Thursday, 30 September 2010

Rethinking Communism for the 21st Century
With the increasing realisation that capitalism cannot solve the world’s problems, there has been a resurgence of interest in the concepts of justice, equality and, yes, even the taboo one of ‘communism’. With books like The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists by Daniel Dorling we are seeing more and more intellectuals questioning the basis of the present system. In 2009 over 1000 people came together in London to attend a sell-out conference on “The Idea of Communism”.
The title of Prof. Swyngedouw’s recent paper published in the radical geography magazine, Antipode, is perhaps a little off-putting: The Communist hypothesis and revolutionary capitalisms: exploring the idea of communist geographies for the twenty-first century. It is an academic paper and not intended for a wider audience. However, what is surprising and significant is that here we have a mainstream academic – a professor of geography at Manchester University - calling for a revival of the “communist idea”.

His paper begins with the words: ‘This essay starts from the presumption that “the communist hypothesis” is still a good one…’ He goes on to argue that ‘the idea of communism requires urgent rethinking in the light of both the “obscure” disaster of twentieth century really existing socialism and the specific conditions of twenty-first century capitalism.’
Like fellow iconoclastic academic, Slavoj Zizek, he argues that we need to look again at the idea of a communist society as a viable alternative to a capitalism that is intellectually as well as in practice bankrupt. He agreed to explain the ideas underlying his paper to Morning Star readers.
He says that the persistent outlawing of the name “communism” and its erasure from the pages of self-respecting journals over the past two decades has been so effective that even its utterance is looked upon with suspicion and distrust.
So why has he decided to utter it at this time?
He says that since the student rebellions of 1968 even the study of geography became radicalised and more academics realised that politics and economics also take place in specific geographical contexts and couldn’t be ignored.
‘In an age in which anything and everything can be discussed,’ he says ‘the very idea of communism as a positive injunction seems to have been censored and scripted out of both everyday and intellectual vocabularies. It is only tolerated in sensationalised accounts of the “obscure disaster” of twentieth century “really existing socialism”, or in romanticised Hollywood renditions of communist heroes like Che Guevara.’ He talks about the “obscure” disaster of 20th century communism because, he argues, the neo-liberals have only condemned it in its totality, as a dystopia, and the left hasn’t undertaken a proper critique of the experience. Although we have to learn from that experience, he is adamant that we have to completely rethink the concept of communism in the light of the profound changes that have taken place in capitalism itself and the imminent threats to our environment and indeed life itself.
What does “communism” signify for him, I want to know?
Swyngedouw sees equality and democracy as the central concepts that define communism; communism without them is a contradiction in terms. He argues that these principles can only be achieved through self-organisation and self-management. He sees no roles for a coercive state or a ‘leading’ party.
He argues, perhaps controversially, ‘that the key markers of twentieth century communist politics – state, party and proletariat – require a radical reworking. I would insist,’ he says, ‘that neither state nor the party are any longer of use to think the communist hypothesis.’ He doesn’t deny that the state and political parties have roles to play, but they cannot be the main actors or means to achieving communism he insists.
‘The idea of communism retains a subversive edge,’ he notes, ‘and in spite of the failed experiments it still evokes the idea that a different world is not only imaginable but is also practically possible. But it must be a communism that is egalitarian and allows the self-development of each, and then it will retain its great mobilising potential. To work towards such a goal, political organisation needs to be rethought.’
So how can we rethink communism for the twenty-first century, I ask?
‘The communist idea is nothing,’ he says, ‘without the will to do something new, without the will to become political subject ie as an individual acting upon and transforming our environment. The majority of people,’ he argues, ‘are unhappy with the present situation and want change, but are not sure how to go about achieving the changes they desire, because they are told over and over again that capitalist neo-liberalism is the only option.’
‘While we need to come to terms with the disaster of twentieth century communism, it is also necessary,’ he emphasises, ‘to undertake a critique of the repressive state capitalism in “the West”. Capitalism,’ he says, ‘reinvented itself in the seventies and recaptured the imagination of the majority – capitalism could deliver material wealth and well-being. Many lost hope; there was no political controversy and neo-liberalism appeared to be the only show in town. Conservative restraint was replaced by the imperative to enjoy. Liberation was experienced as the search for surplus value as well as surplus enjoyment. Political equality faded as a central concern; demands for equality became defined as the equality of difference, and justice became the right to enjoy one’s own individual freedom. Democracy itself became synonymous with the freedom to exercise individual choice, and consuming became the highest freedom; market equality replacing political equality.’
He maintains that neo-liberalism also ‘wiped out working class politics’. The triumph of neo-liberalism represented ruling class victory. This victory has also been accompanied by the tactics of de-politicisation of the people with the media now so concentrated and providing a basic fare of triviality and non-political gossip alongside the cultivation of fear.
He quotes Marx on the domination of capitalism by the financial sector and argues that capitalism’s resurgence is closely connected with the geographical transfer of basic exploitation to regions like SE Asia, but also the privatisation of the environment, water, gene pools, minerals and intellectual property. However, with the recent collapse of the banking system the whole edifice of capitalism was threatened with collapse. Only unprecedented state intervention, characterised by Newsweek as: ‘we are all socialists now’ has temporarily saved it.
‘In the final decades of the twentieth century industrial labour lost its hegemony in the “North” and,’ he says, ‘in its stead “immaterial labour” emerged, ie labour that creates immaterial “wares” like knowledge, information software, communication resources etc. Industrial labour has been transferred elsewhere, and it is there where new industrial (class) struggles are emerging and will intensify. In the global “North” new forms of struggle will and are emerging which do not revolve around ownership of the means of production but directly around the ownership of the products of this immaterial labour, as we have seen in the battles over free downloads and access to internet resources.’
He doesn’t see democracy – as so often narrowly defined in the West, as a set of political institutions and their associated political procedures, such as ‘free’ elections – as the solution, but argues that it must be a democracy that involves everyone participating in society on an equal basis. Equality, he stresses, is the very premise on which a democratic politics has to be based. However, he stresses, political democracy is not about expressing demands to an elite to rectify injustice, but in conquering freedom and equality for ourselves. For Swyngedouw this means that the ‘place of power is kept structurally vacant’ ie power remains with the people and is not vested in or ‘handed over’ to some representative body or individual. He envisions a situation where the state is replaced by self-organisation and self-management. He says the very name of communism invokes the egalitarian concept of ‘being in common’ and this includes the idea of the ‘commons’ ie that all natural resources, including land, and indeed life itself, belongs to us collectively and should be collectively stewarded. We need to think beyond resistance towards transformation. He sees the communist idea as a transformation of the commons. This, of course, raises vital questions of property relations in respect to common resources.
‘The key task,’ he finally underlines ‘is to rethink communism again and this will require serious debate about what an equal, free and self-organising being-in-common for the twenty-first century might be all about. It will, he argues, ‘require a restoration of trust in our theories, a courageous engagement with painful histories and geographies, and, above all, abandoning the fear of failing again…There is no alternative!’, he stresses adamantly.
Prof. Swyngedouw’s essay is also available in the book: The Point is to Change It, edited by Castree N., Chatterton P., Heynen N., Larner W. and Wright M.W. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Secret Affairs – Britain’s collusion with radical Islam
by Mark Curtis
Pubs. Profile Books Ltd
Pbck. £12.99

Mark Curtis’s book should be on the book list of every educational institution’s history curriculum. In this detailed historical journey, he charts Britain’s intimate involvement in the promotion of Muslim individuals and Islamic states as tools for its own imperial ambitions. It used Islam in a blatant divide and rule tactic, from the time of the Raj onwards. Curtis amply demonstrates a continuous and intimate marriage of convenience between Britain and various Islamic forces over three centuries.

After Britain’s long-time support of the Ottoman Empire, as a bulwark against Tsarist Russia and to protect its East Indian trade routes, it soon sought alternative allies once the Turks had unexpectedly entered the First World War on the side of Germany. Britain then proceeded to find a suitable and subservient proxy from among the tribal groups of central Arabia. In the 1920s it found Ibn Saud as an ideal candidate for leadership and gave him sole control over Saudi Arabia which he proceeded to assert in one of the most bloody repressions the region had experienced, killing over 40,000 Arab tribesmen and women and amputating the limbs of 350,000 more. This led to the complete domination by the Saud family in the region to this day. It assured Britain of a steady flow of oil and the Saudi family complete support from Britain in the maintenance of its brutal ad obscurantist regime. It also led to the spread of the divisive and backward-looking faction of Islam called Wahabism (the founding ideology of modern jihad).

Throughout the region Britain has always propped up elements of the ruling classes against the democratic and nationalist aspirations of the people. Curtis provides a long list of such tactics from Egypt, Afghanistan and Persia to Turkmenistan. This history is little known and rarely discussed in historical circles. It will come as a surprise to many to see how Britain has meddled in Islamic affairs over such a long and continuous period. And, although it would be silly to blame Britain solely for the present resurgence of Islamic extremism or terrorism, it’s certainly not the innocent bystander it paints itself.

Britain has continuously covert support to Muslim guerrilla forces to counteract the spread of Soviet influence in Persia, Turkey and Afghanistan to Kosovo (does that sound like more recent history?).

Curtis concludes with the present day chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan, showing how Britain and the USA are very much to blame for what unravelled there even before they chose to invade. He names those ‘heroic Afghani guerrilla leaders’ who fought Soviet forces, who were backed and armed by Britain and the USA, only to then set up the Taliban regime and become ‘the enemy’. Pakistan was also given massive military and financial support over many years as a bulwark against Soviet influence in the region and to counteract India – seen as pro-Soviet and unreliable. This policy and Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan has also contributed to the present political instability and violence there.

A fascinating, well written and researched book – a must read for anyone who wishes to better understand the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and Britain’s key role.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

In the prison industrial complex
Most of those even vaguely familiar with the size, scope and character of the US mass imprisonment scheme know that the US leads the world in incarceration, both in sheer numbers and per capita.
They know too that the US, with 6 per cent of the world's population, holds nearly a quarter - 24 per cent - of all the prisoners on earth.
As stunning and perhaps shocking as these figures are, they fail to adequately paint the full picture of what this project means in the lifescapes and hopes of millions of people in US ghettos where black and brown people dwell.
Indeed, truth be told, most black folks aren't even aware of this thing, because it is rarely discussed in public and rarely addressed in the corporate press.
With the recent publication of the work of a young black scholar, law professor Michelle Alexander, that may be changing.
Alexander's new book is ground-breaking in several respects - first in that she addresses the plague of mass incarceration and second in how she analyses the social and political ramifications of such a project.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colour-blindness (The New Press), Alexander places the present mass incarceration binge in its historical context, comparing it to the infamous post-civil war period, after the brief span known as reconstruction.
This era saw the rise of racist terrorism against blacks by such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, who were often composed of former Confederate troops, the denial of black voting rights and the institutionalisation of the black codes - laws which targeted blacks for behaviour such as insolence which were not criminal if committed by whites.
The creation of the convict lease system allowed the economic and political elites to exploit "free" black labour again - in essence to establish slavery in everything but name, with the blessing of the national government.
Alexander recounts that historical period to provide insight into the present, while over one million black men and women are imprisoned and millions more live cribbed, encumbered half-lives because they have a criminal conviction on their records.
What such a record means is that a person, even when "free," may not vote, can't live in public housing, can't receive a government grant for college studies and is barred from a growing range of the professions. In other words, as in the past, "free" doesn't mean free.
And as federal government grants to states in fields like education, transport and housing is driven by population, and most US prisons are situated in distant, rural and predominantly white districts, those areas acquire the benefits of their large black prison populations counted in the US census as "residents" of these regions, and urban districts lose such federal resources respectively.
Thus ghettos are not just depopulated but they are concomitantly deprived of resources to help make communities whole and healthy.
As discussed above, criminal convictions in most US states work to disqualify millions of people from voting for life.
What does such a disqualification mean in reality? In the pivotal US presidential election of 2000, George W Bush reportedly won Florida by fewer than 500 votes.
Without a win in Florida, Bush would've lost the presidential election. At least some 50,000 former felons in Florida were disqualified from voting and, as many of them were African-American, it's certainly a safe assumption that the vast majority of them, if able to vote, would have voted for the Democratic candidate.
If so, US history would've been dramatically transformed, and perhaps world history as well. Prof Alexander, writing of the impact of the mass incarceration project on black communities, notes: "The collapse of inner-city economies coincided with a conservative backlash against the civil rights movement, resulting in the perfect storm.
"Almost overnight, black men found themselves unnecessary to the American economy and demonised by the mainstream media.
"No longer needed to pick cotton in the fields or labour in factories, lower-class black men were hauled off to prison in droves. They were vilified in the media and condemned for their condition as part of a well-orchestrated political campaign to build a new white, Republican majority in the south.
"Decades later, curious onlookers in the grips of denial would wonder aloud: 'Where have all the Black men gone'?
"The prison industrial complex was the capitalisation of the incarceration nation. It marked the continuation of the grim era known as Jim Crow."
This article was written by Mumia Abu-Jamal exclusively for the German socialist youth paper Junge Welt and is reproduced here by its kind permission and that of the originating reporter Jurgen Heiser.
About Mumia Abu-Jamal
He was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. His trial was a farce and he was clearly framed because of his political activities. He has been described as "perhaps the best-known death row prisoner in the world" and his sentence is one of the most debated today.
Before his arrest he was a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP), an activist, part-time cab driver, journalist and broadcaster and became president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
Since his conviction, his case has received international attention and he has become a controversial cultural icon. During his imprisonment he has published several books and other commentaries, notably Live From Death Row.
In his own writings, Abu-Jamal describes his adolescent experience of being "kicked ... into the Black Panther Party" after suffering a beating from "white racists" and a policeman for his efforts to disrupt a 1968 presidential campaign rally for segregationist George Wallace.
Abu-Jamal lived in New York City and in Oakland, living and working with his BPP comrades. He was subject to FBI Contelpro surveillance during the '70s.
After leaving the Panthers he returned to his old high school, but he was suspended for distributing literature calling for "black revolutionary student power."
He also led protests to change the school name to Malcolm X High.
In 1999 Arnold Beverly claimed that he and an unnamed assailant, not Abu-Jamal, had shot Daniel Faulkner as part of a contract killing because Faulkner had been interfering with graft and pay-offs to corrupt police.
While in prison Abu-Jamal was engaged by National Public Radio to deliver a series of monthly three-minute commentaries on crime and punishment. The broadcast plans were cancelled following condemnations from the police force and right-wing senators. The commentaries later appeared in print in May 1995 as part of Live From Death Row.
With occasional interruptions due to prison disciplinary actions, Abu-Jamal has for many years been a regular commentator on an online broadcast, sponsored by Prison Radio, as well as a regular columnist for the German youth socialist paper Junge Welt.
In litigation before the US Court of Appeals in 1998 he successfully established his right to write for financial gain in prison. The same litigation also established that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections had illegally opened his mail in an attempt to establish whether he was writing for financial gain. When, for a brief time in August 1999, he began delivering his radio commentaries live on the Pacifica network's Democracy Now! weekday radio news magazine, prison staff severed the connecting wires of his telephone from their mounting in mid-performance.
His publications include Death Blossoms: Reflections From A Prisoner Of Conscience, in which he explores religious themes, All Things Censored, a political critique examining issues of crime and punishment, and We Want Freedom: A Life In The Black Panther Party, which is a history of the Black Panthers drawing on autobiographical material.