Tag Archives: power

Conflict and Controversy: The Genius of Saul Alinksy II

So the first post on Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals looks at the big picture, the discussion of the political moment, of ends and means, of how we use words in our Struggle. This is the more practical section of the book, the programme that Alinsky helped build in cities across the country. Much of this practical approach is embedded in community organizing so deeply it is strange to see it written here like this, making it perhaps the most influential aspect of his work. Though ultimately I think that award maybe goes to his ‘non-ideological’ stance that needs to be reckoned with.

Above all there is this specific, privileged role of the organizer, having been one in the US, having attempted similar work in the UK without anyone in this role, I am inclined to give this idea some real credit. I think it is needed, though not quite along these lines.

The Education of an Organizer

The building of many mass power organizations to merge into a national popular power force cannot come without many organizers. (63)

I agree. Also with the below:

The education of an organizer requires frequent long conferences on organizational problems, analysis of power patterns, communication, conflict tactics, the education and development of community leaders, and the methods of introduction of new issues. (64)

And of course, always this:

Everything becomes a learning experience. (64)

The incredibly male, macho, no-balance-whatsoever thing however, that is both bullshit and instructive of a certain mentality that needs to be reckoned with.

The marriage record of organizers is with rare exception disastrous. Further, the tensions, the hours, the home situation, and the opportunities, do not argue for fidelity. (65)

If we move beyond traditional romance and family models that could be okay of course, as long it’s all mutual respect and not the organizer taking advantage of lots of young women or men. This kind of hyper-male organizing role kind of encourages that though, so I dunno.

I like that there is some discussion of the contrast with the old model of CIO organizing in the 1930s (now all but forgotten), where 10% of the meetings covered immediate problems, the rest expanded upon Spanish Civil War, problems around the nation etc. Maybe it’s good that ratio changed around a bit though.

I do really like Saul Alinsky’s list of the characteristics of a good organizer (again, not the relentless maleness, though in this model it would be very hard for a woman to play this role ever given the higher likelihood of her playing some caring roles in addition):

Curiosity: He is driven by a compulsive curiosity that knows no limits…life for him is a search for a patterns… (72)

Irreverence: Curiosity and irreverence go together. Curiosity cannot exist without the other. …He detests dogma, defies any finite definition of morality, rebels against any repression of a free, ope search for ideas… (73)

Imagination.

A sense of humor.

A bit of a blurred vision of a better world. (this allows others to contribute and build — I very much like this idea)

An organized personality. (Has to work flexibly, be organised amongst disorganization, able to manage multiple issues and people)

A well-integrated political schizoid. (Can’t be a true believer because they can’t operate politically enough, but after committing to an issue must commit 100%)

Ego. (Confidence in one’s ability to do what must be done).

A free and open mind, and political relativity.

Communication

A whole chapter on this, and small wonder.

One can lack any of the qualities of an organizer–with one exception… (81)

And now we get to some of the nitty gritty, the process from the ground up — there isn’t honestly too much step-by-step in here. But what little there is can be found here, ‘In the Beginning’:

In the beginning the incoming organizer must establish his identity…get his license to operate.  He must have a reason for being there–a reason acceptable to the people. (8)

I loved how Alinsky’s preference was to get the people in power to hate him, get the press to vilify him — then everyday people knew he was on their side. The genius of conflict as I say.

I liked too his flexibility — though again, it would work so much better combined with a conscious conscienticization (see Myles Horton’s analysis of Alinsky style organizing). It is only after you win that you figure out what you want. This is where the organizer has to really have trust, silence that inner doubt and lack of faith in people. (Alinsky admits there might possibly be some doubts among you.)

Then we are back to superman:

From the moment the organizer enters a community he lives, dreams, eats, breathes, sleeps only one thing and that is to build the mass power base of what he calls the army. Until he had developed that mas power base, he confronts no major issues. (113)

But there is an element of single-mindedness needed, and this — this is true:

Change comes from power, and power comes from organization. In order to act, people must get together. (113)

There’s some interesting stuff about disrupting existing organization and patterns in communities that I’ve separated out into a third post because I found it that interesting, but sometimes people need to shake their own ways of being in the world up. Above all you have to overcome apathy, and you do that by picking specific, winnable battles to show that people can win. This is a cornerstone of American community organizing really. Alinksy writes:

…in any community, regardless of how poor, people may have serious problems–but they do not have issues, they have a bad scene. An issue is something you can do something about, but as long as you feel powerless and unable to do anything about it, all you have is  a bad scene. The people resign themselves to a rationalization: it’s that kind of world… (119)

You can’t tackle problems all at once, you have to break it up into issues, the question spawning vast arguments and trainings and some writing is how yo do that effectively so that you are still tackling the big problems.

There is one word that is repeated over and over in this book that is often not found elsewhere — respect. This is all important, I don’t think anyone who hasn’t grown up poor or working-class really understands how this must be constantly defended, and how it is constantly withdrawn.

If you respect the dignity of the individual you are working with, than his desires, not yours; his values, not yours; his ways of working and fighting, not yours; his choice of leadership, not yours; his programs, not yours, are important and must be followed… (122)

…when we respect the dignity of the people, that they cannot be dined the elementary right to participate fully in the solutions to their own problems. … Denial of the opportunity for participation is the denial of human dignity and democracy. It will not work.  (123)

For those two sentence alone this book would be worth it. And all those (to me) slightly cringeworthy stories that Alinsky tells about being straight with people around issues of class, race or culture, I am sure they only worked at the time because they were told after this respect had been established. I wouldn’t recommend establishing it quite this way anymore though.

Tactics

More rules! Tactics are all important, and these are quite brilliant and worth thinking through:

  1. Power is not only what you have but the enemy thinks you have.

  2. Never go outside the experience of your people.

  3. Whenever possible go outside the experience of the enemy. (127)

  4. Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.

  5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.

  6. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.

  7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

  8. Keep the pressure on, which different tactics and actions (128)

  9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself

  10. The major premise for tactics is the development if operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.

  11. If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside (129)

  12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative

  13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. (130)

In this country the left has almost no fucking tactics at all, which has made me appreciate them all the more. Thinking this way becomes a habit, it is confusing when people see none of this.

Having a target also seemed so obvious to me. Apparently that isn’t obvious either.

Obviously there is no point to tactics unless one has a target upon which to center the attacks. (131)

One criteria is vulnerability, I like the point he made about how John L Lewis, organizing great, never attacked GM or Ford, but Alfred “Icewater-In-His-Veins” Sloan or “Bloodied Hands” Tom Girdler.

I liked Alinsky’s three additional points

  • The real action is in the enemy’s reaction

  • The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength

  • Tactics, like organization, like life, require that you move with the action (136)

A little organizing jujitsu. Seems simple, but hard to do and the UK has proven none of these are obvious.

There’s some subtlety here too. Alinsky notes the importance of understanding the competition amongst the haves, their drive to make money to one-up each other that lead them to their own forms of destruction. He emphasises capitalising on that. Some academics seem only now to be recognizing the non-monolithic nature of things like government, the capitalist class and etc.

A pretty cool side note: how useful jail time is (make sure it is only a few days or you’ll miss all the action) to recoup and have space and quiet to think about where you are, what comes next, update your tactics.

Timing is to tactics what it is to everything in life–the difference between success and failure. (158)

And again, flexibility is the key. As it is to everything in Alinsky style:

Accident, unpredictable reactions to your own actions, necessity, and improvisation dictate the direction and nature of tactics.  (165)

The Way Ahead

Organization for action will now and in the decade ahead center upon America’s white middle class. That is where the power is. (184)

See, this is where we diverge again. Though I wouldn’t be too sad if this suggestion had actually happened:

Middle-class organizers should put their class backgrounds to good use…

He’s right though, if they didn’t move to be with us, they were against us.

His final paragraph.

The great American dream that reached out to the stars has been lost to the stripes. We have forgotten where we came from, we don’t know where we are, and we fear where we may be going. … We must believe that it is darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world; we will see when we believe it. Afraid, we turn from the glorious adventure of the pursuit of happiness to a pursuit of an illusionary security in an ordered, stratified, striped society. Our way of life is symbolized to the world by the stripes of military force. At home we have made a mockery of being our brother’s keeper by being his jail keeper. When Americans can no longer see the stars, the times are tragic. We must believe that it is the darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world; we will see it when we believe it. (196)

[Alinsky, Saul ([1971] 1989) Rules for Radicals: A pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage Books.]

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Conflict and Controversy: The Genius of Saul Alinksy I

Don’t get me wrong, I have a hardcore critique of Saul Alinsky, but I forgot just how good and smart and hell of committed he was — Rules for Radicals is an important thing to read I think. There is still a lot of room for some of these old school tactics and organizing basics, though maybe not so much for the super-hero profligate organizer and thank god we have some a long way in thinking about intersections of class, race, gender and sexuality…

But damn, is he still a lightening rod for right-wing vitriol or what. My internet search for images turned up some fairly crazy shit. Do we care if he slept with Hilary Clinton? No.

But anyway, I had forgotten just how much Alinsky’s work speaks to its times–it speaks to ours as well of course, but in such a different way. Makes me nostalgic for times I never got to live really, written in 1971, it opens:

The revolutionary force today has two targets, moral as well as material. Its young protagonists are one moment reminiscent of the idealistic early Christians, yet they also urge violence and cry, “Burn the system down!” They have no illusions about the system, but plenty of illusions about the way to change our world. it is this point that I have written this book. these words are written in desperation, partly because it is what they do and will do that will give meaning to what I and the radicals of my generation have done with their lives.

They are now the vanguard, and they had to start almost from scratch. Few of us survived the Joe McCarthy holocaust of the early 1950s and of those there were even fewer whose understandings and insights had developed beyond the dialectical materialism of orthodox Marxism. My fellow radicals who were supposed to pass on the torch of experience and insights to a new generation were just not there. (xii-xiv)

This is perhaps the tragedy of the McCarthy period —  Alinsky himself owes a whole lot to the organizers of the 1930s when he got his start. But the history of struggle in the UK has actually convinced me that it was perhaps not entirely a bad thing to be allowed to reinvent ourselves from the bottom up. But that’s a whole other argument. For now, Rules for Radicals. This first post looks at the big picture, the second looks at the nitty gritty.

The Purpose

What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away. (1)

Sweet enough, right? He quotes from the Spanish Civil War — better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. Nothing more true in life or death, but of course, it was Zapata who said that. The Mexican Civil War did come first, but never mind.

Alinsky always claimed he was steadfastly non-ideological. The more I read about the communist party in the US, their show trials  (I can think of nothing I’d hate more), the great move as dictated by Russia away from what brilliant neighbourhood and tenant and anti-racism organising they did sponsor to the popular front and all of that followed by Stalin and Hungary and…well. I can’t rightly blame him. None of that history sits well with me and he lived it blow by blow.  It’s left its mark, he writes:

We have permitted a suicidal situation to unfold wherein revolution and communism have become one. These pages are committed to splitting this political atom… (9)

and also

This is not an ideological book except insofar as argument for change, rather than for the status quo, can be called an ideology; and different times will construct their own solution and symbol of salvation… I detest and fear dogma. I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on. (4)

I question this definition of ideology, but like this practical adaptability. Seems like Marx would have wanted it more that way. In truth, this reads something like Clausewitz or Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This is about tactics and strategy (never enough on the long game).

Radicals must be resilient, adaptable to shifting political circumstances, and sensitive enough to the process of action and reaction to avoid being trapped by their own tactics and forced to travel a road not of their choosing. In short, radicals must have a degree of control over the flow of events. (6-7)

Funny how Alinsky becomes the perfect postmodernist. I never see him credited though. I do like his list of characteristic belonging to an organizer, it’s repeated several times.

An organizer…does not have a fixed truth–truth to him is relative and changing, everything to him is relative and changing. He is a political relativist. … Irreverence, essential to questioning, is requisite. Curiosity becomes compulsive. His most frequent word is “why?” … To the extent that he is free from the shackles of dogma, he can respond to the realities of the widely different situations our society presents. In the end he has one conviction–a belief that if people have the power to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decisions. (11)

I don’t think all is relative, but building on such community organizing as one strand of work in combination with a revolutionary process of conscientização as outlined by Freire or Horton will get us where we need to go I think. Horton knew Alinksy, discussed some of these issues, you can read more here.

The world operates on multiple levels, you bring in a deeper understanding of hegemony, of intersectionality, of micro-power then you start seeing a very different picture than that painted by Alinsky. But much of the world does actually operate on this basic level, and these kinds of tactics are often most useful.

It is painful to accept fully the simple fact that one begins from where one is, that one must break free of the web of illusions one spins about life. Most of us view the world not as it is but as we would like it to be.

Political realists see the world as it is: an arena of power politics moved primarily by perceived immediate self-interests, were morality is rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest. (12-13)

The strides in community organizing since his time have been incorporating all of this into a broader framework. I had forgotten that Alinksy himself had recognised some of the dangers of his style. He notes that the folks from the back of the yards organized under

equality for all races, job security, and a decent life for all. With their power they fought and won. Today, as part of the middle class, they are also part of our racist, discriminatory culture. (16)

This is the heartbreak, this the thing we have to work to transcend. I think it goes deeper than

It is the universal tale of revolution and reaction. (17)

Moving from how this fails to address race, I think class is more complex too, but this is an interesting way to cut it (and there is always a strategic usefulness in making complex things more simple):

The setting for the drama of change has never varied. Mankind has been and is divided into three parts: the Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Have-a-Little, Want Mores. (18)

We have to reach the second two, he argues. If only everyone knew in their very bones that this was true, how much better the world would be:

A major revolution to be won in the immediate future is the dissipation of man’s illusion that his own welfare can be separate from that of all other’s. (23)

For Alinksy, even so, it all comes down to self-interest. I think this works for some, not all — I don’t think the low road is ever to be found in the great swells of movement and sacrifice that rise from time to time. To not see beyond it feels like a weakness, but this remains a good point for some people among us, and after all, what else is Keynsian economics really?:

I believe that man is about to learn that the most practical life is the moral life and that the moral life is the only road to survival. He is beginning to learn that he will either share part of his material wealth or lose all of it; that he will respect and learn to live with other political ideologies if he wants civilization to go on. This is the kind of argument that man’s actual experience equips him to understand and accept. This is the low road to morality. There is no other. (23)

Of Means and Ends

I find it funny that Alinsky would have seen eye to eye with Trotsky as well as Bismarck on this. We don’t really have fights about this any more in the US or the UK, do we? Except perhaps in the very smallest of groups. This seems so dated, but I realise only because we have given up on revolution in a way, and for all Alinsky’s faults he hadn’t.

That perennial question, “Does the end justify the means?” is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, “Does this particular end justify this particular means?”

He goes on to quote Goethe — at the end I have collected a list of all the literature Alinsky quotes, and I swear it will surprise you.

The practical revolutionary will understand Goethe’s “conscience is the virtue of observers and not of agents of action”… (25)

I haven’t thought about means and ends for a long time, but this is challenging, and I think true. I think about Palestinians fighting and fighting for any recognition of their rights, and decades of nothing and I think so much of this holds true.

The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means… (26)

As do Alinsky’s eleven rules for the ethics of means and ends (he promised us rules in the title, and he always delivers. He also uses a lot of italics):

  1. one’s concerns with the ethics of ends and means varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue.
  2. the judgement of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment. (26)
  3. in war the end justifies almost any means. (29)
  4. judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point. (30)
  5. concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.
  6. the less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.
  7. generally success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.
  8. the morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory. (34)
  9. any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical. (35)
  10. you do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral arguments.
  11. goals must be phrased in general terms like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” “Of the Common Welfare,” “Pursuit of Happiness,” or “Bread and Peace.” (45)

This is a philosophical question most current discussions of community organizing aren’t entering into at all, and maybe we should. Similarly, Alinksy devotes a whole chapter to how we use certain words, and the battle over them that needs to take place.

A Word About Words

He talks about words that are ‘loaded with popular opprobrium’ … words prevalent in the language of politics, words like power, self-interest, compromise, and conflict. (48) This isn’t Voloshinov getting into how we fight for meanings in the most awesome of ways, but it is a level of awareness of how our use or avoidance of certain words shapes our movement. For that very reason I don’t know that I agree with all of his analysis of these words, but I love that he includes this argument with the prominence of a chapter.

Power is a good word though. This may be a bit simplistic in its analysis, but worth thinking about.

Striving to avoid the force, vigor, and simplicity of the word “power,” we soon become averse to thinking in vigorous, simple, honest terms. We strive to invent sterilized synonyms, cleansed of the opprobrium of the word power–but the new words mean something different, so they tranquilize us, begin to shepherd our mental processes off the main, conflict-ridden, grimy, and realistic power-paved highway of life. (50)

Disagreeing with his analysis of self-interest, I rather disagree with this, though I love the style of that last sentence. But the idea that how we speak truth to power is as much about the form as the content (I know, I know, you shouldn’t separate them) is important, and is often lost. I like this too:

To know power and not fear it is essential to its constructive use and control. (53)

The next post is on the nitty gritty of being an organizer and actually digging into the process of community organizing.

But first, a look at the books and authors that Alinsky draws from. I don’t know when this man had time to read, but he was no small-time intellectual.

Machiavelli
Bible
Upton Sinclair
Whitehead
Alice in Wonderland
de Tocqueville
Goethe
Henry James
La Rochefoucauld
Founding Fathers (ALL of them)
George Bernard Shaw
Lincoln
Mark Twain
Trotsky writing about Lenin
Gandhi
Rousseau
Whitman
Koestler
Bertrand Russell
Nietzsche
Pascal
St Ignatius
Freud
Clarence Darrow
Thoreau
Shakespeare

[Alinsky, Saul ([1971] 1989) Rules for Radicals: A pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage Books.]

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Charles Mills: The Racial Contract

Charles Mills - the Racial ContractYears ago my friend Ryan told me to read Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract, and it feels of central importance in my thinking now. Yet I bought it, and started it and put it down and did not pick it up again until recently. Too dry, too difficult, and contract law?

What an idiot I was.

This is a brilliant book, and perhaps my experience is testament to just how much reading philosophy and theory becomes easier with practice, but also, what an idiot. This would have been so useful for my thesis. But it is never too late. Going back over it, I kept thinking this nails it, this nails all of it. It is hardly a surprise that Charles Mills should be from Jamaica and have studied there, before moving to teach in the US (at present in NY at CUNY). This book is amazing, and my reflections in trying to write my way into grasping its essentials fill at least three posts, starting with the big picture.

It opens:

White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. You will not find this term in introductory, or even advanced, texts in political theory. … But though it covers more than two thousand years of Western political thought and runs the ostensible gamut of political systems, there will be no mention of the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years. And this omission is not accidental. Rather, it reflects the fact that standard textbooks and courses have for the most part been written and designed by whites, who take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as political, as a form of domination… It is just taken for granted; it is the background against which other systems, which we are to see as political, are highlighted. (1-2)

Really that’s it in a nutshell, right? There is an under-representation of people of colour in philosophy and women, though the number of women has been increasing and have done more work to reconceptualise the field. Still, it remains very white and male, both cause and effect of the system we live within.

A word here at the beginning about how race is socially constructed, and the way that Mills avoids essentialising whiteness — any race could have done this.

Whiteness is not really a color at all, but a set of power relations. (127)

To explore this system of white supremacy, Mills uses the lens of the social contract — ubiquitous in explanations of our government and society just as the names of Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, and America’s founding fathers are — but correcting for the fact that:

in its obfuscation of the ugly realities of group power and domination, it is, if unsupplemented, a profoundly misleading account of the way the modern world actually is and came to be. (3)

Mills hopes — and I echo that hope — that the racial contract as a lens can serve to bridge two segregated areas — mainstream ethics and political philosophy with the world of Native American, African American, and Third and Fourth world political thought and their focus on colonialism, imperialism, white settlement and etc. I am consistently frustrated with the way work becomes siloed, insights in one valuable arena of struggle and scholarship are lost, reinvented in another. But that’s another matter.

The Racial Contract is inspired by Carol Pateman’s feminist work The Sexual Contract. Have to read that. Both, go back to the ‘classic contractarians’: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant. Names I heard in high school, read in college. Haven’t really thought too much about since then.

Charles Mills is making three simple claims:

the existential claim — white supremacy, both local and global, exists and has existed for many years; the conceptual claim — white supremacy should be thought of as itself a political system; the methodological claim — as a political system, white supremacy can illuminatingly be theorized as based on a “contract” between whites, a Racial Contract. (7)

They sound simple, but let me tell you, it’s a crazy racial rollercoaster from here with loads of ah-ha moments. So. Overview. At least, I do my best.

The racial contract is political, moral, and epistemological. (9)

Big words. I always forget what epistemological means, maybe one day I will remember. I need to start using it daily in sentences, which will make me so popular.

The racial contract sets up a moral hierarchy:

the general purpose of the Contract is always the differential privileging of the whites as a group with respect to the nonwhites as a group, the exploitation of their bodies, land, and resources, and the denial of equal socioeconomic opportunities to them. All whites are beneficiaries of the Contract, though some whites are not signatories to it. (11)

That’s the key difference there — all whites benefit, even though all whites do not agree with its provisions or help with its maintenance. So we best be working to destroy it.

Never forget that the power in this contract sits all in one place:

It is a contract between those categorized as white over the nonwhites, who are thus the objects rather than the subjects of the agreement. (12)

And this racial contract establishes a racial state:

where the status of whites and nonwhites is clearly demarcated, whether by law or custom. And the purpose of this state, by contrast with the neutral state of classic contractarianism, is, inter alia, specifically to maintain and reproduce this racial order… Correspondingly, the “consent” expected of white citizens is in part conceptualized as a consent, whether explicit or tacit, to the racial order, to white supremacy, what could be called Whiteness… From the inception, then, race is in no way an “afterthought,” a “deviation” from ostensibly raceless Western ideals, but rather a central shaping constituent of those ideals. (14)

Yes, hell yes. It is so frustrating to find race over and over again treated as something separate and incidental rather than a fundamental structuring reality. It is brilliant to find clarity in how this racial hierarchy sets the parameters for discussion as a whole. Thus disputes between Locke and Kant are still disputes that sit comfortably within and remain limited by this framework.

So it is fairly astonishing — until you think about it I suppose — that this framework is consistently ignored by whites. ‘[O]ne has an agreement to misinterpret the world’ writes Charles Mills.

Thus, in effect, on matters related to race, the Racial Contract prescribes for its signatories an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance, a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made. … Whiteness…is a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities. (18)

I think under Trump we are reaping the rewards of this epistemology of ignorance with a vengeance. Sad.

In classic contractarian thought or Rawls-inspired contracts or even Carol Pateman’s Sexual Contract, the focus is on the ideal. Mills argues that the Racial Contract, on the other hand, is an historical actuality. It is a global reality created over five hundred years of European domination and active consolidation of white supremacy. What always shocks me — it doesn’t matter how many times I read it — is the openness with which those in power once discussed their moral, political and economic rights as white European Christians over the rest of the world. The openness with which a battery of arguments was used to prove nonwhites less than human.

This must always be remembered. These things happened at the same time, these philosophies and these conquests, often by the same people. So we also must remember:

European humanism usually meant that only Europeans were human. (27)

You have to remember that George Washington was known to the Senecas as “Town Destroyer” (28).

You have to remember that white settler states — US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia, South Africa — were all founded on extermination, displacement and the forcing of indigenous populations onto reservations. Pierre van den Berghe coined the term Herrenvolk democracies to characterise them and the many traits that they share. This was cited, and supported, in The Global Colour Line as well… still, I’ve been meaning to read den Berghe for ages.

Yet none of this has been seen as an appropriate subject for political philosophy?

The fact that this racial structure, clearly political in character, and the struggle against it, equally so, have not for the most part been deemed appropriate subject matter for mainstream Anglo-American political philosophy and the fact that the very concepts hegemonic in the discipline are refractory to an understanding of these realities, reveal at best, a disturbing provincialism and an ahistoricity profoundly at odds with the radically foundational questioning on which philosophy prides itself and, at worst, a complicity with the terms of the Racial Contract itself. (31)

The classic social contract is primarily social/political, but also economic — Locke is all about private property and its protection, right? But it is the economic aspect that is most ‘salient’ in the Racial Contract as it is

calculatedly aimed at economic exploitation…. There are other benefits accruing from the Racial Contract– far greater political influence, cultural hegemony, the psychic payoff that comes from knowing one is a member of the Herrenvolk (what W.E.B. Du Bois once called “the wages of whiteness”)–but the bottom line is material advantage. (32-33)

At the same time whites across the spectrum have steadfastly ignored or played down the role of colonial conquest and African slavery in Europe’s development. Mills describes many who have challenged this view like Walter Rodney, writing about the ways in which Europe’s development is built upon the underdevelopment of its colonies. But the mainstream academy has relegated them to the margins, just as it has relegated an understanding of  ‘the centrality of racial exploitation to US economy and the size of its payoff…’ Mills continued:

this very centrality, these very dimensions render the topic taboo, virtually undiscussed in the debates on justice of most white political theory. (39)

Where are we now? A stag described by Toni Morrison, Cornel West, Manning Marable and others. One where ‘colourblind’ is the watchword because it is claimed that we are all now equal since the death of a Jim Crow supported by law:

Whereas before it was denied that nonwhites were equal persons, it is now pretended that nonwhite are equal abstract persons who can be fully included in the polity merely by extending the scope of the moral operator, without any fundamental change in the arrangements that have resulted from the previous system of explicit de jure racial privilege. (75)

But all of this is only possible in a world where white supremacy reigns.

But in a racially structure polity, the only people who can find it psychologically possible to deny the centrality of race are those who are racially privileged, for whom race is invisible precisely because the world is structured around them, whiteness as the ground against which the figures of other races–those who, unlike us, are raced–appear. (76)

To finish this post, I end with a starting look at what might be required to move forward — I like that this is incorporated, and it resonated strongly with some of Gilroy’s work.

A genuine transcendence of its terms would require, as a preliminary, the acknowledgment of its past and present existence and the social, political, economic, psychological, and moral implications it has had both for its contractors and its victims. (77)

[Mills, Charles W. (1997) The Racial Contract. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.]

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Patricia Hill Collins: The Ethos of Violence

I have been thinking a lot about violence, it is one of the great contradictions of our humanity I think, and Patricia Hill Collins doesn’t shy away. Seems a good subject for the day of Trump’s inauguration, which feels like an act of violence in itself. His comments on (and actions towards) women, on the disabled, on the poor, on people of colour, I can’t even…

Interesting that unpicking the violence of US society makes sense of it all in a way that many liberals haven’t quite grasped I don’t think.

Understanding how an ethos of violence constitutes a deep structural root of U.S. society requires viewing violence as a necessary and ever-present feature of oppression. (189)

Because this society was founded on oppression,  violence has been central to this country’s founding through conquest and slavery, as well as being found in the intimate spaces of our relationships. It has always been present, and yet

Given it’s socially constructed nature, surprisingly little attention has been focused on how power relations shape definitions of violence.

Instead there is a focus on its most simple aspect, as seen in the Oxford English Dictionary:

the exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to persons or property; action or conduct characterized by this treatment or usage tending to cause bodily injury or forcibly interfering with personal freedom.

Everyday understandings of violence see it as being an intentional act of causing physical pain or injury to another person (189).

But violence works in and through power relations, it is both visceral and structural.

Definitions of violence that take power relations into account refute these formal, abstract definitions. Racism, sexism, class exploitation, heterosexism, age and citizenship status each have distinctive organizational patterns across their domains of power whereby violence takes a specific form. For example, the gendered violence that women encounter takes the form of rape and sexual assault…The violence associated with class exploitation … is more likely to be within public policies that contribute to differential rates of infant mortality or that send poor and working-class kids off to war. (189)

The further I read in ‘The Ethos of Violence’ the more I see the distorted faces and even more distorted words of those who supported Trump’s rise to power:

Violence can be better imagined as a more dynamic concept whose complexity lies not just in its socially embedded nature in contemporary power relations but also in its ability to shape those same power relations. Violence may be such a naturalized or taken-for-granted dimension of U.S. society that it operates as a saturated site of intersectionality. In other words, violence operates as a form of conceptual glue that enables racism, sexism, class exploitation, and heterosexism to function as they do. Thinking about violence within the context of intersecting power relations suggest three distinguishing features of violence that might help us develop a more nuanced and contextualized definition: (1) the power to define violence; (2) the symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech; and (3) the routine nature of violence. (190)

To look into each of these three definitions:

The power to define violence

First, the interpretation of any given act as “violent” lies not within the act itself but in how powerful groups conceptualize it.(190)

She looks at the Rodney King beating, differences between protection of women as rape victims, Mumia…today we still have the daily murders of Black men, women and children to show just how true this is. It is the power of definition that allows a public discourse and policy regime to continue as if this did not matter. Because they have defined it not to matter.

Social institutions regulate behavior via sanction and censure and also advance interpretive frames for analysing it. These frameworks encourage the public to interpret violence in ways that support the vested interests of more powerful groups. In other words, these frames help the public interpret what often is identical behavior different, depending on who is engaging in it. (191)

The symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech

The division between speech and actions is also part of the ethos violence.

The use of words to humiliate, threaten, harass, belittle, destroy generally fall outside of the definition of violence and are often protected . Prejudice is not seen as violence. Discrimination is not seen as violence. Representation is not seen as violence.

Trumps’ speech is so vile, yet for those maintaining this separation, it is not seen as violent.

I myself can experience it in no other way, I am bewildered by this disconnect.

Violence as routine

Violence is seen in the daily micro-assaults on the basis of race, racial profiling, how women avoid certain spaces at all times or certain times of day…it is ubiquitous, shaping our lives in myriad, countless ways. And we are so used to it, we don’t see it for what it is.

America has long declared war on the least powerful people within its borders. This state of ‘normalized war’ predicated on the acceptability of violence targeted toward select groups remains unrecognized because it too is routine. (196)

This, all of this. How is it taking us so long to unravel, understand, and demolish violence? Again, this is all about power and intersectionality, how it affects  who  is heard and who is believed. How it benefits a group of people to shut their ears and eyes to reality and drag a country off down a terrifying road…

Patricia Hill Collins: Space, Identity, Intersectionality

Patricia Hill Collins blew me away the first time I read her in any depth, and continues to do so every time I return. She is someone who helps me get through every time I despair of academic and intellectual endeavours, and On Intellectual Activism is full of both inspiration and knowledge, spanning he wide range of her work and thought.

A book to treasure. Especially given we face the inauguration of Donald Trump. It still seems unreal.

I’ve been working through some of the main ideas that jumped out at me this time around, some felt new and others, like intersectionality, felt solidified. In introducing the collection of essays and extracts, Collins writes:

Two main ideas are at work here, both of which focus on social structural sources of power….developed throughout my scholarship, I have used the thesis of intersectionality and the idea of the matrix of domination as interrelated constructs to describe social structures of domination. Intersectional thinking suggests that race, class, gender, nation, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and other forms of social hierarchy structure one another. My goal has been to conceptualize intersectionality and study its manifestations in a matrix of domination from one social setting to the next. (xvi)

I am working on organising my thoughts a little more on how this structuring takes place, how this conceptualisation sits alongside and works together with Stuart Hall’s ideas of articulation. So that will come later. Today just a collection of thoughts really. While these notes are from a very long time ago, I started giving them some kind of structure on Martin Luther King Jr day, so it was nice to come across this — a good place to start in thinking about Collins and her contributions to struggle because it starts with a goal and a vision — Martin Luther King Jr’s Beloved Community ():

The idea of Beloved Community envisions a public space that is heterogeneous and participatory, and where we each see how we are responsible for bringing it about. (145, from ‘Making Space for Public Conversations: An Interview, 2011)

she further writes:

I envision the Beloved Community as a social group that embraces all of its members. Yet, within the space of Beloved Community, with its ethos of social justice, there is also space for disagreement. People seem to assume that communities are happy places where no one disagrees. But to construct a vision of Beloved Community, there must be conflict and dialogue, and not running away from the conflict that might come from dialogue across differences. Communities negotiate power relations across differences. What makes a community a “beloved” community is that people within it are committed to working through these differences in power in ways that make communities fair for everyone. (148)

This kind of sums up in a most beautiful way what she is trying to accomplish — to not shy away from disagreement, from hard truths as we see them, but to communicate them respectfully. To explore them. To find strength in differences. To fix what is broken. And so much is broken, not least how we often conduct our justice struggles. Collins reflects:

Many of the themes in Black Feminist Thought reflect my sustained effort to reconcile my independent view of the world with my devalued place in it. (8, from ‘Why Black Feminist Thought’ presented 1990-93)

This helps explain why King, much as I love him, is the civil rights figure celebrated with a public holiday and to whom many not down with the struggle will point, rather than Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Jo Ann Robinson or Rosa Parks in her role as secretary of the NAACP and the many others working for justice. Why feminism has been so important, why the LGBTQI struggle has been so important — and Patricia Hill Collins has been central in thinking how to create a politics that works against all aspects of oppression rather than just one. I love her critical thinking on the differences between collective and individual “identity politics”:

the Collective advanced a powerful theory of action, one grounded in analysis and experience with “identity politics” as the phrase that captures these complex relationships. In contrast, contemporary approaches to identity politics rely on an individualist notion of identity: identity as freedom from social constructions, no matter the power relations. (54, from ‘Still Brave? Black Feminism as a Social Justice Project’)

The erasure of an understanding of power here is key to the problem:

Social structures of intersecting systems of power disappear, to be replaced with by an endlessly changing flow of individuals, each trying to understand him- or herself. (68, from ‘Learning from the Outsider Within Revisited’)

The erasure of the collective is as problematic as well, like Freire, Horton and Baker, Collins sees work and theory as needing to be collectively created through struggle. The goal for her?

Black girls would not be consumers of Black feminism–instead they would create it (66).

This creation is central to a liberatory practice, because it matters where you stand, as she writes:

…the social location of being on the edge mattered. (66)

Taken all together, we have to understand power and identity in new ways:

I don’t see racism as a cardboard, one-dimensional filter…Instead, I see racism as an ever-changing system of power relations that works with and through gender, class, sexuality, age, ethnicity, citizenship, and other similarly structured systems of power. (178, from ‘Are We Living in a Post-Racial World?’)

Working on segregation and privatisation as I do, this viewpoint brings valuable insights into both:

The logic of segregation says: Separate people into boxes (e.g., categories of race, gender, class, and sexuality), keep the boxes separate from each other, and rank each box’s worth. Racial segregation is the most visible, yet it is only the tip of the iceberg. The logic of segregation affects all aspects of U.S. society and global politics that carve up the world’s people into nation-states. The whole notion of borders, boundaries, and segregation has been a very important cognitive frame for American perceptions of its peoples and the world. (33, from ‘Black Sexual Politics 101’)

This remains, despite the new rhetoric of colourblindness, their new geographic codes:

One distinguishing feature of the new racism is how it continues to rely on a logic of segregation that remains powerful yet masks its own operation. … not the stark either/or kind of the past…but a more genteel  version coded through euphemisms of “good” and “bad” neighborhoods…(34)

Their new social codes:

overt racial language is replaced by covert racial euphamisms that reference the same phenomena–talk of “niggers” and “ghettos” becomes replaced by phrases such as “urban,” “welfare mothers,” and “street crime.” Everyone knows what these terms mean, and if they don’t, they quickly figure it out. (35)

It is also described, justified, sanctified in terms of family values:

Family values are everywhere, motivating behaviors concerning race, class, and national priorities. For example, whites are told that the decision to move into a white neighborhood is not about upholding racism, but rather constitutes a personal choice to protect the interests of their children and provide them with a “good” education. (202)

She makes the connection between privatization and race, looking at academies and the white flight from public schools as changing other institutions as well so that

…the public sphere becomes a curiously confined, yet visible location that increases the value of private services and privacy itself. Public places become devalued spaces containing Latinos, poor people, African Americans, the homeless, and anyone else who cannot afford to escape. In this context, privacy signals safety; control over one’s home, family and community space; and racial homogeneity–all qualities that can be purchased if one can afford it. This version of privatization dovetails with Guinier and Torres’ notion of the privatization of power. If private spaces are better, then shouldn’t private entities run the public itself? (83, from ‘Going Public: Doing the Sociology That Had No Name’)

And of course, she ties it all back in to our history, to a global context

I see segregation as a metaphor for a broader set of social relations stemming from colonialism and nationalism. These political systems required drawing strict boundaries to determine citizenship, status, and the benefits and costs of belonging. Historically, sociology was uncomfortable with itself because it was a border discipline during a period of separation where, to know who you were, you had to pick a side…(108, from ‘Rethinking Knowledge, Community and Empowerment’)

These were just a few of the highlights of her wisdom around what we face, I’m still working through more on intersectionality and power, theorisations of violence, and the role of the intellectual…

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Power and Powerlessness: John Gaventa on Appalachia

John Gaventa Power and PowerlessnessI loved John Gaventa’s book on power. I read it a good while ago, but it came to me as I read more and more about social movement analysis that it would be good to look at it again — and the more I love it. Because it does not start from the question of why do people organise and challenge power, but from the question of why they don’t do it more often.

This is a study about quiescence and rebellion in a situation of glaring inequality. Why, in a social relationship involving the domination of a non-élite by an élite, does challenge to that domination not occur? What is there in certain situations of social deprivation that prevents issues from arising, grievances from being voiced, or interests from being recognized? Why, in an oppressed community where one might intuitively expect upheaval, does one instead find, or appear to find, quiescence? Under what conditions and against what obstacles does rebellion begin to emerge? (3)

That, I think, is the right question. Not surprising, I suppose, from someone who was the director of the Highlander Center after Myles Horton. Gaventa names some of the theories that help explain this before replacing them with something much better:

…the sociological literature of industrial societies offers an array of explanations for its roots: embourgeoisement, hegemony, no real inequality, low rank on a socio-economic status scale, cultural deficiencies of the deprived, or simply the innate apathy of the human race…Rather than deal with these directly, this study will explore another explanation: in situations of inequality, the political response of the deprived group or class may be seen as a function of power relationships, such that power serves for the development and maintenance of the quiescence of the non-élite. The emergence of rebellion, as a corollary, may be understood as the process by which the relationships are altered.   (4)

It looks to the question: what is that nature of power? Bases its analysis not on Foucault, but on Steven Lukes in Power: A Radical View, and the way this debate on power has expanded C. Wright Mills.

Lukes (& Gaventa) on Power

Lukes argues that power consists of three dimensions. Gaventa summarises as do I — given that Lukes is still on my stack of books unread:

One-Dimensional Approach: the pluralists, like Robert Dahl and Nelson Polsby. Quoting Dahl:

My intuitive idea of power is something like this: A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that he would not otherwise do.’*

This definition is focused on behaviour, on doing, on participating.

It makes the following assumptions

  1. grievances are assumed to be recognized and acted upon
  2. participation is assumed to occur within decision-making arenas, which are open to any organized group (5)
  3. because of the openness of this system, leaders may be studied, not as élites, but as representative spokesmen for a mass

Gaventa describes the consequences:

Political silence, or inaction, would have to be taken to reflect ‘consensus’, despite the extent of the deprivation… To make plausible inaction among those for whom the status quo is not comfortable, other explanations are provided…because the study of non-participation in this approach is sequestered by definition from the study of power, the explanations must generally be placed within the circumstance or culture of the non-participants themselves. (7)

We know the list: apathy, political inefficacy, cynicism or alienation…amoral familism (I think I knew that was on the list).

Gaventa asks:

What is there inherent in low income, education or status, or in rural or traditional cultures that itself explains quiescence? If these are sufficient components of explanation, how are variations in behaviour amongst such groups to be explained? (8)

Groups do sometimes rise up, fight back. Something else must be going, so we move to the two-dimensional approach, introduced by Schattschneider, further developed by Bachrach and Baratz (again, none of whom I have read).

… power’s ‘second face’, by which power is exercised not just upon participants within the decision-making process but also towards the exclusion of certain participants and issues altogether. (9)

Thus, power’s second dimension and

The study of politics must focus ‘both on who gets what, when and how and who gets left out and how’** (9)

Here’s another good explanatory quote from Michael Parenti ‘Power and Pluralism: A View form the Bottom’ Journal of Politics 32 (1970)

‘One of the most important aspects of power is not to prevail in a struggle but to pre-determine the agenda of struggle…

But still, this is not sufficient to explain the patterns in resistence and acquiescence that we see. Lukes brings in the three-dimensional approach, here he is quoted by Gaventa:

A exercises power over B when A affects B in a manner contrary to B’s interests.

A may exercise power over B by getting him to do what he does not want to do, but he also exercises power over him by influencing, shaping or determining his very wants.

Gaventa continues, his own commentary puctuated by quotes from Lukes again:

the analysis of power must avoid the individualistic, behavioural confines of the one- and to some extent the two-dimensional approaches. It must allow ‘for consideration of the many ways in which the potential issues are kept out of politics, whether through the operation of social forces and institutional practices or through individuals’ decisions…the three-dimensional view … offers the prospect of a serious sociological and not merely personalized explanation of how political systems prevent demands from becoming political issues or even from being made.

this allows considerations of social forces and historical patterns involved in hegemony per Gramsci, and Ralph Milliband’s work on the engineering of consent (in The State in Capitalist Society which I maybe should read).

No dimension cancels out the others, they work in combination and each level represents a mechanism of power:

1st — ‘who prevails in bargaining over the resolution of key issues…political resources–votes, jobs, influence–that can be brought by political actors to the bargaining game…(14)

2nd — same as above, and in addition a ‘mobilization of bias’. Continues to quote Bachrach and Baratz

A set of predominant values, beliefs, rituals, and institutional procedures (‘rules of the game’) that operate systematically and consistently to the benefit of certain persons and groups at the expense of others. (1970, p, 43)

Some of the forms of non-decision making: force, threat of sanctions, invocations of norms and precedents, manipulation of symbols (like ‘communist’ and ‘troublemaker’), establishing of new barriers. These are easily identifiable, others exist that are not so observable, like institutional inaction, or B deciding not to make a demand of A for fear of anticipated reactions.

3rd — least developed and understood

Their identification, one suspects, involves specifying the means through which power influences, shapes or determines conceptions of the necessities, possibilities, and strategies of challenge in situations of latent conflict.

could include

‘study of social myths, language and symbols’, ‘study of communication of information’, ‘focus upon the means by which social legitimations are developed around the dominant, and instilled as beliefs or roles in the dominated’, ‘locating the power processes behind the social construction of meaning and patterns that serve to get B to act and believe…’ (15)

Thus we have direct and observable forms: control of information, mass media, processes of socialization. Indirect: psychological adaptations to the state of being without power, adaptive responses to continual defeat, extensive fatalism, self-deprecation, undue apathy. Greater susceptibility to internalization of values and beliefs.

This understanding develops from Freire — people are unable to engage actively with others, denied ability to reflect upon actions or act upon them. Gaventa quotes Gramsci:

…it can reach the point where the contradiction of conscience will not permit any decision, any choice, and produce a state of moral and political passivity. (Gramsci 1957, p 67)

Gaventa argues

the dimensions of power, each with its sundry mechanisms, must be seen as a interrelated in the totality of their impact. (20)

Thus all of these dimensions of power insulate A from challenge from B, but — and Gaventa looks always to how these injustices can be overcome, which is again why I think this is so useful:

as the barriers are overcome, so, too, do A’s options for control lessen. And, just as the dimensions of power are accumulative and re-enforcing for the maintenance of quiescence, so, too, does the emergence of challenge in one area of a power relationship weaken the power of the total to withstand further challenges by more than the loss of a single component. (24)

Methodology for studying power

Gaventa writes:

rather than assuming the inaction or inertia to be ‘natural’ in the mass and activism as the phenomena to be explained (as is done in the pluralist methodology), this approach initially assumes that remedial action upon inequalities by those affected would occur were it not for power relationships. (26)

How do you see it? Understand the mechanisms by which repressive power relationships are operating? This

… requires going outside the decision-making arenas and carrying on extensive, time-consuming research in the community in question. (27)

Thus it is necessary to:

1 — look at the historical development of an apparent ‘consensus’, whether this has actually been a choice, or shaped by power relationships

2 — look at processes of communication, ideologies and actions

3 — to posit or participate in ideas or actions which speculate about or attempt to develop challenges — response will shower if power relations operating (27).

Like Stuart Hall, Gaventa has a poor opinion of the idea of ‘false consciousness:

The unfortunate term ‘false consciousness’ must be avoided, for it is analytically confusing. Consciousness refers to a state, as in a state of being, and thus can only be falsified through negation of the state itself. If consciousness exists, it is real to its holders, and thus to the power situation. To discount it as ‘false’ may be to discount too simply the complexities or realities of the situation…To argue that existing consciousness cannot be ‘false’ is not to argue the same for consensus. (29)

To illustrate both this understanding of power and this method of its study, Gaventa then goes on to destroy any possible belief that the ‘acquiescence’ of coal miners in the Appalachians is due to their own lack of intelligence, culture or because they are happy and smiling in their work.

First he details the precise ways the American Association first came to own 80,000 acres of land in the Cumberland Gap — and the way this first key encounter of people losing their lands through essentially a combination of brute force and fraud had been internalized as their own fault. He outlines the power this company came to hold over its tenants and local power structures. He oulines the ideology developed to support this power:

  • the notion of ‘a common purpose’ in mining and development
  • the idea that benefits were attainable by all through hard work
  • the idea that the new structures represented progress, civilization
  • rewriting the old ways of mountaineer, which were shaped by their relationship to nature and their harmony with it, to be seen as man’s role as a conqueror

Where there had been a solidarity of family and farm there was now an industrial solidarity…Although life had involved work before, it had not been so gloried — nor bought as a mass product. Where there had been a sense of contentment, there was a progress that transformed. Where there had been a struggle to obtain a harmony with nature, this civilization would dominate nature and free the creating capacities of man. However, for the study of power it is not enough to say that this was a different ideology; one must look at the processes or mechanisms through which it was instilled. (62)

Gaventa sees this as a complex process of colonialism, one  occurred driven by the initial mining boom in Middlesboro in at least 4 observable ways:

  1. A distortion of information: the industrial order was introduced to the mountaineers’ society by conspicuous consumption, with an exaggerated demonstration of its benefits (63) Made into a resort, attracted the wealthy. —
  2. The exaggerated attractiveness of the industrial order, on the one hand, carried with it the degradation of the culture and society of the mountaineers, on the other. (65) Similar to process of racialism in colonization process. Glorification of the one culture and degradation of the other could combine with the ideology of openness and hard work to help ensure a ‘choice’ by the mountaineers to pursue the new values. (66)
  3. More direct appropriation of local culture — replacement of old names in places of cultural development with new names from foreign cultures, while places of work and mines retained old labels. ‘By the imposition of one identity over another in the cultural arena…the development of a counterhegemony was made less likely…(67)
  4. connected to socializing influences of government, church and school controlled by the Company.

Gaventa notes an increase of violence, but horizontal against each other (refers back to Freire who also describes this). Compares to other similar regions, shows that:

the ‘consensus’ of the miners in Yellow Creek was inherent neither in their conditions nor in their nature, but grew from the effective wielding of power–in all its dimensions–by the new ‘instruments’ of civilization. (75)

Gaventa continues through the historical formation that elads us to the present. After the initial boom and destruction of previous ways of life and though came the rise of unionisation, the violence of its destruction, and the maintenance of power relationships into the present (of the book’s writing of course). He gives several case studies.

Throughout the book Gaventa focused on the articulation of structure and culture (though articulation is not a word he uses, and comes of course from Stuart Hall, but this is exactly the relationship Hall is trying to examine as well). He looks at how local politics is entirely within the control of the power structure. He returns to the various approaches to power and how they illuminate current conditions, showing the interrelated nature of these forms of exercising power.

He ends with an account of a current (1980) struggle, a campaign that began organizing around garbage collection, then started to move towards land reform given that the land was not owned by those who lived or worked there, but by people living far away. Those in struggle found that this was the crux of the problem. You want to see power relations in action, you try such a challenge. Gaventa describes the repression they faced: twenty-bullets through a community worker’s home, office of health and development group burned down, alternative school also destroyed by fire (214). People branded as communists, ignored by local government and agencies.

A later campaign against the multinational company owning the land couldn’t even discover where ownership actually resided, much less how to make them accountable.

I loved the dark humour of this:

Although the power of decision and non-decisions may allow the powerholder to remain beyond protest, the powerlessness of the protestors does not protect them from repercussions from their actions. (249)

Also this:

The fact that the discontent is so often overlooked says less about the Valley than it does about the methodological biases found in the dominant approach in American to the study of power (252-53)

A historical approach is needed to  reveal

the shaping of patterns and routines which underlie the power relationships of the present … just as a ‘view from below’ allowed a unique perspective of ‘power’s hidden faces’ (253)

He continues:

Only as these multiple aspects of powerlessness are overcome may the conflict that emerges in power’s first dimension be said to be amongst relatively competing groups, upon clearly conceived interests, in an open arena.

Rebellion, to be successful, must both confront power and overcome the accumulated effects of powerlessness. (258)

To end on a high note with hope for the future:

While the notion of universal democracy in America may consequently be a myth, it is not an impotent one. As long as the belief in ‘openness’ can be sustained, the phenomenon of power may continue to be separated from the understanding of non-participation. And as long as the roots of quiescence can continue to be blamed upon the victims of power, then democracy of the few will continue to be legitimated by a prevailing belief in the apathy or ignorance of the many. (260)

 

*’The Concept of Power’ in Bell, Edwards, Harrison Wagner (eds) (1969) Political Power: A Reader in Theory and Research’ p 80

**Bachrach and Baratz (1962) and (1970)

[Gaventa, John. (1982) Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.]

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Eavan Boland’s Dublin

I did not know Eavan Boland before this, did not know Paula Meehan. I did know the exquisiteness of words, the occasional poet that tells my heart, spells my heart, rips rebuilds reweaves renews and changes the world for me. Gift-givers. Both of these women are such poets.

Instead I bought this book because they were writing cities.

I bought this book because I love Dublin, too. This post focuses on words and writers and cities, but I loved every word, every poem, the so-much-more, the different-for-all-of-us that lies in every line. Paula Meehan at the ends says ‘The way a poem lets you hold so much in mind’. Which is why each poem will forever be so much more than what I write here. This is an apology for narrowing them down really, for making too obvious how much this blog is to mark and capture things I hope to weave together sometime in the futures. Not tell how things are. I’d have to write poetry for that.

The intro is from editor Jody Allen Randolph, and situates everything nicely — there is so much to think about here:

What gives cities their unique identities? As this book will suggest, a city gets its identity not just from its buildings, its industries, its history, its public events, and its notable citizens. It also finds its identity from being imagined. The years, decades, centuries in which a city shapes its inhabitants add up to a rich life and afterlife of meaning and memory. Those meanings and memories requires language and expression (9).

She writes ‘We also understood that poets both find and give identity to the city…As editors, we imagined this book as a topography of the city with the poet…’ Thus poems arranged topographically not chronologically, in sections of river, city, suburb.

And this, a paradigm…I am never sure I like those, but this works better than most:

But we wanted to do more that just suggest the ways in which a poet has imagined a city over a span of four or five decades. We wanted to sketch out a paradigm for how a city is imagined. To this end, we envisioned a series of suggestive dialogues between text and image, and between poet and poet. (11)

And so a skimming of poetry, pulling bits and pieces that speak to the city and hopefully not damaging the whole and damn but you should go read them all anyway.

From City of Shadows, a reclaiming of the ordinary for poetry, so much of her work is about that.

I absorbed the sense that poetry was safe here in this city at twilight, with its violet sky and constant drizzle, within this circle of libraries and pubs and talks about stanzas and cadences. Beyond it was the ordinariness which could only dissipate it; beyond it was a life for which no visionary claim could be made. (13)

Except Boland makes this claim, scatters it in beauty and pain across the page.

Once in Dublin (my city of white pepper):

Small things
make the past.
Make the present seem out of place.

Unheroic

How do I know my country? Let me tell you
it has been difficult to do. And when I do
go back to difficult knowledge, it is not
to that street or those men raised
high above the certainties they stood on —
Ireland hero history — but how

I went behind the linen room and up
the stone stairs and climbed to the top.
And stood for a moment there, concealed
by shadows. In a hiding place.
Waiting to see. Wanting to look again.
Into the patient face of the unhealed. (19)

The Huguenot Graveyard at the Heart of the City

This city with its colours of sky and day —
and which is dear to us and particular —
was not a place to them: merely
the one witty step ahead of hate which

is all they could keep. Or stay. (21)

Migrations, our city through the eyes of others, an empathy with the plight of strangers. Everything our world lacks now.

Tree of Life

Wait
for dawn to make us clear to one another

Let the sun
inch above the roof-tops,

Let love
be the light that shows again

the blossom to the root. (27)

An Elegy For My Mother in Which She Scarcely Appears

as is my mother, on this Dublin evening of
fog crystals and frost as she reached out to test
one corner of a cloth for dryness as the prewar
Irish twilight closes in and down on the room
and the curtains are drawn and here am I,
not even born and already a conservationist,
with nothing to assist me but the last
and most fabulous of beasts — language, language —
which knows, as I do, that it’s too late
to record the loss of these things but does so anyway,
and anxiously, in case it shares their fate. (33)

Language, over and over it is language in many of the same ways other colonised people experience its loss, its erasure, the way it shapes experience and meaning. Much here reminded of Assia Djebar among others.

And Eavan Boland loves rivers too, and their complex relationship with the city, here a generative one.

Gifts of the River

I begin with the Liffey because a river is not a place: it is a maker of places. Without the river there would be no city. Every day, turning its narrow circle, endlessly absorbing and re-absorbing the shapes and reflections of the city, it mirrors what it created. With the river, the city every day has to throw itself again into those surfaces, those depths, those reflections which have served as the source of all its fictions. (43)

The Scar

Dawn on the River.
Dublin arises out of what reflects it.

Anna Liffey
looks to the east, to the sea, (45)

And here, I don’t know why I was surprised, happily, but so I was. Empire. Its complexities.

The Harbour

City of shadows and of the gradual
capitulations to the last invader
this is the final one: signed in water
and witnessed in granite and ugly bronze and gun-metal.

And by me. I am your citizen: composed of
your fictions, your compromise, I am
a part of your story and its outcome.
And ready to record its its contradictions. (55)

The Mother Tongue

The old pale ditch can still be seen
less than half a mile from my house–

its ancient barrier of mud and brambles
which mireth next unto Irishmen
is now a mere rise of coarse grass,
a rowan tree and some thinned-out spruce,
where a child is playing at twilight.

I stand in the shadows. I find it
hard to believe now that once
this was a source of our division:

Dug. Drained. Shored up and left
to keep out and keep in. That here
the essence of a colony’s defence
was the substance of the quarrel with its purpose:

Land. Ground. A line drawn in rain
and clay and the roots of wild broom–
behind it the makings of a city,
beyond it rumours of a nation–
by Dalkey and Kilternan and Balally
through two ways of saying their names.

***

I was born on this side of the Pale.
I speak with the forked tongue of colony.
But I stand in the first dark and frost
of a winter night in Dublin and imagine

my pure sound, my undivided speech
travelling to the edge of this silence.
As if to find me. And I listen: I hear
what I am safe from. What I have lost. (77)

The segregated spaces created by power, created for domination, the damage they do to hearts and lives:

Witness

Here is the city—
its worn-down mountains,
its grass and iron,
its smoky coast
seen from the high roads
on the Wicklow side.

From Dalkey Island
to the North Wall,
to the blue distance seizing its perimeter,
its old divisions are deep within it.

And in me also.
And always will be.

Out of my mouth they come:
The spurred and booted garrisons.
The men and women
they dispossessed.

What is a colony
if not the brutal truth
that when we speak
the graves open.

And the dead walk?

I am awe-struck by these poems. I sat, and then dragged myself back to the register of prose.

Glad I did. It is a wonderful conversation between the wonderful Paula Meehan, who crosses class boundaries and tells Eavan Boland:

I realised that an accent is not a politics…then it was, suddenly, both a political and a literary argument. About who writes the city. I began to see that the city you were writing into your poems was not a scenic backdrop for the working out of the drama of the self, that, in fact, your relationship was with the polis, with the power structures of the state as manifest in architecture, in statuary, in the suffered histories of the excluded as much as in the commemorated and sanctioned official histories. (98)

She responds:

…I was interested in looking at a city as a place where the ghosts of power are remembered and tested. For me these ghosts are often colonial. But sometimes they’re just the spirits of place. (98)

Paula:

I always puzzled at being told Irish poets have a great ‘sense of place‘. I suspected that underneath was an unstated ‘and you should stay in your place’. It felt like a simplification…It has become such a cliche that it masks, possibly drains of power, one of the most vital and crucial acts of the poet, the compact between the non-human and the human. Between the locale and its creatures, what waters and nourishes, as well as what threatens, what grows there. You mention ‘spirit of place’ and this rings truer to me than ‘sense of place’. We can trace this aspect of our work back to the Dinnseanchas, the responsibility we once had to enshrine, possibly encode, in language the lore and etymology of place. (98)

and again Paula on language:

And now consider the other games that are being played, when you sit down to work with a poem: with the language itself, English and its imperial nature, our resistant version of it, the beautiful words with their own histories, their ghosts; the play with the shape of the poem…The way a poem lets you hold so much in mind. That excites me. It’s the hit I get from making a poem. Why I go back again and again, craving the making.
Aren’t we always making the city up? The cities? (101)

and again

To walk the streets of the city was, is, to stroll at will through the layers of its making and its peopling, to learn to place a particular building withing its era…all that, and always the lives lived there.

But, I have a sense also of something else at work — a kind of dream city or dreaming city. It doesn’t exactly map on to any known verifiable place. It’s the private sonic Dublin each poet makes — the individual song of the self in place, the free self in the given place. Maybe that’s our true city? (104)

They talk of Joyce, Akhmatova, Flann O’Brien and The Charwoman’s daughter by James Stephens which I too loved with a great love. Paula is more like me, writes of poverty and housing, being put in place, always fighting. Which makes this conversation between two such different voices so rich.

Final words from Boland responding to Meehan’s raising of the power of words and voice, of poems as communal:

The adjective ‘communal’ has a related verb — an old-fashioned one — which is ‘communing’. A word I’ve always loved. And one, when you look at it, that’s quite a bit removed from the adjective that seems close to it. For me, even when a poem is not apparently communal, even when it seems to be private, it can still commune. In fact it may make a particularly strong community with a reader, and still not be communal, just by speaking to and of solitude…truly one of the great possibilities for the poem. (107)

Allan Kaplan on Development–Power–Justice

Allan Kaplan - The Development Practitioners' HandbookIt’s rare I read books on development, having a deep distrust of so much of the field — only cemented after reading Allan Kaplan’s The Development Practioner’s Handbook. But that is because of his own critiques of his own field. What he himself has written is a sensitive and nuanced exploration of how  development can be facilitated (never forced, imposed, pushed), and how conscientization in the Freirean sense can occur. This is why I found it praised so highly in Nabeel Hamdi’s work, which brought it to my notice.

I haven’t quoted any of the insets, lyrical memories of his first development post, what went wrong and what went right, the process of learning what he is writing about. But I did love them.

Before looking at what a righteous and revolutionary development can be, let’s first have a taste of what development a la World Bank, IMF and multiple international aid agencies has brought and has meant, because that shouldn’t be forgotten:

Thus after over that 30 years of international development practice and theorising, problems of unemployment, housing, human rights, poverty and landlessness are worse than ever. (ix)

What has international development meant for the most part?

First, development is not growth. Development implies structural change with respect to the whole system. The modernisation approach equates development unequivocally with growth in GNP; the status quo is to be maintained while growth leads to development. Moreover, development is seen as a continuous process; there is no sense of timing, of the recognition that a particular level of development will be maintained until a structural crisis leads to a sudden leap to a new level. Modernisation theory assumes that development moves along a smooth and continuous upward path; there need be no radical shifts, nothing which will rock the boat or disturb the status quo. Indeed, development (as modernisation) was seen by its proponents as the instrument with which to maintain the status quo…(35)

Small wonder that Wolfgang Sachs and colleagues,…note that ‘the idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape’; they maintain that the development epoch is crumbling under the weight of delusion, disappointment, failure and crime, and ‘the time is ripe to write its obituary.’  (x) (Sachs ed. The Development Dictionary: A Guide to knowledge as Power (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1992)

But the process of working with people and organisations so they are able to step into their own power and define their own lives and surroundings — now that is something altogether different. that is what Kaplan is about and there is much to learn here. I’m in the midst of article writing, so this is more a string of quotes than usual, divided up by Kaplan’s own chapter headings as they were useful in outlining the key concepts.

Natural Processes

We can learn about development through observing it as a life process, more specifically as a biological process. (2)

I am always a bit dubious about metaphors that use biological life to explain social life, and that never quite left me in this chapter just as it never left me entirely through the whole of Emergence or Capra’s The Hidden Connections which build on a very similar conceit. But there were a few things I did very much like, like the acknowledgment that while growth and development are often conflated, but

growth is in fact one element of development. Growth is quantitative increase; development implies qualitative increase and qualitative transformation (from one state to another). (3)

I also love the emphasis on the time required — funders and heads of organisations never fucking get this at all.

…development is a process in time….it is a vital observation, for it should bring with it the correct attitude towards developmental processes — that of respect and humility. Development needs time, and flows with the rhythm of time. It cannot be forced, imposed or created. That is not to say that we cannot affect it; indeed , the development practitioner must seek to influence the process of development.

Over and over again the reminder to throw arrogance out the window.

But the appropriate stance becomes one of facilitation rather than force; nurture rather than imposition; respect rather than arrogant presumption. We cannot cause development, we can only nurture the development process. (3)

A few other truths I quite liked:

This reveals another distinguishing characteristic of development: it is irreversible.  (3)

and this:

Contrary to what we often take for granted, the process of unfolding, the movement of life as maturation or development, is discontinuous. It proceeds in a stepwise fashion rather than a smooth, continuous ‘upward’ motion. It proceeds, in fact, from structural crisis to structural crisis. (6)

And above all, both the difficulties and the rewards:

how else other that through critical turning points can we shake ourselves our of our comfortable habits, overcome our resistance to change and move on? This, I believe, is what is sometimes referred to as the miracle of suffering.

This is where this connects to so much literature I am now reading on struggle and social movement and why things happen when they do. This is one of my favourite insights:

Development is not so much the pain of taking on the new but the pain of letting go of the old. (8)

Every step taken in development, every process of transformation, entails a death so that something new can be born. And the process of death and rebirth, the process of development, entails the overcoming of just such resistances, so that new energy can be released. (11)

It is also a process with no end point, and a process that pain is part of — so how do we create healthy spaces for that, support each other through it?

In the realm of human development at least, development does not have an end-point — we are always in a state of becoming.

In addition, pain is an integral part of development and cannot be avoided. It is not only, as we have seen, the spur to further development. It is also often the consequence of a particular developmental phase in the service of future development. This is not said to idealise pain, but rather to emphasis that its occurrence should not be denied or repressed. (15)

Paths and Destinations

Kaplan argues for a rather linear development, part of the metaphor of the life process. But I suppose ultimately it is circular in taht it is repeated over and over again, so could still fit the popular education model of the spiral:

People, as they move through life, move from the phase of dependence, through independance to interdependance. (19)

He uses this to base an interesting critique of Freire that doesn’t fit within my own understanding of his work:

In Paolo Freire’s terms, development occurs when one moves from dependence to a critical consciousness; the ability to analyze circumstance, to question existing reality, and to say no. This, however, only corresponds to the stage of independence. I am saying that this is only partial development, and that interdependence is a phase beyond. (22)

I don’t think that Freire fits into this box, though perhaps practitioners have indeed put him there. Still, I think there are some interesting things raised in this comparison of independence and inter-dependence.

These are the problems Kaplan sees  with the  ‘independent phase’:

The mode of denial with which it is associated, the mode of critique which is inherent in defining oneself by rejecting that which one is not, generates a new type of dependency. It is reactive, dependent on its opposite for its own definition. It asserts itself against a given reality, rather than in and of itself. (26)

So what is interdependence? A phase that Kaplan goes on to call ‘Organisational consciousness…that phase which I have characterised as ‘maturity’ in the individual. It is the ability to act decisively within the realm of uncertainty, to continually seek the balance between polarities. (25)

Consciousness implies objectivity and the faculty of self-reflection. It is the realm of true freedom, devoid of prejudice. It is the realm of responsible freedom; individuality coupled with respect, care and active membership of the collective. The process of development is the means towards increasing consciousness, thereby increasing humanness. (29)

I don’t know we can be devoid of prejudice, but we can aspire to get there, and know ourselves better as we try.

Social Development as Growth and Revolution

…both our current problem and our future project should be an educational practice whose fundamental purpose is to expand what it is to be human and to contribute to the establishment of a just and compassionate community within which a project of possibility becomes the guiding principle of social order.
–Roger Simon ‘Empowerment as a pedagogy of Possibility’ (32)

I love that quote. I also love Allan Kaplan’s acknowledgment of this:

Poverty is not simply a function of the poor, the powerless, the marginalised. It is as much, some would say more, a function of the rich, the powerful, the few in whose hands resources and decision-making concentrate themselves. (37)

Then there is what to my eyes is a strange critique of the ‘political economy’ approach and Freire, describing them as unable to leave the phase of independence or continue along the path of critical self-consciousness. Kaplan seems to assume that for Freire this would suddenly stop at a certain point that isn’t far enough, that winning revolutions would just result in new people taking power and abusing it, getting stuck in a paradigm of us and them, with no criticism possible as the revolution consolidates.

Ultimately he writes:

The similarities between modernisation and political economy theories speak to the same need. Both paradigms stress modernity and economic growth. In both developed and underdeveloped communities, the near exclusive emphasis on these two factors give rise to increasing poverty and marginalisation, environmental rape, social fragmentation and violence, and a crisis of meaning.

The advent of contramodernisation perspectives hearalds the search for a new meaning with respect to the development process. (46)

From all of the many books by Freire I have read, there seems to me no obvious link here in theory, only in the vicissitudes of practice in a world bent on destroying revolutions and uprisings and anything resembling structural change. But to return to what to Kaplan himself offers….

Development as the building of civil society

His proposal for moving beyond the phase of independence towards interdependence. Opens with a curious discussion of power, and what he calls the ‘myths’ of revolution and growth.

Kaplan begins with Glyn Roberts’ definition of development: “Development is the more equal distribution of power among people.’ For Roberts three different kinds of power exist: political, economic and cultural — Kaplan’s critique is that this is stuck in ideas of power ‘over’ or ‘against’ (52).

Keeping this idea of power over means in independence phase the coercive nature of power is not addressed, power blocks remain though the players change, means development can only go so far.

He gives the story of the Maccabee revolt, where one brother was prevented from fighting, from being tainted by the war to remain clear of its ravages so that he could become lawgiver at the end.

I struggle with this idea of purity and taint, even as I know full well that taking life in war changes people, tends to harden them, makes them more rigid in their beliefs. I still think it’s more complicated, but to return to the main argument.

Kaplan takes Scott Peck’s identification of a different form of power:

‘Spiritual power…resides entirely within the individual and has nothing do with the capacity to coerce others…It is the capacity to make decisions with maximum awareness. It is consciousness.’ (55)

Put another way, development moves from independence to the phase of interdependence when, having gained the critical power of independence, we are ’empowered’ enough, secure enough in ourselves, to transgress boundary lines,to recognise our limitations and constraints and the realities of our dependence on others, and to work beyond the attitude of ‘us and them’ into the attitude of ‘we’. We are all in this thing called life together. There is no one ultimate theory, no ultimate paradigm, no ultimate ideology, no ultimately correct political party, clique or social movement. To move beyond the crisis generated by independence we need to relearn humility. Not the subservient humility of the phase of dependence, but the conscious humility of interdependence. (56)

It is all about self-reflection and questioning. I wonder whether this can exist in our world without protection from the means of coercion by the kind of power wielded by empire. But still agree with this:

It seems to me that the only way to mediate such a situation, once a significant level of independence has been attained, is through the promotion and facilitation of a strong civil society, one which can curb the hegemonic forces contained in the various power spots which accumulate and grow. (59)

There is a lot to think about here in terms of creating a truly participatory society where people have power over their own lives and the world around them.

A New Stance

It is not reconciliation of compromise which is the essential note of organisational consciousness. Rather, it is the holding of the conflict between opposites as conflict. The ability to hold opposites as opposites , in conflict. Not to reconcile or compromise, but to see both s true at the same time, or at least to see both as embodying aspects of the truth.

Put slightly differently, we attempt to find harmony not through eradicating conflict but through dancing with conflict. We do not look for resolution of the conflict, but rather recognise the creativity which the conflict brings. (70)

I do love this…that certain kinds of conflict are positive (and again, I think this minimises the damage that capitalism does, that development a la world bank and IMF do and how other things can flower despite that).

Until we wander in the dark, embrace the chaotic uncertainty of the places of transition which lie between the worlds of certainty and action, until then we will not be able to embrace the freedom of movement necessary to a state of interdependent or organisational consciousness. (77)

I do think this is also true — and perhaps where an outside practitioner is most useful — someone comfortable and used to holding these things together and allowing new things to grow.

The Practice of the Development Practitioner

As their essential task, development practitioners assist in bringing individuals, organisations and societies to power. They intervene in people’s processes such that they are able to realise their power, and, ultimately, enable people to act out of a centre of awareness and objectivity. Development practitioners collaborate with people in the claiming of their rights, and facilitate their recognition of responsibilities. They facilitate their development towards a more human, purposeful and conscious future, and work through organisations and communities towards the actualisation of a conscious society. (85)

Hell yes to all this. He lists the methods  — and the list is very familiar (except for the rural bits, the only thing reminding you this is about a different kind of development than what we did in South Central L.A.):

Rapid rural appraisal, participatory rural appraisal, participatory research, community mapping, strategic planning, vision building, cooperative development, various forms of problem identification and analysis, project planning and implementation, project monitoring and evaluation… (86)

For Kaplan it’s ultimately all about developing instituional capacity and a stronger civil society — I myself am more inclined to think it is more about developing dense webs of connection and support with multiple smaller groupings alongside more formal organisation, but agree with this:

Ultimately the task is to facilitate an increase in the power and consciousness of social grouping. to leave them in a better condition than they were in before, with more capacity to control their world, their context and themselves. But particularly to maintain a condition of awareness and to be able to respond creatively and responsibly to approaching challenges. We arrive then at a picture of the practice of the development practitioner as being the facilitation of the institutional capacity of those institutions forming the building blocks of civil society. (88)

I think there is also something to these phases as well — it takes years sometimes for people to fully step into their own skin and take the power that is theirs:

During the phase of dependency development practice will consist in part of resource provision and activism. As independence is attained these are replaced by the facilitation of clients to come into their own power, and the building of organisational capacity and the provision of training. With the move to interdependence the role of the practitioner becomes the facilitation of the client’s ability to self-reflect, self-regulate and to take conscious control of its own processes of improvement and learning. (102)

The art

This is my favourite line of the whole book, and actually, all skill and learned technique aside, if people working in community development could just manage this, they would probably do all right:

We need to work with a certain awe and wonder for each unique path with which we are privileged to interact. (112)

 

Trouillot’s Silencing the Past

357199I also want to reject both the naive proposition that we are prisoners of our pasts and the pernicious suggestion that history is whatever we make of it. History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots (xix).

I love this book. It is short, poetic, and has been transformative of how I think about history and my own work investigating the past and bringing it to bear on the present. As if that weren’t enough, it helps recapture the brilliance of the Haitian revolution while exposing how and why it has been silenced. That’s not all it does, but I think what it does best.

There is is some really interesting things about language in here, how history and historiography are shaped not just in how we tell the past, but in the very words that we use.

Human beings participate in history both as actors and as narrators. The inherent ambivalence of the word “history” in many modern languages, including English, suggests this dual participation. (2)

There’s a reminder of how language structures the ways in which we think:

The pernicious belief that epistemic validity matters only to
Western-educated populations, either because others lack the
proper sense of time or the proper sense of evidence, is belied by
the use of evidentials in a number of non-European Ianguages.
An English approximation would be a rule forcing historians to distinguish grammatically between “I heard that it happened,” “I saw it happen,” or “I have obtained evidence that it happened” every time they use the verb “to happen.” (7-8)

I also love the expansion of what history means, who makes it and tells it and who impacts on the ways it is understood, the critique of academic historians who tend to limit it.

Such debates suggest that historical relevance does not proceed directly from the original impact of an event, or its mode of inscription, or even the continuity of that inscription.
Debates about the Alamo, the Holocaust, or the significance
of U.S. slavery involve not only professional historians but ethnic and religious leaders, political appointees, journalists, and various associations within civil society as well as independent citizens, not all of whom are activists. This variety of narrators is one of many indications that theories of history have a rather limited view of the field of historical production. (19)

It also tries to shift how we view the ways in which history is made and by whom:

History, as social process, involves peoples in three distinct capacities: 1) as agents, or occupants of structural positions; 2) as actors in constant interface with a context; and 3) as subjects, that is, as voices aware of their vocality.

peoples are also the subjects of history the way workers are
subjects of a strike: they define the very terms under which some situations can be described. (23)

This in turn shifts how we write about it, what we focus on:

Thus between the mechanically “realist” and naively “constructivist” extremes, there is the more serious task of determining not what history is–a hopeless goal if phrased in essentialist terms–but how history works. (25)

Building on this reconceptualising of who makes history and how, is the ways in which so much history is lost, erased, silenced — and how we reclaim them.

Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance). (26)

To put it differently, any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation required to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly. (27)

Thus the presences and absences embodied in sources (artifacts and bodies that turn an event into fact) or archives (facts collected, thematized, and processed as documents and monuments) are neither neutral or natural. They are created. As such they are not mere presences and absences, but mentions or silences of various kinds and degrees. By silence, I mean an active and transitive process: one “silences” a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing. Mentions and silences are thus active, dialectical counterparts of which history is the synthesis. (48)

One of my favourite sentences? ‘…one “silences” a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun.’

Deconstruct these silences we must, because above all this is about fighting the power that oppresses and silences, and building out own.

Power does not enter the story once and for all, but at different times and from different angles. It precedes the narrative proper, contributes to its creation and to its interpretation. Thus, it remains pertinent even if we can imagine a totally scientific history, even if we relegate the historians’ preferences and stakes to a separate, post-descriptive phase. In history, power begins at the source.

We can be hopeful, we can find traces of what has been silenced. Not everything is lost, and we can (and must) look to material remains.

What happened leaves traces, some of which are quite concrete–buildings, dead bodies, censuses, monuments, diaries, political boundaries–that limit the range and significance of any historical narrative. This is one of many reasons why not any fiction can pass for history: the materiality of the sociohistorical process (historicity 1) sets the stage for future historical narratives (historicity 2). (29)

But we must do this well, uncovering the working of power and the larger significance of our work:

The turn toward hitherto neglected sources (e.g., diaries. images, bodies) and the emphasis on unused facts (e.g ., facts of
gender, race, and class, facts of the life cycle, facts of resistance)
are pathbreaking developments. My point is that when these tactical gains are made to dictate strategy they lead, at worst, to a neo-empiricist enterprise and, at best, to an unnecessary restriction of the battleground for historical power. (49)

Silences Within Silences
The unearthing of silences, and the historian’s subsequent emphasis on the retrospective significance of hitherto neglected events, requires not only extra labor at the archives–whether or not one uses primary sources–but also a project linked to an interpretation. This is so because the combined silences accrued through the first three steps of the process of historical production intermesh and solidify at the fourth and final moment when retrospective significance itself is produced. (58-59)

And then there is ‘The Haitian Revolution as a non-event’, an immense and inspiring uprising that shifted global balances of power, yet is treated as peripheral where mentioned at all. There is a powerful discussion of why and how that should be, which explores how limits are created on people’s perceptions and their ability to understand events, and how these limits worked in European thinking.

The Haitian Revolution thus entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened. (73)

Thus the Enlightenment exacerbated the fundamental ambiguity that dominated the encounter between ontological discourse and colonial practice. If the philosophers did reformulate some of the answers inherited from the Renaissance, the question “What is Man?” kept stumbling against the practices of domination and or merchant accumulation. The gap between abstraction and practice grew or, better said, the handling or the contradictions between the two became much more sophisticated, in part because philosophy provided as many answers as colonial practice itself. (78)

Slavery and its foundations are, of course, one of the principal limits, all too obvious in Enlightenment discourse (yet never raised as such):

The Enlightenment, nevertheless, brought a change of perspective. The idea of progress, now confirmed, suggested that men were perfectible. Therefore, subhumans could be, theoretically at least, perfectible. More important, the slave trade was running its course, and the economics of slavery would be questioned increasingly as the century neared its end. Perfectibility became an argument in the practical debate: the westernized other looked increasingly more profitable to the West, especially if he could become a free laborer. A French memoir of 1790 summarized the issue: “It is perhaps not impossible to civilize the Negro, to bring him to principles and make a man out of him: there would be more to gain than to buy and sell him.” (80)

Above all, it is a discourse tied to the practicalities of maintaining domination and Empire:

Behind the radicalism of Diderot and Raynal stood, ultimately,
a project of colonial management. It did indeed include the abolition of slavery, but only in the long term, and as part of a process that aimed at the better control of the colonies. Access to human status did not lead ipso facto to self-determination. In short, here again, as in Condorcet, as in Mirabeau, as in Jefferson, when all is said and done, there are degrees of humanity. The vocabulary of the times reveals that gradation. When one talked of the biological product of black and of white intercourse, one spoke of “man of color” as if the two terms do not necessarily go together: unmarked humanity is white. (81)

This is not to make the demand that people of the past should understand the moralities of the present, but rather what it was about the past that made these moralities almost impossible to imagine:

I am not suggesting that eighteenth-century men and women should have thought about the fundamental equality of humankind in the same way some of us do today. On the contrary, I am arguing that they could not have done so. But I am also drawing a lesson from the understanding of this historical impossibility. The Haitian Revolution did challenge the ontological and political assumptions of the most radical writers of the Enlightenment. The events that shook up Saint Domingue from 1791 to 1804 constituted a sequence for which not even the extreme political left in France or in in England had a conceptual frame of reference. They were “unthinkable” facts in the framework of Western thought. (82)

Below are some fragments of how ideology sat uneasily, often contradictory within white understandings, how innocence of Black humanity was preserved ideologically in the pursuit of domination and profit:

Thus, next to a discourse that claimed the contentment of slaves, a plethora of laws, advice, and measures, both legal and illegal, were set up to curb the very resistance denied in theory.

Rather, each case of unmistakable defiance, each possible instance of resistance was treated separately and drained of its political content (83).

Built into any system of domination is the tendency to proclaim its own normalcy. (84)

When the news of the massive uprising of August 1791 first hit
France, the most common reaction among interested parties was disbelief: the facts were too unlikely; the news had to be false. (90)

Worldview wins over the facts: white hegemony is natural and taken for granted; any alternative is still in the domain of the unthinkable.  (93)

The international recognition of Haitian independence was even more difficult to gain than military victory over the forces of Napoleon. It took more time and more resources. more than a half century of diplomatic struggles. France imposed a heavy indemnity on the Haitian state in order to formally acknowledge its own defeat. The United States and the Vatican, notably, recognized Haitian independence only in the second half of the nineteenth century.  (95)

This is important not just to understand how domination worked, but also revolt:

Not only was the Revolution unthinkable and, therefore, unannounced in the West. it was also–to a large extent–unspoken among the slaves themselves. By this I mean that the Revolution was not preceded or even accompanied by an explicit intellectual discourse.

In that sense, the revolution was indeed at the limits of the thinkable, even in Saint-Domingue, even among the slaves, even
among its own leaders. We need to recall that the key tenets of the political philosophy that became explicit in Saint-Domingue/Haiti between 1791 and 1804 were not accepted by world public opinion until after World War II.(88)

By necessity, the Haitian Revolution thought itself out politically and philosophically as it was taking place. Its project, increasingly radicalized throughout thirteen years of combat, was revealed in successive spurts. Between and within its unforeseen stages, discourse always lagged behind practice. (89)

Thus in looking specifically at how the facts and the meaning of the Haitian Revolution have been (mis)understood, Trouillot uncovers two specific processes that he terms ‘Erasure and Trivialization: Silences in World History’:

I have fleshed out two major points so far. First, the chain of events that constitute the Haitian Revolution was unthinkable before these events happened. Second, as they happened, the successive events within that chain were systematically recast by many participants and observers to fit a world of possibilities. That is, they were made to enter into narratives that made sense to a majority of Western observers and readers. I will now show how the revolution that was thought impossible by its contemporaries has also been silenced by historians. (96)

The treatment of the Haitian Revolution in written history outside of Haiti reveals two families of tropes that are identical. in formal (rhetorical) terms, to figures of discourse of the late eighteenth century. The first kind of tropes are formulas that tend to erase directly the fact of a revolution. I call them, for short, formulas of erasure. The second kind tends to empty a number of singular events of their revolutionary content so that the entire string of facts, gnawed from all sides, becomes trivialized. I call the formulas of banalization…Both are formulas of silence. (96)

Thus domination continues on into the present, these interpretations having everything to do not just with the ways in which silences continue, but in the limits this imposes on how we understand the problems facing the present and how we imagine working towards a new future.

Finally, the silencing of the Haitian Revolution also fit the relegation to an historical backburner of the three themes to which it was linked: racism, slavery, and colonialism. In spite of their importance in the formation of what we now call the West, in spite of sudden outbursts of interest as in the United States in the early 1970s, none of these themes has ever become a central concern of the historiographic tradition in a Western country. (98)

That Hobsbawm and the editors of the Dictionary would probably locate themselves quite differently within England’s political spectrum is one indication that historical silences do not simply reproduce the overt political positions of the historians involved. What we are observing here is archival power at its strongest, the power to define what is and what is not a serious object of research and, therefore, of mention. (99)

Effective silencing does not require a conspiracy, not even a political consensus. Its roots are structural. (106)

The silencing of the Haitian Revolution is only a chapter within
a narrative of global domination. It is part of the history of the
West and it is likely to persist, even in attenuated form, as long as the history of the West is not retold in ways that bring forward the perspective of the world. (107)

This happens in theory and the terms that we use:

Terminologies demarcate a field, politically and epistemologically. Names set up a field of power.” “Discovery” and analogous terms ensure that by just mentioning the event one enters a predetermined lexical field of cliches and predictable categories that foreclose a redefinition  of the political and intellectual stakes. Europe becomes the center of “what happened.” (115)

It highlights what we must remember in our own work if we are not to reproduce this:

historical authenticity resides not in the fidelity to an alleged past but in an honesty vis-a-vis the present as it re-presents that past. (148)

Authenticity implies a relation with what is known that duplicates the two sides of historicity: it engages us both as actors and narrators. (150)

This is so long and pieces together a sense of his writing about process, while hardly touching the substance of the various histories he reclaims from the silence — as important a project as what I have focused on here. So read it.

For more on race, empire and history…

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Foucault: Society Must Be Defended

Foucault - Society Must Be DefendedAh Foucault…There is a lot to grapple with in Society Must Be Defended, and I will do so below more for my memory in writing a dissertation than anything else, so be warned!

I love that it starts out with Foucault’s critique of Marx — there must be more out there I haven’t found in terms of that critique, but this really helped me think through the distinctions as it has always seemed to me that the two could well complement each other. I suppose they still can if broken into pieces and rejoined, but I have a much better sense of how different Foucault’s project is.

He argues that Marx, or any other similar over-arching theory such as psychoanalysis, “provided tools that can be used at the local level only when … the theoretical unity of their discourse is, so to speak, suspended, or at least cut up, ripped up, torn to shreds …” [6] Why is that, particularly in thinking about theories that have liberation as their goal? Because their effort to unify knowledge into a single framework of understanding is the problem, particularly the way that theoretical frameworks such as Marxism see themselves as a science. This sets up an ‘aspiration’ to power, where they decide what kinds of knowledge are legitimate and which are not with the aim of organising them, filtering them, putting them into hierarchies to create a body of ‘true’ knowledge. Foucault argues that this is done primarily to allow Marxism to benefit from the power that Western society has granted scientists and the scientific paradigm, rather than to actually create a Marxism that is scientific. Thus Marxism oppresses.

In opposition to Marxism’s (or psychoanalysis’s, or liberal economist’s or etc) subjugation of various knowledges, Foucault’s project is to liberate these various subjugated knowledges: “to set them free, or in other words to enable them to oppose and struggle against the coercion of a unitary, formal, and scientific theoretical discourse” [11]. His archeological work seeks to understand these formal scientific discourses, and his geneological work to liberate the local knowledges that have been subjugated by them.

Got it. Fundamentally antithetical to Marx in its theory, and I couldn’t ask for a clearer definition of the archeological v the geneological. (There’s also the fact that he ends the lectures with socialism is racism, but more on that later.)

One critique before moving on, Foulcault writes: “When I say “subjugated knowledges” I am also referring to a whole series of knowledges that have been disqualified as nonconceptual knowledges, as insufficiently elaborated knowledges: naive knowledges, hierarchically inferior knowledges, knowledges that are below the required level of erudition or scientificity.” I applaud this project of course. My problem with Foucault is always that he writes in a way that cannot engage in dialogue with these knowledges, but can only ‘unearth’ or worse ‘discover’ them. Please note the complete absence of the actual people who hold these ‘knowledges’, whatever those are when separated from their human beings, both from these lectures and presumably from these lecture rooms. Meh.

So onwards.

The question here is what is power, but as Foucault writes: “‘What is power?’ is obviously a theoretical question that would provide an answer to everything, which is just what I don’t want to do” [13]. Instead he wants to try and understand how it operates. He starts with liberalism and Marxism which he believe share the common feature of ‘economism’ stemming from a juridical understanding of power. In liberalism, “power is regarded as a right which can be possessed in the way one possesses a commodity” [13], it can be traded, taken, given up by political contract and etc. To take that to its conclusion, “There is therefore an obvious analogy, and it runs through all these theories, between power and commodities, between power and wealth” [13].

In Marxism, you have what Foucault calls the “‘economic functionality’ of power … to the extent that the role of power is essentially both to perpetuate the relations of production and to reproduce a class domination that is made possible by the development of the productive forces and the ways they are appropriated. In this case, political power finds its historical raison d’etre in the economy” [14].

He moves away from these economistic theories, exploring the ideas that “power is not something that is given, exchanged, or taken back, that it is something that is exercised and that it exists only in action,” and that “power is not primarily the perpetuation and renewal of economic relations, but that it is primarily, in itself, a relationship of force… Power is essentially that which represses.” [15]

And so we come to the crux of Foucault’s argument (and his difference from Marxism and liberalism) “rather than analyzing it [power] in terms of surrender, contract, and alienation, or rather than analyzing it in functional terms as the reproduction of the relations of production, shouldn’t we be analyzing it first and foremost in terms of conflict, confrontation, and war?

Here he inverts Clausewitz’s aphorism to ask whether ‘politics is the continuation of war by other means’, and continues to state the ideas he will explore through the rest of the book in a nutshell. If politics is the continuation of war by other means, then (my own underlining for emphasis):

This would imply three things. First, that power relations, as they function in a society like ours, are essentially anchored in a certain relationship of force that was established in and through war at a given historical moment that can be historically specified. And while it is true that political power puts an end to war and establishes or attempts to establish the reign of peace in civil society, it certainly does not do so in order to suspend the effects of power or to neutralize the disequilibrium revealed by the last battle of the war. According to this hypothesis, the role of [15] political power is perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities, language, and even the bodies of individuals. This is the initial meaning of our inversion of Clausewitz’s aphorism-politics is the continuation of war by other means. Politics, in other words, sanctions and reproduces the disequilibrium of forces manifested in war. Inverting the proposition also means something else, namely that within this “civil peace,” these political struggles, these clashes over or with power, these modifications of relations of force-the shifting balance, the reversals-in a political system, all these things must be interpreted as a continuation of war. And they are interpreted as so many episodes, fragmentations, and displacements of the war itself. We are always writing the history of the same war, even when we are writing the history of peace and its institutions.

Inverting Clausewitz’s aphorism also has a third meaning: The final decision can come only from war, or in other words a trial by strength in which weapons are the final judges. It means that the last battle would put an end to politics, or in other words, that the last battle would at last-and I mean “at last”-suspend the exercise of power as continuous warfare. [16]

That’s a definition and a half, which seems to mean that the achievement of any victory against the status quo requires a battle of strength in which weapons are the final judge. I guess we’re all heading back to the mountains and jungles then, no?

But maybe he jests, because we’re only studying power after all.

The next chapter shows nicely how he turns things upside down. Where the traditional question as he sees it would ask “How does the discourse of truth establish the limits of power’s right?” Foucault would ask “What are the rules of right that power implements to produce discourses of truth? Or: What type of power is it that is capable of producing discourses of power that have, in a society like ours, such powerful effects?” It’s a good illustration, as are the following 5 methodological precautions, which stand as an excellent summary of what Foucault thinks power is, and what power is not (while also making him sound a bit like a Buddhist text). They in turn are summed up thus:

To sum up these five methodological precautions, let me say that rather than orienting our research into power toward the juridical edifice of sovereignty, State apparatuses, and the ideologies that accompany them, I think we should orient our analysis of power toward material operations, forms of subjugation, and the connections among and the uses made of the local systems of subjugation on the one hand, and apparatuses of knowledge on the other. [34]

This differentiation between state apparatus and material operations is carried through in his discussion of sovereignty and the discourse of rights that emerged in response to it. Foucault suggests that the mechanism of power shifted in the 17th and 18th centuries from essentially feudal monarchy to the kind of power discussed above, while the theorisations of struggle against it did not make the same shift. Whereas power ceased to be about land and goods and legal rights, the critics continued to treat it so while in fact it had become much more about control of time and labour, surveillance, and the mechanics of discipline. Hobbes, for example, in looking at contracts and rights as the foundation for sovereignty completely ignores, and actually hides the fact that power relations have nothing to do with right and everything to do with domination. It is rare you find groups like the Diggers who are able to articulate in some manner that this domination is the problem, rather than Norman lords instead of Saxon lords or what have you.

One of the key sections of the book is of course on race and racism, and a remarkably interesting and unique take on both really that is rich and provocative though I’m not sure what I think about it yet. In a highly simplified form if I understand the argument right: we have long had a concept of sovereignty as legitimate state-based power which words and history existed to praise and exalt to the exclusion (and obfuscation) of all other ideas. Slowly this shifted as a new discourse came into being, a counterhistory of dissent and revolution acknowledging the oppressed and the subjugated. As power and sovereignty was based on the conquest of one people by another (connecting back to Clausewitz’s aphorism though it somehow feels far distant), this took the form of race struggle, a binary struggle of peoples in which everyone was on either one side or the other, their side defining their discourses of truth. In the 16th century what was initially seen as race struggle slowly became seen as class struggle in these counterhistories, and so race began to be used by the counterhistory arising in opposition to the original counterhistories (you can see why this is difficult but this new counterhistory is in the service of those with power). It was reformulated with medical and biological meaning, and as Foucault states: “Whereas the discourse of races, of the struggle between races, was a weapon to be used against the historico-political discourse of Roman sovereignty, the discourse of race (in the singular) was a way of turning that weapon against those who had forged it, of using it to preserve the sovereignty of the State” [81]. Essentially it sought to preserve power and centralise/control discourse through defining the State in terms of its need for protection against the other, the subrace, the enemy. Thus, he argues, racism is only a stage in this larger discourse of race struggle.

He returns to race in the last lecture, which introduces the idea of biopolitics — a term I’ve always found very off-putting but never mind. Essentially it is a new function of government from “sovereignty’s old right — to take life or let live” to “the power to “make” live and “let” die” [241]. It is the State in its new function of measuring and monitoring, nurturing and manipulating the mass of the population for its own benefit rather than simply disciplining individual bodies. This new form of politics does not replace the old, rather it complements and articulates with it in a highly insidious fashion primarily through institutions and specialised scientific knowledges and the development of norms to which individuals and general society must live up to.

Within this new method of governing, racism becomes first, a way to fragment and divide the population for improved control. That’s easy to understand, I’m not sure I fully grasp what follows. In a war situation, it is easy to legitimate that the other ‘people’ must die in order that our ‘people’ may live, thereby giving the state expanded power over life and death. Racism recreates this latitude granted under conditions of war for a regime of biopolitics: “in other words, killing or the imperative to kill is acceptable only if it results not in a victory over political adversaries, but in the elimination of the biological threat to and the improvement of the species or race. There is a direct connection between the two. In a normalizing society, race or racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable.” [256] So perhaps that makes sense of this:

And we can also understand why racism should have developed in modern societies that function in the biopower mode; we can understand why racism broke out at a number of privileged moments, and why they were precisely the moments when the right to take life was imperative. Racism first develops with colonization, or in other words, with colonizing genocide. If you are functioning in the biopower mode, how can you justify the need to kill people, to kill populations, and to kill civilizations? By using the themes of evolutionism, by appealing to a racism.

This of course changes war as well, “it is not simply a matter of destroying a political adversary, but of destroying the enemy race”. It makes more sense of Nazism and Stalinism. And I don’t think that it is trying to take the place of other ideas and meanings of race as they lived and experienced, but rather goes deeper adding a new dimension:

here, we are far removed from the ordinary racism that takes the traditional form of mutual contempt or hatred between races. We are also far removed from the racism that can be seen as a sort of ideological operation that allows States, or a class, to displace the hostility that is directed toward [them), or which is tormenting the social body, onto a mythical adversary. I think that this is something much deeper than an old tradition, much deeper than a new ideology, that it is something else. The specificity of modern racism, or what gives it its specificity, is not bound up with mentalities, ideologies, or the lies of power. It is bound up with the technique of power, with the technology of power. It is bound up with this, and that takes us as far away as possible from the race war and the intelligibility of history. We are dealing with a mechanism that allows biopower to work. So racism is bound up with the workings of a State that is obliged to use race, the elimination of races and the purification of the race, to exercise its sovereign power. The juxtaposition of-or the way biopower functions through-the old sovereign power of life and death implies the workings, the introduction and activation, of racism. And it is, I think, here that we find the actual roots of racism. [258]

It is this much wider more difficult idea of racism that allows Foucault to say “Socialism was a racism from the outset” [261], contentious words. He argues that because socialism never recognised biopower as a form of control, and the role that racism has played in that, it has essentially recreated (or sought to recreate) these same controls even while changing the social structure. That I can see and is useful in thinking about what happened in Russia, I’m not sure I agree that it is endemic in socialist thought per se in the following way:

Whenever, on the other hand, socialism has been forced to stress the problem of struggle, the struggle against the enemy, of the elimination of the enemy within capitalist society itself, and when, therefore, it has had to think about the physical confrontation with the class enemy in capitalist society, racism does raise its head, because it is the only way in which socialist thought, which is after all very much bound up with the themes of biopower, can rationalize the murder of its enemies. [262]

There’s so much more here, primarily on the practice and discourses of history, and on the nation. I have to change my rating to 5 stars because while I get so frustrated with Foucault and continue to question the utility of his work to practical struggle, it is undoubtedly full of ideas and questions well worth thinking over, and this is definitely a book I’ll be returning to. I am certain I will find an entirely new set of brilliant/problematic statements to ponder over, which is impressive.