Paul Gilroy: from raciology to planetary humanism

“when the water is lapping up the road, I don’t know that people are going to be fretting so much about their whiteness. Maybe they will. Maybe the appeal of a racial war has its own psychic magnetism for some folk. But I would like to think that in the teeth of the emergency, if that awaits us, there will be other options there which are more future oriented, which allow us to live life relative to a future that we can’t quite anatomise from this distance.” (Paul Gilroy, from The Absurdities of Race)

There are three important reasons to engage with the work of Paul Gilroy, in particular, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987) and Against Race (2000): one, his exploration of the intersection of racism and nationalism, which is in sharp contrast to Benedict Anderson’s (1983) separation of the two ideologies in Imagined Communities; two, and related to the former, Gilroy’s recognition of the cultural essentialist dynamic in contemporary racism; three, his desire to move anti-racism politics beyond the idea of racial difference and toward what he calls a planetary humanism, which sees culture as universal, hybrid and fluid. I recommend this engagement with Gilroy with two qualifications: first, what he and others identified in the 1980s as ‘new racism’ was not so new, since an interplay between biology and culture in the idea of natural races has long existed; second, in his search for a planetary humanism, Gilroy prematurely and crudely dismisses Marxism and fails to originally engage with the ideas of classical Marxism, despite, it’s worth noting, the influence of W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James in his work.

Moving then to Paul Gilroy in his own words.

From The Crisis of ‘Race’ and Raciology:

“Some years ago, a loose group of scholars in which the English philosopher Martin Barker was especially influential began, in recognition of changed patterns in the way the discourse of racial difference was employed in politics, to speak about the emergence of what they called a New Racism. This racism was defined by its strong culturalist and nationalist inclinations. Whereas in the past raciology had been arrogant in its imperial certainty that biology was both destiny and hierarchy, this persuasive new variant was openly uncomfortable with the idea that “race” could be biologically based. Consciousness of “race” was seen instead as closely linked to the idea of nationality. Authentic, historic nations had discrete cultural fillings. Their precious homogeneity endowed them with great strength and prestige. Where large “indigestible” chunks of alien settlement had taken place, all manner of dangers were apparent. Conflict was visible, above all, along cultural lines. Of course, these regrettably transplanted aliens were not identified as inferior, less worthy, or less admirable than their “hosts.” They may not have been infrahuman, but they were certainly out of place. The social, economic, and political problems that had followed their mistaken importation could only be solved by restoring the symmetry and stability that flowed from putting them back where they belonged. Nature, history, and geopolitics dictated that people should cleave to their own kind and be most comfortable in the environments that matched their distinctive cultural and therefore national modes of being in the world. Mythic versions of cultural ecology were invented to rationalize the lives of these discrete national and racial identities. The Germans became a people in their forests, whereas the British were a nation whose seafaring activity shaped their essential inner character. In all cases, fragments of self-evident truth nourished the fantasies of blood and belonging, which in turn demanded an elaborate geopolitical cartography of nationality.”

“the idea of “race” has lost much of its common-sense credibility, because the elaborate cultural and ideological work that goes into producing and reproducing it is more visible than ever before, because it has been stripped of its moral and intellectual integrity, and because there is a chance to prevent its rehabilitation. Prompted by the impact of genomics, “race,” as it has been defined in the past, has also become vulnerable to the claims of a much more elaborate, less deterministic biology. It is therefore all the more disappointing that much influential recent work in this area loses its nerve in the final furlong and opts to remain ambiguous about whether the idea of “race” can survive a critical revision of the relationship between human beings and their constantly shifting social nature. Whether it is articulated in the more specialized tongues of biological science and pseudo-science or in a vernacular idiom of culture and common sense, the term “race” conjures up a peculiarly resistant variety of natural difference. It stands outside of, and in opposition to, most attempts to render it secondary to the overwhelming sameness that overdetermines social relationships between people and continually betrays the tragic predicaments of their common species life. The undervalued power of this crushingly obvious, almost banal human sameness, so close and basically invariant that it regularly passes unremarked upon, also confirms that the crisis of raciological reasoning presents an important opportunity where it points toward the possibility of leaving “race” behind, of setting aside its disabling use as we move out of the time in which it could have been expected to make sense.”

From A diagnosis of contemporary forms of racism, race and nationalism: a conversation with Professor Paul Gilroy:

“The context of [There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack] – originally – was the emergence of what a number of us had begun to call a new racism. By calling it a new racism we were drawing attention to the fact that it was strongly culturalist in character, and that it articulated nationalism and racism very tightly together. Now, at that time – I don’t know if this has changed completely – but thirty years ago, it was very conventional to say that nationalism belongs to one area of scholarship and racism belongs … if it belonged to any … if it belongs at all to scholarship, it went somewhere else […]. wherever it was, it was not connected to the academic study of nationalism. This separation was there, for example in Benedict Anderson’s very influential book (Anderson 2004). He tries to separate the two things out very sharply, and I suppose I felt that the starting point for any critique of the racism that I was most familiar with was a very close connection with nationalism. That association was accomplished through a particular sense of what culture could be, which had acquired all the force of an earlier biologically-orientated racism. But the new racism didn’t announce itself as a biological racism. It made culture into the favoured battleground. It made culture something we had to quarrel with. We had to offer a better understanding of culture. We had an opportunity I suppose […] to make a better theory of culture than the one that saw culture distributed in national buckets so that you were either in the bucket of your exclusive national culture, or somewhere else in some other bucket somewhere. We had a chance to show how culture moved, how it lived, how it reproduced, to understand its organicity, its fluidity, plasticity, mutability: the conflict that it hosted. […] As a result, we had to update our understanding of how to combat racism in the field of ideas: in our disciplines, in our institutions, in our universities. We could only do this if we saw the new variety of racism that was strongly cultural in character – so cultural, so different supposedly – from a biological racism that it could hold up its hands and plead that it wasn’t racism at all. So, to try and show that, to show the history of how that had happened, that was the aim, the principal aim of that book. […] Many people on the left thirty years ago, just as many people on the left now in the wake of the vote against the EU membership, they look to places like Norway and they say ‘Oh, but the left has always been nationalist’, ‘it is perfectly possible to be a leftist and a nationalist’ and so on. There were many people in my intellectual and political environment who regardless of the connection with racism were saying that we had to find a wholesome patriotism, find a ‘clean’ nationalism which will mean that we can challenge the hegemony of those who rule, exploit and expropriate by articulating national feeling to the Right. I was never convinced by that argument, because it was an argument that could only be made if you did not take racism into account. […] There was always the danger that there would be a kind of overlap between the left nationalism and patriotism and the things that were being said on the right. Today we have many – they call it ‘Lexit’ – the people on the left who support leaving the EU. This division is in some ways a replay of some of these older problems. Nowadays the anti-racist part of it – people like the Socialist Workers Party and these groupings – they are forgetful. Their memories have been very badly affected in the intervening time, because they don’t remember that the racists we were fighting in the street in the 1970s and early 80s, these were people who had a political programme where the first aim was ‘get the blacks out, get the browns out’ and the second thing on the list was ‘Leave the EU’. So now, those people want to talk about Trump and what’s happening in America, but they won’t talk about the actual issues involved in dealing with the political contradiction into which they have led people.”

“There are some people – rightly or wrongly – who want anti-racism to be a critical project only. They want to be able to say what is wrong with the world and to show how those wrongs might be challenged, undone. The emphasis falls on the practical work of disassembling those racial hierarchies when they are apparent in institutions, in interpersonal life, and so on. I think that is fine, and its noble and honourable and important work, and I wish it was not necessary – but it is necessary. However, I don’t think that is enough, and I think that we do that work better – we do it much better – if we have an idea of the world we want to make. And that might be difficult but it could not be avoided. I felt dishonest after a while if I could not answer the question which asked ‘Alright then, if you’re against racism, what kind of world do you want to make? Do you want to make a world where racial differences are just natural things, and racism comes along and messes them up?’. So you get rid of racism and then we all have natural difference and that is all fine. Well, I did not find that intellectually or politically satisfying. A lot of anti-racist work is of that type. It says: ‘Nature gives us racial differences, look around the room, some of the differences you see are racial; others are not’. It’s just racism makes those differences bad. I came to a different position gradually – and somewhat reluctantly – in which I see racism as a system assembling races in the world. It’s a more difficult idea to sell, I suppose you could say, but I think that racism generates or assembles races – can I put it that way? It is not something that grows from racial difference. It creates racial difference. The history, and the genealogies of racial systems of thought, seems to me to be interpreted better when we see its dynamic unfolding. That means we have to be able to say what kind of world we want to build and inhabit. I know that isn’t going to be the end and it isn’t going to be perfect, but I’m still convinced that we will be better off without the particular forms of violence, the particular forms of cruelty, the particular forms of error that arise from racial metaphysics and racial systems of thought. We are better off without all those things, even if we know there is still lots more work to do, we are better off without those specific things. I’m not sure you can have an anti-racism which is credible unless you are able to switch into a more constructive view of the world you want to build. You might have a black liberation project, you might have an equality and diversity project, you might have a McKinsey multiculturalism project – but you won’t have an anti-racist project unless you can say the kind of world you want to see arise. Someone like Du Bois is interesting because in his nineties he decided that he was going to revert to earlier ways of looking at the world and fight over what communism could be as a basis for rethinking a world without imperial and colonial and racial domination. Well, for me, communism isn’t that option, you know. I understand why he took that turn at that point, but that is not one for me. I think we have to be bolder, I think we have to be more imaginative than we often are. We’re not encouraged to be imaginative in this area, and it may well be that solving the practical and the immediate problems in our everyday relationship with racial violence, say, or racial institutions in the police force, or the way that death so often follows contact with the police, or the functioning of carceral systems. Out of those struggles can grow that different conception of what it is to be a human being that Césaire and Fanon spoke of. Remember, Fanon said: ‘Oh my body, make of me a man who asks questions’; and then he said: ‘we are going to make a new humanism’ which is – in his language, this is not my language – a formation that corresponds to ‘the real dialectic between the body and the world’. The real one, not the racial-corporeal schema.”

On global capital not abiding limits and a history of pandemics


The outbreak of SARS Coronovirus 2 or Covid-19 proceeds an escalation of recent epidemics and proto-pandemics: notably, H5N1 or Avian influenza, SARS, MERS, Swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. We are not currently experiencing a pandemic, Mike Davis (2020) pronounces, we are living in an age of pandemics. Rob Wallace (2020) explains this trend as the consequence of interrelated changes in economic geography and ecological geographies: a widening circuit of agricultural production, consumption and exchange that is pushing deeper into forests and back out into cities; with subsequent changes in the ecologies of host species that historically would have been confined to deep forests, which are now transported to peri-urban regions with high concentrations of human bodies. Traversing a globally integrated air traffic network, pathogens previously not on the global stage are being brought to it.

Davis (2020), citing a study from Science magazine, illustrates the context of Ebola and other diseases emerging in and from West Africa (currently the fastest urbanizing area in the world). The population of West Africa has traditionally relied on fish protein, however, commencing in the 1980s, European, Russian and Japanese factory fleets have trawled and significantly reduced this biomass. Concurrently, multinational logging companies have increased their operations; to keep their costs down, they hire professional hunters to kill mammals in their path. With fish becoming too expensive for West African city dwellers, the population has turned to the consumption of bushmeat (originally just practiced in the logging camps) as the major source of protein. In sum, this widening commerce of bushmeat hunting alongside the destruction of rainforest have generated new viral exposures and pathways to humans of previously isolated pathogens.

In this essay, using the case studies of HIV/AIDS and SARS, I explore the nexus between capitalist political economy, nature, and emergent infectious diseases; concluding that, without radical change to how we organise and run our world, our future will be locked into this trajectory of escalating pandemics.


HIV-1 and HIV-2 originate from the Simian Immune-deficiency Viruses (SIV) of chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys in Central and West Africa (Honigsbaum, 2019), with the probable zoonotic leap, from one chimpanzee to one human hunter of bushmeat (through a cut or wound), no later than 1908 (Quammen, 2013). From here, the virus travelled. At this moment, put in historical context, previous epidemiological dead ends were no longer so: the virus travelled because of changes in conditions of existence propelled by a capital-fuelled colonial age. Mark Honigsbaum (2019) points to the emergence of steamship transportation and road and railway construction during the colonial period of the Congo, and the relentless pursuit of profit by logging and timber companies, intersecting with social and cultural phenomenon (bushmeat hunting and consumption, and prostitution by the labour camps of railway and timber companies), as the central early drivers in the journey of HIV/AIDS.

While official Belgian colonial rule of the Congo ran from 1908 to 1960, the groundwork for colonial expansion began in the late nineteenth century. Given the need of capital to self-expand and thus the impetus for greater mobility of both capital and labour, the 1892 steamship service from Léopoldville (later renamed Kinshasa) to Stanleyville (later Kisangi) and 1898 Matadi-Kinshasa railway (linking the port of Matadi to Léopoldville) provided geographical connectivity and concentration of populations previously separated. With a consequent influx of labour migrants and Belgian administrators, a rapidly urbanizing Léopoldville became the capital of the Belgian Congo in 1923, running domestic flight services and by 1936 a direct international flight route to Brussels. Further geographical connectivity and concentration of capital and labour came under French colonial administration, notably, the construction of the Congo-Ocean railroad in the 1920s, which – cutting through forest – brought labourers into rural territories home to the Simian Immune-deficiency Viruses. Once built, this railroad provided a constant flow of Africans and Europeans between Brazzaville (the new capital of the French colonial federation) through Léopoldville to Pointe-Noire at the coast. What’s more, road construction through the Congo Basin by timber companies pushed bushmeat hunters deeper into the forest and encouraged the growth of prostitution near the labour camps (Honigsbaum, 2019). One way or another, through new viral pathways that were new transport pathways driven by capital accumulation, by the 1920s, Léopoldville was home to HIV.

Both Honigsbaum (2019) and Quammen (2013) draw on research by Jacques Pepin to explain how the virus amplifies from here into an eventual global pandemic: sex and medical technology – specifically, the reuse of ineffectively sterilized hypodermic needles and reusable syringes in public and humanitarian health campaigns in Africa, and blood banks and transfusion services – were the key amplifiers of HIV. By the 1920s Léopoldville had a large male labour force, with economic migrants discouraged by the Belgian colonial administration from bringing their families with them; consequently, men outnumbered women four to one and prostitution was widespread (Honigsbaum, 2019). The virus likely amplified through a campaign by the Congolese Red Cross which established a clinic in 1929 in Léopoldville to treat sexually transmitted diseases; this campaign ran throughout in the 1930s and 1940s and peaked, in terms of the number of administered injections, in 1953 (Quammen, 2013). Another possible amplification was during the 1930s though the vaccination campaigns along the railways against yaws and sleeping sickness, and against malaria in southern Cameroon (Honigsbaum, 2019).

HIV-1 group M subtype B, around 1966, travels from Léopoldville to Haiti and, in or around 1969, from Haiti to the United States. Honigsbaum (2019) and Quammen (2013) again draw on the work of Pepin for a plausible answer as to how. Congo’s independence in 1960, marred by civil war, led to an influx of refugees into Kinshasa and an expansion of prostitution (Honigsbaum, 2019). Another outcome was the exodus of a Belgian expatriate skilled middle class. This vacuum of labour supply was addressed by campaigns to bring in skilled labour from elsewhere. Overseen by the WHO and UNESCO, recruits came from Haiti in the early 1960s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s however, the political instability of the state ideological campaign known as Zairianisation or Authenticité – to rid the Democratic Republic of Congo (later renamed Zaire) of colonialism and Western influences – drove many of this labour force back to Haiti. It would have taken just one of these returnees to have carried HIV with them. In January 1972, The New York Times broke a story of the commodification and export of Haitian human blood plasma and a political economy involving both US based capital and the Haitian government. The article states:

“PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan 26 – An American‐owned company here is buying blood plasma from impoverished Haitians who need the money and exporting 5,000 to 6,000 liters of it every month to the United States. […] Hemo Caribbean is owned by Joseph B. Gorinstein, stockbroker with interests in New York and Miami. He has a 10‐year contract with the Haitian Government that was negotiated with President Francois Duvalier, who died last April. Werner H. Thill, the company’s technical director, said that the Haitian Government received no money from Hemo Caribbean. Reliable sources here say that the principal agent between the Government and Hemo Caribbean was Luckner Cambronne, the Minister of Interior and National Defense, who is said to be one of the most influential persons here. […] Mr. Thill says that applicants are rejected if they are known to have hepatitis, but he adds that he is not especially concerned about those who may slip through the screening process with venereal disease or malaria. The freezing process used on the plasma “kills those bacteria,” he says. The Haitians, many in rags and without shoes, crowd into Hemo Caribbean six days week from 6:30 A.M. to 10 P.M. They spend about an hour and a half to two hours in screening and actually giving blood. […] The plasma is frozen and shipped to the United States by Air Haiti, Mr. Cambronne’s airline.”

“Capital is dead labour”, which, Marx (1867) tells us, “vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”. Luckner Cambronne, because of his central exploitative role in the selling of blood plasma of Haitian donors to the United States, was widely coined both in Haiti and overseas, “The Vampire of the Caribbean” (Davison, 2006). Via either one infected person or one infected container of blood plasma, around 1969, HIV travels from Haiti to the United States; from there, it later travels to Canada, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Estonia, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Australia; it also travels back into Africa (Quammen, 2013). Since the first cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome were officially reported in 1981 in the US, worldwide, 76 million people have been infected with HIV and 33 million people have died (World Health Organization, 2020).

A popular narrative (as represented through Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On) that either politically stigmatizes or reclaims the association of HIV/AIDS with queer sexuality is only one part of the historical story, specifically, how the virus amplified once it arrived in the United States. In the wider historical narrative I have relayed, capital is a leading actor. Marx (1857) observes in Grundrisse:

“Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of the means of communication and transport – the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.”

From possibly just one human exposure in southeastern Cameroon, HIV/AIDS made its way into and later out of Kinshasa through the new transportation routes of a colonial era and a globalizing era; because capital abides no geographical limits, former epidemiological dead ends were no more and new viral pathways were generated.


In the period since 1979 known as opening and reform, the Chinese Communist Party has overseen the entry of foreign capital into the country. Through the 1980s, especially the 1990s, and into the early millennium, China has experienced a staggering pace and degree of economic growth and urbanization. Guangdong, a coastal province in southern China, has been at the centre of this rapid capitalist transformation. Home to the earliest Special Economic Zones, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shantou, and to the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone, Guangdong is now the largest provincial economy and population in China, with Guangzhou (its capital) and Shenzhen global megacities and the country’s top two cities for GDP output. This has driven two ecological effects: the development of industrial-scale poultry farms to supply Guangdong’s huge labour force, growing from an estimated 700 million chickens in 1997 to, by 2008, one billion so-called high quality broiler chickens annually; and the orientation of smaller livestock producers and rice farmers to fattening domestic chickens and ducks to sell in “wet markets” that exist on the edges of Guangdong’s urban areas (Honigsbaum, 2019). Wet markets are markets that, along with fruit and vegetables, stock live animals for slaughter as fresh meat and fish. Davis (2005) explains:

“Thanks especially to the prevalence of wet markets in the cities, the urbanization of Guangdong has probably intensified rather than decreased microbial traffic between humans and animals. As income has risen with industrial employment, the population is eating more meat and less rice and vegetables. […] An extraordinary concentration of poultry […] coexists with high human densities, large numbers of pigs, and ubiquitous wild birds. […] Moreover, as the urban footprint has expanded and farm acreage has contracted, a fractal pattern of garden plots next to dormitories and factories has brought urban population and livestock together in more intimate contact. […] Guangdong is also a huge market for wild meat.”

Quammen (2013), referencing Karl Taro Greenfeld, observes that the wild animal trade within the Pearl River Delta is less to do with limited resources, need, or ancient traditions, and more attributable to the capitalist boom and related rise in conspicuous consumption. The contemporary Era of Wild Flavour, most prevalent in southern China, draws from earlier traditions and goes beyond them; Wild Flavour (yewei) is regarded as a way of gaining “face”, prosperity, and good luck. To supply Guangdong’s wet markets to meet the demand of a burgeoning affluent class frequenting the Wild Flavour restaurants of the province’s cities, there has been an increase in the volume of wild animal trade, with greater cross-border commerce (both legal and illegal) from other South East Asia countries (Vietnam and Laos, for example) into southern China and a rise in captive bred animals on unregulated small farms (Honigsbaum, 2019; Quammen, 2013). This is what Mike Davis, in 2005, coined the monster at our door, and, in light of SARS Coronavirus 2, states as the entirely familiar monster that has now walked through our front door (Davis, 2020). He elaborates, super urbanizing animal populations by factory farming is artificially creating the optimal conditions for the emergence of newly infectious diseases, speeding up the evolution of new strains, and guaranteeing the advent of pandemics (Davis, 2020). Following the work of Rob Wallace, an article from the Chinese Chuǎng journal (2020) argues that emergent infectious diseases arising in and out of China are best understood through a wider economic geography innate to capitalism, specifically, “the evolutionary pressure cooker of capitalist agriculture and urbanization”, which:

“provides the ideal medium through which ever-more-devastating plagues are born, transformed, induced to zoonotic leaps, and then aggressively vectored through the human population. To this is added similarly intensive processes occurring at the economy’s fringes, where “wild” strains are encountered by people pushed to ever-more extensive agroeconomic incursions into local ecosystems. The most recent coronavirus, in its “wild” origins and its sudden spread through a heavily industrialized and urbanized core of the global economy, represents both dimensions of our new era of political-economic plagues.”

The exceptional coming together of multiple species, which would not have otherwise crossed paths in nature yet are now stacked up together in crowded conditions in dense urban environments, is, as Quammen (2013: 189) puts it, “zoological bedlam”. It should be of no surprise then that a wet market of Guangzhou was the source of the zoonotic leap of SARS in 2002, and a wet market in Wuhan, Hubei province in south central China, the source of the spillover of SARS Coronavirus 2 in 2019. The natural reservoirs of both SARS Coronaviruses are likely bats. While SARS had a higher mortality rate, a critical difference between SARS and SARS Coronavirus 2 is the latter’s higher viral load prior to the onset of symptoms, which makes the effort to contain its spread much more difficult.


In narrating two stories about HIV/AIDS and SARS, I want to warn against geographically limiting one’s attention to Africa and Asia when thinking about pandemic threat. Instead, a focus on the intersection of the local and the global is key: local conditions of existence and capitalist political economy shape viral evolution, thus have meaning in explaining and predicting emergent infectious diseases, but the local intimately intersects with the global networks and processes of capitalist political economy. Eskew and Carlson (2020: e216) note, “due to globalisation, industrial agriculture, and the ubiquity of viral biodiversity, a pandemic can emerge practically anywhere.” For instance, the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, which originated from a pig farm in the United States. At the same time, influenza is also emergent, as Wallace (2016: 29) states, “by way of a globalized network of corporate poultry production and trade, wherever specific strains first evolve”. Furthermore, in the context of the biosecurity of a globalized agribusiness, in which, for example, mass vaccination of poultry is itself generating, in reaction, more evolutionary virulent strains of influenza (Wallace, 2016), a myopic focus on Africa and Asia takes our attention away from the fact that richer countries “routinely outsource their biodiversity threats to other nations” (Eskew and Carlson, 2020: e215). Or, as David Harvey (2010: 3) remarks, “capitalism never solves its crisis problems, it moves them around geographically”. At all scales, states and capitals are involved in the covering up and downplaying of emergent infectious diseases because pathogens are “enmeshed” within “the political economy of the business of food” (Wallace, 2016:48). Moves by the World Health Organization to a new system of nomenclature, away from specifying geographic or animal origin, is precisely because of political pressure by powerful states and industries (Wallace, 2016).

There is a conceptual error that can be found in much work exploring ecological crises (both on pandemics and on climate change). The Anthropocene, for example, effectively presents humanity as a single homogenous bloc, outside of historical forms of society with distinct socio-economic relations, which, as Andreas Malm recognizes, re-naturalizes ecological crisis as an outcome of human disposition (see Kunkel, 2017). Marxist ecology applies a crucial insight and steer to the relationship between human socio-economic relations and nature, by understanding that capitalism “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself” (Marx, cited in Verdansky, 2019). The problem is capitalism, as such the solution is a global system change that has at its centre a “socialised humanity” that “govern[s] the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control, instead of being dominated by it as a blind power” (ibid). If we are to find ourselves out of a current trajectory of escalating pandemics, we need a socialist politics that is radical and visionary:

“The view of nature attained under the domination of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature. […] It is in this sense that [in a 1524 pamphlet] Thomas Münzer declares it intolerable “that all creatures have been turned into property, the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth; the creatures, too, must become free.”” (Marx, 1844)


Chuǎng (2020) “Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China”,

Davis, Mike (2020) “Mike Davis on Coronavirus Politics”, The Dig podcast.

Davis, Mike (2005) The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. The New Press: London.

Davison, Phil (2006) “Obituary: Luckner Cambronne”. Independent,

Eskew, Evan A and Carlson, Colin J (2020) “Overselling wildlife trade bans will not bolster conservation or pandemic preparedness”. The Lanset, Volume 4, Issue 6, e215-e216,

Harvey, David (2010) “RSA: The Crisis of Capitalism”,

Honigsbaum, Mark (2019) The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria and Hubris. Hurst & Company: London.

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

Marx, Karl (1867) Capital: Volume One,

Marx, Karl (1857) Grundrisse,

Marx, Karl (1844) On The Jewish Question,

Quammen, David (2013) Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Vintage Books: London.

Severo, Richard (1972) “Impoverished Haitians Sell Plasma for Use in the U.S.” The New York Times, 28th January 1972,

Vernadsky, Paul (2019) “Marx and the environment”, Workers’ Liberty: Reason in Revolt,

Wallace, Rob (2020) “How Global Agriculture Grew a Pandemic”, Smarty Pants podcast.

Wallace, Rob (2016) Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. Monthly Review Press: New York.

A story of tea, the Opium Wars, and early globalisation

The BBC In Our Times podcasts “Tea” (2004) and “The Opium Wars” (2007) are a fascinating insight into the interrelated historical journeys of tea and opium and the early development of global capitalism. Originating in and solely sourced from China, European contact with tea in the early sixteenth century paved the way for it later becoming Britain’s first mass commodity and a core component of its national identity. From 1660 onwards, the British East India Company’s dealings with local merchants in the port of Canton provided a foothold into trade with China and its produce of tea. Tea became one of numerous exotic and luxury commodities introduced into Britain from around the world in the expectation that some would appeal to consumers and generate a profit. Tea, coffee, sugar, and tobacco all grew in demand – promoted, in a partnership between commerce and medicine, as medicinal products. While at the end of the seventeenth century, tea drinking in Britain was the preserve of the aristocratic elite, by 1750 there had been a huge increase in the importation and consumption of tea. The mass success of the tea commodity was in conjunction with that of the sugar commodity: Chinese black tea became domesticated as British with the addition of milk and sugar. Sweet hot milky tea satisfied a demand for a non-alcoholic energising beverage that was easy to prepare. Two interconnected trading triangles and systems accordingly developed, signifying the emergence of a global economy by 1750: one, trading in tea, connecting Britain to India to China back to Britain; the other, trading in sugar, connecting Britain to the continent of Africa to the West Indies back to Britain; both plugged into one another.

“… you have Africans imported in their millions by the British … to produce sugar which you mix with Chinese tea to slate the natural thirst of even the lowest income people of this country …” (BBC In Our Times: Tea, 2004)

The problem for British traders in the eighteenth century was paying for tea. China wanted and needed very little from Britain in exchange, so an unbalanced tea trade was paid for with a depleting stock of silver. Silver represented a further global movement: originating in the silver mines of Central and South America and transported via the trading triangles of the colonial empires into China; China being known at this time as “the silver grave of the world” (BBC In Our Times: The Opium Wars, 2007). A crucial development in paying for tea was the British control of the territory and revenue of Bengal in the 1760s, which generated a considerable surplus revenue; between 1750 and 1780, British investment in Indian textiles (namely, cotton) were exported to Canton, providing proceeds to pay for tea. It is at this point in the story of tea that opium enters the picture.

The Portuguese Empire first discovered and shipped opium to China; it also introduced the practice of smoking from the New World, turning opium consumption from a medicinal to a pleasure product. By the 1770s and 1780s opium was in great demand in the country, despite being banned by the Qing Dynasty for reasons of social control. Opium was desirable both as a consumable good and, for traders, as a portable currency, preferable to heavy copper and a shortage of silver. The British East India Company not only had a monopoly on the production of opium in India, its Patna opium was highly demanded because of its known superior quality. The Company, whilst publicly stating its adherence to the Qing Dynasty’s opium ban, oversaw private British traders dealing opium into China; the receipt of which was paid into its treasury.

Manufacture of opium in India (Wikimedia Commons)

This late eighteenth century rise in the trade of (Indian) opium offset the trade deficit between Britain and China and paid for the British addiction to (Chinese) tea.

The 1839 burning of opium at Humen (part of an organised crackdown endorsed by the Qing Dynasty) actually benefited private British traders, since, before this event, the country was inundated with opium driving down its price, while after, its price soared. What followed was the First Opium War (1839-1842): a spectacular military response by the British that used the latest technology of the time, armour-plated steamers, which led to Chinese defeat, the Nanking Treaty (opening port cities, or treaty ports, to foreign trade) and the territorial concession of Hong Kong. The Second Opium War (1856-1860) was both a further defeat for China and a further opening of treaty ports to foreign imperial powers. The rise of Chinese nationalism following the Opium Wars turned an anti-opium failure into a discourse of anti-opium hero; a narrative that remains a key part of Chinese national identity against the West.

Second Opium War (Wikimedia Commons)

Other national identities were bound up with this story of early globalisation. The export of tea from Britain to North America in the early eighteenth century, and its demand and consumption, was part of how American colonial elites defined themselves. However, when the British government imposed taxes on this tea trade in the 1760s, the response was non-importation of tea and throwing tea into Boston harbour, known as the Boston Tea Party. This anti-tax protest was also an anti-British protest. In the early years of the Republic, America was self-consciously on a course to becoming a coffee drinking, not a tea drinking, nation.

Boston Tea Party (Wikimedia Commons)

The problem of only being able to supply tea from China was eventually resolved by turning to India. Although the British East India Company was involved in early trials to grow tea elsewhere, the loss of its monopoly in India in 1813 explains its reluctance to heavily invest in tea production there, since it would be undercut by private tea growers. What’s more, the Company maintained its monopoly in China until 1833. Once the monopolies in both India and China ceased, tea production in India (notably, Assam) significantly developed.

Reflecting on the BBC In On Times podcasts, the historical and interwoven journeys of tea and opium provide a story on the construction of national identities during a period of early globalisation, in which such national identities are themselves the distinct products of globalisation. This story is also an insight into the emergence of a genuinely global economy: its centre and peripheries, and its peculiarities and forced economic and social resolutions. The story of the Opium Wars is actually the story of tea, and the story of tea is in fact the story of capital relentlessly pushing geographical boundaries and abiding no limits.



BBC (2004). In Our Times: Tea,

BBC (2007). In Our Times: The Opium Wars,

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.

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.


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, 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


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,

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)