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.

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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.

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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.

“Earth” by Rabindranath Tagore

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Accept my homage, Earth, as I make my last obeisance of the day,
Bowed at the altar of the setting sun.

You are mighty, and knowable only by the mighty;
You counterpoise charm and severity;
Compounded of male and female
You sway human life with unbearable conflict.
The cup that your right hand fills with nectar
Is smashed by your left;
Your playground rings with your mocking laughter.
You make heroism hard to attain;
You make excellence costly;
You are not merciful to those who deserve mercy.
Ceaseless warfare is hidden in your plants:
Their crops and fruits are victory-wreaths won from struggle.
Land and sea are your cruel battlefields –
Life proclaims its triumph in the face of death.
Civilization rests its foundation upon your cruelty:
Ruin is the penalty exacted for any shortcoming.

In the first chapter of your history Demons were supreme –
Harsh, barbaric, brutish;
Their clumsy thick fingers lacked art;
With clubs and mallets in hand they rioted over sea and mountain.
Their fire and smoke churned sky into nightmare;
They controlled the inanimate world;
They had blind hatred of Life.

Gods came next; by their spells they subdued the Demons –
The insolence of Matter was crushed.
Mother Earth spread out her green mantle;
On the eastern peaks stood Dawn;
On the western sea-shore Evening descended,
Dispensing peace from her chalice.

The shackled Demons were humbled;
But primal barbarity has kept its grip on your history.
It can suddenly invade order with anarchy –
From the dark recesses of your being
It can suddenly emerge like a snake.
Its madness is in your blood.
The spells of the Gods resound through sky and air and forest,
Sung solemnly day and night, high and low;
But from regions under your surface
Sometimes half-tame Demons raise their serpent-hoods –
They goad you into wounding your own creatures,
Into ruining your own creation.

At your footstool mounted on evil as well as good,
To your vast and terrifying beauty,
I offer today my scarred life’s homage.
I touch your huge buried store of life and death,
Feel it throughout my body and mind.
The corpses of numberless generations of men lie heaped in your dust:
I too shall add a few fistfuls, the final measure of my joys and pains:
Add them to that name-absorbing, shape-absorbing, fame-absorbing
Silent pile of dust.

Earth, clamped into rock or flitting into the clouds;
Rapt in meditation in the silence of a ring of mountains
Or noisy with the roar of sleepless sea-waves;
You are beauty and abundance, terror and famine.
On the one hand, acres of crops, bent with ripeness,
Brushed free of dew each morning by delicate sunbeams –
With sunset, too, sending through their rippling greenness
Joy, joy;
On the other, in your dry, barren, sickly deserts
The dance of ghosts amid strewn animal-bones.

I have watched your Baiśākh-storms swoop like black hawks
Ripping the horizon with lightning-beaks:
The whole sky roars like a rampant lion,
Lashing tail whipping up trees
Till they crash to the ground in despair;
Thatched roofs break loose,
Race before the wind like convicts from their chains.

But I have known, in Phālgun, the warm south breeze
Spread all the rhapsodies and soliloquies of love
In its scent of mango-blossom;
Seen the foaming wine of heaven overflow from the moon’s goblet;
Heard coppices suddenly submit to wind’s importunity
And burst into breathless rustling.

You are gentle and fierce, ancient and renewing;
You emerged from the sacrificial fire of primal creation
Immeasurably long ago.
Your cyclic pilgrimage is littered with meaningless remnants of history;
You abandon your creations without regret; strew them layer upon layer,
Forgotten.

Guardian of Life, you nurture us
In little cages of fragmented time,
Boundaries to all our games, limits to all renown.

Today I stand before you without illusion:
I do not ask at your door for immortality
For the many days and nights I have spent weaving you garlands.
But if I have given true value
To my small seat in a tiny segment of one of the eras
That open and close like blinks in the millions of years
Of your solar round;
If I have won from the trials of life a scrap of success;
Then mark my brow with a sign made from your clay –
To be rubbed out in time by the night
In which all signs fade into the final unknown.

O aloof, ruthless Earth,
Before I am utterly forgotten
Let me place my homage at your feet.

 

From: “Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems” (Penguin Books, 1985: 99-101)

‘All that is solid melts into air’: the dialectical nature of our world

Let’s begin with Marx and Engels from The Communist Manifesto (published in 1848):

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man [sic] is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”

For me dialectics is a way of seeing and thinking about the world. The world around me is in perpetual flux. The world is in constant movement. What’s more, this locomotion is ridden with contradictory tensions, and it is the very friction of these tensions that fuels ongoing change. Dialectical thinking is that which is attuned to contradictory motion and imminent potentialities. All that is solid melts into air.

Remarkably, the language used by Marx and Engels in 1848 to depict and predict world developments chimes well with the contemporary discourse of ‘globalisation’. If we take this above passage from The Communist Manifesto and hold it up to the present-day, we can see a battle between, on the one hand, a desire for certainty and the satisfaction of old wants, fixed, fast-frozen relations, and local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, and, on the other hand, a desire for the best of all that is solid which melts into air: a willing acceptance of uncertainty that comes with openness to new wants and experiences, intercourse in every direction, connections everywhere, universal interdependence, and a cosmopolitan world.

Let’s end then with one aspect – from the Lord Ashcroft Polls – of how and why people voted the way that they did in the 2016 UK referendum on European Union membership.

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Everyday life as illusion and truth, power and helplessness

Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) was an urban sociologist and French Marxist philosopher who theorised on the production of urban space, the right to the city, and the nature of everyday life. The below quote is from the Foreword of his book Critique of Everyday Life (Volume 1) in which he identifies the key feature of everyday life as ambiguity and contradiction:

“There, before us, lies a child, a casualty, or a corpse; a marriage, a life together to organize or to disrupt, a place to live to be found; suffering to endure or avoid – pleasure to enjoy or spoil; a decision to hazard and accept with all its consequences (and this without adequate information, or having lost information en route, etc.). Uncertainty is not without its charm or interest; it can never last long. It maintains ambiguity, keeping what is possible in a state of possibility, allowing us to take our pleasure in what Valery called the whorehouse of possibilities; it can even oscillate between the comical and the dramatic, but we must choose. We weigh the pros and the cons, but there is no telling when something new on one side of the scales will come to outweigh the other. So decisions may ripen like fruit on a tree, but they never fall of their own accord; we must always cut the stem, we must even choose the moment of choice… Hence the infinitely complex, profound and contradictory character of life is given an element which is always new, and which is indeed constantly being renewed by knowledge.

To put it more clearly or more abstractly, ambiguity is a category of everyday life, and perhaps an essential category. It never exhausts its reality; from the ambiguity of consciousnesses and situations spring forth actions, events, results, without warning. These, at least, have clear-cut outlines. They maintain a hard, incisive objectivity which constantly disperses the luminous vapours of ambiguity – only to let them rise once again.

Philosophers and psychologists have confused the issue by sometimes attributing this ‘being-there’ of results to consciousness or being, rather than to actions and decisions, and sometimes attributing ambiguity to philosophically defined existence rather than to the everyday as such.

Feelings and desires can hardly choose. They would like to choose, they would like not to choose, to possess incompatibles all at the same time: several skills, several possibilities, several futures, several loves. Practically, the requirement to act and to make decisions imposes choice. But to choose is to make a judgement. We have no knowledge of the human actions which go on around us; they escape us just as our own selves escape us. And yet we must make judgements. And even before or after the epic moment of decision or action, we must go on making ever more and more judgements. It is the only solid ground, the only unchanging requirement amid all life’s ups and downs, its one axis. Such are the varied aspects of the everyday: fluctuations beneath stable masks and appearances of stability, the need to make judgements and decisions. But nothing is as difficult and as dangerous as making judgements. ‘Judge not.’ From the very beginnings of social life, men [sic] have been obsessed by the function of the Judge, and the powerful fight among themselves to exercise it. The Judge pronounces, makes irrevocable decisions according to the law as it stands, or in the court of appeal. He must embody justice, or Law, or the force of Truth. God passes for supreme judge, and the myth of the Last Judgement is a mighty image, the most striking in the most elaborate of all religions. The human masses sustain this great hope: the Judge will come. For ordinary men, every one of the innumerable little judgements required in life implies a risk and a wager. We are so used to making mistakes about our fellow man that good sense tells us to be wary of passing judgement, disapproves of hasty verdicts, and, quite rightly, denounces prejudice. As a result we find it easier to judge a global society than to judge men. Every capitalist is a man; within him, up to a point, the man and the capitalist are in conflict. Extreme cases – the capitalist who is the complete incarnation of money and capital – are rare. Generally, there are two or more contradictory spirits living inside the capitalist (in particular, as Marx noted, the coexisting needs of enjoyment and accumulation tear him apart). It is therefore both easier and more equitable to condemn a society than to condemn a man.

Brecht perceived the epic content of everyday life superbly: the hardness of actions and events, the necessity of judging. To this he added an acute awareness of the alienation to be found in this same everyday life. To see people properly we need to place them at a reasonable, well-judged distance, like the objects we see before us. Then their many-sided strangeness becomes apparent: in relation to ourselves, but also within themselves and in relation to themselves. In this strangeness lies their truth, the truth of their alienation. It is then that consciousness of alienation – that strange awareness of the strange – liberates us, or begins to liberate us, from alienation. This is the truth. And at the moment of truth we are suddenly disorientated by others and by ourselves. To look at things from an alien standpoint – externally and from a reasonable distance – is to look at things truly. But this strange and alien way of looking at things, disorientated but true, is the way children, peasants, women of the people, naive and simple folk look. And they are afraid of what they see. For this many-sided alienation is no joke. We live in a world in which the best becomes the worst; where nothing is more dangerous than heroes and great men; where everything including freedom (even though it is not a thing) and revolt, changes into its own opposite.

[…]

Brecht’s epic theatre […] starts from a ‘commonplace’, it is the opposite of the classical ‘koinon’, and is taken from the everyday. He starts from disagreement, divergence, distortion. The play – or the scene – poses a complete problem which has not been resolved in advance, and which is consequently irritating, embarrassing. To begin with, Brecht confronts the spectator with an action or an event […]. He leaves the spectator in a (for him) disturbing externality. Instead of making him participate in an action or with defined ‘characters’, the stage action liberates him: it ‘arouses his capacity for action, forces him to make decisions … he is made to face something (by) argument’. Called upon to make a judgement, obliged to come to a decision, the audience hesitates. And in this way the action is transferred to within the spectator. Without being aware of it, and although everything is clearly happening in full view, the spectator becomes the living consciousness of the contradictions of the real.

And is it really accurate to say that this theatre excludes emotion? It excludes emotion of a magical nature, the kind that allows or implies participation and identification. But maybe Brecht’s theatre is aiming to bring forth new forms of emotion and images by actually ridding them of whatever magic the imagination has retained. If this were not the case, if Brecht’s theatre were restricted merely to evoking states of mind, this is where it would come up against its own limitations, and fairly severe limitations they would be. As it happens, it provides a model for art liberated from magic. And that is a great innovation. Brecht unravels the contradictions of everyday life and liberates us from them. For magic plays an immense role in everyday life, be it in emotional identification and participation with ‘other people’ or in the thousand little rituals and gestures used by every person, every family, every group. But in practical life as in ideology, this magic only signifies the illusions men [sic] have about themselves, and their lack of power. And everyday life is defined by contradictions: illusion and truth, power and helplessness, the intersection of the sector man controls and the sector he does not control.” (Lefebvre, 1958 [1991]: 18-21)

Trans activists versus radical feminists: abandonment of freedom for ‘ressentiment’

The following is a full recording of and written extracts from my book chapter, “On Identity Politics, Ressentiment, and the Evacuation of Human Emancipation”, in Nocella and Juergensmeyer (eds.) Fighting Academic Repression and Neoliberal Education (Peter Lang Publishing).

My chapter and its podcast examine a neoliberal wave of identity politics in the form of intersectionality and privilege theory. I argue that it is a repression of self by self, which precludes connection, bypasses freedom, and generates ressentiment. I explore a specific case study of the political deadlock between a current of radical feminists and a current of transgender and transsexual activists, which has played out on social media and across university campuses.

Freedom has become dangerously lost in the contradiction of identity politics. As Brown (1995: 65) observes:

“politicized identities generated out of liberal, disciplinary societies, insofar as they are premised on exclusion from a universal ideal, require that ideal, as well as their exclusion from it, for their own continuing existence as identities.”

Brown (1995: 66) develops Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment to explain how the desired impulse of politicized identity to “inscribe in the law and other political registers its historical and present pain” forecloses “an imagined future of power to make itself”. What one has instead of freedom then is the production of ressentiment:

Ressentiment in this context is a triple achievement: it produces an affect (rage, righteousness) that overwhelms the hurt; it produces a culprit responsible for the hurt; and it produces a site of revenge to displace the hurt (a place to inflict hurt as the sufferer has been hurt).” (Brown, 1995: 68)

We are left with an effort to anaesthetize and to externalize what is unendurable.

The radical feminist and trans activist deadlock is the privilege production of impasse, and a symptom of acute political distress in which freedom has been abandoned for ressentiment.

The chasm Marx identifies between human beings as, on the one hand, citizens of a universal political community and, on the other hand, private, alienated, egoistic individuals of a civil society, is reflected in the contradiction of a neoliberal wave of identity politics considered and critiqued in my chapter and its podcast.

Our journey back to the dream of freedom requires us making a case for supplanting a politics of “I am” – which closes down identity, and fixes it within a social and moral hierarchy – with a politics of “I want this for us” (Brown, 1995: 75 [my emphasis]). If we fail to help make this happen, we will remain locked in a history that has “weight but no trajectory, mass but no coherence, force but no direction,” thus stagnated in a “war without ends or end” (Brown, 1995: 71).

(See also my earlier blog post, The evacuation of human emancipation, identity politics, and ‘ressentiment’)

My epiphany was jazz – that life is jazz

I’m reminded of the Daily Mash post, “Woman ends 20-year attempt to like jazz”, and feel relieved that my two decade journey ended differently. My lazy critique of jazz went along the lines of, ‘I like a beginning, middle and end’ and ‘when does the tune start?’ My bodily experience of jazz was irritation. Jazz to me was pretentious and impenetrable. I just didn’t get it. Yes, I was over-thinking it.

Jazz is freedom: freedom to flow in any direction, freedom to improvise, freedom to create, freedom to play. Jazz is unpredictable – where is this going? – and when one drops into this, it is remarkable to experience; jazz pulls you through several emotions, some of which are joyful. What caused my jazz epiphany? A deeper and wider epiphany, that life is jazz and to live life means being open to its sometimes excruciating and sometimes serene twists and turns. Further still, at its best, jazz reflects an individual-collective dialectic of emotional, intellectual and political progress:

“To be a jazz freedom fighter is to attempt to galvanize and energize world-weary people into forms of organization with accountable leadership that promote critical exchange and broad reflection. The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of uniformity and unanimity imposed from above but rather of conflict among diverse groupings that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism. As with a soloist in a jazz quartet, quintet or band, individuality is promoted in order to sustain and increase the creative tension with the group – a tension that yields higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project.” (Cornel West, Race Matters, 1993: 105)

Looking backing now, my delight at the improvisations of the Dave Matthews Band live meant I was always already partially there vis-à-vis jazz, but the track below by the American composer and clarinetist Shankar Tucker was what cemented that realisation.

If you haven’t got there already, I hope you enjoy your jazz epiphany soon. 😉 My thanks to comrades Bruce Robinson and Richard White for patiently waiting on my arrival.

From Capitalocene to Biophilia: a rallying call for ecological sovereignty

Extract from: James Connolly’s “We Only Want the Earth” (1907)

Iceland, Geography, and Biophilia

My child-like excitement for an impending university geography field trip to Iceland has led me to exploring the concept of biophilia. The distinct lure of Iceland feels like a spiritual calling to the wonder and beauty of the natural world. My excitement reminds me of the draw to studying geography: a love of the world in its full human and natural dimensions. Mine is a spiritual and political love that deplores inequality and poverty, injustice, exploitation of humans and the environment, despoliation and mindless plunder, and the ultimate betrayal of our custodianship of planet Earth, otherwise known as the potentially catastrophic era of the Anthropocene. Specifically, mine is a love for what the human species, all living beings, and our shared home of Earth could be and should be, against the harm wrought to us all by capitalism. My imminent visit to Iceland is a rekindling of my original love for geography and a journey into the meaning of biophilia. This journey starts with Icelander Björk’s album “Biophilia” and proceeds to the writings of Edward O. Wilson and Erich Fromm.

Björk’s album “Biophilia”, released in 2011, was the outcome of what had been happening in Iceland during that time, from the financial crisis to an environmental movement against the building of five aluminium factories: “on so many different levels”, she says, “there was this message that all the old system don’t work anymore, you’ve got to clear your table and start from scratch” (Björk 2011a). The album is “about connecting the dots, it’s not so much about that each thing is original, it’s more about building bridges between things that haven’t had bridges between them before, like nature and technology, and like atoms and the galaxy” (Björk 2011b). In one sense, Björk’s “Biophilia” is a product of what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1972) termed topophilia, our affective bond to place which is born from our experiences and circumstances: “being brought up in Iceland I have always had a relationship with nature, before I even knew that that’s not common, living in a capital in Europe but you’re still surrounded by mountains and ocean”; while walking to and from school, “I started mapping out my melodies to landscapes”; at music school from aged five to fifteen, “I was being introduced to the classical canon, Beethoven and Bach, and finding some of it interesting but a lot of it not really matching my own strong experience […] and also being a girl in the 70s in Iceland, I mean this was like for girls in Germany in the 1700s! I wanted musicology for girls, Icelandic girls in the twentieth century” (Björk 2011b).

The word biophilia is commonly attributed to the biologist Edward O. Wilson, namely, to his book Biophilia published in 1984, which was followed by an edited collection titled The Biophilia Hypothesis (1993). For Wilson (1993: 31), biophilia “is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms”. He makes the case for a hereditary biophilia that has developed through gene-culture coevolution, and calls upon psychologists and other academics to urgently investigate, in the context of the natural environment, what “will happen to the human psyche when such a defining part of the human evolutionary experience is diminished or erased” (Wilson, 1993: 35). Wilson’s (1993: 38-39) biophilia is a central part of a new environmental ethics, which, while acknowledging the utilitarian potential and material value of wild species, pleas for consideration of “the hereditary needs of our own species” in which the biodiversity of life has “immense aesthetic and spiritual value”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, the environmentalist scholar David W. Orr offers a more radical agenda, calling for a biophilia revolution. On closer examination, his revolution is an incremental set of demands with a left-tinged anti-globalisation, localism, and patriotism, which cuts against a sense of biophilia as a global relationship to humankind and planet Earth; indeed, he confesses, “I do not know whether it is possible to love the planet or not” (Orr, 1993: 432).

The Earth’s Eastern Hemisphere (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the popular association of biophilia with Edward O. Wilson, it was in fact the humanistic Marxist philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) who first introduced the term, explicitly in The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), and implicitly in The Sane Society (1956) and Marx’s Concept of Man (1961). Like Wilson, Fromm considers biophilia – the love of life – as having a biological grounding, specifically, as an innate tendency in all living beings to preserve life and to fight death. But for Fromm, biophilia is also more than this, it is an innate tendency to integrate and to unite; or, to paraphrase Björk, to build bridges. Unlike Wilson, Fromm’s basis for studying biophilia is not biology but the conditions of existence that shape human beings as fundamentally social beings and the capitalist conditions of existence that estrange us from this basic need for connection.

Before I embark into the world of Fromm’s biophilia, which, I argue, offers us a critical theoretical basis for a rallying call for ecological sovereignty, I contextualise this call within a particular framing of the ecological crisis of the twenty-first century.

 

Anthropocene versus Capitalocene

The Anthropocene (from the Greek work “anthropos” meaning human being) is the term designated to the thesis that human activity has tipped the Earth into a new geological age. On the present vogue of the Anthropocene, Benjamin Kunkel (2017: 22-23) writes:

“It expresses […] an awareness that environmental change of the most durable significance is taking place as we speak, with unaccustomed speed. (Little besides a giant asteroid or a nuclear war could alter the surface of the earth faster and more completely.) […] the Anthropocene condenses ‘into a single word’, as Davies says, ‘a gripping and intuitive story about human influences on the planet’. It designates a contemporary situation in which humanity, accidentally or deliberately, engineers the planet’s condition, and then sets this present moment in a span of time stretching decades, centuries or millennia into past and future. […] What was once true about the now passé term ‘postmodernism’ is true for the Anthropocene today: it names an effort to consider the contemporary world historically, in an age that otherwise struggles with its attention span.”

While intended as a rallying call, Kunkel (2017: 23) identifies arguments that the Anthropocene is also “a watchword of despair”. Reviewing Jason Moore’s (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life and Andreas Malm’s (2015) Fossil Capital, he summates their critiques of the Anthropocene and Moore’s alternative thesis of the Capitalocene:

“Its defect, as Moore sees it, is to present humanity as a ‘homogenous acting unit’, when in fact human beings are never to be found in a generic state. They exist only in particular historical forms of society, defined by distinct regimes of social property relations that imply different dispositions towards ‘extra-human nature’. […] Moore proposes that the Anthropocene be renamed the ‘Capitalocene’, since ‘the rise of capitalism after 1450 marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture.’ Malm […] locates the headwaters of the present ecological crisis several centuries later, in the global warming set off by coal-burning industrialisation. He complains that in ‘the Anthropocene narrative’, climate change is ‘relocated from the sphere of natural causes to that of human activities’ only to be ‘renaturalised’ a moment later as the excrescence of ‘an innate human trait’. […] ‘Capitalism in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation of the fossil economy; at no moment did the species…exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the earth system.’ Nor in the time since has the species en bloc become ecologically sovereign: ‘In the early 21st century, the poorest 45 per cent of humanity generated 7 per cent of CO2 emissions, while the richest 7 per cent produced 50 per cent.’ For Malm and Moore, capitalism must be recognised as the overriding determinant of humanity’s recent ecological career if the present era of natural history is to become a useful object of analysis, not merely of handwringing.” (Kunkel, 2017: 23)

The Earth’s Western Hemisphere (Wikimedia Commons)

As I will go on to illustrate, Fromm’s concept of biophilia is grounded in a comprehension of capitalist social relations in which humanity is neither individually autonomous nor a sovereign political bloc but is instead removed from its social relationship to other living beings and to nature. Moreover, for Fromm, there is nothing natural about the antithesis of biophilia; as such, there is no inherent human trait underpinning capitalism that has led us into the Anthropocene. Vis-à-vis the ecological crisis of the twenty-first century, Fromm’s distinctly socialist biophilia is an urgently needed rallying cry against the Capitalocene.

 

Fromm’s socialist Biophilia

“Socialism for Marx was, as Paul Tillich put it, “a resistance movement against the destruction of love in social reality.”” (Fromm, 1961: 59)

Erich Fromm, 1974 (Wikimedia Commons)

 

i. Social beings, total beings, and productive life

For Fromm, it is a fundamental human need to connect with living beings:

“The necessity to unite with other living beings, to be related to them, is an imperative need on the fulfilment of which [our] sanity depends. This need is behind all phenomena which constitute the whole gamut of intimate human relations, of all passions which are called love in the broadest sense of the word.” (Fromm, 1956: 30)

Furthermore, as humans we search for meaning to our existence and desire transcendence: all our “passions and strivings […] are attempts to find an answer to [our] existence” (Fromm, 1956: 29). In this respect we are faced with two conflicting tendencies, to love and to create, and/or to hate and to destroy:

“Creation and destruction, love and hate, are not two instincts which exist independently. They are both answers to the same need for transcendence, and the will to destroy must rise when the will to create cannot be satisfied. However, the satisfaction of the need to create leads to happiness; destructiveness to suffering […].” (Fromm, 1956: 38)

This need for relatedness and transcendence has no “physiological substrata” but rather is based on our primary driver as a species-being, the human situation: “the total human personality in its interaction with the world, nature and [human beings]; it is the human practice of life as it results from the conditions of human existence” (Fromm, 1956: 70).

Fromm recognises that our spiritual health flourishes when our conditions of existence provide ‘freedom to’, not simply ‘freedom from’. This freedom to allows for the total human personality to grow, as based on our relation to each other, the world, and oneself. Here he draws upon Marx’s notion of ‘total man’ [sic]: whose “independence and freedom” are founded on “the act of self-creation”, which is achieved when our individuality is affirmed and expressed in each of our relations to the world, that is, quoting Marx, “seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, willing, loving” (Fromm, 1961: 37-38). Fromm (1961: 38) sees Marx’s goal of socialism – the emancipation of human beings – as our “self-realization in the process of productive relatedness and oneness with [humans] and nature”. For Marx (alongside Spinoza, Goethe, and Hegel), he explains, humans are “alive” inasmuch as we are “productive”, grasping the world outside of ourselves in the act of affirming and expressing our total being; inasmuch as we are “not productive”, i.e., “receptive and passive”, we are “nothing”, we are “dead” (Fromm, 1961: 29-30). Fromm (1961: 30) contextualises this concept of productivity – as opposed to receptivity – within Marx’s understanding of “the phenomenon of love”:

““Let us assume man to be man [sic],” [Marx] wrote, “and his relation to the world to be a human one. Then love can only be exchanged for love, trust for trust, etc. If you wish to influence other people you must be a person who really has a stimulating and encouraging effect upon others. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return, i.e., if you are not able, by the manifestation of yourself as a loving person, to make yourself a beloved person, then your love is impotent and a misfortune.””

Love, for Fromm (1956: 32), is a crucial aspect of “the productive orientation: the active and creative relatedness” of humans to their fellow humans and to nature:

“In the realm of thought, this productive orientation is expressed in the proper grasp of the world by reason. In the realm of action, the productive orientation is expressed in productive work, the prototype of which is art and craftsmanship. In the realm of feeling, the productive orientation is expressed in love, which is the experience of union with another person, with all [humans], and with nature, under the condition of retaining one’s sense of integrity and independence.”

Productive love reflects a set of attitudes, “that of care, responsibility, respect and knowledge” (Fromm, 1956: 33). Productive love, as part of the orientation of productive life, is the gem of Fromm’s conceptualisation of biophilia.

 

ii. Insane capitalism: alienation as death

For Fromm (1956: 94-95), capitalism tends towards insanity because it generates a world in which capital, “dead past”, is placed higher than labour, present “living vitality”:

“The conflict between capital and labor is much more than the conflict between two classes, more than their fight for a greater share of the social product. It is the conflict between two principles of value: that between the world of things, and their amassment, and the world of life and its productivity.”

It is worth noting here that Fromm’s (1956: 6) identification and exploration of the “pathology of normalcy”, specifically, the pathology of capitalism, made his work a timely radical alternative to that of Sigmund Freud:

“Freud’s concept of human nature as being essentially competitive (and asocial) is the same as we find it in most authors who believe that the characteristics of man [sic] in modern Capitalism are his natural characteristics. […] His basic concept is that of a “homo sexualis” as that of the economists was that of the “homo economicus.” Both the “economic” man and the “sexual” man are convenient fabrications whose alleged nature – isolated, asocial, greedy and competitive – makes Capitalism appear as the system which corresponds perfectly to human nature, and places it beyond the reach of criticism.” (Fromm, 1956: 76-77)

The basic problem of capitalism, Fromm (1961: 43) argues, is “the negation of productivity: alienation”. Capitalist social relations distort the labour of productive life – that is, meaningful and enjoyable self-expression – into labour which is forced, meaningless, and alienated from us. This alienation (or estrangement) means that we do not experience ourselves as active agents; “the world (nature, others, and [oneself]) remain alien to” us, standing above and against us “as objects” (including those of our own creation) (Fromm, 1961: 44). In brief, alienation, as “essentially experiencing the world and oneself passively, receptively” (Fromm, 1961: 44), is dehumanisation and death.

The consequence of capitalist alienation for life in general is the loss of the human dimension through abstractification and quantification:

“This abstractification takes place even with regard to phenomena which are not commodities sold on the market, like a flood disaster; the newspapers will headline a flood, speaking of a “million-dollar catastrophe,” emphasizing the abstract quantitative element rather than the concrete aspects of human suffering. […] It is an expression of the same attitude when a newspaper headlines an obituary with the words “Shoe Manufacturer Dies.” Actually a man has died, a man with certain human qualities, with hopes and frustrations […].” (Fromm, 1956: 116)

Contrary to productive love as biophilia, capitalist alienation fosters the indifference to life and even the attraction of death:

“We speak of millions of people being killed, of one third or more of our population being wiped out if a third World War should occur; we speak of billions of dollars piling up as a national debt […]. Tens of thousands work in one enterprise, hundreds of thousands live in hundreds of cities. The dimensions with which we deal are figures and abstractions; they are far beyond the boundaries which would permit of any kind of concrete experience. There is no frame of reference left which is manageable, observable, which is adapted to human dimensions. While our eyes and ears receive impressions only in humanly manageable proportions, our concept of the world has lost just that quality; it does not any longer correspond to our human dimension. This is especially significant in connection with the development of modern means of destruction. In modern war, one individual can cause the destruction of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. He [sic] could do so by pushing a button; he may not feel the emotional impact of what he is doing, since he does not see, does not know the people whom he kills; it is almost as if his act of pushing the button and their death had no real connection.” (Fromm, 1956: 119)

In our present moment, in which the president of the most powerful country on Earth denies the existence of climate change, Right-wing reactionary nationalisms are on the ascent worldwide, experts are ridiculed and ignorance is celebrated as non-elitist, and fake news is all the rage, Fromm’s (1956: 120) words take on a renewed sobering significance:

“Science, business, politics, have lost all foundations and proportions which make sense humanly. We live in figures and abstractions; since nothing is concrete, nothing is real. Everything is possible, factually and morally.”

 

iii. Insane capitalism: nationalism as idolatrous worship

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” (Donald Trump, 2017)

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” (Theresa May, 2016)

“Now, the dividing line is not between left and right but globalists and patriots.” (Marine Le Pen, 2015)

Fromm (1956: 58-59) insists that the person who has not “freed” oneself “from the ties to blood and soil is not yet fully born as a human being”, since their “capacity for love and reason” is debilitated:

“Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. “Patriotism” is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say, that by “patriotism” I mean that attitude which puts [one’s] own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice; not the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with the nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare – never with its power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”

For Fromm, it is only when we succeed in fully developing our love and reason (moving from ‘freedom from’ to ‘freedom to’) that we can create a world based on solidarity and justice, that we can feel rooted in a universal comradeship. What’s more, the ecological survival of planet Earth depends on such a biophilic reclamation of globalisation – a rooted connection to ourselves, other living beings, nature, and the world.

 

iv. The socialist struggle for Biophilia

“The whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to [one]self; indeed, we should be fully born, when we die – although it is the tragic fate of most individuals to die before they are born.” (Fromm, 1956: 26)

Fromm defines biophilia as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group” (Fromm, 1973: 485). The tendency “to preserve life and to fight against death” is the most elementary form of biophilia, and is common to all living beings; the more positive aspect of biophilia is the tendency of all living substance:

“to integrate and to unite; […] to fuse with different and opposite entities, and to grow in a structured way. Unification and integrated growth are characteristic of all life processes, not only as far as cells are concerned, but also with regard to feeling and thinking.” (Fromm, 1964: 45-46)

The “person who fully loves life is attracted by the processes of life and growth in all spheres”, preferring “to construct rather than to retain”, “capable of wondering”, loving “the adventure of living” more than certainty, seeing “the whole rather than only the parts”, and wanting “to mold and to influence by love, reason, […] not by force, by cutting things apart” (Fromm, 1964: 47). In dialectical tension with biophilia is necrophilia, the love of death. When life becomes about things, when one is engrossed with having rather than being, when one is obsessed with possession and control, when one is oriented to the past rather than to the present and future, desiring certainty when the only certainty in life is death, then a necrophilous orientation develops (Fromm, 1964). Contrary to Fromm’s dialectic of the biophilous and necrophilous orientations is Freud’s idea of the life instinct (Eros) and the death instinct. This, for Fromm (1964, 1973), is wrong, since both are not biologically given and equally ranked. Biophilia is the normal impulse for living beings, whereas necrophilia is the result of a life unlived.

Most societies fuel conditions of existence for both our creative and destructive tendencies, just as most people are a combination of biophilous and necrophilous orientations – the question is which wins out. “A healthy society furthers” our “capacity to love” others, “to work creatively, to develop” our “reason and objectivity, to have a sense of self which is based on the experience of” our “own productive powers”; whereas, an “unhealthy society is one which creates mutual hostility, distrust, which transforms” us “into an instrument of use and exploitation for others, which deprives” us “of a sense of self” (Fromm, 1956: 72-73). Fromm (1964: 59) warns that the lack of protest against nuclear warfare and “the discussions of our “atomologists” of the balance sheet of total or half-total destruction” reveals “how far we have already gone into the “valley of the shadow of death””. This analogy retains critical relevance amid our own era of global warming and reactionary Right-wing nationalisms.

Ultimately, a political struggle is needed for a global and grassroots democratic socialism that enables the “full unfolding of biophilia” (Fromm, 1964: 46) and the full development of the person “who does not “dominate” nature, but who becomes one with it” (Fromm, 1961: 63). Fromm was a staunch critic of both capitalism and Stalinist totalitarianism. His vision of socialism was for an end to “existential egotism”, in which, quoting Marx, we are alienated from our “own body, external nature”, our “mental life” and our “human life” (Fromm, 1961: 53). Fromm (1961: 63) elucidates:

“Marx’s concept of socialism is a protest, as is all existentialist philosophy, against the alienation of [humans]; if, as Aldous Huxley put it, “our present economic, social and international arrangements are based, in large measure, upon organised lovelessness,” then Marx’s socialism is a protest against this very lovelessness […].”

This is a socialism against the exploitation by human beings of other human beings, of other living beings, and of nature; this is a struggle for a productive life, for life creating life, and for the ecological sovereignty of biophilia.

“Welcome to biophilia, the love for nature in all her manifestations…” (David Attenborough)

 

References:

Björk (2011a) Björk is back – Interview 2011 (about Biophilia), YouTube

Björk (2011b) Bjork: On Music and Biophilia – The Sound of Nature | WIRED 2013, YouTube

Fromm, E. (1973) The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Middlesex: Penguin Books

Fromm, E. (1964) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. New York: Harper and Row Publishers

Fromm, E. (1961) Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.

Fromm, E. (1956) The Sane Society. London: Routledge

Kunkel, B. (2017) “The Capitalocene”. In London Review of Books 39(5), 22-28

Orr, D. W. (1993) “Love It or Lose It: The Coming Biophilia Revolution”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by S.R. Kellert and E. O. Wilson. Washington D.C.: Island, 415-440

Tuan, Y. F. (1990) Topophilia: a study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. New York: Columbia University Press

Wilson, E. O. (1993) “Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by S.R. Kellert and E. O. Wilson. Washington D.C.: Island, 31-41

Wilson, E. O. (1984) Biophilia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

It’s anti-Muslim racism, not Islamophobia

“In late modernity, authoritarian movements have arisen again that seek to ideologically combine an organic and holistic natural-social order, a purified nationality, a primeval mysticism, and a belief in a superlative civilisation that was created by an ancestral community of blood.” (Bhatt, 2000: 589)

Protester holding a sign in Washington, D.C. Original caption: Sept 15 2007 March and Rally, Member of the counter protest Gathering of Eagles, yelling "Defeat Jihad" and "Traitor", while standing on Pennsylvania Ave, in front of the Justice Dept in Washington DC. He was yelling at the tens of thousands anti-Iraq War demonstrators. (Wikimedia Commons)

Protester holding a sign in Washington D.C. during an anti-Iraq War demonstration, September 15 2007 (Wikimedia Commons)

Post-9/11 sections of the British Left have championed the term ‘Islamophobia’ (fear of Islam) to describe and challenge the surge of racism against people signified as Muslim. This term, however, has limited power to explain the vilification and discrimination of Muslims in the contemporary era both since 9/11 and with Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump. This prejudice and harm should be understood as anti-Muslim racism. What’s more, Islamophobia’s implied antithesis, ‘Islamophilia’ (love of Islam), is an inadequate basis for a politically progressive anti-racist politics. Much of the British Left – posed as champions against Islamophobia – through its anti-war campaigning at the height of the imperialist War on Terror, identified as allies Islamist movements to the disregard of solidarity with secular, feminist, and democratic forces who opposed both imperialism and Islamism (see Bassi, 2009). This Left not only failed to critique religious fundamentalism, but went further in silencing its critique of religion in general. Through the Stop the War Coalition, at rallies and on demonstrations, women-only areas were organised alongside propaganda stating, for example, “We are all Hezbollah”. Racism as a common sense ideology fixes and orders the world through a hierarchy of assumed and desired homogenised groups of people, whereas a socialist anti-racist politics should understand the reality, and our own desired future, of the world as driven by dynamic exchange and hybridisation of peoples. At a moment when reactionary nationalism is on the ascendancy, it is worth reasserting that we are in favour of globalisation – a globalisation by and for our class.

Racism entails a process of signification, or racialisation: identifying an assumed ‘racial’ difference, be that somatic and/or cultural, as significant and denoting such difference with characteristics and consequences that are negative. The difference that racism signifies is related to what we might understand as ethnicity: to common geography, familial heritage, and socio-cultural make-up (sometimes national, sometimes religious, and sometimes both); whose expression is indicated through somatic difference, such as hair and skin colour, and/or cultural difference, like language, food, beliefs and practices, and clothing. In the case of anti-Muslim racism the signifier of religion connects up with geography, ancestry, and socio-cultural constitution, and difference is seen somatically and culturally.

As a second generation British Indian, born into an extended Jatt Sikh family, I have a specific perspective on anti-Muslim racism. Anti-Muslim racism is a potent ideology in India and across the global Indian diaspora. Moreover, it is a racism that has proven to be compatible with post-9/11 and Brexit and Trump-era racism. Why? Because of a commonly signified and racialised ‘Muslim Other’. The crux of this ideology is not a theological critique but rather a fusing of religion with the idea of a group of people as a biological and cultural ‘race’ apart and below. This racism denotes Muslims as inbred, degenerate, and unclean, and as a dangerous and violent threat to one’s own purified existence. It should be of no surprise then that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) have savvily attuned to this current of anti-Muslim racism within the Indian diaspora – courting Sikhs as an exemplary and assimilatable ‘race’ above the ‘Muslim Other’. The footage of a speech by a UKIP MEP (see below) arguing in defence of the Sikh religious and racial right to wear the kirpan positions Sikhs as fighters for democracy. This should be understood in its historical, racialised context. During the British colonial Empire, the British ruling class divided the population of India into martial and non-martial ‘races’, of which the Sikhs (particularly Jatt Sikhs) were designated as the former.

British India Sikh soldier, 1898 (Wikimedia Commons)

British India Sikh soldier, 1898 (Wikimedia Commons)

Sikh soldiers, 1846, Illustrated London News (Wikimedia Commons)

Sikh soldiers, 1846, Illustrated London News (Wikimedia Commons)

2014 UKIP candidate Sergi Singh (Hull Daily Mail)

2014 UKIP candidate Sergi Singh (Hull Daily Mail)

Similar to UKIP’s courting of Indian diaspora Sikhs is Trump’s courting of Indian diaspora Hindus during his presidential election campaign and his appeal to Hindu nationalists in India: here in common is the racialised enemy of the ‘Muslim Other’.

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“The whole world is screaming against Islamic terrorism, and even India is not safe from it. Only Donald Trump can save humanity!” – Hindu Sena (quoted in the US far right newspaper Breibart)

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“I love Hindu!” – Trump at a pre-election US Hindu rally (DNA India)

The anti-Muslim racism of the global Indian diaspora owes much of its origins to Hindu nationalism. Chetan Bhatt (2000), in an article titled “Hindu Nationalism and Indigenist ‘Neoracism’”, explains how Hindu nationalism accommodates what it considers a sect of Hinduism, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs, while it otherises Muslims. Bhatt (2000: 577) expounds:

“the birth of contemporary Hindu nationalism is usually traced to, and just after, the inter-war period, from 1916-25; during which two organisations, the Hindu Mahasabha (The Great Assembly of Hindus) and its ‘semi-rival’, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, the National Volunteer-Servers Organisation) were formed. Hindu nationalism’s key, but by no means only ideologue was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, an anti-colonial revolutionary hero and founder of the Mahasabha, who in 1923 presented the novel idea of Hindutva, the essence or ‘beingness’ of a Hindu. Hindutva was a hereditarian conception, born from the time the intrepid Aryans entered India and whose ‘blood commingled’ with that of the original inhabitants of India. For Savarkar, a Hindu could be defined as someone who considers India as their fatherland, motherland and holyland and ‘who inherits the blood of that race whose first discernible source could be traced back’ to the Vedic Aryans (Savarkar 1989: 115). Savarkar’s formulation of Hindutva considerably influenced Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founder of the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, formed in 1924) as well as Madhav Golwalkar, the RSS’s second leader. Golwalkar extended strands of Hindutva to develop an extraordinarily modern, Nazi-like racial idea of Hinduness […].”

Contemporary Hindu nationalism (as propagated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and its parent organisation, the RSS):

“undertakes the familiar metaphoric substitution of the nation by the idea of the national, or social or human body; conversely minorities, especially Muslims, are seen as a polluting presence within that body. Consequently, Hindu nationalism is dangerously obsessed with Muslim demography, reproduction and fertility (see, for example, Lal 1990).” (Bhatt 2000: 580)

An example of this is the Hindu fundamentalist theory of Romeo Jihad or Love Jihad, which claims that “Muslim men seek to wage jihad by making Hindu women fall in love with them and marry them, so as to covert them to Islam” (Dixit, 2017).

Love Jihad

Love Jihad

A parallel can be drawn between Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ and the legislative moves by the Indian government in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016; in this, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from Muslim-dominated Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan – unlike their Muslim counterparts – are no longer identified as illegal migrants but rather as suitable for naturalisation as citizens of India (Mitra, 2017).

The anti-Muslim racism that is rampant across Europe and the United States, and which finds an easy alliance with Hindu nationalists in India and with a current of Sikhs and Hindus in the global Indian diaspora, is a racism based on the ideas of a purified (racialised) nationality, an advanced (racialised) civilisation, and a natural (racialised) social order. It is not Islamophobia, it is racism – old and new.

Reference

Bhatt, C (2000) “Hindu Nationalism and Indigenist ‘Neoracism’”, in L Back and J Solomos (Eds) Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader. London: Routledge, 573-593.