Category Archives: Struggle & Movement

Why We Can’t Wait — Martin Luther King

9831183Martin Luther King, Jr (1964) Signet

I can’t believe I hadn’t read this before, but how amazing to readjust what I think I know, my ideas of someone I think I know, writing in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, describing 1963 as the great year of revolution when:

The Negro also had to recognize that one hundred years after emancipation he lived on a lonely island of economic insecurity in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Negroes are still at the bottom of the economic ladder. They live within two concentric circles of segregation. One imprisons them on the bases of color, while the other confines them within a separate culture of poverty (23).

‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ remains so so powerful. What surprised me most–though it shouldn’t have, because what school will teach this about King?–is just how much time he spends not on white supremacy in its violent forms, but on white liberals and their hindrance of the cause. I feel in many ways this book was written for them, but it is much more scathing than I expected, and doesn’t fail to get to the meat of the matter. I have the impression of King as more conciliatory and more liberal at this point, but that isn’t what you take from the book.

There were two and one-half times as many jobless Negroes as whites in 1963, and their median income was half that of the white man. Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice, but tolerated or ignored economic injustice. But the Negro knows that these two evils have a malignant kinship (24).

There is also less on nonviolence than I expected, but it is good:

Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and enobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals. Both a practical and a moral answer to the Negro’s cry for justice, nonviolent direct action proved that it could win victories without losing wars, and so became the triumphant tactic of the Negro Revolution of 1963.

Yes he does call it a revolution. When he discusses violence as opposed to nonviolence, it is in such a way that you feel if he didn’t believe violence doomed to fail, he’d consider it much more carefully. He knows that struggle is itself a good in the face of so much oppression: ‘The Revolution of the Negro not only attacked the external cause of his misery, but revealed him to himself. He was somebody. He had a sense of somebodiness. He was impatient to be free’ (30). This was not an understanding that could be won through legal battles in the courts. Instead direct nonviolent action was more suited to the times and to what was possible (though carried out to supplement legal strategies, not to replace them). What I also loved is the insight that this transformation ‘had the marvelous effect of changing the face of the enemy. The enemy the Negro faced became not the individual who had oppressed him but the evil system which permitted that individual to do so’ (38). This is how people move and change and in doing so, change the world.

I loved the many details of the Birmingham campaign, I wish I had read this long ago. While recruiting people for trainings in tactics and nonviolence, Wyatt Walker was mapping out all of downtown Birmingham — each store and its eating facilities, its entrances and exits, number of tables and stools and chairs to determine the number of demonstrators per shop, primary and secondary targets so if one meeting place or route was blocked by the police they had a backup plan. That kind of planning, along with the long preparation of demonstrators to stay strong yet remain nonviolent in the face of violence through trainings and role-playing is what made these campaigns work. My admiration is immense, and it has grown for King who knew so well the nuts and bolts of the campaigns for which I have heard argued he was a figurehead. They started their campaign small–and late for reasons to do with the elections–and ramped it up with 65 nightly meetings. I have to write that again, 65 evening meetings. That’s a hell of a hard pace. Even when you do so much singing.

I also know the prominence of the church should not surprise me, but still, it did. All volunteers had to sign a Commitment Card as part of their training, and all respect to these precepts even as someone not entirely behind nonviolence:

1. MEDITATE daily on the tecahings and life of Jesus
2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation–not victory,
3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

I love that King noted what a mistake it had been — and not entirely their fault given the circumstance — not to have brought on board the many different local organizations before they started, and his hard work to do so a little belatedly. King’s role as the principal fundraiser for the movement–always a huge concern in social justice worker–is also made clear. I am glad he chose prison over fundraising for bail money, glad that Harry Belafonte is so damn awesome. And glad that he saw that youth and the students were the key to victory.

I was a little confused at the care King takes to defend their actions in defying for the first time an injunction against protest–it would not occur to me to critique anyone for ignoring such a racist and unconstitutional order in Alabama, but clearly, there was much critique from white ‘allies’, prompting a public letter that King responded to in the extraordinary ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ included here. I imagine him sitting in prison finally allowing some of the rage to escape in his description of the suffering a father feels when his children come face to face with prejudice, his descriptions of the daily struggle must have brought the relgious figures censuring him to their knees. Other highlights:

I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth (79).

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light…but groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed (80).

We have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independance, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter (81).

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councils or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will (84-85)

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people (86).

Amazing. I was also not expecting–and loved–this:

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society…. It was upon this massive base of racism that the prejudice toward the nonwhite was readily built, and found rapid growth. This long-standing racist ideology has corrupted and diminished our democratic ideals. It is this tangled web of prejudice from which many Americans now seek to liberate themselves, without realizing how deeply it has been woven into their consciousness….Our history teaches us that wielding the sword against racial superiority is not effective…On the other hand, history also tecahes that submission produces no acceptable result. Nonresistance merely reinforces the myth that one race is inherently inferior to another (120).

A final note, though there is so much more here. It’s almost a throw-away line, but King notes that the African-American movement has become strong enough that it can now have allies, it can make its own commitments that it can deliver and have equality in that it will still be powerful if its allies walk away. This is core to some of the later theorizing, by Stokely and Carmichael and Julius Lester for example, of how to built movement. I like that King said it too. For all their differences, they had so much more in common in terms of hope and vision and audacity than most of them have with leading figures in these sad days.



Kropotkin’s Memoirs

802268Kropotkin: geographer, former aristocrat, anarchist revolutionary. This is a fascinating glimpse into Russia before the revolution through his childhood, into the intellectual development of someone seeking to understand their own position and privilege in the world, and their attempts to transform it. Also many insights to a branch of anarchism I quite like, and a study of how cooperation is as common as competition in the world. Much of this book was unexpected.

Some quotes:

Besides, I began gradually to understand that revolutions, i.e. periods of accelerated rapid evolution and rapid changes, are as much in the nature of human society as the slow evolution which incessantly goes on now among the civilized races of mankind. And each time that such a period of accelerated evolution and thorough reconstruction begins, civil war may break out on a small or on a grand scale. The question is, then, not so much how to avoid revolutions as how to attain the greatest results with the most limited amount of civil war, the least number of victims, and a minimum of mutual embitterment. For that end there is only one means; namely, that the oppressed part of society should obtain the clearest possible conception of what they intend to achieve and how, and that they should be imbued with the enthusiasm which is necessary for the achievement–in which case they will be sure to attract to their cause which is possessed of historically grown-up privileges.

The Commune of Paris was a terrible example of an outbreak with yet undetermined ideals. (270)

After his escape from Russia:

…later on, when the Russian movement became a conspiracy and an armed struggle against the representative of autocracy, all thought of a popular movement was necessarily abandoned; while my own inclinations drew me more and more intensely toward casting in my lot with the laboring and toiling masses. To bring to them such conceptions as would aid them to direct their efforts to the best advantage of all the workers; to deepen and to widen the ideals and principles which will underlie the coming social revolution; to develop these ideals and principles before the workers, not as an order coming from their leaders, but as a result of their own reason; and so to awaken their own initiative, now that they were called upon to appear in the historical arena as the builders of a new, equitable mode of organization of society–thsi seemed to me as necessary for the development of mankind as anything I could accomplish in Russia at that time. (354)

On the Jura Federation and parties:

It always happens that after a political party has set before itself a purpose, and has proclaimed that nothing short of the complete attainment of that aim will satisfy it, it divides into two fractions. One of them remains what it was, while the other, although it professes not to have changed a word of its previous intentions, accepts some sort of compromise, and gradually, from compromise to compromise, is driven further from its primitive programme, and becomes a party of modest makeshift reform (358).

On the International Working Man’s Association:

The workers of all nations were called upon to form their own organisations for a direct struggle against capitalism; to work out the means of socializing the production of wealth and its consumption; and, when they should be ready to do so, to take possession of the necessaries for production, and to control production with no regard to the present political organization, which must undergo a complete reconstruction. The Association had thus to be the means for preparing an immense revolution in men’s minds, and later on in the very forms of life–a revolution which would open to mankind a new era of progress based upon the solidarity of all. That was the ideal which aroused from their slumber millions of European workers, and attracted to the Association its best intellectual forces. (359)

The conflict between the Marxists and the Bakunists was not a personal affair. It was the necessary conflict between the principles of federalism and those of centralization, the free Commune and the State’s paternal rule, the free action of the masses of the people and the betterment if existing capitalist conditions through legislation–a conflict between the Latin spirit and the German Geist, which, after the defeat of France on the battlefield, claimed supremacy in science, politics, philososphy, and in socialism too, representing its own conception of socialism as ‘scientific’, while all other interpretations it described as ‘utopian’. (361)

The role of science in social change:

anarchism represents more than a mere mode of action and a mere conception of a free society; that it is part of a philosophy, natural and social, which must be developed in a quite different way from the metaphysical or dialectic methods which have been employed in sciences dealing with man. I saw that it must be treated by the same methods as natural sciences; not, however. on the slippery ground of mere analogies, such as Herbert Spencer accepts, but on the solid basis of induction applied to human institutions. And I did my best to accomplish what I could in that direction. (377)

The most fascinating of asides, on Turgenev’s brain of all things:

His fine head revealed a vast development of brain power, and when he died, and Paul Bert, with Paul Reclus (the surgeon), weighed his brain, it so much surpassed the heaviest brain then known-that of Cuvier-reaching something over two thousand grammes, that they would not trust to their scales, but got new ones, to repeat the weighing. (381)

The role of revolutionary media:

a revolutionary paper must be, above all, a record of those symptoms which everywhere announce the coming of a new era, the germination of new forms of social life, the growing revolt against antiquated institutions…(390) As to the criticism of what exists, I went into it only to disentangle the roots of the evils, and to show that a deep-seated and carefully-nurtured fetishism with regard to the antiquated survivals of phases of human development, and a widespread cowardice of mind and will, are the main sources of all evils (391).

And I think what has endured most through the ages, along with the idea that as a species we are more cooperative than competitive (capitalism and its ideologies notwithstanding), is his vision of the future. A federation of local, non-hierarchical associations of human beings, free to change and grow as they desired, as they needed to.

We saw that a new form of society is germinating in the civilized nations, and must take the place of the old one: a society of equals, who will not be compelled to sell their hands and brains to those who choose to employ them in a haphazard way, but who will be able to apply their knowledge and capacities to production, in an organism so constructed as to combine all the efforts for procuring the greatest sum possible of well-being for all, while full, free scope will be left for every individual initiative. This society will be composed of a multitude of associations federated for all the purposes which require federation: trade federations for production of all sorts-agricultural, industrial, intellectual, artistic; communes for consumption, making provision for dwellings, gas works, supplies of food, sanitary arrangements, etc.; federations of communes among themselves, and federations of communes with trade organizations; and finally, wider groups covering the country, or several countries, composed of men who collaborate for the satisfaction of such economic, intellectual, artistic, and moral needs as are not limited to a given territory…There will be full freedom for the development of new forms of production, invention, and organization; individual initiative will be encouraged, and the tendency toward uniformity and centralization will be discouraged.

Moreover, this society will not be crystallized into certain unchangeable forms, but will continually modify its aspect, because it will be a living, evolving organism: no need of government will be felt, because free agreement and federation can take its place in all those functions which governments consider as theirs at the present time, and because, the causes of conflict being reduced in number, those conflicts which may still arise can be submitted to arbitration. (372-373)

Long years of propaganda and a long succession of partial acts of revolt against authority, as well as a complete revision of the teachings now derived from history, would be required before men could perceive that they had been mistaken in attributing to their rulers and their laws what was derived in reality from their own sociable feelings and habits. (373)

social life itself, supported by a frank, open-minded criticism of opinions and actions, would be the most effective means for threshing out opinions and divesting them of the unavoidable exaggerations. We acted, in fact, in accordance with the old saying that freedom remains still the wisest cure for freedom’s temporary inconveniences. There is, in mankind, a nucleus of social habits, an inheritance from the past, not yet duly appreciated, which is not maintained by coercion and is superior to coercion… We understood, at the same time, that such a change, cannot be produced by the conjectures of one man of genius, that it will not be one man’s discovery, but that it must result from the constructive work of the masses, just as the forms of judicial procedure which were elaborated in the early medieval ages… (375)

A fascinating read whatever your political persuasions.

Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues

940044Stuart Hall died as I was in the middle of reading this, which made it so poignant even as I was thinking to myself just how good this book was as a totality and how much I loved him. Like many edited collections it had pieces that I loved and pieces that I didn’t, but even those that I didn’t find so useful still worked brilliantly to give me a solid sense of the international field of Cultural Studies from its early beginnings through the 1990s. That’s no small task given the way that it has changed and spread, been fought over and fought through. I’m not sure where it’s at now, but I feel that I know some of the places it has been and the structures of its debates.
I confess now, that Stuart Hall is one of my favourite theorists, and though I know the field is far greater and wider than him, it is his work that I feel opens up the most space for my own thinking in political geography. The first section looks at Marxism and cultural studies, and given my own relationship to Marxism is much like Hall’s, I wanted this section to be longer and I wanted more on the New Left. The authors are definitely more interested in the relationship between Cultural Studies and postmodernism, so I got more postmodernism than I wished but that was all to the good perhaps, as I discovered some redeeming characteristics…though not too many.

After a good intro from the editors it start with ‘The Problem of Ideology: Marxism Without Guarantees’.

The problem of ideology, therefore, concerns the ways in which ideas of different kinds grip the minds of the masses, and thereby become a ‘material force’. In this, more politicized, perspective, the theory of ideology helps us to analyse how a particular set of ideas comes to dominate the social thinking of a historical bloc, in Gramsci’s sense; and, thus, helps to unite such a bloc from the inside, and maintain its dominance and leadership over society as a whole. It has especially to do with the concepts and the languages of practical thought which stabilize a particular form of power and domination….
We mean the practical as well as the theoretical knowledges which enable people to ‘figure out’ society, and within whose categories and discourse we ‘live out’ and ‘experience’ our objective positioning in social relations. (27)

This is a revision of Marx’s model of ideology which ‘did not conceptualize the social formation as a determinate complex formation, composed of different practices, but as a simple structure’ (29), this via Althusser. And I’ve always loved his take on traditional arguments about ‘false consciousness’

Is the worker who lives his or her relation to the circuits of capitalist production exclusively through the categories of a ‘fair price’ and a ‘fair wage’, in ‘false consciousness’? Yes, if by that we mean there is something about her situation which she cannot grasp with the categories she is using; something about the process as a whole which is systematically hidden because the available concepts only give her a graso of one of its many-sided moments. No, if by that we mean she is utterly deluded about what goes on under Capitalism.
The falseness therefore arises, not from the fact that the market is an illusion, a trick, a sleioght-of-hand, but only in the sense that it is an inadequate explanation of a process (37).

The relations in which people exist are the ‘rela relations’ which the categories and concepts they use help them to grasp and articulate in thought. But—and here we maybe be on a route contrary to emphasis from that with which ‘materialism’ is usually associated—the economic relations themselves cannot prescribe a single, fixed and unalterable way of conceptualizing it…. To say that a theoretical discourse allows us to grasp a concrete relation ‘in thought’ adequately means that the discourse provides us with a more complete grasp of all the different relations of which that relation is composed, and of the many determinations which forms its conditions of existence. In means that our grasp is concrete and whole, rather than a thin, one-sided abstraction (39).

And then he draws on Volsinov, who I truly love, to argue

It is precisely because language, the medium of thought and ideological calculation, is ‘multi-accentual’…that the field of the ideological is always a field of ‘intersecting accents’ 40

And thus a source of struggle, every word contested terrain. Which he repeats: ‘This approach replaces the notion of fixed ideological meanings and class-ascribed ideologies with the concepts of ideological terrains of struggle and the task of ideological transformation’ (41). Then draws on Gramsci to see how these ideologies become material forces by articulating with political and social forces to deconstruct and reconstruct the ruling ideologies in a ‘war of position’. The terrain of this struggle is historically defined, above all it is the terrain of common sense, which become the stakes of ideological struggle. Thus ‘‘hegemony’ in Gramsci’s sense requires, not the simple escalation of a whole class to power, with its fully formed ‘philosophy’, but (43) the process by which a historical bloc of social forces is constructed and the ascendency of that bloc secured’. In thinking about the relationship between base and superstructure:

What the economic cannot do is (a) to provide the contents of the particular thoughts of particular social classes or groups at any specific time; or (b) to fix or guarantee for all time which ideas will be made use of by which classes. The determinacy of the economic for the ideological can, therefore, be only in terms of the former setting the limits for defining the terrain for operations, establishing ‘raw materials’, of thought. Material circumstances are the net of constraints, the ‘conditions of existence’ for practical thought and calculation about society.

And a smack down against orthodoxy and ‘determination in the last instance’:

‘It represents the end of the process of theorizing, of the development and refinement of new concepts and explanations which, alone, is the sign of a living body of thought, capable still of engaging and grasping something of the truth about new historical realities (45).

One of the more useful chapters was from Colin Sparks, outlining the work of Raymond Williams and EP Thompson and cultural studies’ beginnings in a humanist Marxism before its encounter with Althusser and Marxism, its engagement with Laclau and Gramsci. It does through multiple representatives of the school, not just Hall, which I particularly liked.

My favourite, apart from Hall’s own work, was ‘The Theory and method of articulation in cultural studies’ by Jennifer Daryl Slack. She writes

However, articulation works at additional levels: at the levels of the epistemological, the political and the strategic. Epistemologically, articulation is a way of thinking the structures of what we know as a play of correspondences, non-correspondences and contradictions, as fragments in the constitution of what we take to be unities. Politically, articulation is a way of foregrounding the structure and play of power that entail in relations of dominance and subordination. Strategically, articulation provides a mechanism for shaping intervention within a particular formation, conjuncture or context (112).

And also this:

cultural studies works with the notion of theory as a ‘detour’ to help ground our engagement with what newly confronts us and to let that engagement provide the ground for retheorizing. Theory is thus a practice in a double sense: it is a formal conceptual tool as well as a practising or ‘trying out’ of a way of theorizing’ (113).

Conceptualisations of theory as process, as being constantly regrounded and rethought, are the only ones that make sense to me. Of course, I feel that if you are grounded you are working under the assumption that we live in a profoundly unequal and exploitative society and that theory is meant to change that, so I do have some parameters.

With and through articulation, we engage the concrete in order to change it, that is, to rearticulate it…Articulation is, then, not just a thing (not just a connection) but a process of creating connections, much in the same way that hegemony is not domination but the process of creating and maintaining consensus or co-ordinating interests’ (114).

Lawrence Grossberg’s interview with Stuart Hall on Postmodernism helped a great deal in clarifying some of my own thoughts. Like Hall on Foucault:

let’s take Foucault’s argument for the discursive as against the ideological. What Foucault would talk about is the setting in place, through the institutionalization of a discursive regime, of a number of competing regimes of truth and, within these regimes, the operation of power through the practices he calls normalization, regulation and surveillance. … the combination of regime of truth plus normalization/regulation/surveillance is not all that far from the notions of dominance in ideology that I’m trying to work with…I think the movement from that old base/superstructure paradigm into the domain of the discursive is a very positive one. But, while I have learned a great deal from Foucault in this sense about the relation between knowledge and power, I don’t see how you can retain the notion of ‘resistance’, as he does, without facing questions about the constitution of dominance in ideology. Foucault’s evasion of this question is at the heart of his proto-anarchist position precisely because his resistance must be summoned up from nowhere… there is no way of conceptualizing the balance of power between different regimes of truth without society conceptualized (135) not as a unity, but as a ‘formation’. If Foucault is to prevent the regime of truth from collapsing into a synonym for the dominant ideology, he has to recognize that there are different regimes of truth in the social formation. And these are not simply ‘plural’ – they define an ideological field of force (136).

And on Baudrillard (and others, but mostly Baudrillard)

I don’t think history is finished and the assertion that it is, which lies at the heart of postmodernism, betrays the inexcusable ethnocentrism—the Eurocentrism—of its high priests. It is their cultural dominance, in the West, across the globe, which is historically at an end…I think Baudrillard needs to join the masses for a while, to be silent for two-thirds of a century, just to see what it feels like (141).

Now, more to the point, his own theory of articulation

the theory of articulation asks how an ideology discovers its subject rather than how the subject thinks the necessary and inevitable thoughts which belong to it; it enables us to think how an ideology empowers people, enabling them to begin to make some sense or intelligibility of their historical situation, without reducing those forms of intelligibility to their socio-economic or class location or social position (142)

And this

I am not interested in Theory. I am interested in going on theorizing. And that also means that cultural studies has to be open to external influences, for example, to the rise of new social movements… (150)

I can’t do justice to such a sprawling volume full of brilliant contributors, so I am focusing on this concept of articulation that I am grappling with right now…but there is are lovely interventions from Angela Robbie and Charlotte Brundson over the struggle of women to gain power and voice in the New Times Project. It is both political but also personal, and to me these kinds of articles are so important for those of us without those historical memories about just how hard women have had to struggle even in left departments, and the forms this struggle took.

More from Hall on ‘Cultural studies and its theoretical legacies’, in reference to Homi Bhabba:

I don’t understand a practice which aims to make a difference in the world which doesn’t have some points of difference or distinction which it has to stake out, which really matter. It is a question of positionalities (264).

And back to my own relationship with theory really:

I want to suggest a different metaphor for theoretical work: the metaphor of struggle, of wrestling with the angels. The only theory worth having is that which you have to fight off, not that which you speak with profound fluency (265)

How can you not love someone who writes of his study of Althusser ‘I warred with him, to the death’ (266).

I loved David Morley’s article ‘EurAm, modernity, reason and alterity’ for its discussion of centres and peripheries (though I wish people unpacked the US just a little more, with its white culture one of the centre, but containing within it the colonized, the enslaved, the murdered), its review of post-colonial thought and brilliant quotes from people who are now on my list of things to read.
I’ll end with Hall’s ‘Gramsci’s relevance for the study of race and ethnicity’. First, a return to defining Hegemony

1. ‘hegemony’ is a very particular, historically specific, and temporary ‘moment’ in the life of a society…They have to be actively constructed and positively maintained.
2. we must take note of the multi-dimensional, multi-arena character of hegemony. It cannot be constructed or sustained on one front of struggle alone (for example, the economic). It represents a degree of mastery over a whole series of different ‘positions’ at once. Mastery is not simply imposed or dominative in character. Effectively, it results from winning a substantial degree of popular consent.
3. What ‘leads’ in a period of hegemony is no longer described as a ‘ruling class’ in the traditional language, but a historic bloc. (424)

And of course, the two kinds of struggle, ‘war of manoeuvre’ ‘where everything is condensed into one front and one moment of struggle’, and the ‘war of position’, ‘which has to be conducted in a protracted way, across many different and varying fronts of struggle’ (426).
It’s interesting putting this solid description in conjunction with Lawrence Grossberg’s description in an earlier piece ‘History, politics and postmodernism’

Hegemony is not a universally present struggle; it is a conjunctural politics opened up by the conditions of advanced capitalism, mass communication and culture. Nor is it limited to the ideological struggle of the ruling class bloc to win the consent of the masses to its definition of reality, although it encompasses the processes by which such a consensus might be achieved. But it also depends upon the ability of the ruling bloc (an alliance of class fractions) to secure its economic domination and establish its political power. Hegemony need not depend upon consensus nor consent to particular ideological constructions. It is a matter of containment rather than compulsion or even incorporation. Hegemony defines the limits within which we can struggle, the field of ‘common sense’ or ‘popular consciousness’ (162)

Stuart Hall does more to open up the concept to see where counter-hegemony can come from:

Ideas…’have a center of formation, of irradiation, of dissemination, of persuasion…’(PN, 192). Nor are they ‘spontaneously born’ in each individual brain. They are not psychologistic or moralistic in character ‘but structural and epistemological’. They are sustained and transformed in their materiality within the institutions of civil society and the state. Consequently, ideologies are not transformed or changed by replacing one, whole, already formed, conception of the world with another, so much as by ‘renovating and making critical an already existing activity’ (434).

I like also hegemony as not a ‘moment of simple unity, but as a process of unification (never totally achieved), founded on strategic alliances between different sectors, not on their pre-given identity’ (437).

Anyway. Much to think about…


Look Out Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get…

7702697 Your Mama!

What a title, how could any book live up to it? And this doesn’t quite, but it is still full of some righteous humour and anger. Full of history, the fights between Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, words of James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Dubois, asides that are tales told by SNCC organisers from the deep South and the people there with all the wisdom of age and the survival of oppression. Not as full of facts, not as conventionally argued as Ture and Hamilton’s Black Power, so perhaps it hits you harder.

It starts with the civil rights movement, the non-violent movement of marches and sit-ins: ‘It was thought then that segregation was a moral issue, therefore a moral weapon – nonviolence, love, satyagraha – would bring the walls of the prison tumbling down’ (4). But it didn’t. I’ve always hated the use of the word ‘backlash’ but not as much as Lester does:

The ‘white backlash’ was nothing new to the black community. They knew all about the backlash, the frontlash, the sidelash and all them other lashes…it simply meant that white folks were a little tired of picking up the papers and seeing niggers all over the front page… The average white person didn’t know what niggers wanted and didn’t much care. By now they should have gotten whatever the hell it was they said they didn’t have, and if they hadn’t gotten it, they either didn’t deserve it or didn’t need it.(16)

And some things never change, like the relationship between law and anyone poor or trying to make any kind of change, but especially peoples of colour, and especially black people:

‘Law and order must prevail’ has become the cliche of the 1960’s and the biggest lie, because the American black man has never known law and order except as an instrument of oppression, and it has prevailed upside his head at every available opportunity. It exists for that purpose. The law has been written by white men and their property, to be enforced by white men against blacks in particular and poor folks in general (23)

It has a great quote from The Saturday Evening Post ‘We Are All Mississipians’:

We are all, let us face it, Mississippians. We all fervently wish that the Negro problem did not exist, or that, if it must exist, it could be ignored. Confronted with the howling need for decent school, jobs, housing, and all the minimum rights of the American system, we will do our best, in a half-hearted way, to correct old wrongs. The hand may be extended grudgingly and patronizingly, but anyone who rejects that hand rejects his own best interests. For minimum rights are the only rights that we are willing to guarantee, and above those minimum rights there is and will continue to be a vast area of discrimination and inequity and unfairness, the areas in which we claim the most basic right of all — the right to be stupid and prejudiced, the right to make mistakes, the right to be less and worse than we pretend, the right to be ourselves. When this majority right is threatened, the majority will react accoridngly — with results that could be disastrous to all of us.

That’s quoted in Black Power by Ture and Hamilton as well, and you can see why. I almost feel that it has to be made up, so sparkling is its honesty in the way it explains almost everything. It’s also exactly everything that whites must most actively abjure. As he writes later:

Black Power is not anti-white people, but it is anti anything and everything that serves to oppress. If whites align themselves on the side of oppression, then Black Power must be antiwhite. That, however, is not the decision of Black Power. (140)

At the end he gets down to economics: ‘The essence of power in America is fantastically simple: money’ (125). Yes it is, Mr. Lester. And this chapter will just fuel that anger that’s been building, but the good, purposeful, in-good-company kind of anger. He quotes Malcom X:

You can’t operate a capitalistic system unless you are vulturistic; you have to have someone else’s blood to suck to be a capitalist. You show me a capitalist, I’ll show you a bloodsucker… (131)

And then a familiar philosophy from my organizing days

One of the saving graces of SNCC, in particular, has been its unwillingness to dogmatically align itself with any doctrine… However there is agreement with Malcolm that justice, equality, and freedom are inconsistent with the principles of this country. Capitalism is congenitally unable to allow black men to be free. (132)

That he leaves black women out of this sentence is my principal critique…

Black Power: The Politics of Liberation

211867Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) & Charles V. Hamilton  (1967)

I loved this, I think it should be taught as part of U.S. history wherever such a grim subject is taught (though with some more women talking alongside, my main critique).

From the preface

This book is about why, where and in what manner black people in America must get themselves together. It is about black people taking care of business — the business of and for black people. The stakes are really very simple: if we fail to do this, we face continued subjection to a white society that has no intention of giving up willingly or easily its position of priority and authority. If we succeed, we will exercise control over our lives, politically, economically and psychically. We will also contribute to the development of a viable larger society; in terms of ultimate social benefit, there is nothing unilateral about the movement to free black people (11)

They write ‘we offer no pat formulas in this book for ending racism…our aim is to offer a framework…to ask the right questions, to encourage a new consciousness and to suggest new forms which express it’ (11-12). It’s always about asking the right questions, isn’t it? They situate themselves within a black tradition that has understood protest as the only way to obtain change, quoting Douglass:

Those who profess to favor freedom yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. … Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blow, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress’
–Frederick Douglass, West India Emancipation Speech, August 1957

They also situated themselves internationally as part of the third world, their struggle connected to other liberation struggles.

After Douglass I don’t think you need much more to demolish the various white ineterpretations of white supremacy and the existence of racism, but I suppose it needed some spelling out. In response to Gunnar Myrdal’s book The American Dilemma Ture and Hamilton quote Silberman’s Crisis in Black and White

The tragedy of race relations in the United States is that there is no American Dilemma. White Americans are not torn and tortured by the conflict between their devotion to the American creed and their actual behavior. They are upset by the current state of race relations, to be sure. But what troubles them is not that justice is being denied but that their peace is being shattered and their business interrupted. (21)

Describing the actual situation of black people in America — lack of employment, quality schools, quality housing, the lower life expectancy, regular anti-Black racism and rhetoric and etc — and describing the middle-class as the backbone of institutional racism in the US seeking to preserve good government and homes and schools only for themselves, Ture and Hamilton turn to the civil rights movement

We must face the fact that, in the past, what we have called the movement has not really questioned the middle-class values and institutions in this country. If anything it has accepted those values and institutions without fully realising their racist nature. Reorientation means an emphasis on the dignity of man, not on the sanctity of property. It means the creation of a society where human misery and poverty are repugnant to that society, not an indication of laziness or lack of initiative. The creation of new values means the establishment of a society based, as Killens expresses it in Black Man’s Burden on ‘free people’, not ‘free enterprise’.(

So Black Power:

The concept of Black Power rests on a fundamental premise: Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks. By this we mean that group solidarity is necessary before a group van operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength in a pluralistic society (58). … black people must lead and run their own organizations. Only black people can convey the revolutionary idea — and it is a revolutionary idea — that black people are able to do things for themselves. Only they can help create in the community an aroused and continuing black consciousness that will provide a basis for political strength. In the past, white allies have often furthered white supremacy without the whites involved realizing it, or even wanting to do so (60).

It is a movement that can speak to the ‘growing militancy of young black people in the urban ghettoes and the black-belt South’ rather than the earlier civil rights movement ‘whose tone of voice was adapted to an audience of middle-class whites’ (64). They write

We had only the old language of love and suffering. And in most places — that is, from the liberals and middle class — we got back the old language of patience and progress…For the masses of black people, this language resulted in virtually nothing. in fact, their objective day-to-day condition worsened’ (64-65).

Their goal was also integration, but

‘Integration’ as a goal today speaks to the problem of blackness not only in an unrealistic way but also in a despicable way. It is based on complete acceptance of the fact that in order to have a decent house or education, black people must move into a white neighborhood or send their children to a white school. This reinforces, among both black and white, the idea that ‘white’ is automatically superior and ‘black’ is by definition inferior. For this reason, ‘integration’ is a subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy(68)

This drains skills and energies from the ghetto, and asks blacks to deny their identity and heritage, instead ‘the racial and cultural personality of the black community must be preserved and that community must win its freedom while preserving its cultural integrity’ (69).

They have a whole chapter on ‘The Myths of Coalition’
Myth one:

The major mistake made by exponents of teh coalition theiry is that they advocate alliances with groups which have never had as their central goal the necessarily total revamping of the society. At bottom those groups accept the American system and want only — if at all — to make peripheral, marginal reforms in it. Such reforms are inadequate to rid the society of racism.
Here we come back to an important point made in the first chapter: the overriding sense of superiority that pervades white America (73).

the political and economic institutions of this society must be completely revised if the political and economic status of black people is to be improved. We do not see how those same institutions can be utilized — through teh mechanism of coalescing with some of them — to bring about that revision. We do not see how black people can form effective coalitions with groups which are not willing to question and condemn the racist institutions which exploit black people; which do not perceive the need for, and will not work for, basic change. Black people cannot afford to assume that what is good for white American is automatically good for black people (78)

Myth 2 – ‘the assumption that a politically and economically secure group can collaborate with a politically and economically insecure group. (78)

We cannot see, then, how black people, who are massively insecure both politically and economically, can coalesce with those whose position is secure — particularly when the latter’s security is based on the perpetuation of the existing political and economic structure. (87)

Myth 3 – ‘that political coalitions can be sustained on a moral, friendly, or sentimental basis, or on appeals to concience’. What then are grounds for good coalitions?

‘all parties to the coalition must perceive a mutually beneficial goal based on the conception of each party of his own self interest. One party must not blindly assume that what is good for one is automatically good for the other.

there is a clear need for genuine power bases before black people can enter into coalition…Civil rights leaders who … rely essentially on ;national sentiment’…must appeal to the conscience, the good graces of society; they are, as noted earlier, cast in a beggar’s role.

Thus there are 4 preconditions to viable coalitions

a. the recognition by the parties involved of their respective self-interests
b. the mutual belief that each party stands to benefit in terms of self-interest
c. the acceptance of the fact that each party has its own independant base of power and does not depend for its own ultimate decision-making on a force outside itself
d. the realization that the coalition deals with specific and identifiable — as opposed to general and vague — goals. (92)

They go on to tell the story of the awesome Mississippi Freedom Democrats, fighting to create a new kind of politics that is of the people. They writes about the drive to register African-Americans in Lowndes County Alabama where they were a majority. They looks at Tuskegee, the politics of accommodation, and the ‘dynamite of the ghetto’. They write:

It is ludicrous for the society to believe that these temporary measures can long contain the tempers of an oppressed people. And when the dynamite goes off, pious pronouncements of patience should not go forth. Blame should not be placed on ‘outside agitators’ or on ‘Communist influence’ or on advocates of Black Power. That dynamite was placed there by white racism and it was ignited by white racist indifference and unwillingness to act justly. (168)

The dynamite is still there, and this just made me laugh because this is still exactly how downtown machines work and its still just as true: ‘black politicians must stop being representatives of ‘downtown’ machines, whatever the cost might be in terms of lost patronage and holiday handouts(61)’.

The New Jim Crow

10802160Michelle Alexander (2012) The New Press

This book is remarkable not so much for its content — while that is impressive, it draws from the work of so many others who have been fighting the prison system and the criminalization of our youth for a long time. There is little that is new here. What is new (at least I think it’s new but I could be wrong as this is not entirely my subject) is the way that it is all brought together with devastating impact through the overarching argument that mass incarceration represents a new system of racial control and exploitation, the third in a series that began with slavery and continued with Jim Crow:

Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service-are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. [5]

In terms of thinking through the meaning of racial caste

I use the term racial caste in this book the way it is used in common parlance to denote a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom. Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. So is our current system of mass incarceration.

It may be helpful, in attempting to understand the basic nature of the new caste system, to think of the criminal justice system–the entire collection of institutions and practices that comprise it–not as an independent system but rather as a gateway into a much larger system of racial stigmatization and permanent marginalization. This larger system, referred to here as mass incarceration, is a system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls–walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws… [12]

This is a system well served by a few people of colour in high positions: ‘the current system of control depends on black exceptionalism; it is not disproved or undermined by it’ and does not require overt white racism: ‘racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago’ (14). Of course, the history of the U.S. has made it obvious that you can always count on indifference, with plenty of hostility and overt bigotry.

It begins with America’s beginnings: ‘Here, in America, the idea of race emerged as a means of reconciling chattel slavery–as well as the extermination of American Indians–with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the colonies’ [23]. Here in American many prefer to forget such beginnings, or that ‘The structure and content of the original Constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system–slavery–while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites, especially propertied whites’ (25).

Then came the long struggle for abolition, the civil war, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Increasingly the rhetoric of ‘law and order’ was mobilised against the Civil Rights movement battling to dismantle Jim Crow:

Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political in nature, and federal courts were accused of excessive “lenience” toward lawlessness, thereby contributing to the spread of crime. In the words of then- vice president Richard Nixon, the increasing crime rate “can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey them.”37 (41)

This would become a new building block:

As Weaver notes, “rather than fading, the segregationists’ crime-race argument was reframed, with a slightly different veneer,” and eventually became the foundation of the conservative agenda on crime.48 In fact, law and order rhetoric-first employed by segregationists-would eventually contribute to a major realignment of political parties in the United States. [43]

And drawing on the work of the Edsalls

Race had become, yet again, a powerful wedge, breaking up what had been a solid liberal coalition based on economic interests of the poor and the working and lower-middle classes. In the 1968 election, race eclipsed class as the organizing principle of American politics, and by 1972, attitudes on racial issues rather than socioeconomic status were the primary determinant of voters’ political self-identification. The late 1960s and early 1970s marked the dramatic erosion in the belief among working-class whites that the condition of the poor, or those who fail to prosper, was the result of a faulty economic system that needed to be challenged.

And this is where a lot of the stuff I knew but didn’t know came in – the war on drugs. I knew it was terrible, but had no idea just where it had sprung from, how it had come about, and really I didn’t understand just what a new kind of terrible it really was in the inner-cities of this country – having grown up on the border and worked with refugees I connected it always more with the new militarization of the border and post cold-war conflicts in Mexico and Central and South America. I thought poor neighbourhoods had always been that controlled and screwed over by police, not realising that the levels and extent of it were something new (because poor people, especially people of colour, have of course, always been screwed over by police). I’m not even that young, but this is part of the generation gap I suppose. Alexander writes

In October 1982, President Reagan officially announced his administration’s war on Drugs. At the time he declared this new war, less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation .72 This fact was no deterrent to Reagan, for the drug war from the outset had little to do with public concern about drugs and much to do with public concern about race. By waging a war on drug users and dealers, Reagan made good on his promise to crack down on the racially defined “others”–the undeserving (49).

I knew the general numbers of incarcerations, but had never connected these to the war on drugs per se

Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in the United States. Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000. 1 Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41 , 100 in 1980-an increase of 1, 100 percent.2 Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result, more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began.3

The percentage of drug arrests that result in prison sentences (rather than dismissal, community service, or probation) has quadrupled, resulting in a prison-building boom the likes of which the world has never seen. In two short decades, between 1980 and 2000, the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans-or one in every 31 adults-were behind bars, on probation, or on parole. 7 [60]

Nevertheless, black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men. 19 The racial bias inherent in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men .2 For young black men, the statistics are even worse. One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006, and far more were under some form of penal control-such as probation or parole.21 These gross racial disparities simply cannot be explained by rates of illegal drug activity among African Americans. [100]

Again, I knew police in practice mostly did what they wanted to do, but I didn’t realise how statutorily powerful the police are in this war, and how far protections against racism and bias have been eroded. This was both terrifying and infuriating and elicits despair of any change. How can this be possible:

First, consider sentencing. In 1987, when media hysteria regarding black drug crime was at fever pitch and the evening news was saturated with images of black criminals shackled in courtrooms, the Supreme Court ruled in McCleskey v. Kemp that racial bias in sentencing, even if shown through credible statistical evidence, could not be challenged under the Fourteenth Amendment in the absence of clear evidence of conscious, discriminatory intent. [109]

The combination of recent case law has ensured that ‘The Supreme Court has now closed the courthouse doors to claims of racial bias at every stage of the criminal justice process, from stops and searches to plea bargaining and sentencing. The system of mass incarceration is now, for all practical purposes, thoroughly immunized from claims of racial bias’ (139).

This when evidence shows that whites more than any other race are more likely to use and sell drugs. So why the focus on the ghetto? Partly because of the political pay-off against a population far less powerful and spatially removed

The enduring racial isolation of the ghetto poor has made them uniquely vulnerable in the War on Drugs. What happens to them does not directly affect-and is scarcely noticed by-the privileged beyond the ghetto’s invisible walls. Thus it is here, in the poverty-stricken. racially segregated ghettos, where the War on Poverty has been abandoned and factories have disappeared, that the drug war has been waged with the greatest ferocity. [124]

Though more academic explanations have been in the foreground

Numerous scholars (and many law enforcement officials) attempt to justify the concentration of drug law enforcement resources in ghetto communities on the grounds that it is easier for the police to combat illegal drug activity there. The theory is that black and Latino drug users are more likely than white users to obtain illegal drugs in public spaces that are visible to the police, and therefore it is more efficient and convenient for the police to concentrate their efforts on open-air drug markets in ghetto communities. Sociologists have been major proponents of this line of reasoning, pointing out that differential access to private space influences the likelihood that criminal behavior will be detected. Because poor people lack access to private space (often sharing small apartments with numerous family members…[125]


Today, the War on Drugs has given birth to a system of mass incarceration that governs not just a small fraction of a racial or ethnic minority but entire communities of color. In ghetto communities, nearly everyone is either directly or indirectly subject to the new caste system. The system serves to redefine the terms of the relationship of poor people of color and their communities to mainstream, white society, ensuring their subordinate and marginal status. [188]

It redefines this relationship through a new kind of racial segregation, locking up vast populations behind bars, but Alexander argues that more important is its symbolic production of race:

Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen ). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black. [197]

the conflation of blackness with crime did not happen organically; rather, it was constructed by political and media elites as part of the broad project known as the War on Drugs. This conflation served to provide a legitimate outlet to the expression of antiblack resentment and animus–a convenient release valve now that explicit forms of racial bias are strictly condemned. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer permissible to hate blacks, but we can hate criminals. Indeed, we are encouraged to do so (199).

Then, drawing on the work of French Sociologist Loic Wacquant, Alexander frames the economic argument behind today’s mass incarceration

By 1984, however, the black unemployment rate had nearly quadrupled, while the white rate had increased only marginally. 85 This was not due to a major change in black values, behavior, or culture; this dramatic shift was the result of deindustrialization , globalization, and technological advancement Urban factories shut down as our nation transitioned to a service economy. Suddenly African Americans were trapped in jobless ghettos, desperate for work. [218]

Desperate for work in a society outsourcing work, thus become superfluous, and leading to Wacquant’s argument that

the one thing that makes the current penal apparatus strikingly different from previous racial caste systems is that “it does not carry out the positive economic mission of recruitment and disciplining of the workforce.”86 Instead it serves only to warehouse poor black and brown people for increasingly lengthy periods of time, often until old age. The new system does not seek primarily to benefit unfairly from black labor, as earlier caste systems have, but instead views African Americans as largely irrelevant and unnecessary to the newly structured economy-an economy that is no longer driven by unskilled labor. [219]

And so finally we reach the final arguments – the failure of today’s civil rights movement to deal with the real issues at stake. Partially because of the return to legal strategies the movement took after the movements of the 60s, while ‘Lawyers have a tendency to identify and concentrate on problems they know how to solve–i.e. problems that can be solved through litigation. The mass incarceration of people of color is not that kind of problem’ (227). But more importantly because of long-standing strategies for overcoming discrimination:

Challenging mass incarceration requires something civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to do: advocacy on behalf of criminals. Even at the height of Jim Crow segregation–when black men were more likely to be lynched than to receive a fair trial in the South—NAACP lawyers were reluctant to advocate on behalf of blacks accused crimes unless the lawyers were convinced of the men’s innocence.6 (226)

Since the days when abolitionists struggled to eradicate slavery, racial justice advocates have gone to great lengths to identify black people who defy racial stereotypes, and they have exercised considerable message discipline, telling only those stories of racial injustice that will evoke sympathy among whites. [227]

Yet these are the realities of our society – ‘While many black people get stopped and searched for crimes they did not commit, it is not so easy these days to find young black men in urban areas who have never been convicted of a crime. The new caste system labels black and brown men as criminals early, often in their teens, making them “damaged goods” from the perspective of traditional civil rights advocates’ (228). The very nature of the system itself victimises our children in a way that makes it unlikely that NGOs will defend them or take up their cause. This is what has to end. As well as any support of ‘colourblindness’, even if it seems that will solve problems in the short-term: ‘Our commitment to colorblindness extends beyond individuals to institutions and social arrangements. We have become blind, not so much to race, but to the existence of racial caste in America’ [241].

I love most the call to fight this system, fight for everyone incarcerated, and to fight the rhetoric of colourblindness.

Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King’s dream-a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for. [244]

Hamid Dabashi on the Arab Spring

Hamid Dabashi - Arab SpringI found Hamid Dabashi’s The Arab Spring inspiring, even though being written in the moment it might be a little repetitive and a little early in some of its pronouncements perhaps. Yet it captures a feeling — both of the exuberance and hopefulness of the protests that spread around the world at the time (and continue to some degree), and a frustration with old ways of thinking about things. We differ in some of the details of this, but it’s the delicious and productive kind of difference in opinion, not the same old frustrations with small groups stuck in their ways.

But first, to deal with that provocative tagline, the end of postcolonialism. As Dabashi writes:

[T]he major argument of this book is that events in the Arab and Muslim world generically referred to as the ‘Arab Spring [p 75]’ represent the end of postcolonial ideological formations as we have known them for the past two hundred years. By the end of postcoloniality, I mean the cessation of ideological production in colonial contexts and terms — the terms determined by the European colonial domination of the region, and the tyrannical ‘postcolonial’ states left behind when the Europeans collected their flags and left. Anticolonial nationalism, socialism, and Islamism are the ideological formations that historically have confronted European colonialism and shaped the modern nation-states … [p. 139]

The end of postcolonial ideological formations does not mean that colonialism itself has ended or that imperialism does not generate resistance but that the world is no longer trapped in old ways of thinking, trapped in opposition, but free to struggle with itself, move forward into new pathways. [p 140]

Said spoke for an earlier period, but to build on his work we must transcend it:

We need to overcome the anxiety of Orientalism and shift our theorizing lens to our evolving history and stop trying to explain things to that fictive white man who sat in Edward Said’s mind for a lifetime.

Ha. He also answers the ‘outlandish’ question of whether the subaltern can speak with a resounding of course. He questions Hardt and Negri for their Eurocentrism (and the Christianity of their ideals!), draws on Badiou and Hannah Arendt and Agamben and Bishara and poets and writers of Arabic that I do know — in something of a mishmash perhaps, but I think taking what is useful from different places to understand the now is no bad thing. That is not to say he asks that we forget the past, just that we do not allow those old patterns of thought and action to control us moving into the future. There is so much here, so just to focus on what I loved most.

I appreciate his efforts to see the academic/writer as making a conscious choice to join the uprisings, and then what their role can be. He writes:

The task of becoming attentive students of the uprisings and seeing to it that they generate their own knowledge are tasks no less urgent than the revolutions themselves. To be sure, we are fortunately no longer in the age of grand-narrative-based universalist philosophies and sweeping theorizations. Whereas the Left Kantians’ longing for ‘total revolution’ following the French Revolution ended up producing ‘prophets of extremity’ in Nietszche, Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida, I have opted for the idea of open-ended revolutions, work-in-progress, an opera aperta, as a working idea to keep the tenacity of these revolutions alive theoretically.

In terms of the search for a new mode of compatible knowledge, the left is part of the problem, not the solution. The Arab and non-Arab left must shape up and join the revolutions, and cease being an obstacle to them. [241]

I don’t know about the ‘prophets of extremity’ bit, (though I very much look forward to rolling my eyes at the next mention of Foucault over cocktails and muttering ‘prophet of extremity’), but I do agree that the establishment left needs to get its act together and act not as a brake, but as a springboard, isn’t that what we’ve been working and organising and theorising for? Still, the major lack in this book is a thoughtful look at the coproduction of knowledge, participatory research, praxis…just what kind of intellectual work needs to happen in the movement that is building, and how? That is a huge question that people have been working on in other places, people like Freire or Myles Horton, but which I don’t see being picked up or theorised elsewhere which saddens me.

But that said, above all this book made me happy. It does not takes us beyond, but calls for us to go there together with the people in revolt:

In order to reach for the current world, the world we live in, the world in which people revolt, the world in which Meydan Azadi and Tahrir Square have become emblematic of something else, something beyond ‘Western liberal democracy,’ something yet to be named, needs to be imagined. In this world, I suggest, demography, labour migration, gender apartheid, and environmental catastrophe are the key operative factors. In this world, Islam will not disappear, it will be sublimated into a new cosmopolitan worldliness. [p. 118]

I read that list of key operative factors and wanted to do a fist pump, yes I said, yes! That’s it, and that isn’t really what most people are talking about. He continues

…the commencement of the Arab Spring is the inaugural moment of not just a new historical but, more importantly, a new emancipatory geographical imagination… [55]

Again this is a thought that is started, but not really developed – how much exciting work is to be done? But I am fascinated with this idea

A geography of liberation begins with people’s struggles for bread and dignity and builds from there the moral map of their worldly whereabouts to wrap around a fragile planet. On this map there is no East or West, South or North, invested with ideological racialization, one against the other.[57]

I love his acknowledgement of the radical aspects of the civil rights movement, and his effort to recapture that understanding as we watch the renewed struggle. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been poor or oppressed can really understand just how important the struggle for bread and dignity are, the meaning and necessity of a basic level of security and respect in society. I know that I will never understand it fully having been born poor and treated so and still angry, yet white and with all the privileges of an American and European passport. Fundamental changes are needed to win these fundamental demands if we demand them for all.

Like the geographies of liberation, he raises what are for me equally exciting about the connection between democracy – a new, revitalised vision of democracy – and public space.

What the naked military apparatus of these illegitimate states faced was the expanded public space that was now fully conscious of itself…That amounts to the people, hitherto the subjects of a (‘postcolonial’) tyranny, becoming, ipso facto, the citizens of the republic they wish to populate and thus expand into the public space they must thus define and designate. [204]


The regime du savoir associated with that politics is being altered, by way of altering the worlds we inhabit, and not merely by way of resistance to power. The transversalism of these revolutionary uprisings, as a result, generates its own synergy by systematically and consistently expanding the public space they implicate for the exercise of civil liberties.

These are all revolts that are fundamentally about the (re)taking of public space, both physical and virtual, the (re)taking of a new kind of citizenship, and I’m following this idea along here, but it is a citizenship not of blood or passports, but of geography and struggle. I love thinking through this, and I love that he did not focus on this as a virtual revolution as it so clearly was not, that was simply one aspect of the millions of people actually physically coming together and demanding regime change, demanding social justice, demanding a new world. A view of this as simply being about twitter and youtube and blogging takes away much of its power and potential as a force for revolutionary change

Thus the middle class and blogging are offered as the explanations for a transnational uprising that was catalysed by a fruit peddler who set himself on fire out of economic desperation. [222-223]

We cannot forget that.

Angela Davis: Women, Race, Class

Angela DavisAn important work marking the intersections of class, race and gender…and all the history behind people you’ve vaguely looked up to because no one ever talks about the way they really felt about Black people. So you can respect some of what they’ve done, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Sanger are forever debarred from my cannon of heroes.

In criticising the 14th and 15th amendments, Stanton and Anthony descended into a horrifying racism, and I believe Davis is right when she writes

Granted they felt they had as powerful a case for suffrage as Black men. Yet in articulating their opposition with arguments invoking the privileges of white supremacy, they revealed how defenceless they remained–even after years of involvement in progressive causes–to the pernicious ideological influence of racism.[76]

Anthony confessed to having capitulated to racism ”on the ground of expediency”, and remained chair of the National American Woman Suffrage Association through 1900. Despite knowing people like Frederick Douglass (whose incredible grasp of movement and the importance of fighting on fronts of race, class and gender simultaneously is so incredibly inspiring)and Ida B. Wells.

Davis writes

In the eyes of the suffragists, “woman was the ultimate test — if the cause of woman could be furthered, it was not wrong for women to function as scabs when male workers in their trade were on strike [139-140]

With Davis I would agree this was a deeply damaging viewpoint, but one that must be critiqued and should never be forgotten–like Sangar’s flirtation with eugenics.

What I love is how this book rescues the real heroes, the people who should also never be forgotten. The working class women that joined the privileged group at Seneca Falls like Charlotte Woodward, who said:

We women work secretly in the seclusion of our bed chambers because all society was built on the theory that men, not women, earned money and that men alone supported the family … I do not believe that there was any community in which the souls of some women were not beating their wings in rebellion. For my own obscure self, I can say that every fibre of my being rebelled, although silently, all the hours that I sat and sewed gloves for a miserable pittance which, as it was earned, could never be mine. I wanted to work, but I wanted to choose my task and I wanted to collect my wages. That was my form of rebellion against the life into which I was born.

I had never known the extent of Ida B. Wells’ work. Her first pamphlet against lynching was published in 1895. Called A Red Record, she calculated over 10,000 lynchings had taken place between 1865 and 1895, she writes:

Not all nor nearly all of the murders done by white men during the past thirty years have come to light, but the statistics as gathered and preserved by white men, and which have not been questioned, show that during these years more than ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution. And yet, as evidence of the absolute impunity with which the white man dares to kill a Negro, the same record shows that during all these years, and for all these murders, only three white men have been tried, convicted and executed. As no white man has been lynched for the murder of coloured people, these three executions are the only instances of the death penalty being visited upon white men for murdering Negroes. [184]

The way she was treated in the mainstream press is almost unthinkable today, the New York Times editorializing in 1904:

Immediately following the day of Miss Wells’ return to the United States, a Negro man assaulted a white woman in New York City ‘for the purposes of lust and plunder.’ … The circumstances of his fiendish crime may serve to convince the mulatress missionary that the promulgation in New York just now of her theory of Negro outrages is, to sya the least, inopportune.’ [192]

Davis deals with some of the ways that this connects to gender construction through the characterization of black men as rapists, and to class as ‘white workers who assented to lynching necessarily assumed a posture of racial solidarity with the white men who were really their oppressors. This was a critical moment in the popularization of racist ideology’ [190]. These are issues that definitely needed — and have received — much more attention since this was published, but as a summation of all that we knew, a rescuing and restating of feminist and anti-racist and marxist histories, and a call to future scholarship, this book is brilliant.

For more on intersections of race, class and gender…


My Speech for the Lambeth SOS delegation to the Mayor and Council

The demo was great last night I thought, especially given that we are now in the long hard grind of the 3rd year of cuts, and services have been cut, coworkers made redundant, and contact with friends and families lost. We wanted to highlight the deep cuts to children’s services that have already taken place by building our own adventure playground on the steps of city hall. We painted a backdrop over the weekend while leafleting for the demo


And the miniature inflatable playground gave everyone a taste of the joy that the lost adventure playgrounds once brought Lambeth’s kids


We created a library backdrop as well, as our libraries are still on the block. Only a small delegation was allowed in of course, though many joined us in the gallery. Public speaking isn’t quite my forte, but this is what I did my best to say:

Good evening Mr Mayor and Councillors. Thank you for agreeing to listen to me.

My name is Andrea Gibbons and I am speaking on behalf of Lambeth Save Our Services.

We set up Lambeth SOS in 2010 because we could see the cuts that were coming and we could see the damage that they
would do.

Over the past two years you have made £66 Million in cuts, and they have done real damage.

We have lost the Park Ranger:s.

We have lost the Ethnic Minority Achievement Team.

Two years ago, I was there when the former Leader promised that no Adventure Playgrounds would close – but if you visit our Parks this weekend you will see the tragic sight of deserted Adventure Playgrounds standing empty. There is nothing more tragic than a deserted and locked up playground.

At the same time you have made more than 550 redundancies and outsourced 100 jobs, jobs belonging to friends of mine, and half of them to Southampton.

These have been some of the effects of the cuts so far.

Now you face making cuts of £108 Million over the next four years, most of which have yet to be planned. These cuts will devastate our services and our communities and throw hundreds more workers on to the scrap heap of unemployment.

We all know two things about these cuts.

First, they arise from the policies of Central Government, who are forcing through spending reductions not to reduce the public sector deficit, because they haven’t and won’t, but in order to destroy our Welfare State.

Secondly, this is not a poor country that is short of money.

Seventy years ago, after the Second World War, when we had far less, the Attlee Labour Government created many of the services which are under attack from this Government.

If they could do that then, we do not need to tolerate these cuts now.

The cuts to our jobs and services are a political attack upon our communities by a Cabinet with a majority of millionaires.

Lambeth SOS believes that Lambeth, the whole borough, all of us, should fight back against this political attack.

And that includes you Councillors.

We believe that, instead of planning only how to live within the ever tighter financial limits which the Government set for you, you should be leading the fight against these cuts.

The Co-operative Council is not going to be an antidote to these cuts – particularly not when your next step is going to be to appoint three new Commissioning Directors each on more than £100,000.

Labour Councillors have rightly taken a strong line in opposition to the threat to Clapham Fire Station. We think you should fight just as hard to protect all our services.

I think that if you are going to set a budget which makes further cuts that you should not meet in this chamber.

I think you should meet in one of our closed down Adventure Playgrounds so that you can reflect upon the consequences of your actions.

Whatever you decide, Councillors, there are citizens and staff who will resist further cuts, whoever is making them.

In reply they said everything I said had been true, we were facing something unprecedented, we had to lobby the central government…but in response to our request for a council that will lead us in the fight? I’m afraid I don’t really see them leading much of anything.

But we will continue to fight, Lambeth residents and staff.

[also posted on]


Closing Lollard Street Adventure Playground

I was looking up information on the four adventure playgrounds that Lambeth Council has ‘temporarily’ closed and I found these amazing photographs of Lollard Street Adventure Playground

lollard playground2

[photo from ]


[photo from, along with a fascinating description of the importance of playgrounds and theories of play]

This was the birth of the adventure playground. At Lollard Street children gathered to play with the detritus created by the clearing away of a bombed out school. While the children played, children’s rights campaigner Lady Allen of Hurtwood started to form a movement for the building of playgrounds (a short history can be found here). Originally known as ‘junk’ playgrounds, they were renamed adventure playgrounds — a good public relations move I confess — in 1953, and the movement grew.

Look at the beautiful place Lollard Street Adventure Playground grew into. For years this has been a fully staffed facility of fun, learning and mentoring



And now it is closed. Indefinitely. Empty of children for the first time in 60 odd years. In the old black and white photos you can see the houses of parliament in the background, you can still see them today. You can stare over a playground empty of children and committed workers at the parliament (dead center, just visible over the building, compare it to the second B&W picture!) that shut it all down.

[also posted]