balance.”

“A book popular with some in the “Afrocentric” movement, The Iceman Inheritance: Prehistoric Sources of Western Man’s Racism, Sexism, and Aggression by Michael Bradley, argues that white people are so vicious because they, unlike the rest of mankind, are descended from the brutish Neanderthals. More to the point, it speculates that the Jews may have been the “‘purest’ and oldest Neanderthal-Caucasoids,” the iciest of the ice people: hence (he explains) the singularly odious character of ancient Jewish culture. Crackpot as it sounds, the book has lately been reissued with endorsements from two members of the Africana Studies department of City College, New York, as well as an introduction by a professor emeritus of Hunter College and paterfamilias of the Afrocentric movement.

College speakers and publications have also had a role to play in legitimating the new creed. Last year, UCLA’s black newspaper Nommo defended the importance of the notorious czarist canard, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (Those who took issue were rebuked with an article headlined: “Anti-Semitic? Ridiculous – Chill.”) Speaking at Harvard University earlier this year, Conrad L. Muhammad, national youth representative of the Nation of Islam, neatly annexed environmentalism to anti-Semitism when he blamed the Jews for despoiling the environment and destroying the ozone layer.

But the bible of the new anti-Semitism is The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, an official publication of the Nation of Islam that boasts 1,275 footnotes in the course of 334 pages. […] The book, one of the most sophisticated instances of hate literature yet compiled, was prepared by the historical research department of the Nation of Islam. It charges that the Jews were in fact “key operatives” in the historic crime of slavery, playing an “inordinate” and “disproportionate” role and “carv[ing] out for themselves a monumental culpability in slavery – and the black holocaust.” And among significant sectors of the black community, this brief has become a credo of a new philosophy of black self-affirmation.

To be sure, the book massively misrepresents the historical record, largely through a process of cunningly selective quotations of often reputable sources. But its authors could be confident that few of its readers would go to the trouble of actually hunting down the works cited. For if readers actually did so, they might discover a rather different picture. They might find out – from the book’s own vaunted authorities – that, for example, of all the African slaves imported into the New World, American Jewish merchants accounted for less than 2 percent, a finding sharply at odds with the Nation’s claim of Jewish “predominance” in this traffic. They might find out that, in the domestic trade, it appears that all of the Jewish slave traders combined bought and sold fewer slaves than the single gentile firm of Franklin and Armfield. In short, they might learn what the historian Harold Brackman has documented at length: that the book’s repeated insistence that the Jews dominated the slave trade depends on unscrupulous distortion of the historic record. But the most ominous words in the book are found on the cover: “volume one.” More have been promised, carrying on the saga of Jewish iniquity to the present day.

However shoddy the scholarship of works like The Secret Relationship, underlying it is something even more troubling: the tacit conviction that culpability is heritable. For it suggests a doctrine of racial continuity, in which the racial evil of a people is merely manifest (rather than constituted) by their historical misdeeds. The reported misdeeds are thus the signs of an essential nature that is evil.”

“These are times that try the spirit of liberal outreach. In fact, Minister Farrakhan himself explained the real agenda behind his campaign, speaking before an audience of fifteen thousand at the University of Illinois last fall. The purpose of The Secret Relationship, he said, was to “rearrange a relationship” that “has been detrimental to us.” “Rearrange” is a curiously elliptical term here: if a relation with another group has been detrimental, it only makes sense to sever it as quickly and unequivocally as possible. In short, by “rearrange,” he means to convert a relation of friendship, alliance, and uplift into one of enmity, distrust, and hatred. But why target the Jews? Using the same historical methodology, after all, the researchers of the book could have produced a damning treatise on the involvement of left-handers in the “black holocaust.” The answer requires us to go beyond the usual shibboleths about bigotry and view the matter, from the demagogue’s perspective, strategically: as the bid of one black elite to supplant another. It requires me, in short, to see anti-Semitism as a weapon in the raging battle of who will speak for black America: those who have sought common cause with others, or those who preach a barricaded withdrawal into racial authenticity. The strategy of the apostles of hate, I believe, is best understood as ethnic isolationism – they know that the more isolated black America becomes, the greater their power. And what’s the most efficient way to begin to sever black America from its allies? Bash the Jews, these demagogues apparently calculate, and you’re halfway there.”

“In short, for the tacticians of the new anti-Semitism, the original sin of American Jews was their involvement – truly “inordinate,” truly “disproportionate” – not in slavery, but in the front ranks of the civil rights struggle.”

“Cornel West aptly describes black anti-Semitism as “the bitter fruit of a profound self-destructive impulse, nurtured on the vines of hopelessness and concealed by empty gestures of black unity.””

“Still, why should we be so preoccupied by ethnic scapegoating among people who are themselves ethnic scapegoats and relatively disempowered? Whom does it really hurt? Fair question. The answer: first and foremost, it hurts black people, through the politics of distraction and distortion. Getting the sources of our problems wrong is an obstacle to solving them. Objectively speaking, black anti-Semitism isn’t primarily a Jewish problem, it’s a black problem. In the words of the formidable critic and activist Barbara Smith, “We don’t oppose anti-Semitism because we owe something to Jewish people, but because we owe something very basic to ourselves.””

See also my blog post: Demystifying left anti-Semitism

Gilles Kepel on Islamism

French political scientist Gilles Kepel is a world-leading academic expert on political Islam (or Islamism). In his 2010 lecture at the London School of Economics he explains how from the midpoint of the 1970s political Islam became a prominent actor in the world system, and the consequences of this. My blog post summarises his analysis.

Freedom_go_to_hell

An Islamist protester in London on 6th February 2006 taking part in protests against anti-Muslim cartoons (Wikimedia Commons)

First generation jihadism in 1980s Afghanistan: a “Vietnam in reverse”

Kepel states that the Islamic political system plugged into the world system in the 1970s and 1980s, with jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s the watershed event. The promotors of this Afghan jihad – the petro-monarchies of the Arabian peninsula and the United States – considered this struggle central to undermining the USSR; in other words, jihad in Afghanistan was a proxy war (of the Cold War) against the USSR. This war ended on 15th February 1989 with the withdrawal of the Red Army from Kabul. Kepel claims that while many consider the significant event of 1989 as the fall of the Berlin Wall, in actual fact the defeat in Afghanistan was decisive for the end of the Cold War, since it exposed the fragility of the USSR. What’s more, he asserts, jihad in Afghanistan was a “Vietnam in reverse” that “opened the Pandora’s box of radical Islam that led to 9/11”: the “freedom fighter’s chicken that came home to roost” (Kepel, 2010).

Changing geography of the 1970s Muslim world

Kepel traces the upsurge of political Islam to when the first generation of young people who had not experienced direct colonial rule came of age in the Muslim world. Such a generation, he observes, held the rulers of the Muslim world responsible for what was not being delivered.

During the 1970s, Kepel expands, there was massive demographic change in this part of the world: more children were surviving due to improvements in nutrition and medicine, and there was large-scale migration from the countryside to the urban peripheries (or slums) of the big cities. With this relocation, people were no longer following rural Sufi orders, i.e. spiritual Islam, since it offered no answers to people’s new immediate concerns, notably, urban developers, the police, and the mafia. Kepel points out that this young generation became the first generation to be massively literate in the language of the country, specifically, in post-colonial, national languages used by the ruling elites to assert their own power.

Kepel describes how this new literate and hopeless generation, unhappy with their situation and their rulers, used their literacy to read, understand, and put into practice the revolutionary ideas of the most radical ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Sayyid Qutb. This Islamist ideology saw the world as not really Muslim anymore, even in Muslim countries (whose rulers had betrayed Islam), and positioned this generation as living amid the age of ignorance (jahiliyyah) and whose duty was to destroy this old world and create a new Islamic world.

Sayyid_Qutb

Sayyid Qutb, a key theorist of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (Wikimedia Commons)

1973 Ramadan War and Saudi Arabia

The upsurge of Islam on the political scene from the 1970s had a dual dimension, Kepel discerns: a radical side and a conservative side. The conservative side, the Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia, was much closer to Western and, in particular, American interests.

Kepel expounds that the October war of 1973 was a very significant event vis-à-vis political Islam. Following the defeat of the Arab states in the Six-day war of 1967 with Israel, Nasser of Egypt had lost political legitimacy; the governments of Egypt and Syria launched an offensive against Israel in 1973 to ‘save face’. The October war was known in the Muslim world as the Ramadan War. But for soldiers to be able to fight (not fast) during Ramadan, jihad had to be declared. This was declared by the Grand Mufti of the Republic of Egypt (an appointee of Sadat). This was, Kepel states, a social and political jihad translated into military action. It was not a jihad of expansion but a compulsory defence jihad (since Israel was deemed to be a land occupied by infidels) to be fought by sword, money, and/or prayer. During this jihad, there was major pressure from oil-exporting countries for an embargo on all allies of Israel, which steeply drove up oil prices. Kepel makes plain the consequence of this: Saudi Arabia (the biggest oil producer and the one who had taken the initiative) became the key player in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, a very strong, conservative Islamic kingdom, which was staunchly anti-Communist, used its oil weapon against the United States because it considered the United States to have gone too far in its support of Israel. Simultaneously, Kepel reveals, radical political Islam was developing in Egypt. The conservative Islamists of Saudi Arabia were worried about this, hoping that by flooding this Islamist movement with its money it would become more conservative.

1978-79 Islamic Revolution in Iran

Kepel observes that the big shock came not from the Sunni world but from the Shia world: the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution of Iran, which had (and continues to have) revolutionary and third wordlist overtones, and an anti-Americanism (unlike Saudi Arabia). Islamist Iran was also anti-Saudi Arabia and considered the petro-monarchies as lapdogs of the West. Also in 1979, with huge money from the United States as an incentive, Sadat of Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel. By 1980, Saddam Hussein of Iraq (with Gulf states backing ) attacked Iran with the aim of exploiting its internal political turmoil. In sum, Kepel identifies, the whole Western system of alliances looked in danger.

Back to Afghanistan and The Satanic Versus

During the Christmas of 1979 the Red Army invaded Afghanistan. Kepel remarks that this was not an expansionist mission on part of the USSR, but was intended to replace the existing Communist Party officials who had come in during an earlier coup with a new set. The United States government considered this as a golden opportunity to do two things, Kepel contends: 1) to get rid of the USSR via a proxy war led by the Afghan mujahedeen or jihad fighters (who were called freedom fighters by the United States at this time) and 2) to get rid of or to minimise the influence of Iran. Thus, Kepel claims, it is very significant that on the 14th February 1989 (the day before the Red Army withdrew from Kabul) Iran’s Ayatollah issued his famous fatwa to kill British citizen Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses. The Ayatollah understood, Kepel spells out, that the Sunni radicals with their Saudi-Kuwaiti-American godfathers stood to benefit from the withdrawal of the Red Army, and so he aimed to demonstrate that Iran was the defender of Muslims worldwide.

Second generation jihadism from the 1990s

It was not well understood at the time, Kepel explains, that international brigades of jihadists came to Afghanistan to fight jihad, specifically, people who considered the call for jihad as universal. These people had a different agenda: liberation of Afghanistan from Soviet yoke was only the first step in the restoration of Islam. Within these Islamist circles an idea developed that the Afghan jihad should be duplicated in the countries from where these people came from. After the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan, the United States and the petro-monarchies started to worry about the so-called freedom fighters (now called terrorists and whose funding had ceased); they assumed that without the funding and without a country, the threat would disappear. But what transpired in the 1990s were attempts by many of the veterans of the Afghan war to re-enact the Afghan jihad in their own countries: notably, Egypt, Algeria, and Bosnia (all deemed Muslim lands governed by impious rulers). Civil wars consequently ignited in these countries, but, Kepel concludes, the radical Islamists ultimately failed because they were unable to mobilise the masses.

Significantly, Kepel argues, this failure led Ayam al-Zawahiri – a supremo thinker of al-Qaeda – to conclude that it was useless to waste one’s time fighting one’s near-by enemies, rather the focus should be on the far-away enemy: to strike at America. The attack on the Twin Towers was intended as a symbolic strike that would provide courage and mobilisation of a vast movement. This didn’t happen. The radical Islamists expected Iraq to be the place that would re-enact Afghan jihad. Instead Iraq became “the cemetery of their illusions” (Kepel, 2010): an intra-Muslim battle (Sunni-Shiite) in which jihad turned into internal strife (fitna).

Third generation jihadism

In two more recent interviews on France24 (Kepel, 2015) and Al Jazeera (Kepel, 2017), Gilles Kepel defines the present era as one of third generation jihadism. After the first generation jihadism of 1980s Afghanistan and the second generation jihadism of al-Qaeda and 9/11, Kepel expounds that third generation jihadism is a system and a network not an organisation, and is bottom-up. It was born from a critique of the failure of the top-down al-Qaeda strategy to mobilise the Muslim masses, which was ultimately lost in Iraq. Kepel points out that a former aide to Bin Laden and PR man to al-Qaeda, a Syrian engineer called Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, posted an online book in 2005 called ‘The Global Islamic Resistance Call’. This text sees Europe as “the soft underbelly of the West” (Kepel, 2017) and advances a grassroots jihadism in which its soldiers will come from amongst the one million disenfranchised young Muslims living in Europe. Kepel recognises that the core dimension of this third generation of jihadists is both the internet, with videos posted from Iraq and Syria (whereas previously propaganda came through the mosques), and budget airlines and cheap airfares to, for instance, Istanbul. This, he says, is the new proximity of the battlefield. And these internet indoctrinated, military-trained individuals choose targets from within a wide framework: 1) secularist, ‘anti-Islamist’ intellectuals; 2) Jews, but not in synagogues; and 3) so-called apostate Muslims. The basic idea of third generation jihadism, Kepel surmises, is to find the fault lines and start a war.

Afterword: Olivier Roy and ‘Islamophobia’

In Gilles Kepel’s 2017 interview on Al Jazeera he is asked his opinion of Olivier Roy’s thesis that there hasn’t been a radicalisation of Islam but instead an Islamisation of radicalism: with angry, alienated young men, who in the past might have turned to Marxism or anarchism or joined a gang, signing up today to jihadism because it is the most fashionable radicalism going. Kepel strongly disagrees with Roy’s thesis. He insists that the radicalisation of many young French Muslims (especially in the deprived French suburbs) is related to the Islam that they follow, Salafi Islam. While Roy sees radicalism as the essence and the phenomenon changes, Kepel asserts that if you don’t study the blend of the social issues and the ideology then you miss the point.

Kepel is also questioned on his reference to ‘Islamophobia’ as a buzzword and a propaganda term used by Islamists. The problem with Islamophobia, he argues, is that it mixes criticism of a doctrine (which is permissible) with attacking someone as a person because of, for example, what she wears, her faith, et cetera (which is not permissible). The latter, Kepel states, is racism.