Tag Archives: discourse

Laclau On Populist Reason

Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason is like the mother of all books on populism. Partly in its difficulty (Sweet Christmas is difficult an understatement), but also, after much struggle for comprehension, its depth of understanding of populism and how exactly it works. It is thus quite a different book from those by Jan-Werner Müller or Marco Revelli. Luckily it is fairly unique.

That all goes to say this is a boring work in progress that should be read as such even more than all my other boring posts on books.

It is in argument with both work on populism and the masses as well as with thinking around class formation and revolution and agency within Marxism. As well as with Hegel and Zizek and others. I do not untangle all of these arguments. Could not. I love the concept of hegemony but hardly touch it as constituted here. I still can’t decide whether I even want to read Lacan. Life is short and I still wish people had gone with Fromm as their psychoanalyst of choice. But no.

Part I: The Denigration of the Masses

Just to give you a taste of the language:

As I argue there, the impossibility of fixing the unity of a social formation in any conceptually graspable object leads to the centrality of naming in constituting that unity, while the need for a social cement to assemble the heterogeneous elements once their logic of articulation (functionalist or structuralist) no longer gives this affect its centrality in social explanation. Freud had already clearly understood it: the social bond is a libidinal one… ‘Populism’ was always linked to a dangerous excess, which puts the clear-cut moulds of a rational community into question. So my task, as I conceived it was to bring to light the specific logics inherent in that excess, and to argue that, far from corresponding to marginal phenomena they are inscribed in the actual working of any communitarian space. (x)

But there is some clarity here as for Laclau, like Müller and others, it is not the content of struggle but the form of it that defines populism.

My attempt has not been to find the true referent of populism, but to do the opposite: to show that populism has no referential unity because it is ascribed not to a delimitable phenomenon but to a social logic whose effects cut across many phenomena. Populism is, quite simply, a way of constructing the political. (xi)

His argument, as I understand it, is that within much of political theory populism cannot be well understood because of its own limits of how it understands people as social agents. In his words, the impasse is ‘rooted in the limitation of the ontological tools currently available to political analysis … the limits inherent in the ways in which Political Theory has approached the question of how social agents ‘totalize’ the ensemble of their political experience‘ (4).

This has happened in the way that it has been defined from the beginning ‘in terms of ‘vagueness’, ‘imprecision’, imprecision’, intellectual poverty’, purely transient’ as a phenomenon, manipulative’ in its procedures, and so on‘. It has been separated from ‘what is rational and conceptually apprehensible in political action from its dichotomic opposite: a populism conceived as irrational and undefinable‘ (16). If defined as irrational, how then can political theory understand its rationalities? This block comes from the longstanding academic distrust, fear and sometimes hatred of the masses, the bestowing of all rationality on the individual alone.

…the rabble of the cities which was, for Taine, the real actor in the revolutionary process. Within this general decline, any group could degenerate into a crowd. Taine anticipates what will become the established wisdom among crowd theorists —namely; that rationality belongs to the individual, who loses many of his rational attributes when he participates in a crowd. He likes to compare crowd behaviour to inferior forms of life, like plants or animals, or to primitive forms of social organization. (34)

This distrust is still shaping how much of the discourse around populism forms today. Part of why I find Müller’s work helpful in defining precisely what is dangerous in the constructions of populism (the exclusivity of definition of ‘a people’ leaving those outside open to violence and repression) as opposed to this general distaste for mass movement. And of course, Laclau argues that there also exists psychology specific to popular identity:

Whatever its short-comings, crowd psychology had touched on some crucially important aspects in the construction of social and political identities — aspects which had not been properly addressed before. The relationship between words and images, the predominance of the ’emotive’ over the ‘rational’, the sense of omnipotence, the suggestibility and the identification with the leaders, and so on, are all too real features of collective behaviour. (39)

Part II: Constructing the ‘People’

The real usefulness of Laclau for my own thinking and work lies in this way of thinking through how ‘the people’ is constructed, though mostly written off by other authors — a single paragraph in Müller for example, that hardly does this work justice. But you have to work through a whole lot of difficult theoretical work to get there.

The two pejorative propositions to which I referred were: (1) that populism is vague and indeterminate in the audience to which it addresses itself, in its discourse, and in its political postulates; (2) that populism is mere rhetoric. To this I opposed two different possibilities: (1) that vagueness and indeterminacy are not shortcomings of a discourse about social reality, but, in some circumstances, inscribed in social reality as such; (2) that rhetoric is not epiphenomenal vis-a-vis a self-contained conceptual structure, for no conceptual structure finds its internal cohesion without appealing to rhetorical devices. If this is so, the conclusion would be that populism is the royal road to understanding something about the ontological constitution of the political as such. (67)

Again, this highlights how Laclau sees this work contributing to how we understand politics much more broadly.

The categories he describes as central to his approach:

  1. Discourse. Discourse is the primary terrain of the constitution of objectivity as such. By discourse, as I have attempted to make clear several times, I do not mean something that is essentially restricted to the areas of speech and writing, but any complex of elements in which relations play the constitutive role. This means that elements do not pre-exist the relational complex but are constituted through it. (68)
  2. Empty signifiers and hegemony.
    1. Given that we are dealing with purely differential identities, we have, in some way, to determine the whole within which those identities, as different, are constituted (the problem would not, obviously, arise if we were dealing with positive, only externally related, identities).
    2. Since we are not postulating any necessary structural centre, endowed with an a priori ‘determination in the last instance’ capacity, `centring’ effects that manage to constitute a precarious totalizing horizon have to proceed from the interaction of the differences themselves. How is this possible?
  3. Rhetoric. There is a rhetorical displacement whenever a literal term is substituted by a figural one. (70-71)

Where Müller defines as populism one group forming itself as ‘a people’ exclusionary to others and under a charismatic leader, he does not really go into how this happens. For Laclau, it is this how that is central to populism’s definition.

we can see populism as one way of constituting the very unity of the group [as opposed to the ideology or mobilization of an already constituted group]…’the people’ is not something of the nature of an ideological expression, but a real relation between social agents. It is, in other terms, one way of constituting the unity of the group. Obviously, it is not the only way of doing so. There are other logics operating within the social, and making possible types of identity different from the populist one. (73)

Central to this is what Laclau terms the ‘internal frontier’, the dividing line between us and them. This resonates strongly with Revelli’s description of the importance of borders and internal segregation. This oppositional character is central to all definitions. I find Laclau’s language here quite difficult, but this conceptualisation really useful:

…we have here the formation of an internal frontier, a dichotomization of the local political spectrum through the emergence of an equivalential chain of unsatisfied demands. The requests are turning into claims. … A plurality of demands which, through their equivalential articulation, constitute a broader social subjectivity we will call popular demands – they start, at a very incipient level, to constitute the `people’ as a potential historical actor. Here we have, in embryo, a populist configuration. We already have two clear preconditions of populism: (1) the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power; and (2) an equivalential articulation of demands making the emergence of the ‘people’ possible. There is a third precondition which does not really arise until the political mobilization has reached a higher level: the unification of these various demands —whose equivalence, up to that point, had not gone beyond a feeling of vague solidarity — into a stable system of signification (74).

This essentially means that multiple groups and multiple demands can be brought together (the equivalential chain or articulation) in a way that does not eliminate differences, merely connects them together in opposition. The existence of the internal or antagonistic frontier in one requirement for this, the second that all of these demands must be able to see themselves as represented by one central demand wide enough, vague enough, to allow their own issue to fit under it — what Laclau terms the ’empty signifier’.

I particularly like the initial requirement of ‘requests’ becoming ‘claims’ and demands, this is the moment individual discontent and resistance can become movement, right? But not necessarily a populist one.

Also required is crisis.

Without this initial break-down of something in the social order — however minimal that something could initially be — there is no possibility of antagonism, frontier, or, ultimately, ‘people’. (85)

And within this break down is needed both unfulfilled demands and unresponsive power. Where these occur, and there exists an internal frontier (the other side of which sits unresponsive power) and a growing ‘equivalential bond’ there remains the moment in which the links between these different groups and demands is forged,

… equivalential relations would not go beyond a vague feeling of solidarity if they did not crystallize in a certain discursive identity which no longer represents democratic demands as equivalent, but the equivalential link as such. It is only that moment of crystallization that constitutes the ‘people’ of populism. What was simply a mediation between demands now acquires a consistency of its own. Although the link was originally ancillary to the demands, it now reacts over them and, through an inversion of the relationship, starts behaving as their ground. Without this operation of inversion, there would be no populism. (93)

This link becomes in its way more prominent than the demands themselves. This happens when

…some kind of common denominator has to be found which embodies the totality of the series. Since this common denominator has to come from the series itself, it can only be an individual demand which, for a set of circumstantial reasons, acquires a certain centrality (Let us remember our Solidarnosc example, above.) This is the hegemonic operation, which I have already described. There is no hegemony without constructing a popular identity out of a plurality of democratic demands. So let us locate the popular identity within the relational complex which explains the conditions of both its emergence and its dissolution.

Two aspects of the constitution of popular identities are important for us. First, the demand which the popular identity crystallizes is internally split: on the one hand, it remains a particular demand; on the other, its own particularity comes to signify something quite different from itself: the total chain of equivalential demands. While it remains a particular demand, it also becomes the signifier of a wider universality. (95)

It is thus not a question of ‘finding an abstract common feature underlying all social grievances, but with a performative operation constituting the chain as such’

It is like the process of condensation in dreams: an image does not express its own particularity, but a plurality of quite dissimilar currents of unconscious thought which find their expression in that single image. It is well known that Althusser used this notion of condensation to analyse the Russian Revolution: all the antagonisms within Russian society were condensed in a ruptural unity around demands for ‘bread, peace and land’. The moment of emptiness is decisive here: without empty terms such as ‘justice’, ‘freedom’, and so on being invested into the three demands, the latter would have remained closed in their particularism; but because of the radical character of the investment, something of the emptiness of ‘justice’ and `freedom’ was transmitted to the demands, which thus became the names of a universality that transcended their actual particular contents. (97)

This means that the ‘problem’ of the vagueness and imprecision of populist symbols as described in much of the literature is actually its key feature required for its existence.

On to the nature of populist leadership.

A second problem that is not completely solved in the literature on populism concerns the centrality of the leader. How do we explain it? The two most common types of explanation are ‘suggestion’ — a category taken from crowd theorists — and ‘manipulation’ — or, quite frequently, a combination of the two (a combination which presents no major problems since each shades easily into the other). In my view, this kind of explanation is useless. For even if we were going to accept the ‘manipulation’ argument, the most it would explain is the subjective intention of the leader, but we would remain in the dark as to why the manipulation succeeds — that is to say, we would know nothing about the kind of relation which is subsumed under the label of ‘manipulation’. (99)

Sometimes I think he is at his clearest when laying out quite how others are wrong. The leader is in some ways like the empty signifier. A necessary focus. As Laclau writes:

However, the symbolic unification of the group around a individuality — and here I agree with Freud — is inherent to the formation of a ‘people’. (100)

And on to the final attribute, and into the great world of affect. A world of theory I work with very little. This is a handy summary of how far we are though:

A final and crucial dimension must, however, be added to our analysis. Our whole approach to populism turns, as we have seen, around the following theses: (1) the emergence of the ‘people’ requires the passage – via equivalences – from isolated, heterogeneous demands to a ‘global’ demand which involves the formation of political frontiers and the discursive construction of power as an antagonistic force; (2) since, however, this passage does not follow from a mere analysis of the heterogeneous demands themselves – there is no logical, dialectical or semiotic transition from one level to the other – something qualitatively new has to intervene. This is why ‘naming’ can have the retroactive effect I have described. This qualitatively differentiated and irreducible moment is what I have called ‘radical investment’. … It is clear, however, that if an entity becomes the object of an investment – as in being in love, or in hatred – the investment belongs necessarily to the order of affect. (110)

An this is a more complex way to theorise how a part of ‘the people’ tries to constitute itself as the whole:

So we can conclude that any social whole results from an indissociable articulation between signifying and affective dimensions. But in discussing the constitution of popular identities, we are dealing with a very particular type of whole: not one which is just composed of parts, but one in which a part functions as the whole (in our example: a plebs claiming to be identical with the populus). 111

That requires more thought perhaps. But finally we are ready to bring it all together. The three aspects then of populism:

  1. First, it should be clear at this stage that by ‘populism’ we do not understand a type of movement — identifiable with either a special social base or a particular ideological orientation — but a political logic…. I see social logics as involving a rarefied system of statements — that is to say, a system of rules drawing a horizon within which some objects are representable while others are excluded. So we can talk about the logics of kinship, of the market — even of chess-playing (to use Wittgenstein’s example). A political logic, however, has something specific to it which is important to stress. While social logics consist in rule-following, political logics are related to the institution of the social. Such an institution, however, as we already know, is not an arbitrary fiat but proceeds out of social demands and is, in that sense, inherent to any process of social change. This change, as we also know, takes place through the variable articulation of equivalence and difference, and the equivalential moment presupposes the constitution of a global political subject bringing together a plurality of social demands. This in turn involves, as we have seen, the construction of internal frontiers and the identification of an institutionalized ‘other’. (117)
  2. There are two other aspects from our previous discussion which have to come into our conceptual characterization of populism: those which concern naming and affect. … From this we can deduce that the language of a populist discourse — whether of Left or Right — is always going to be imprecise and fluctuating: not because of any cognitive failure, but because it tries to operate performatively within a social reality which is to a large extent heterogeneous and fluctuating. I see this moment of vagueness and imprecision — which, it should be clear, does not have any pejorative connotation for me — as an essential component of any populist operation. (118)
  3. I’m no longer quoting Laclau but trying to put this into my words because this still seems unclear to me…There must be a particular demand unfulfilled that can in a sense stand in for multiple demands, or the equivalential chain in Laclau’s language. There is a tension between the differences among the multiple demands and the particular demand, but neither can fully stand in for the other so this tension must be present and balanced to create movement. These must be contained within ‘an anti-institutional dimension, of a certain challenge to political normalization, to ‘business as usual’…There is in any society a reservoir of raw anti-status-quo feelings which crystallize in some symbols quite independently of the forms of their political articulation, and it is their presence we intuitively perceive when we call a discourse or a mobilization ‘populistic’. (123)

These charts defiinitely helped me understand this better…particularly thinking about the differences between domination and hegemony. So, domination:

p 130

He gives the example of the Russian Tsar on the one side of the dichotomic frontier, with multiple sectors of society standing in opposition each with their own demands, but uniting in an ‘equivalential chain’ behind the demands of D1 (which becomes the signifier).

Hegemony is the process by which the group on the other side of the dichotomic frontier works to incorporate the demands of certain of these sectors to ‘interrupt’ the creation of an oppositional equivalential chain through creation of an equivalential chain of their own, blurring the lines of this frontier and ensure their hold on power. It looks more like this:

p 131

So what happens to the ‘signifier’ demand of D1 when their other interests are accommodated/co-opted and people change sides as it were? It has to be recast, a new signifier/symbol found and this is always what is at stake in moments of change and crisis when this signifier is suddenly ‘floating’, requiring redefinition after the break up of what was a stable formation. Laclau makes the really interesting observation here about how often it is not precisely the content of D1 that matters to individuals, but its form, ie its radicalism. This explains why so many of the left seemingly quite easily can swing to the right — the swing in support for the New Deal to New Conservativism for example. Laclau writes that for a very long time conservative populism would have been unthinkable in the US, as the conservative tradition was ‘centred on ‘defence of unregulated capitalism and the discouragement of any kind of grass-roots mobilization‘. This began to change with McCarthyism, and a shift in discourse shift from workers to ‘regular Joe’. This marked a break between populism and liberalism, witnessed the New Deal’s discourse in retreat and the moment it fell apart as middle America experience a great loss of power, stuck between Washington elites and demands of ‘minority’ groups. This is a pursuasive narrative to some degree, though I think the faultlines of race and gender cleave this in two just a little, force a more historic look at ‘conservatism’

There follows some arguments with Marxist ideas of the working class as the agents of social change and how this is now untenable. This is undoubtedly my favourite sentence for style and verve.

The ‘peoples without history’ have occupied centre stage to the point of shattering the very notion of a teleological historicity. So forget Hegel. (147-148)

Part III: Populist Variations

This is where all of the theory is brought somewhat to earth. Somewhat.

It is not just the idea of ‘the people’ that must be constructed, but also the antagonistic frontier. I do myself feel a desire to make this all a little more material here, root this in concrete oppressions. But this wider definition makes more sense of the rise of Trump and the revolt of the still-well-to-do-though-not-as-well-to-do-as-before masses. This is a political process and upends Habermas and Rawls who see representative democracy as politicians representing the will of the people presuming that to be pre-existing when in fact it must be constructed. This is why populism can fit within both totalitarian and liberal democratic regimes.

And again, it does not arise without crisis. This is so prescient of our current conjuncture.

populism never emerges from an absolute outside and advances in such a way that the previous state of affairs dissolves around it, but proceeds by articulating fragmented and dislocated demands around a new core. So some degree of crisis in the old structure is a necessary precondition of populism for, as we have seen, popular identities require equivalential chains of unfulfilled demands. Without the slump of the 1930s, Hitler would have remained a vociferous fringe ringleader. (177)

The possibilities for movement are three:

1. A largely self-structured institutional system which relegates to a marginal position any anti-institutional challenge — that is to sat; the latter’s ability to constitute equivalential chains is minimal (this would correspond to the first two situations within Schedler’s model).

2. The system is less well structured, and requires some kind of periodical recomposition. Here the possibility of populism in the Schedler/ Surel’s sense arises: the system can be challenged, but since its ability for self-structuration is still considerable, the populist forces have to operate both as ‘insiders’ and as ‘outsiders’.

3. The system has entered a period of ‘organic crisis’ in the Gramscian sense. In that case, the populist forces challenging it have to do more than engage themselves in the ambiguous position of subverting the system and, at the same time, being integrated into it: they have to reconstruct the nation around a new popular core. Here, the recon-structive task prevails over that of subversion. (178)

Key to remember (and perhaps quite usefully illustrated by Italy’s three different populist movements in the past few years)

there is nothing automatic about the emergence of a ‘people’. On the contrary, it is the result of a complex construction process which can, among other possibilities, fail to achieve its aim. The reasons for this are clear: political identities are the result of the articulation (that tension) of the opposed logics of equivalence and difference, and the mere fact that the balance between these logics is broken by one of the two poles prevailing beyond a certain point over the other, is enough to cause the ‘people’ as a political actor to disintegrate. (200)

Laclau has all these lists and bullet points which usually serve to make things clearer but I am not entirely certain these do. I think they do. These refer to the ‘set of theoretical decisions necessary for something like a ‘people’ to become intelligible, then the historical conditions that make its emergence possible’

  1. A first theoretical decision is to conceive of the ‘people’ as a political category, not as a datum of the social structure. This designates not a given group, but an act of institution that creates a new agency out of a plurality of heterogeneous elements. For this reason, I have insisted from the very beginning that my minimal unit of analysis would not be the group, as a referent, but the socio-political demand.
  2. It is in this contamination of the universality of the populus by the partality of the plebs that the peculiarity of the ‘people’ as a historical actor lies. The logic construction is what I have called ‘populist reason’. (224) On the universality of the partial: A popular demand is one that embodies the absent fullness of the community through a potentially endless chain of equivalences. That is why populist reason — which amounts, as we have seen, to political reason tout court breaks with two forms of rationality which herald the end of politics: a total revolutionary event that, bringing about the full reconciliation of society with itself, would make the political moment superfluous, or a mere gradualist practice that reduces politics to administration.
  3. Let us move now to the other angle: the partiality of the universal. This is where the true ontological option underlying our analysis is to be found. Whatever ontic content we decide to privilege in an ontological investment, the traces of that investment cannot be entirely concealed. The partiality we privilege will also be the point that universality necessarily inhabits. The key question is: does this ‘inhabiting’ do away with the specificity of the particular, such that universality becomes the true medium for an unlimited logical mediation, and particularity the merely apparent field of expressive mediation? Or, rather: does the latter oppose a non-transparent medium to an otherwise transparent experience, so that an irreducibly opaque (non-)representative moment becomes constitutive? (225)
  4. … the unity of the social agent is the result of a plurality of social demands coming together through equivalential (metonymic) relations of contiguity, the Contingent moment of naming has an absolutely central and constitutive role. The psychoanalytic category of overdetermination points in the same direction. In this respect, naming is the key moment in the constitution of a ‘people’, whose boundaries and equivalential components permanently fluctuate. Whether nationalism, for instance, is going to become a central signifier in the constitution of popular identities depends on a contingent history impossible to determine through a priori means. (227)

I copy at such length because I might not be understanding. The ‘people’ are constructed through politics, and do not pre-exist politics in some natural organic form to be discovered or tapped. This politics and process of construction centres around a socio-political demand. Through this a portion of the larger population articulated around this demand comes to argue it represents the whole — the universality of the partial. Number 3…whew. That demand, that partial population claiming to speak for the whole will shape future politics. There is more there I am not getting. And that finally for all of this to come together, it is the naming of that demand that is central, and this will be shaped by the particular history and circumstances of each ‘people’ so formed rather than necessarily by class a la Marx.

And to come to a finale:

We need to make a final point. The passage from one hegemonic formation, or popular configuration, to another will always involve a radical break, a creatio ex nihilo. It is not that all the elements of an emerging configuration have to be entirely new, but rather that the articulating point, the partial object around which the hegemonic formation is reconstituted as a new totality, does not derive its central role from any logic already operating within the preceding situation. Here we are close to Lacan’s passage a l’acte, which has been central in recent discussions concerning the ethics of the Real…As the equivalential/articulating moment does not proceed.from logical need for each demand to move into the others, what is crucial for the emergence of the ‘people’ as a new historical actor is that the unification of a plurality of demands in a new configuration is constitutive and not derivative. In other words, it constitutes an act in the strict sense for it does not have its source in anything external to itself. The emergence of the ‘people’ as a historical actor is thus always transgressive vis-a-vis the situation preceding it. (228)

And there we are. I am most familiar with the rise of the Alt Right, and this helps explain so much I think. That they are not the oppressed as Revelli writes, but the winners of a previous era now experiencing some loss. The insane multiplicity of agendas and conspiracy theories and religious congregations that have somehow come together (without agreeing with each other and even hating each other, the perfect equivalential chain really) around a billionaire and his claim to make America Great Again and to be cleaning out the swamp. The visible construction of these discourses through media. I like Revelli’s addition of the right-wing twist, with its need for evil elites and a third group as scapegoat — immigrants.

Laclau was writing long before this of course. He ends with some thoughts on the conjuncture he was writing within:

The question concerning historical conditions should therefore be: are we living in societies that tend to increase social homogeneity through immanent infrastructural mechanisms or, on the contrary do we inhabit a historical terrain where the proliferation of heterogeneous points of rupture and antagonisms require increasingly political forms of social reaggregation…

the answer yes, and why?

globalized capitalism. By capitalism, of course, we should no longer understand a self-enclosed totality governed by movements derived from the contradictions of commodity as an elementary form. We can no longer understand capitalism as a purely economic reality, but as a complex in which economic, political, military, technological and other determinations — each endowed with its own logic and a certain autonomy — enter into the determination of the movement of the whole. In other terms, heterogeneity belongs to the essence of capitalism, the partial stabilizations of which are hegemonic in nature. (230)

Let the crises and rise of populisms begin.

Laclau, Ernesto (2005) On Populist Reason. London and New York: Verso.

The Irish Quarter, Oxford Street

“Irish poverty is a thing apart; it has no model or parallel anywhere in the world; once you have seen it you know that in theory the wretchedness of man has no limits…”
–Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland, its Society, Politics and Religion, 1839

This is a quote given by Flora Tristan to introduce part of her travels and studies of London, a look at the Irish quarter on Oxford Street. (I have written lots about Tristan, the general review of her descriptions of London is here).

At its starting-point, the elegant, long thoroughfare of
Oxford Street, with its throng of carriages, its wide pavements
and splendid shops. is joined almost at right angles by Tottenham Court Road; just off this street, facing Oxford Street, there is a narrow alley nearly always obstructed by an enormous can loaded with coal, which leaves hardly enough room for you to pass, even if you flatten yourself against the wall. This little alley, Bainbridge Street, is the entrance to the Irish quarter.

Bainbridge Street still exists but all the rest of it, absolutely all of it is all gone now as though poverty never existed there. You could not image unpaved streets or coal yards or dunghills here:

It is not without fear that the visitor ventures into the dark, narrow alley known as Bainbridge Street. Hardly have you gone ten paces when you are almost suffocated by the poisonous smell. The alley, completely blocked by the huge coal-yard, is impassable. We turned off to the right into another unpaved muddy alley with evil-smelling soapy water and other household slops even more fetid lying everywhere in stagnant pools. I had to struggle against my revulsion and summon up all my courage to go on through this veritable cesspool. In St Giles, the atmosphere is stifling; there is no fresh air to breathe nor daylight to guide your steps. The wretched inhabitants wash their tattered garments themselves and hang them on poles across the street, shutting out all pure air and sunshine. The slimy mud beneath your feet gives off all manner of noxious vapours, while the wretched rags above you drip their dirty rain upon your head. The fantasies of a fevered imagination could never match the horrifying reality! When I reached the end of the alley, which was not very long, my resolution faltered; my body is never quite as strong as my will, and now I felt my stomach heave, while a fierce pain gripped my head. I was wondering whether I could bear to go any further …

Sometimes I want to hit Flora Tristan, if I’m honest. I’ll spare you the sentimentality that follows, driving her to go further. But go further she did. It is reminiscent of what she found in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, other centres of Irish settlement:

Picture, if you can, barefoot men, women and children picking their way through the foul morass; some huddled against the waII for want of anywhere to sit, others squatting on the ground, children wallowing in the mud like pigs. But unless you have seen it for yourself, it is impossible to imagine such extreme poverty, such total degradation. l saw children without a stitch of clothing, barefoot girls and women with babies at their breast, wearing nothing but a torn shirt that revealed almost the whole of their bodies; I saw old men cowering on dunghills, young men covered in rags.

What to her could be more other than these impossibly poor people, living in conditions that break my own heart in two. In seeking to describe them she reaches for comparisons and find only ‘negroes‘ and animals. Their dangerous hungers easily mastered by her assurance of authority.

Inside and out, the tumbledown hovels are entirely in keeping with the ragged population who inhabit them. In most of them the doors and windows lack fastenings and the floor is unpaved; the only furniture is a rough old oak table, a wooden bench, a stool, a few tin plates and a Sort of kennel, where father, mother, sons, daughters, and friends all sleep together regardless; such is the ‘comfort’ of the Irish quarter! All this is horrifying enough, but it is nothing compared with the expressions of the people’s faces. They are all fearfully thin, emaciated and sickly; their faces, necks and hands are covered with sores; their skin is so filmy and their hair so matted and disheveled that they look like negroes; their sunken eye express a stupid animal ferocity, but if you look at them with assurance they cringe and whine. I recognised in them the selfsame faces and expressions that I had observed when I visited the prisons. It must be a red-letter day for them when they enter Coldbath Fields; at least in prison they will have fresh linen, comfortable clothes, clean beds and pure air.

A kennel, she writes, where the Irish cringe and whine. They must suffer all the physical misery and hopelessness of poverty, while also being stared at by women like Flora, stripped further of their humanity. This makes me think about the ways such levels of want undoubtedly deform the spirits of those who suffer it (but they are still ‘us’ goddamn it), while also the visual manifestations of it push them beyond the pale of what the middle classes consider human. For Flora, Black folks are already automatically included in this, axiomatic of this status of suffering and otherness. It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that poverty should make the Irish look like negroes to Flora. Act like dogs.

There is such a tangling here of otherness.

It exists in other descriptions of the Irish, like Engels describing their areas in Manchester, likening them to animals and savages, insinuating they cannot be reclaimed but drag the English down with them.

How do they all live? By prostitution and theft. From the age of nine or ten the boys begin to steal; at eleven or twelve the girls are sold to brothels. The adults of both sexes are all professional thieves and their sole passion is drinking. If I had seen this quarter before I visited Newgate I would not have been so surprised to learn that the prison takes in fifty or sixty children a month and as many prostitutes. Theft is the only logical consequence when people live in such destitution as this. (156-158)

At least she does not blame them for their step outside of society’s mores in the battle for survival.

As I have mentioned before, the editing of the book and additional information are splendid — so here are some final facts on the area:

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Irish quarter in St Giles, Holborn occupied roughly the area bounded by Charing Cross Road, New Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, but in Flora’s time the two last-named Streets did not exist; slum clearance began a few years after her 1839 visit. According to the census of 1831 the population of this district – commonly known as Little Dublin – was a staggering 36,432. The 1841 census registered 82,291 lrish-born residents in London (3% of the population) but this did not include children born in England of Irish parents. By 1851 the number had increased to 109,000 (4.6%) largely because of the influx of Irish after the terrible potato famines in lreland. Professor Lynn Lees has calculated that if children and relatives were added, the figure
would have risen to 156,000, but even this is still short of the
inflated figure of 200,000 that Flora gives for 1839.

Buenos Aires Affair — reading in a 2nd language

2242536For many years my determination was to read a book in the language that it was written if I possibly could…and I’ve got a bit lazy about that. French I took in school to quite a high level — but never won that little pot of money to visit France so never did. I lost heart a bit when richer kids went off for summer holidays and came back hugely improved while I just sat there. So I read a bit — Mouloud Feraoun and Assia Djebar inspired me to get some Algerian books in French, but I haven’t yet broached them.

Spanish however, was everywhere growing up on the border between the US and Mexico, so that I do speak, and speak very well and I have done immense amounts of volunteer interpretations and translated things from Spanish to English in my time. When I read, I do not translate it into English in my head if that makes sense, it feels my own (though not quite as much as English). There are words I only know in Spanish. But I never did study it in school apart from a short couple of weeks. So what literary reading I have done was done entirely on my own. And it has definitely been a while.

Reading Manuel Puig’s The Buenos Aires Affair what struck me most was its nature almost as time capsule. This had nothing to do with the book itself, but with my own struggle to read it — a literary language as opposed to a spoken one (which you realise is much more limited, at least for myself), and Argentinian Spanish so different than the pocho mix I know best and love.

It reminded me of my youth, my teens spent reading books in English that were way out of my league, struggling with language and with vocabulary. You interact with the writing completely differently, you know you are missing some things, some references, some contexts because you’d never finish if you looked up every little thing. You struggle on. You spend more time with each page, which makes things you really like and understand more vibrant. It’s terrible when you get to those bits that you don’t like, and you are more able to skim over them but less able to skim over them and glean their meaning. It is more of an all or nothing.

There are still words learned from these books that I don’t know how to pronounce, because I have never heard them spoken.

Back to Puig, the first few chapters of this I thought were absolutely brilliant as I snail-paced my way through them, the mystery and tension of the daughter’s disappearance in contrast to the everyday boring life she lived with her mother, those catalogued everyday details of clothing and habit that take on a very different significance in an inexplicable absence.

This connected to the fascination of the long quotes from the great femme fatales of Hollywood’s golden era that open each chapter, their icy coolness and tragic grandeur of their lives…but after the initial glamour of the disappearance, they soon begin to contrast with the sad and sordid life histories of the characters.

Thus I hit the violence and the pathological psychologies of the middle section, Puig’s use of clinical life histories, humdrum and broken lives, detailed dreams. This is definitely a book of its time (1st printing 1973). I almost put it down, tired of yet another manly celebration of exotic violence, but I didn’t and I realised that wasn’t what the book was about at all though it was a little overly obsessed with the size of the dude’s penis, so I was glad I didn’t put it down and then the end gradually approached and the tension returned and I so wanted to know what happened…

It was sordid. Sad. But I liked that it stripped the glamour from this kind of writing, this kind of story.

These are all the things I can’t tell you: whether or not this was a quick read, or an easy one. Nor can I honestly say how it compares to the language or levels of violence or even in many ways the craft in the many many works of noir I’ve read in English, and that is unsettling. I realise how much I compare books without thinking, and here I was at a bit of a loss. Did this feel more violent because I spent more time and effort on understanding the violence? For comparison I thought Ballard for one — especially with the fragments of newspaper clippings, the clinical stuff, the place of architecture and art — but am I sure these resonate?

The process of reading, the length of time I sat with each page, the effort I put into just understanding some of the words, the ways that this is some ways obscured meaning, but in others made it feel more revelatory — I realised how this was transformative of my understanding and experience of the book. There was also the way that single words changed impressions. For example, one of the dreams involved a galgo, and from the descriptions I thought it might be a gargoyle or some other kind of monstrous thing and I plowed onwards because I was on the train and couldn’t look it up right away…galgo is a greyhound. I felt a silly rush of incredulity and disappointment. I thought the character even more pathetic, but realised in English with my immediate comprehension of the imagery I wouldn’t have felt nearly as strongly about it. The animal involved changed significantly my understanding of the dream of course, but I think perhaps some of the background impressions remained with me of that monstrous large beast along with the disappointment, to colour the rest of the novel.

So how is my impression a true one, but then what impressions are true? Still it feels to me as though this process, this experience of reading makes it impossible in many ways to compare it with books I have read and experienced in English.

I realised too, that this was a bit like when I first started reading theory again after a hiatus of many years, and how much better I am now at extracting meaning and relevance and situating theorists within a larger context than I was when I started.

All of this I find rather fascinating. I take my process of reading in English, especially reading fiction, rather for granted I realise, how fast I read especially. I will try and stop doing that for a while, think more about how the process of our reading impacts our understanding of the meaning of words and how they are strung together, another level entirely from the understanding that those meanings of words and phrases are themselves always multiple and contested.

(And all of this is removed from the travails of translation, the many and multiple choices that translators make that are in themselves transformative of how you read things — you could spend days on a single page of good prose, so if I did read this book in English it would in some ways be a different book, and a whole other experience again…)

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Dr Barnardo of Stepney

IMG_2956Dr Barnardo has been both lionized and accused of a great deal over the decades, subject to innuendo, accusation and lawsuits while he was still alive, and a continuing source of interest to academics and historians. Because, quite frankly, he is fascinating, possibly terrible, and had a lasting impact on philanthropy in general, but more importantly a life-changing impact upon tens of thousands of poor children.

I never knew quite how many: 28,000 children alone he sent off to Canada (how many more did he send to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the territories of white Commonwealth?), at one point in time he was legal guardian to 87 middle and upperclass children, and in charge of 8,000 more. Many thousands more passed through his homes and shelters and villages. It is mind boggling.

Mostly that such a small island country should have had so many children in desperate need —  and this book seems to follow Dr Barnardo in never once asking why that should be.

Mostly that one man should have been allowed this kind of power over tens of thousands of children.

dr-barnardoSo much has been written about Barnardo around subjects of Victorian philanthropy and slumming, sex, his use of photography, the role of missionaries in the East End.  I used to teach a really interesting chapter from Seth Koven’s Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, which I really need to reread in its entirety.

This is a very different kind of book, written by his secretary for the last seven years of his life — he knew him well, looked up to him, and shared his world view for the most part. It developed from several papers written by him in reply to requests as to what sort of man Barnardo was. I could imagine he did field a lot of those requests.

Above all reading it, it is hard to believe it was finished in 1942. It belongs entirely to an earlier age almost as far removed from WWI as it is from WWII — but in that gives more of a window to Dr Barnardo through the lens of the period he lived in.

The introduction from Christopher Fry is the same, he writes:

Almost as soon as he set foot in London he began to draw out from their dark holes-and-corners a race of wild, unloved, and outcast children, a race which had skulked and suffered there for generations while the life of the city went on around them. (7)

I almost threw the book against the wall. Another race? What, are they dead that they do not form part of London’s life? They must have been a ubiquitous presence, these children, shaping the city and people’s experience of it as hard as they might have tried not to see them.

Dr Barnardo – a secretary’s impressions

But back to Dr Barnardo —  born in Dublin 1845, he came to London in 1866 to study medicine with a goal of becoming a medical missionary to China. For some reason (I don’t even think Williams is indulging in irony here) he didn’t get on so well with his fellow students. They all thought him a bit odd, a “queer fellow” and always preaching.

His first year in London saw a great cholera outbreak, which he celebrated for turning people’s eyes toward the Lord. Williams writes:

He had personally undertaken the circulation of Bibles in East London, and in three months he had sold in the open streets, in public-houses and in market-places thirty thousand copies of the Scriptures. (65)

Whatever else he was, he was a man to be reckoned with. One who put selling bibles over more useful interventions. On one occasion he had two ribs broken when he was beaten after trying to sell bibles in the wrong place to the wrong people. It didn’t stop him. Williams writes:

As soon as I entered the Doctor’s room, I realized that I was in the presence of a man of commanding personality. He was short of stature, only five feet five inches in height, sturdily built, with a very fine head and shoulders. One could not fail to notice the firm chin, and the keen grey eyes that seemed to have the power of reading one’s thoughts. His massive forehead also arrested attention, and gave some indication of the marvelous brain behind it. He was quick and alert in his movements, and bore an unmistakable air of authority. (15)

The working conditions under him will be familiar to anyone who knows similarly driven people in the charity field, but with much less regulation.

That was my first impression of Dr Barnardo–a man who wanted half-an-hour’s work done in twenty minutes. (16)

It is a portrait of a man who pushes himself harder than he pushes his staff, beginning early in the morning in Surbiton trying to deal with a level of correspondence that I cannot honestly imagine —  ‘where an amanuensis attended him daily, so that he could get a certain amount of work done before leaving for Stepney.’ Once at work he sat at two large tables in L-configuration covered with baskets of letters, and worked late into the night, often midnight or beyond, dictating letters. But this is after his work back in Stepney, where:

A special staff of clerks used to come on duty each evening, and to enable the Doctor to continue his dictation without interruption, and to avoid delay in transcription, pages of shorthand notes would be rushed up to the typing room by a waiting messenger as fast as they were taken down from the Doctor’s lips… (26)

Williams writes of His ‘magnetic personality’ (32), that ‘he seemed to cast a spell over those who worked with him’ (33) and this (again, this sounds so familiar):

There were times when I got very tired of these long hours, but I was always conscious of the fact that however much the Doctor required of his staff, he was giving far more himself, and I was loath to complain. (33)

Beyond all question, Dr Barnardo was an autocrat. He knew it, and acknowledged it, but hoped he was “a benevolent autocrat.” (35)

He was also often quite deaf. Not that those things are necessarily connected, but he doesn’t strike me as a great listener.

There’s a nice awkward section about the women who worked for him as well, a little kindly misogyny thrown in:

Dr Barnardo employed a large number of women; some in administrative work; a number as clerks; others as superintendents, nurses, cottage mothers, etc. No one could have won the wholehearted devotion of these women helpers more than he did, or have made fuller use of their abilities. Some had a record of many years service, and he valued their help; yet he frequently declared in his humorous way that being “a poor ignorant male, a stupid common-sense kind of creature,” women completely mystified him, and he found them utterly inexplicable. (37-38)

Ah, women and the ways that they operate without common sense. He was inexplicably married — for convenience and to further the work really, his wife rarely appears in these pages. There are, of course, rumours of pedophilia, but at least at the last stage of his life, it honestly seems hard to see how he could have managed it surrounded by such a beehive of workers waiting upon his direction at all hours.

A missionary to East London instead of China

Reading this you get a sense of East London as foreign and in need of Christian redemption as the furthest reaches of what Europeans held (wrongly) as the civilised world. He became involved in the Ragged Schools in 1866, and Williams describes what he states is the well-known story of how Dr Barnardo came into his work through his encounter with his first ‘street arab’. (There is so much to be unpacked in that term alone). The little boy asked him if he could stay over night as he had nowhere else to go. Barnardo, so the story goes, didn’t believe there were homeless children — so he bribed Jim Jarvis with coffee and place to sleep to show him where other children hid away to sleep. Bob’s your uncle, the Dr Barnardo we know today began to emerge.

He just happened to be at a dinner with Lord Shaftesbury soon afterwards — he convinced him to come along and see for himself the state of these children, and they agreed something must be done.

Dr Barnardo’s rescue operation started in a donkey stable, moved to Bale Street and expanded to Hope Place in Stepney. In 1870 he expanded to Stepney Causeway — and although the building was demolished, Williams states that the door now sits in entrance hall of Barnardo Headquarters. I wonder if it’s still there?

No.10 Stepney Causeway
No.10 Stepney Causeway

Describing the early days, Barnardo wrote:

“Many a happy hour was spent in whitewashing walls and ceilings, scrubbing floors, and otherwise putting the place into a suitable condition for the reception of my first family. Then I spent two whole nights upon the streets of London, cast my net upon the ‘right side of the ship,’ and brought to shore twenty-five homeless lads all willing and eager to accept such help as I could give them.” (74)

His language is, of course highly biblical. Williams describes his forays, and again you think to yourself, he might as well have been on a mission in China given how they describe these neighbourhoods in their own city — resulting from desperate poverty and inequality and exploitation.

It was customary for him to sally forth at midnight, clad in great coat and top hat, and carrying a dark lantern, to take his way through filthy, loathsome slums; down alleys where a policeman stood at the entrance and warned wayfarers not to proceed; into the communal kitchens of the common lodging-houses with which London abounded at that time, and where thieves, rogues and vagabonds of every kind gathered. (76)

It seems a waste of a policeman honestly. Still, the one nice thing about this book is that it allows some sense of resistance, and the irrepressible humour and bravery of the children themselves to occasionally peek through:

As a rule the help the Doctor offered was thankfully accepted, but it was not always so. Sometimes he found it difficult to persuade a homeless youngster, in spite of the sufferings and hardships of a street life, to yield up the freedom to which he had become accustomed, and which he had come to prize. (78)

East London – Dr Barnardo’s hunting grounds

His descriptions of East London and its people are quite infuriating:

We learn that people were ignorant and untaught. The streets were only dimly lit at night-time by feeble, flickering gas lamps, and were indescribably filthy. The gutters were filled with fetid water, and decaying cabbage leaves, potato parings and other refuse damned the gratings. The gin shops kept open until all hours of the night. (80)

And here is how he saw its inhabitants — wild animals seeking their own. As if people had multiple options, as though poverty were their choice.

A more unsavoury, ignorant and generally repellent rookery it would be hard to find. Street traders had made the street, with its many courts and alleys, their chosen home. The successful thief, resting in ill-gotten plenty, was neighbour to the luckless adventurer whom disease and famine had driven into his last earthly retreat, to die unheeded and unpitied by the great world without. Birds of a feather flocked together in this degraded colony. When a choked water pipe leading from the roof of a building was examined, it was found to be blocked up with empty purses which had been tossed on to the roof…People herded there whose chance of getting their daily bread each morning was more precarious than that of wild animals who picked up their sustenance in the open country. The lowest depths of all we seen in the precocious depravity of the juvenile population. (80)

It’s almost amusing then, when Dr Barnardo — recognising that lodging houses held many children — did not last one night when he himself attempted to stay in one as ‘research’. He dressed as a tramp, and one of ‘his boys’ took him to one, where he was apparently bitten so badly by insects it was three weeks before he was fit to be seen. It is reminiscent of Mary Higgs’ research, but she was hardier and much more thorough.

A little more on the subject though — Williams tells of the time (this is highly anecdotal as you might imagine) Barnardo was trying to rescue messenger boys (their souls really I believe) from a lodging house in Drury lane (and no, that’s not the East End, he really got around). He found out that they were relapsing because girls from the neighbouring lodging house were paying a bribe to the deputy to allow them in three nights a week for carousing. Dr Barnardo put a stop to that by convincing the boys it was immoral, and even to move into other lodgings. He of course blamed the dissoluteness of women — I can come up with a few rather more likely explanations, most of which involve pimps.

Anyway, on his return to original house to check after the souls of the boys, the girls found him there alone in the kitchen and beat him up. You almost rejoice that he was house-bound for a month. He writes:

“To anyone who may smile at this recital of my timidity I would say, ‘Have you ever been thrashed by a woman?’ For, if not, let me remark that few things can be more humbling and fear-begetting than a vigorous chastisement administered by female hands before an approving female audience. (85)

I agree with that statement, but he definitely needed some chastising.

From Stepney he expanded on an ever growing scale. Again the funny Victorian notions of sex and propriety emerge

When the Doctor began his work of rescue on behalf of destitute children, being a young unmarried man he confined his operations to boys (93)

But he soon opened a Village Home for Girls at Barkingside, a number of youth’s labour homes beginning in 1881 (training ‘camps’, probably most problematic). He started a boarding out system, first instituted 1886, where children were sent into the country to live with families until they were 12 or 13, then brought back to London to begin apprenticeships/training. Again, looking at the scale of these operations, the heart quails. For every child given to a good home, I feel fear even at this late date for those children put into the complete power of strangers.

The Uses and Abuses of Empire

Even before this he had begun to send children to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa — it was 1882 when the first party of 51 boys sailed to Canada.

Everything is here: the power of the wealthy to control the bodies and the futures of the poor, the role of the colonies to soak up those the ruling classes did not want to help or even look at, the land stolen from indigenous peoples in order to provide these children a new start and a new hope based on their citizenship and the colour of their skin. Those children sent into uncertain futures, entirely at the mercy of their new families.

Just to recap: 28,000 boys in total sent by Dr Barnardo to Canada. The book mentions in passing the many other societies then started up to do the same thing, but not as rigorously or as well.

A different kind of migrant crisis. It hurts my heart.

They had to do some work to set the ground to justify all of this, and it is hardly surprising that they did not look too closely at the causes of poverty. The book mentions that children were bought and sold and traded, beaten, made to work, to beg after being made as pitiful and hopeless looking as possible, to thieve… They needed saving. Having read multiple other accounts of poverty, I don’t doubt many did, but it is curious to me why it was able to take this form.

Also curious, though I suppose Victorian morality makes it less curious, is that nowhere is there any mention of sex work even when talking about the buying and borrowing of children, where others like Flora Tristan note that sexual exploitation was often the primary motive.

Speaking of Flora Tristan, who described gin palaces in great fury, it is also curious that Dr Barnardo managed to buy what he describes as one of the most notorious Gin Palaces and Music Halls in Limehouse — the Edinburgh Castle. Dr Barnardo wrote of it:

Here was a powerful force for evil, with seductive charms that some of us can scarcely estimate the force of. I remember well coming to the old place when around the wall, in the intervals between each window, were niches, and in every niche was an indecent statue. On the platform or stage in front a number of girls engaged in dances. In the middle of the room was a bar for the sale of drink. There was a door that led out to the tea-gardens, where all kinds of evil practices went on. Almost every one of the houses overlooking this place were houses of evil character. There were one or two exceptions, bit nearly all were full of persons of infamous life. (90)

They turned it into a hall, churchly entertainment centre, and held ‘waif suppers’ there, you can read a lot more on The Children’s Homes website.

Edinburgh Castle site, Limehouse, c.1896.
Edinburgh Castle site, Limehouse, c.1896.

Stepney Causeway, and his provision for children

I liked the descriptions of what his complex on Stepney Causeway was once like, it is all long gone now of course and I think probably better so.

A large building had been erected in Bower Street, which runs parallel to Stepney Causeway, and this building was linked up by a bridge with the Causeway premises. The Doctor’s Board Room was situated on the first floor of the Bower Street building, and had a fine bay-window overlooking a large paved yard. This yard, with a small extension under a couple of railway arches, was the only playground for four hundred boys…They played cricket and football within its narrow confines, with special rules to fit the circumstances.

It was in the yard at Stepney that they went through their daily physical exercises and drill under the supervision of a retired army instructor. It was there that the Medical Officer would sometimes conduct an open-air inspection of eyes, ears and teeth; and if a boy in the Hospital passed away, the little funeral cortege would cross the yard on its way to the chapel where the funeral service would be held. (28)

At the top of the building was a photographic studio where every child was photographed on admission and again on leaving. Some striking contrasts were obtained in this way. (30)

Those photographs — definitely one of the things that most got him into trouble. That and his habit of taking children from their parents and families with impunity. There was one lawsuit as he sent many of these children to Canada. It is tan ugly side to this work, and his world view that seemed to hold axiomatic that poverty was the fault of the parents, and he had to save children from both. This book recounts only stories of criminal, abusive and gin-sodden relations who would pawn the good clothes given to their children (though boots or bread, a hard choice) for whom there might have been a case the child needed to be removed for their own wellbeing. Yet clearly many more must have simply been poor and desperate. There is little to no thought to conditions or opportunities for these families as a whole. Much of me revolts in an enormous ‘how dare he’.

The enormous and ugly class prejudice is most obvious when Williams discusses Barnardo’s guardianship over boys who were not poor. He writes:

There was one special feature of the Doctor’s work which impressed me very much. He was frequently approached by parents or guardians of young people of the middle and upper classes for advice and assistance in difficult cases; boys and girls addicted to dishonest habits or tainted by the bad example of servants, or who, through lack of proper management, had become uncontrollable and defiant.

Never the bad example of upper class parents, or abuse or alienation, oh no. He blames servants. It’s quite extraordinary.

There is, finally, a quaint sentimentality that pervades all, this will give you a sense of it:

Children turned to him instinctively as though they understood his love…”Boys and girls have always been fond of me,” he wrote on one occasion, “and I need not say I have always been very fond of them. I don’t quite know what it is that makes children so attractive to me; but although I have had many who have been crippled and sadly deformed, and some who have been afflicted with dreadful disorders, I think I may say of a truth I have never seen a really ugly child!” (47)

There are several stories of helping crippled children that have a polished and well practiced air to them, which is quite distasteful. There are many stories of his relationships, but then you read this:

In his later years Dr Barnardo had nearly eight thousand children in his charge, and one could not help being deeply impressed by the personal interest he took in each member of his great family. (50)

and you have to question them. I confess after reading this I am less interested in the character of Dr Barnardo himself, or the charges often raised against him. Instead I question the position he was allowed to fill, the sentimentality and prejudice that made it possible, the sources of the conditions that justified a means that would never be acceptable today. This is vastly different than the work of say Father Potter, who also took in boys and helped raise them. As always for us now suspicions are raised, but in his case it is also clear why it was that he could not see a boy asleep in the street and not give him a home. That makes sense to me without being in a position to much judge any ulterior motives (and I like to hope there were not) — unlike the wholesale removal of tens of thousands of children from either the streets or their own homes and families. Their repatriation across the world to further build empire.

There is so much to think about here, and the impact this one man alone and the organisations he set into motion were able to inflict on so many kids. Never even imagined here are the gaps left in the community, the holes in the hearts and the homes left by those children as they were shipped off abroad. The trauma of those events. The ways they facilitated the maintenance of an illusion of a prosperous society and eradicated the elements that might call this illusion to account, while also consolidating the empire.

How dare they, I think again.

[Williams, A. E. (1953) Barnardo of Stepney: The Father of Nobody’s Children. Liverpool: Guild Books.]

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The Best Description of London I Have Ever Read

At least, as long as I don’t think too hard about how this is marketing London to the world. But it is totally plagued with landmarks.

This is the place where the contemporary and the nostalgic come together side by side and sometimes blending in with each other. The same can be said about London’s excellent boutique hotels. Grown from Centuries of leadership, London has collected and amalgamated the best of all worlds – people and things. A great metropolis yet each borough has a homely and distinct feeling. Because of that and its great influence over western culture, London is a city plagued with landmarks that are worldwide recognizable. Walk along the Abbey Road zebra crossing that was featured in one of the Beatles albums; be wondered by the magnificent Buckingham Palace, the monarch’s permanent residence in London, or visit the House of Parliament the place where the British laws are made, and where one of the most important landmarks of the capitol of England is located: The Big Ben. Stroll along Covent Garden the first luxury neighborhoods of the city; drop by Trafalgar Square, one of London’s greatest architectural set pieces, or visit the London Greenwich Royal Observatory, where the time of all over the world is measured. Some of the marvelous boutique hotels you can find in London are the 54 Boutique Hotel, the Bingham, Hotel 55 London, the San Domenico House Hotel and the Beaufort Hotel Knightsbridge.

Epoque Hotels Website

For lots more on London…

Orientalism

OrientalismEdward Said ([1978] 1991)  Penguin

This is one of those foundational texts that I had never read and quite embarrassed about that and always meaning to get to next… Because this was so groundbreaking and has been used and quoted by so many others, it is hard now to fully grasp how challenging it must have been when it was published, and probably for that reason it also enters into an incredibly detailed engagement with a whole shelf of literature I am not sure anyone bothers much about today. They don’t have to, because Said did. I might have nodded off a couple of times, but these sections are worth the slog.

To do so he employs Michel Foucault’s notion of discourse (The Archeology of Knowledge, Discipline and Punish), a difficult task he does well I think, and not one many succeed in. I am mostly going to let him speak for himself:

My contention is that without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage — and even produce — the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the Post-Enlightenment period. Moreover, so authoritative a position did Orientalism have that I believe no one writing, thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism. In brief, because of Orientalism the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action. This is not to say that Orientalism unilaterally determines what can be said about the Orient, but that it is the whole network of interests inevitably brought to bear on (and tehrefore always involved in) any occassion when that peculiar entity “the Orient” is in question. How this happens is what this book tries to demonstrate. It also tries to show that European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self (3).

And this:

To believe that the Orient was created — or, as I call it, “Orientalized”–and to believe that such things happen simply as a necessity of the imagination, is to be disingenuous. The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony… (5)

I like Foucault all right, though I was happiest going back to Gramsci:

It is hegemony, or rather the result of cultural hegemony at work, that gives Orientalism the durability and the strength I have been speaking about so far. Orientalism is never far from what Denys Hays has called the idea of Europe, a collective notion identifying “us” Europeans as against all “those” non-Europeans, and indeed it can be argued that the major component in European culture is precisely what made that culture hegemonic both in and outside Europe: the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures … (7)

Following on from how categories of  ‘us’ and ‘them’ are created with one dominating over another, I think the below opens the door in an interesting way to think about racial hierarchies (which he doesn’t really go through, I think most of the work on that which has come long after Said wrote this):

In a quite constant way, Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand (7).

As a writer, and in thinking about other writers and their work, I am fascinated by this:

This influence upon culture is not to demean or denigrate, rather my whole point is to say that we can better understand the persistence and the durability of saturating hegemonic systems like culture when we realize that their internal constraints upon writers and thinkers were productive, not universally inhibiting. It is this idea that Gramsci, certainly, and Foucault and Raymond Williams…have been trying to illustrate (14).

I confess to have not really considered hegemony as productive, rather have only sought it in limits…limits are what you hit when you try and change things, make it better. (Said working more from Foucault, seems to have as default the opposite understanding, so he later feels called upon to clarify that ‘Orientalism is better grasped as  a set of constraints upon and limitations of thought than it is simply as a positive doctrine’ (42). ) But when you try and create something…the danger is how your work shaped, produced through these dominant systems. More familiar again is the way that hegemony defines usefulness and quality:

In other words, Lane’s authority was gained, not by virtue simply of what he said, but by virtue of how what he said could be adapted to Orientalism (158)

Still, it is in hegemony’s productiveness that where we come from, where we stand is so important. Said brings to the intro a personal dimension, being raised in two British colonies, Palestine and Egypt, educated there and in the U.S. An amazing quote from Gramsci: ‘The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and “knowing thyself” as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving and inventory’, but Said finishes this quote with the last sentence which had not been previously translated: ‘therefore it it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.’ (26)

I like the idea of compiling such an inventory, as much as acknowledging the personal and the intellectual:

The nexus of knowledge and power creating “the Oriental” and in a sense obliterating him as a human being is therefore not for me an exclusively academic matter. Yet it is an intellectual matter of some very obvious importance (27).

How the ideological connects to the material, and the vastness of the colonial project — something that can never be forgotten:

The period of immense advance in the institutions and content of Orientalism coincides exactly with the period of unparalleled European expansion; from 1815 to 1914 European direct colonial dominion expanded from about 35 percent of the earth’s surface to about 85 percent of it. Every continent was affected, none more so than Asia and Africa (41).

Why is Said beloved by geographers? The chapter called ‘Imaginative Geography and Its Representations: Orientalizing the Oriental’ points the way, a critique of how our discipline has participated in this system of domination:

As a discipline representing institutionalized Western knowledge of the Orient, Orientalism thus comes to exert a three-way force, on the Orient, on the Orientalist, and on the Western “consumer” of Orientalism (67).

Though I found later quotations about space more useful, like this one about the construction of colonial space:

In the classical and often temporarily remote form in which it was reconstructed by the Orientalist, in the precisely actual form in which the modern Orient was lived in, studied or imagined, the geographical space of the Orient was penetrated, worked over, taken hold of. The cumulative effect of decades of so sovereign a Western handling turned the Orient from alien into colonial space (211).

and this: ‘the Orient as a geographical space to be cultivated, harvested, and guarded.’ Said goes on to quote Leroy-Beaulieu on the true nature of the project of empire in space:

‘Colonization is the expansive force of a people; it is its power of reproduction; it is its enlargement and its multiplication through space; it is the subjection of the universe or a vast part of it to that people’s language, customs, ideas and laws (219).

Above all, reading this for me clarified the essence of what happens when we essentialise through a use and abuse of stereotypes that are wielded so casually, above all when this is connected to a larger project of domination:

Orientalism overrode the Orient. As a system of thought about the Orient, it always rose from the specifically human detail to the general transhuman one; an observation about a tenth-century Arab poet multiplied itself into  a policy towards (and about) the Oriental mentality in Egypt, Iraq, or Arabia (96).

What I found to be the most useful definition of it is quoted from Anwar Abdel Malek:

a) On the level of the position of the problem, and the problematic…the Orient and Orientals [are considered by Orientalism] as an “object” of study, stamped with an otherness — as all that is different, whether it be “subject” or “object”–but of a constituitive otherness, of an essentialist character…This “object” of study will be, as is customary, passive, non-participating, endowed with a “historical” subjectivity, above all, non-active, non-autonomous, non-sovereign with regard to itself: the only Orient or Oriental or “subject” which could be admitted, at the extreme limit, is the alienated being, philosophically, that is, other than itself in relationship to itself, posed, understood, defined–and acted–by others (97, ‘Orientalism in Crisis’).

There is a critique of assembly, of the ways that this essentialising takes place through cobbling bits and pieces together into a new, more convenient whole:

Not only are Oriental literary publications essentially a lien to the European; they also do not contain a sustained enough interest, nor are they written with enough “taste and critical spirit,” to merit publication except as extracts…Therefore the Orientalist is required to present the Orient by a series of representative fragments, fragments republished, explicated, annotated, and surrounded with still more fragments (128).

I was glad to see an interrogation of Marx, the way modernist ideas of progress (even when sympathetic) folded in to a larger project of domination. This quote exemplifies everything that needs to be challenged in them

Now sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village communities…had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting toll of superstition, enslaving it beneath the traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfill its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? (Marx, Surveys From Exile)

It’s probably because I don’t have a background in Colonial studies that I wondered at Said’s not choosing more of the very obvious quotes about colonial power and white supremacy that I did not know but imagines must exist in abundance, but there is this poem by Kipling:

Now, this is the road that the White Men tread
When they go to clean a land–
Iron underfoot and the vine overhead
And the deep on either hand.
We have trod that road–and a wet and windy road–
Our chosen star for guide.Oh, well for the world when the White Men tread
Their highway side by side! (226)

Some disturbing quotes from Orwell I will hunt down, in an essay called ‘Marrakech’ when he finds it hard to feel that brown faces represent human beings. I liked how he traced the changing face of Orientalism over time, however. I think his argument that the new Orientalism from America based on strings of facts, statistics, which are disturbed by literary texts has some truth to it, though it seems that all of these ways of creating and imagining the other are currently at play side by side.

Here is a summation not so much of what has been argued as the where this book might be taking us. This is where I feel a little out of my depth and need more reflection about just how this fits in with a politics of liberation and a theory that supports it:

…as this book has tried to demonstrate, Islam has been fundamentally misrepresented in the West–the real issue is whether there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, ans political ambience of the representer. If the latter alternative is the correct one (as I believe it is), then we must be prepared to accept the fact that a representation is eo ipso implicated. intertwined, embedded, interwoven with a great many other things besides the “truth,” which is itself a representation (272).

Open Occupancy v Forced Housing — racism and the early rhetoric of the right

contentIt was 1963. The sheer quantity of outspoken and arrogant white legal and housing experts giving away just how racist U.S. society is make this book worth reading. That’s never pleasant reading. However, much as racism has grown more subtle over the past fifty years it is quite extraordinary to see just how much of this rhetoric is being recycled by the tea-party and other freedom-and-rights racist quasi-libertarians. Open Occupancy sounds much nicer than Forced Housing, but these terms were coined to replace what doesn’t sound so nice: The ability to freely discriminate vs. the right of all people to live where they can afford. That hardly sounds completely antithetical to the American dream and the American way, but this entire volume with one exception is arguing that is so.

It opens with some congratulations from Norman P Mason, commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration from 1954-59 and administrator of the US Housing and Home Finance Agency from 1959-61. No need to think too hard about just how racist policies became so enshrined in both policy and day to day practice of government agencies.

1971 Dean Alfred Avins founder of Delaware Law School
1971 Dean Alfred Avins founder of Delaware Law School

The introduction from editor Avins sums it all up nicely:

The short of the matter is that anti-discrimination legislation in practice is a grave infringement on property rights, subject in administration to incurable abuses, and most important, helps only the Negroes who do not need it (26).

I think I heard Sarah Palin going on about that not too long ago. In sadly familiar rhetoric, he argues that discrimination doesn’t exist, but if it does Negroes are to blame given their unreasonable demands and low-class natures. He’s got lots of people to back him up on that.

There is a short, very unexpected piece from Charles Abrams, writer of Forbidden Neighbors and champion of ‘Forced Housing’. He has clearly chosen to try and win support for increased federally funded public housing—allowing the racists around him to connect the dots for themselves that new builds might stem the invading black flow into their pristine white neighborhoods—and doesn’t even engage with the absurdity of most of the arguments made here.

A delightful piece on restrictive covenants claims not to take sides on their public enforcement given the Supreme Court decision, but lauds them as private agreements. Elmer M. Million quotes some delightful stuff from the Burkhardt v Lofton case (63 Cal. App. 2d 230, 146 P.2d 720, 724-25 (1944)) with its arguments for the rights of the majority:

Racial restrictions have been employed in the development of countless residential communities and have very generally been considered essential to the maintenance and stability of property values. Non-Caucasians are and always have been just as free to restrict the use and occupancy of their property to members of their own races as Caucasians have been. The fact that the members of the Caucasian race have freely availed themselves of this right throughout the nation, even though those of non-Caucasian races have not, is most satisfactory proof of the public policy of the nation with respect to this phase of the right to contract. No doubt public policy changes and develops with the times, but these changes must have their sources in the citizenry and not on the decisions of the courts or the pronouncements of publicists and politicians (92-93).

Clauson & Buck in ‘Constitutionality in Illinois’ write ‘antidiscrimination legislation in private housing is at war with our most fundamental notions of property rights’ (123). Joshua A. Fishman in ‘Some Social and Psychological Determinants of Intergroup Relations in Changing Neighborhoods’ (fancy, huh), throws a little anti-Semitism in as well, just in case you were worried this is just about black people:

In many ways modern American suburbs epitomize basic American cultural values and aspirations. The Jewish middle class and the rapidly growing Negro middle class eagerly pursue these values and aspirations, and this pursuit inevitably leads them to suburbia. However, their presence in suburbia is inimical to the status needs and values of many who are (or who can more easily pass as) “old American.” In fact, their presence is often inimical to the very image of what a suburban community should be like. Jews and Negroes represent the city and all of the dirt, grime, haste, sweat, and unloveliness of city life. Thus, their arrival not only lowers the status value of a neighbourhood, but for many it also cancels the suburban image of a suburb. As long as flight to uncontaminated areas is possible and feasible, it will be resorted to (136).

It’s hard to read that kind of bullshit really, though in a way you’re glad that they wrote it down so it’s there, impossible to pretend it didn’t happen. That Fishman has some insight into the more prevalent suburban mind-set is borne out by the violence, the malevolence of local publications and the white flight further and further out that I’ve been studying. This theme is continued by Armstrong et al in ‘Interracial Housing and the Law: A Social Science Assessment’. They begin their assessment by declaring that many previous social science assessments have been unduly influenced by their author’s attempts to promote desegregation, then follow that up with some of the worst pseudo-science I have read in a very long time. They didn’t quite reach the stage where they were measuring cranial capacity and talking about brow ridges and genetics, but very close. They argue both that integration hurts Blacks (in terms of morale, self-esteem and actually procuring housing) as well as for the many good reasons whites have for not wishing to integrate. They write:

the inmigration of lower-class Negroes brings with it the disabilities which attend the increased presence of a group collectively characterized by inordinately high rates of delinquency, crime, sexual immorality and communicable disease…. The deterioration of the standards of local schools, the increased incidence of delinquency and crime, greater public health hazards, regular exposure to a group which, because of conditions prevailing in its subculture, is characterized by lax sexual morality, broken homes and minimal academic aspirations, would seem to provide, in general, sufficient rational motive for white flight (147).

Wait, there’s more! They write ‘Sociologists have long appreciated the fact that men are animated by a disposition to seek out those they fancy similar to themselves’ (147). The old birds of a feather argument, social science at its very finest.

There’s a whole section of transcripts from a debate in the BRITISH HOUSE OF LORDS from May 14, 1962 on how races just shouldn’t mix and legislating such a thing is doomed to failure – very relevant to the American situation. Lord what’s-his-name (several of these) and Viscount pie face (two of these plus a Lord Chancellor) weighing in for British racism and using the American experience to support their arguments. Then lots of short pieces on two court cases currently being argued.

They also include an interesting short article on ‘An Analysis of Possible Impact of Anti-Discrimination Legislation on the Home Building Industry’. Of course they argue it will be mayhem, no builders will want to build if it might be integrated. Given the ways that the industry has changed from a ‘small scale craft operation’ to a very ‘large scale assembly line production’ where ‘90% of new housing construction is being provided by a handful of builders over 250 homes per year’ (sic) (287). Given the scale of their operations, integration could cause a fall in their selling prices making it impossible to recoup the large upfront costs of tract development. Author R.J. Anderson believed that this would cause a downturn in the industry, forcing builders to build on a smaller scale and hedging their bets using smaller, scattered plots so as not to tie up large amounts of cash and risk bankruptcy should a person of colour buy into his subdivision. Of course, in hind sight builders managed to find plenty of ways not to integrate, but this underlines the importance of their finding such ways.

All in all, a quite infuriating but informative glimpse into the 1960s era white racists of real estate.

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]

Thus

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]