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ANTI-IMPERIALISM DONALD J. TRUMP Featured GLOBALIZATION NEOLIBERALISM SOVEREIGNTY UNCATEGORIZED

The Geneva Men: A Review of ‘Globalists’ by Quinn Slobodian

A review of Quinn Slobodian, 2017. Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of
Neoliberalism. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51kcoHzJqyL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgNeoliberalism and globalism have both become buzzwords used within the political discourse by intellectuals, journalists, as much as celebrities in order to describe and explain recent events. But what are really neoliberalism and globalism, and in what relation do they stand to each other? Quinn Slobodian argues in his recent book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, that neoliberalism and globalism are commensurate concepts, an economic doctrine on the one hand and a political worldview on the other, both mutually reinforcing a particular form of contemporary capitalism. Slobodian puts the notion that neoliberalism lacks a clear referent to rest. Instead, he argues that neoliberalism and globalism have existed as a coherent body of thought since the 1920s. Tracing the origins and consequent development of these ideas, he offers the readers a richer, more precise history of both the idea and practice of neoliberalism-globalism, with particular attention to their relationship with sovereignty and democracy. As such, he provides us with a much needed historical and theoretical corrective to the oft repeated and yet often historically inaccurate theories of neoliberalism.

Donald Trump, who railed against ‘globalism’ on the campaign trail, was elected in 2016 partly on a platform of defying free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA. Similarly, we have recently witnessed a proliferation of anti-EU forces from both the left and right in Europe, notably in form of Brexit in the UK and in Italy’s recent elections. Mexico has also recently elected the ‘populist’ Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who threatens to destabilize NAFTA, at least as we know it. These political upheavals against the postwar world order make Globalists a timely and necessary reading for anyone interested in intellectual and economic history.

Central to Slobodian’s argument in Globalists is a rejection of the idea that neoliberalism can simply be reduced to ‘market fundamentalism’, a term central to Karl Polyani’s critique. Rather, Slobodian argues, neoliberalism is a form of regulation, rather than a radical opposition to regulation; it is a form of regulation that seeks to reshape societies to be more favorable to the interests of the market and of the capitalist class, in opposition to democracy and sovereignty if necessary.

Typically, histories of neoliberalism begin somewhere around the Reagan and Thatcher governments of the 1970s. However, Slobodian traces the history of neoliberalism further back, beginning in Austria in the 1920s with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of the House of Hapsburg. During this time of the beginning of the end for the old empires of Europe, Austria held its first election with universal male suffrage, catapulting the radical Social Democratic Party to previously unforeseen influence in the government. Without the autocratic counterweight of the Hapsburg monarchy, conservative Austrian elites feared that their privileges and class power would be undone by the new democratic government. In response, the Austrian nomenklatura, now-infamous names like Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises among them, called for a renovation of the capitalist class’s approach to managing power. Their proposed solution was not only intended to the challenge social democracy and the global compounded rise of nationalism, socialism, but also more crucially democratic self-determination. To the capitalist class these forces represented different sides of the same basic threat: the rubes of the world, incapable of governing themselves, turned against their betters. In the words of Lionel Robbins, one of the first ardent globalists, ‘”Mines for miners” and “Papua for Papuans” are analytically similar slogans.’

Contrary to widespread belief, the Austrian School of Economics, as Hayek and Mises’ faction are often called, did not propose a regime of laissez-faire economics as we normally understand it. Rather, they sought to overcome the limitations of the old regime of mercantile colonialism, which divided the world territorially amongst competing camps of European capitalists, through the use of truly global institutions—the League of Nations, the European Court of Justice, the World Trade Organization, international investment law, etc. — to insulate markets. Their basic ethos could be summed up as follows: ‘International institutions should act as mechanisms for protecting and furthering competition without offering spaces for popular claims-making’ (p. 271). This, they believed, would protect the profits of the capitalist class against the laws of sovereign states, political instability, and demands raised by civil society and workers for greater equality and social justice. Many leaders of the early neoliberal movement relocated to Geneva in order to influence the shaping of these institutions, leading Slobodian to call them the ‘Geneva School’ (p. 7). The Geneva School was closely tied to business and finance, and its members moved easily between academic settings and lobby organizations such as the International Chamber of Commerce.

The popular (mis)understanding of neoliberalism is perhaps best represented by Karl Polyani’s description of the movement in The Great Transformation, where he uses the term ‘market fundamentalism’ to describe the Geneva School ideology. In this interpretation, neoliberals advocate for ‘disembedded’ markets which, separated from society, replace social bonds with atomized relations, giving rise to counter-reactions within society in the form of either xenophobic nationalism or revolutionary socialism. Slobodian, however, identifies the objective of the Geneva School instead as ‘enclosing’ markets in international institutions and treaties. Far from being fundamentalists with an irrational faith in the market, Hayek and Mises readily accepted that markets are ‘products of the political construction of institutions [which] encase them’ (p.7).

The first economic gathering to take the entire world as its subject was the World Economic Conference of 1927. Famous neoliberals like Mises, Gottfried, Haberler, Röpke, Hayek and the aforementioned Robbins all took a direct role in the conference and the subsequent declaration advocating global economic governance, codifying international opposition to ‘trade obstacles’ on the part of the European elite (p. 30). This is the first attempt documented in Globalists of neoliberals trying to conjure up a supranational federation of capitalists as a way to offset the dual pressures of national economic planning and decolonization.

The wave of independent nation-states rising from the ashes of empire after the world wars prompted greater urgency for such a supranational power. From the perspective of capitalists and their neoliberal lieutenants, these were adversaries to be thwarted. ‘For [Mises]’, writes Slobodian, ‘the real war was not between individual nations or empires but between the world economy and the nation as forms of human organization’ (p.109). It is from this capitalist project of ‘militant globalism’ against ‘economic nationalism’ 01b_wto_interior-(Heilperin, quoted on p. 130) that Slobodian traces the development of entities like the European Union, Free Trade Agreements and the Investor-State Dispute clauses they contain, as well as the World Trade Organization, and the neoliberal intellectuals’ instrumental role in their construction. While these institutions ultimately benefited the elites of the European countries and the United States, they required even the wealthy countries to acquiesce their sovereignty to dictates which spanned multiple sovereign jurisdictions, making them difficult to be challenged by any one government without inviting conflict.

Of particular interest to anthropologists, Slobodian focuses on neoliberal ambassadors’ deep interest in the area of culture. The globalists, from their vantage point in Geneva, left no intellectual or topical stone unturned. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundation, two of the largest funders of ethnographic projects to date, were generous in their support of neoliberal intellectuals seeking to broaden the conceptual scope of their project. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, essentially bankrolled a study by Wilhelm Ropke in the Danube region which lambasted the locals for ‘economic simplism’ for seeking greater authority over their own economy (p. 75). Interestingly, Ropke considered this demand for economic control as a cultural phenomenon and sought to develop methods and instruments to reshape the culture of the Danube to be more accommodating to the global market.

Related imageGlobalists is effective in its ability to lay bare and substantiate with broad source evidence what Slobodian classifies as some basic truths about neoliberal ideology. The book also weaves a convincing narrative about these tenets and their implementation across the modern world. The basic principles Slobodian ascribes to neoliberal globalism are mostly described in negatives. The first is neoliberalism’s aversion to democracy, particularly to democracy that cannot be manipulated or neutered in some way. Slobodian demonstrates this through quotations from neoliberal intellectuals, Mont Perlin Society memos, and internal documents of the European Union, IMF, and other bodies. The second is neoliberalism’s aversion to the nation-state and sovereignty, which binds capitalists by certain obligations which may limit their profits and liquidity, something Mises was particularly adamant about. The third and final, related to the proceeding points, is neoliberal globalism’s resistance to politicization; that states or peoples should have levers by which to regulate or transform their social conditions is the antithesis of the neoliberal project. The neoliberal globe is one without politics, especially without politics that could potentially interrupt the smooth expansion of the market. This may also explain why we can observe an uncanny rise of disturbing pseudo-politics within the last decades.

Neoliberalism as a body of thought and its Geneva School ambassadors have had profound political, economic, and cultural influence on the modern world. Globalists does an excellent job of summarizing and explaining neoliberalism’s development, its core principles, and its direction. It is also a retort to lazy analyses of neoliberalism, which focus solely on aspects of economic policy or reform, and not on the other arenas of human life – culture, politics, international relations, etc. – which the Geneva School has actively and consciously sought to shape, along with Keynesians, imperial bureaucracies, business lobbyists, activists of certain stripes, and a host of other actors. Globalists is a valuable and refreshingly thorough book which clearly defines and scrutinizes the intellectual and practical components of neoliberalism in a manner which is deserving of commendation.

This of Dr. Quinn Slobodian’s most recent book was originally written for and published in the Journal of Extreme Anthropology as part of their forthcoming special issue on SOVEREIGNTY, which you can access here. A pdf of the review is available from the JEA page and on my academia.edu page.

As part of my work maintaining Peripheral Thought, we will soon publish a series of articles on SOVEREIGNTY, in part inspired by and intended to accompany JEA’s release of the special issue on the same topic. 

The suggested citation for this review is:

Lutes, Abram. 2018. “The Geneva Men: A Review of ‘Globalists’ by Quinn Slobodian” in Journal of Extreme Anthropology, Vol. 2, no. 2: Sovereignty.

 

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UNCATEGORIZED

In Memoriam: Anthony Bourdain on America’s “uncomfortable” encounter with Mexico

Transcript of a monologue by Anthony Michael Bourdain, 1956-2018

Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—as we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs”. But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do.

We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but “we”, as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them—and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them. We love Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films.

So, why don’t we love Mexico?

We throw up our hands and shrug at what happens and what is happening just across the border. Maybe we are embarrassed. Mexico, after all, has always been there for us, to service our darkest needs and desires. Whether it’s dress up like fools and get pass-out drunk and sun burned on Spring break in Cancun, throw pesos at strippers in Tijuana, or get toasted on Mexican drugs, we are seldom on our best behavior in Mexico. They have seen many of us at our worst. They know our darkest desires.

In the service of our appetites, we spend billions and billions of dollars each year on Mexican drugs—while at the same time spending billions and billions more trying to prevent those drugs from reaching us. The effect on our society is everywhere to be seen. Whether it’s kids nodding off and overdosing in small town Vermont, gang violence in LA, burned out neighborhoods in Detroit— it’s there to see. What we don’t see, however, haven’t really noticed, and don’t seem to much care about, is the 80,000 dead—mostly innocent victims in Mexico, just in the past few years. 80,000 dead. 80,000 families who’ve been touched directly by the so-called “War On Drugs”.

Mexico. Our brother from another mother. A country, with whom, like it or not, we are inexorably, deeply involved, in a close but often uncomfortable embrace. Look at it. It’s beautiful. It has some of the most ravishingly beautiful beaches on earth. Mountains, desert, jungle. Beautiful colonial architecture, a tragic, elegant, violent, ludicrous, heroic, lamentable, heartbreaking history. Mexican wine country rivals Tuscany for gorgeousness. Its archeological sites—the remnants of great empires, unrivaled anywhere. And as much as we think we know and love it, we have barely scratched the surface of what Mexican food really is. It is NOT melted cheese over a tortilla chip. It is not simple, or easy. It is not simply ‘bro food’ halftime. It is in fact, old– older even than the great cuisines of Europe and often deeply complex, refined, subtle, and sophisticated. A true mole sauce, for instance, can take DAYS to make, a balance of freshly (always fresh) ingredients, painstakingly prepared by hand. It could be, should be, one of the most exciting cuisines on the planet. If we paid attention. The old school cooks of Oaxaca make some of the more difficult to make and nuanced sauces in gastronomy. And some of the new generation, many of whom have trained in the kitchens of America and Europe have returned home to take Mexican food to new and thrilling new heights.

It’s a country I feel particularly attached to and grateful for. In nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what, was there—and on the case—when the cooks more like me, with backgrounds like mine—ran away to go skiing or surfing—or simply “flaked.” I have been fortunate to track where some of those cooks come from, to go back home with them. To small towns populated mostly by women—where in the evening, families gather at the town’s phone kiosk, waiting for calls from their husbands, sons and brothers who have left to work in our kitchens in the cities of the North. I have been fortunate enough to see where that affinity for cooking comes from, to experience moms and grandmothers preparing many delicious things, with pride and real love, passing that food made by hand, passed from their hands to mine.

In years of making television in Mexico, it’s one of the places we, as a crew, are happiest when the day’s work is over. We’ll gather round a street stall and order soft tacos with fresh, bright, delicious tasting salsas—drink cold Mexican beer, sip smoky mezcals, listen with moist eyes to sentimental songs from street musicians. We will look around and remark, for the hundredth time, what an extraordinary place this is.

The received wisdom is that Mexico will never change. That is hopelessly corrupt, from top to bottom. That it is useless to resist—to care, to hope for a happier future. But there are heroes out there who refuse to go along. On this episode of PARTS UNKNOWN, we meet a few of them. People who are standing up against overwhelming odds, demanding accountability, demanding change—at great, even horrifying personal cost.

This show is for them.

https://dailymotion.com/video/x2iiq08

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ANTI-IMPERIALISM CANADA EMPIRE INDIGENOUS RESISTANCE/ RESURGENCE POLITICAL ECONOMY UNCATEGORIZED Working Class

“Unions Aren’t Native” : The Muckamuck Restaurant Labour Dispute in Vancouver, BC (1979-1983)

[Photo]: Vancouver Indian Centre president Debbie Mearns (second from right) walking with strike leader Christine Price. August 12, 1978.
This fascinating article originally appeared in Labour/Le Travail. Formatting and spelling has been edited for clarity before appearing on Peripheral Thought. For citations please refer to the article as:
Janet Mary Nicol. 1997. ‘”Unions Aren’t Native’; The Muckamuck Restaurant Labour Dispute Vancouver, B.C. (1978-1983),” Labour/Le Travail, Vol. 40 (Fall): 235-51. 
Most photographs are from the Pacific Tribune, originally established by the Communist Party of Canada as the B.C. Workers’ News in 1935.
“IN THIS SOCIETY,” explained First Nations union organizer Ethel Gardner to a skeptical First Nations community, “being in a union is the only way we can guarantee that our rights as workers will be respected.” Ethel was an employee at the Muckamuck restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia when its First Nations workers decided to organize into an independent feminist union in 1978 and subsequently struck for a first contract against white American owners. The dispute allied First Nations people with predominantly white trade unionists and made an even wider community aware of their circumstances. The union picketed the restaurant for three years, discouraging customers from entering, while the owners kept the restaurant functioning with the use of strikebreakers, many of them from the First Nations community. When the owners closed their operation in 1981, the union ceased picketing and both parties waited a further two years for a legal ruling from the Labour Relations Board. Finally in 1983, the owners were ordered to pay remedies to the union, but sold the restaurant and pulled all their assets out of Canada, refusing to comply with the decision.

The Organizing Campaign

The Muckamuck Restaurant opened in 1971, and advertised “authentic” First Nations cuisine. The restaurant was located in a downtown Vancouver West End neighbourhood, at 1724 Davie Street. Three white American owners, Jane Erickson, Teresa Bjornson and Doug Chrismas also had investments in art galleries and other restaurants in California and British Columbia. The owners maintained an informal policy of hiring First Nations people as restaurant staff. At the time of the union drive an equal ratio of First Nations men and women were employed as restaurant workers. The managers however, were white. Eighteen out of 21 Muckamuck restaurant workers signed union cards with a local independent union, the Service, Office and Retail Workers’ Union of Canada (SORWUC) and were certified as a bargaining unit 21 February 1978. SORWUC, a feminist union active in the 1970s and early 1980s, formed with a primary goal to organize women in industries neglected by trade unions.
Teresa Bjornson’s Los Angeles home. She commissioned Japanese architect Arata Isozaki to design it, and it was later sold to Eric Clapton.
In an interview for this study, former Muckamuck employee and organizer Ethel Gardner described her role in the early stages of the union organizing campaign:
I was referred to an employment agency which recommended that I take a federal training program connected to the Muckamuck restaurant. I agreed and eventualiy was working in the cold kitchen making salads and drinks. A few incidents occurred which got the staff upset. The cook was charged for getting the soup burnt and I was fined for leaving the bannock out overnight. When the manager told me to serve the bannock to a customer, I refused because I had been fined for leaving it out. The manager agreed and 1 threw it out. Incidents such as these led a few of us to go to the Labour Standards Branch where we were told we needed a union in order to enforce our grievances. I went back to the employment agency and said I wanted to quit, that the employer was racist. The counsellor said, ‘Why don’t you join a union?’ She told me about SORWuCs organizing efforts at Jerry’s Cove and Bimini’s, I called SORWUC and met with two union reps. They talked about the union and suggested we talk to the unionized employees at Jerry’s Cove which we did.
Ethel said Muckamuck staff had tried to organize before with another union but were unsuccessful and the instigator had been fired. SORWUC was chosen because it had some success organizing in die restaurant industry; Jerry’s Cove and Bimi ni ‘ s, as mentioned, were two examples. When asked if there were First Nations groups the staff could have approached instead of SORWUC, Ethel said, “There just weren’t any out there.”
After the union certification, Muckamuck employee Christina Prince told the press that management had told workers they “should be happy” to have a job because of their race. Christina said the racial issue emerged when employees realized that the owners were getting rich off Native culture. Management responded, “If there has been any discrimination, it has been against the highly qualified whites who we’ve passed over to hire untrained Native people.”
Not only did First Nations people experience difficulty obtaining employment in the city, but when they were hired, often the jobs were in low-wage occupational ghettos. Notes taken by a SORWUC representative at an initial meeting with the Muckamuck workers show that most staff made between $3 and $4 an hour, averaging $60 a night with tips. (The BC minimum wage in 1978 was $3 an hour.) The head cook made $7. Notes on the high turnover and lack of training for staff also included this comment: “AH restaurants have a high turnover rate which is only proof of how much people need a union there and in other places. So some people are untrained. It’s not true for all and certainly implies a slur on Native people.”
The employer took advantage of government legislation and programs to save on labor costs. Workers under eighteen earned less than minimum wage and management made extensive use of the Canada Manpower Training Program, offering to “train” First Nations people to work in the restaurant and, in return, received 75 per cent of the trainee’s wages from the government.
As Ethel Gardner stated employees had approached the BC Labour Standards Branch with complaints of management practices. Although it is illegal, an employer in the restaurant industry will “fine” an employee for making a mistake (such as mishandling cash or food) and will deduct money from an employee’s pay cheque. Muckamuck workers were told that the Standards Branch had little power to enforce laws which forbid such employer practises. A local First Nations newspaper, The Indian Voice, published Ethel’s description of the situation:
Some of us went to the Department of Labour to have the law enforced. The Department of Labour would tell the employer to behave or to give the employees back their money, but there was nothing they could do to prevent any of the illegal acts from happening again, unless we had a union contract.
Ethel outlined the staffs grievances to the First Nations readership:
Breaks were few, if any. Heavy fines were given out for petty reasons, like not tying garbage bags, or forgetting to put tin foil over bannock. Staff meetings were held every week, and it was compulsory to go to these meetings. Employees were suspended two weeks at a time for not attending such meetings, even if it was their day off. At these meetings, employees were put down for every possible mistake that could have been made on the job, big or small, true or false. According to the owners, it seemed like the workers couldn’t do a thing right. Maybe it was because the workers were Indians? I doubt it.
Ethel stated that workers who complained were fired, bribed or harassed. Further, “We are also told that we must wear Native jewelry and if we do not we are badgered about not being proud of our culture. These extras are very expensive for us as we only make the minimum wage.” Scheduling, job security and fines were also major issues, Ethel claimed.
Ethel asked for the support of the First Nations community in the dispute and stated:
For too long the fact that Native workers in B.C. are badly treated has gone unnoticed. At the Muckamuck we are told by our management that we are slow, stunned, inexperienced and hard to train, rude, stupid and ungrateful for the beautiful place that they have built for us (the Indians) to work.
Connecting this situation with other First Nations issues, Ethel stated: “We are doing our part to add to the renewed struggle by Native people to gain the rights and respect that have been denied to us since Captain Cook landed here.”
The list of grievances goes on. According to an information leaflet distributed by SORWUC, employees sometimes received “non-sufficient funds” stamped on their pay cheques. The leaflet also stated: “Employees were proud of the restaurant, nonetheless because it promoted a good image of Native culture. They (the workers) only approached management and then SORWUC because working conditions were so poor that they could not feel proud of themselves.” In an interview with a California newspaper, SORWUC representative Muggs Sigurgeirson said: “The owner would tell the staff that she had 100 applicants from other Natives as a way of threatening staff. Workers could end up working twenty days straight. One worker refused to work the 21st day and had to wait 10 days to work again. She has children to support. Workers were told that whites would be hired if they were dissatisfied.”
A union leaflet contained further workers’ demands and reasons for organizing:
We want to have decent working conditions and to be treated with respect. Some of our grievances are: poor pay, no job security, no say in scheduling, short notice of changes in scheduled hours, illegal deductions for uniforms (T-shirts) and fired or intimidated into quitting.
Another leaflet indicated workers had political grievances as well: “None of the profits made from this sale of Native culture were put into the Native community.” Workers also wanted more input into the menu planning of the cuisine. Ethel Gardner stated in The Indian Voice:
It’s not so much they were white owners, it’s just they were giving the illusion … in their advertising it says ‘staffed and run by Native people.’ People really liked to believe it was owned by Natives—they think they’re contributing to the Native community and Native Indians, but they’re contributing to the pocketbooks of these three owners.
The Muckamuck restaurant employees organized to improve wages and working conditions but also organized as a reaction to their exploitation as First Nations people. While gender issues were discussed by First Nations women workers, it was racial issues which dominated the union agenda, SORWUC organizers recognized these layers of oppression because of their own experiences as women workers in occupational wage ghettos neglected by organized labour. And so out of this dispute came an alliance of white and First Nations workers as SORWUC organizers encouraged and supported Muckamuck employees to voice their demands for respect and autonomy.
What were the features of this situation which brought these groups together to challenge the status quo? As an independent local union, SORWUC had the autonomy and decision-making abilities lacking in larger unions. A larger union would likely have pulled out much earlier than SORWUC. Muckamuck staff chose a feminist, independent union, which suggests that First Nations culture is more readily linked to a small, “alternate” union than to a large, mainstream one. The structure of larger unions could have been alienating and counterproductive to organizing First Nations workers.
Furthermore, SORWUC was committed to class, race and gender struggles. Attempts by visible minority and women’s groups to set up their own caucuses within mainstream unions or to conduct separate organizing have provided some important initiatives in the struggle for workplace equity. However, an independent movement of women workers, even a temporary one, may drive these developments forward more forcefully, a contribution SORWUC can claim to have made during its short existence.
It was also important that the white working class and First Nations groups supported this strike. SORWUC activists had experience and expertise in trade union practices and were able to share this with the First Nations workers. They were able to access the resources of mainstream unions, which was crucial in providing financial and moral support. The endorsement of First Nations groups was also important and though there were conflicts, the dispute also provided an opportunity for the strikers to discuss the benefits of unions with First Nations people.

Certification and Negotiations

The Labour Relations Board (LRB) certified SORWUC as a legal bargaining agent on 20 March 1978 and on 3 April the union served notice to bargain with the employer. A Muckamuck employee summarized events in the Vancouver Sun: “The primary union organizer was fired the day that management was notified of the application for certification. Since then six more of us have been fired or intimidated into quitting. All seven are union members, most quite active.” The union launched charges of unfair labour practices on behalf of these workers on 21 and 23 February, and on 29 March.
The sequence of events following certification are noted in the SORWUC log book. The log book was used to make daily entries of union activities for potential evidence in legal dealings and was especially important during new organizing campaigns, contract negotiations and picketing. The book was available for union staff, officers and members to make records. An excerpt documented the workers’ treatment by the employer after the union application proceedings:
  • 21 February —application for certification Cay fired
  • 23 February —Ethel fired
  • 21 March—Rag suspended
  • 28 March— Rev fired 2
  • 9 March—Lauretta harassed into quitting
The log book described the first steps in contract negotiations from 17 April to the rapid breakdown of relations between the union and management by 20 May:
  • 17 April—first bargaining session (to negotiate a contract)
  • 2 May—second bargaining session
  • 10 May—first date of hearing (of LRB, re: complaints on firings)
  • 12 May—second date of hearing
  • 17 May—third date of hearing
  • 20 May—first date of leafletting (SORWUC information picket) —owner tries to bribe Marge and Christina (Muckamuck employees)
  • 21 May—second date of leafletting
  • 23 May—management walks out (of contract talks) —illegal picketing charge (against the union) —management puts out own leaflet
The union had organized an information picket, handing out leaflets to customers in front of the restaurant on 20 and 21 May as a means of applying pressure against management. Business dropped dramatically during the picketing. A LRB official contacted a SORWUC representative and made an informal request that the union cease leafletting until the board decided on management’s illegal picketing charge. SORWUC declined the request. Muckamuck employee Christina Prince described the LRB’s unfair actions in deciding to hear management’s complaint before the union’s:
It took us two and a half months to get in front of the LRB with our unfair labour practice suits. Yet when this leafletting started, they took us in front of the board within 24 hours. The management got an informal hearing. They called it illegal picketing. And since it was hindering business, the LRB had to automatically fall on management’s side. That’s what we were told. So we thought ‘forget it, we’ll get these people back to their jobs another way, at the negotiating table.’
Management retaliated further by distributing the first of a series of leaflets defending their actions and attacking the union. The dispute was described in the Vancouver Sun as one which “pits Indian workers against white managers.
In The Indian Voice, Ethel Gardner described the frustrations at the bargaining sessions with management in April and May:
Management generally came late, left early, complained about how long the contract was and generally treated us and our union rep with contempt. For example, they refused outright our suggestions that we bargain in the Indian Centre because it was ‘not devoid of colour.’ These were the words of their lawyer, Bill MacDonald.
Doug Chrismas wasn’t well liked in Venice, California either.
Management held a final meeting with staff before relations deteriorated completely. The records from a LRB hearing describe management’s interference, in contravention of the labour code, with the union campaign:
At a meeting of the employees in April or May, shortly before the strike commenced, all of the owners —Erickson, Bjornson and Chrismas—were present and Chrismas made a number of statements concerning SORWUC, the restaurant and its future. According to one of the employees present, Sandra Eatman, the gist of these remarks was that the restaurant provided considerable assistance to Native people, that the employees should work hard to make the restaurant prosper, that the employees could thereby earn much more money, and that the employees did not need a trade union. There were some further statements made by one of the owners to the effect that the restaurant had been opened for Native people, that die Native people should be grateful and that SORWUC would destroy the restaurant.
Management tried another tactic to undermine SORWUC as the bargaining agent for the staff. The owners contacted Russell Means, a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), to talk to the workers. Means met with the Muckamuck staff at the Indian Centre in Vancouver in late May. SORWUC representatives were not allowed to attend. Means suggested the workers buy out management and take over the restaurant, but it seemed impossible to get the money to do this.
Management contacted the Hotel, Restaurant and Bartenders Union (HRBU), Local 40 and, believing they would be a more “reasonable” union in negotiations, suggested they raid SORWUC. A raid did not occur, however, and the international unions, such as the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) and its leader Jack Munro, supported SORWUC’s efforts.
The Strike opens. June 2, 1978

The Strike

Muckamuck workers took a strike vote. A majority voted in favour of a strike and on 1 June began picketing in front of the restaurant. Christina Prince stated to the media: “We’ll be out for as long as it takes to get some serious bargaining done.” She called the management proposals at the initial bargaining sessions “unacceptable and unjust.”
The employer maintained an adamant opposition to the union and hinted at using strikebreakers early in the strike. On 7 June management stated they were prepared to sell their business rather than have a union in the restaurant. Management told the Vancouver Sun that seven workers were prepared to cross the picket line.
The employer also used racial issues to divide workers from each other and the union. SORWUC representative Ulryke Weissgerber said in an interview for this study:
Management promoted the idea that the workers were selling out in terms of their traditional culture by joining a white union. But I think the workers felt an alternative union was more in line with their traditional culture. I don’t think a big union would have held out as long as we did either. There was a huge sign in the restaurant window stating the workers were in a ‘white union.’ The strikers were really angry about this. We discussed things to do and went to Harry Rankin (a Vancouver lawyer [and member of the Communist Party of Canada]) who offered free legal advice. Many strategies were discussed.
A First Nations organization could have made a difference in maintaining unity. Sandra Eatmon, a Muckamuck employee, said in a recent interview that the workers did not have very many options in terms of choosing a union which would represent their interests as First Nations workers. She said, “I admire the dedication of SORWUC members but after the first year of picketing, most of the Muckamuck staff had left the picket line and white people were picketing while Native people were crossing the line and working inside.” She suggests that if a First Nations group had done the organizing, First Nations people may have stayed on the picket line longer.
Union of BC Indian Chiefs president George Manuel pledging his support to strike at a rally. August 8, 1978.
But Ethel Gardner believes many First Nations people did not have a union consciousness:
The Native population by and large is not a working population. There is about 90 per cent unemployment. Even getting a job is difficult, let alone a union job. Native people don’t have much experience with unions. There is a lot of anti-union sentiment. Even the Native community didn’t support the strike to the extent they could have. People say “unions aren’t Native.” There’s no union consciousness. The staff of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) came down to the Muckamuck picket line but that was due to George Manuel, the head of UBCIC at the time. The United Native Nations sat on the fence. They said Natives were working inside the restaurant and picketing outside so they weren’t going to take a stand. Bill Wilson was head at the time.
Picket, June 4, 1978
Support from the First Nations community was crucial to the strikers. The UBCIC expressed their support for the Muckamuck strikers in a public statement: “Problems being experienced here by our people are the same problems we have been experiencing all over B.C. for 100 years.” And farther, “The owners of the Muckamuck exploit our resources—Indian work, Indian culture, Indian foods— yet refuse to treat our people fairly.” Management responded: “It was with a sense of respect, not a desire to exploit that we put together a restaurant which most business people advised us against.”
The employer’s anger at the First Nations community was also expressed in a copy of a letter sent to the UBCIC and publicly displayed in the restaurant window. It read in part:
We, however, no longer want to be directly involved with Native culture in British Columbia to the degree of commitment required in the past by Muckamuck. We had tried on many levels to achieve a positive statement and seemed to be progressing well until recently when the labor dispute first arose. The amount of energy required to pull the now shattered situation back together is too much if possible at all, the financial situation to us simply does not warrant it and the desire no longer exists.
Workers picketed a closed restaurant for the First six months of the strike. They received $50 a week in strike pay. Voluntary picketers, members of SORWUC, other trade unionists and supporters, joined the picket line. Shifts were maintained from 4 pm to 10 pm seven days a week.
Christine Price (right) with strikers. August 8, 1978

Some of the strikers got other jobs. Sam Bob, 17, a bus-person at the Muckamuck, was hired at a nearby Polynesian restaurant, the Kontiki, but was fired when his former employer talked to his new employer. The Kontiki manager denied this to the media, stating, “He (Sam Bob) didn’t even know how to use his tray.” Sam Bob told the media that the manager asked if he was a union member. “I said ‘yes’ then he said ‘well Carolyn was in and told me you were picketing at the Muckamuck and I don’t want any of that here.’ He said I was a good worker and would have worked fine but because of the union bit I was fired.” SORWUC members picketed the Kontiki for a short time, but Sam Bob did not get his job back.

Ethel Gardner kept the First Nations community informed of the strike and wrote in the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs News:
Being able to bargain collectively with Muckamuck management, we can negotiate a just and equitable contract so that in the future Indian people who choose to work there will be treated with dignity and respect. In this society, being in a union is the only way we can guarantee that our rights as workers will be respected.
The city newspapers’ labour reporters maintained regular news coverage of the strike. One Vancouver Sun business writer, Eleanor Boyle, spoke out in favour of the owners. She accused First Nations workers of “using their Indian-ness to make money, exploiting their own culture if you like.” She suggested SORWUC was out looking for a cause and that management “should get a little credit for ensuring 90 per cent of its staff was Native Indian. It should also be spared from crucifixion for hundreds of years of Canadian neglect of Native people.”
In October, management re-opened the upstairs lounge and in November they re-opened the restaurant, employing a few former staff and hiring new workers, many of them First Nations people. The lounge was renamed the “Chilcotin Bar Seven” and had a “cowboy” theme. A Vancouver Sun headline read: “Cowboys Lasso Indians on Davie Street.”41 Strikers viewed these incidents as insensitive to First Nations culture and the union spoke out publicly against these actions.
While most customers did not cross the picket line and business was minimal, die strike took an ugly turn with the emergence of verbal and physical abuse between strikebreaking employees and strikers. The police were frequently called and numerous assault charges were launched in the courts during the ensuing months. Generally these assaults involved strikebreakers taunting, kicking and hitting picketers. In late November, counter-picketing by die strikebreaking staff brought more abuse—physical and verbal—on the street. Counter-pickets were strikebreaking staff, many of them Native, who came out on to the street and held signs critical of the union and supportive of management. For passersby, it was confusing “street theatre.”
A union picketer described the scene in a SORWUC newsletter:
They [management] seemed to particularly delight in pitting the Native staff against the picketers. For several weekends in a row now, the Native scabs [not the Caucasians] have been coming out to picket with strikers. They carry signs like—Muckamuck Open, We Support Muckamuck, etc. To passersby it looks like our line is bigger. One such passerby tried to give one of these counter-pickets a donation to the strike fund and she [the counter-picket] scuttled back inside!
As the strike progressed, fewer original Muckamuck staff showed up to picket. Many had other jobs and some felt a need to maintain a low profile. To keep their current jobs, they did not want to be seen picketing. SORWUC members, other trade unionists and supporters became essential picketers. Most were white and the core picketers, reflective of SORWUC membership, were female. As legal proceedings against the management dragged on, and picketing persisted into the second year, SORWUC members spent a lot of time clarifying the confusing appearances which emerged from the strike as many First Nations people crossed a white picket line to work inside. Picketers were motivated by their determination to establish unions, and by the knowledge that the majority of original strikers supported their efforts, attended the three separate decertification hearings over the duration of the dispute and were prepared to return to work. Some First Nations people chose to join the strikebreakers for a number of reasons, including the confusion created by divisions within their community regarding the dispute, a lack of familiarity with unions and contempt encouraged by the employer for the “white” union.
Entries in the log book by white strikers (unintentionally presenting racial stereotypes of First Nations people) described the picket line atmosphere:
October 12, 1978 — 3:00 — entry by Heather: … former waiter came by to check it out. Had been picketing first two months. Now has job. Got into a hassle with one of the Indian cooks who crossed the line. She said she wasn’t going on welfare and at least they paid her —she doesn’t care about anyone else—only herself. (She’s a young, slim Indian woman). 4:45 — Older Indian man (medium height-lean) went in, greeted by owner (?) in red cowboy shirt (full beard) who smiled and poured him coffee.
The employer hired Ben Paul, a First Nations employee of the Federal Department of Indian Affairs and his wife Evelyn, to assist the strikebreaking staff in composing anti-union leaflets and various labour relations complaints and applications for decertification. SORWUC attempted to charge the employer with hiring a “professional strikebreaker” (in contravention of the labour code) but the LRB ruled that Paul was not legally defined as a “professional.”
The strikebreakers, with employer encouragement, used the legal process in an attempt to stall and subvert organizing by applying on three separate occasions for decertification. All three applications were rejected by the Labour Relations Board because the union was able to prove that a majority of the original staff were still members of SORWUC. These proceedings had the potential to wear down the union as some of the original staff moved out of the city or province and were not always easily available to testify for the union.
The first of three applications for decertification to the LRB was made January 1979, seven months after the original employees had joined SORWUC. SORWUC was able to prove that only one striker crossed the picket line to work inside. At the second hearing on 25 August 1979 the LRB stated, “… in every lengthy strike there will be some employees who do not picket but remain interested and willing to return to work when a settlement is reached.” By the third hearing 14 May 1980, the strikebreakers applied as a new bargaining unit, the Northwestern Hospitality Employees Association. Five of the eighteen original strikers were working inside the restaurant. The remainder had other jobs and one was picketing regularly. Still, SORWUC was able to present testimony from a majority of original staffers that they supported the union and were prepared to return to work when the dispute ended.
Another legal tactic used by management was their application for an injunction in the Be Supreme Court on 1 June 1979 against SORWUC picketing in front of the restaurant. Justice Patricia Proudfoot agreed to ban picketing and then after a union appeal on 8 June ruled that only six pickets per shift were allowed. Muggs Sigurgeirson, speaking for SORWUC, told the press: “We don’t consider it a victory because the number of pickets has been limited. But we’re certainly ecstatic at being back on the street where strikers should be.” SORWUC appealed the limit but the court turned down the appeal. The reason given for the decision was that the picketers were “harassing” customers and employees.
Management distributed and posted leaflets in the west end community. The LRB described and commented on these activities:
The single most disturbing theme throughout the material produced by the (strikebreaking) staff is the persistent accusation that SORWUC is a racist organization or, at least, that SORWUCs position in this dispute amounts to racial discrimination against Native Indians. This accusation is asserted baldly in some of the material. For example, one leaflet distributed during the summer of 1979 is entitled “Stop Racial Prejudice” and its concluding words are as follows: “This issue is no longer a labour dispute. It has been escalated into arguments over the right to strike. Do not destroy job opportunities for Native People! Ninety per cent of British Columbia’s Native People are unemployed. Help our economy and stop inflation. Support the Native workers at the Muckamuck. Bring a halt to racial discrimination. Support Muckamuck traditional Indian food.”
While the LRB condemned these actions, the board did not provide remedies requested by the union which included a public apology in The Native Voice and Westender newspapers. SORWUC’s newsletter contains a description of the First Nations community’s support:
We have recent letters of support from the Vancouver Indian Centre and the United Native Nations. In April of this year when management put a sign in the window saying the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs supported the strikebreakers, the UBCIC lawyer threatened to sue and the sign was promptly removed. Wayne Clarke, the administrator of the Vancouver Indian Centre has walked the picket line along with other people from the centre. In a recent letter to SORWUC, Debbie Mearns (President of the Indian Centre) told the strikers she “admired their dedication to this complex issue.”
Muckamuck strikers solicited support from the First Nations community through fundraising, conference speeches and articles in First Nations newspapers. SORWUC activists also embarked on major fundraising activities within the trade union and political left community. Financial donations for strikers accumulated into thousands of dollars by the end of the dispute.
The strikebreakers faced working conditions similar to those of the original staff, with the added pressure of working behind a picket line and serving very few customers each night. Turnover among them was high. They were paid $3 to $5 an hour. The media reported on 19 December 1979 that the strikebreakers were laid off over Christmas with non-sufficient funds marked on their pay cheques at the bank.
As the dispute wore on the union declared the strike a “civil rights issue” for First Nations people. A leaflet by the union stated: “In their actions and leaflets they (management) make it plain that they do not believe Native workers should have the right to strike.”
On two occasions during the strike when the owners tried to meet with SORWUC, the strikebreakers attempted to stop them. One vocal First Nations strikebreaker, Florence Differ, told the local media, “If management negotiates with SORWUC, we’ll walk out. I think we had a dirty deal pulled on us again. The Indians are done in again.” Manager Sussy Selbst defended the owners’ actions: “We just want to talk to the union. It’s been 17 months— we had seven customers last night. But the staff turned on us and screamed at us and called us turncoats. I was almost in tears myself.”
Again on 25 April 1980 management made moves to contact the union and strikebreakers threatened to quit. The session was cancelled because the owners allegedly feared picketing by strikebreakers outside the negotiating meeting place. By this time, the restaurant was in operation Friday and Saturday nights only. Soon after, the restaurant shut down all operations.
May-June 1981 issue of Indian World
Finally on 25 April 1981, the LRB made a ruling on the various applications by SORWUC. Their main finding was that the Muckamuck management had not bargained in good faith. By October 1981 the owners had no assets in BC. On 1 March 1983 the LRB finally applied remedies to their previous ruling, having waited until they heard an application for certification by the strikebreakers as a new association. The LRB ruled that management owed the union $10,000 in compensation. SORWUC has never been able to collect this money, as the employer moved back to the United States. New owners set up a grocery store on the main floor of the property. Malcolm McSporrum, a local architect and supporter of First Nations issues* viewed the downstairs of the property and discovered that the setting and equipment of the restaurant remained. He contacted some former Muckamuck strikers and suggested they could be part owners in a new restaurant he would help finance. The Quilicum, a restaurant serving First Nations cuisine was reopened and a few First Nations people (including a former Muckamuck striker) have majority shares.
Justice finally caught up to Muckamuck owner, Doug Chrismas.

Conclusion

Many First Nations people have believed that “unions aren’t Native” partially because of the neglect by organized labour to campaign on their behalf. Consequently their working conditions have been exploitive on an economic and racial basis. But First Nations workers at the Muckamuck restaurant were able to form an alliance with the members of SORWUC to challenge their unjust status. SORWUC activists* ideological motivations, expertise, and links to the mainstream labour movement were key motivators to the workers’ efforts to resist the cultural and economic status quo.
The state’s institutions, however, failed First Nations workers as they were unable to protect workers from discriminatory and illegal employer practices. In this sense, as the strikers observed, the dispute became a “civil rights” issue for First Nations people. Although the federal employment centre attempted to address First Nations employment issues by setting up a program with local businesses, when told that the Muckamuck employer was discriminatory, the agency was only able to suggest informally that workers join a union. Similarly, the Labour Standards Branch admitted to being ineffectual in enforcing sanctions against illegal activities of employers such as fining employees for mistakes on the job, and again informally suggested workers join a union.
The LRB moved too slowly and provided remedies they were unable to enforce. The board’s decision to hear management’s illegal picketing complaint before the union’s charges of staff firings, and the delay in rendering a decision on the employer’s refusal to bargain in good faith undermined the union’s ability to be effective. The court’s decision to ban, then limit picketing, also hindered the workers’ efforts to establish a union. Furthermore police tended to view picketers as “troublemakers” so that picketers were more likely to be charged than protected in assault incidents.
The employer was not tied to the local community and institutions to the same extent as the union, so its attempts to seek legitimacy eventually failed. Their corporate values nonetheless were insufficiently challenged by the state as the long list of their illegal and unethical practices demonstrates. The fact that foreign owners can sell their business and move south without adhering to legal remedies indicates the global scope of workers’ struggle for justice.
The analysis of the role of the union can be extended further by examining the contradictions and conflicts First Nations workers experienced within SORWUC. Although SORWUC was ideologically committed to racial issues, the leaders and activists of SORWUC were female, mostly white and functioned within an adversarial and hierarchial trade union structure and culture. First Nations peoples’ ways of dealing with conflict, negotiation and decision-making were not introduced into the process. This imposition of values and culture on the First Nations workers could explain in part the eventual departures of strikers from the picket line. First Nations workers spoke on the specific strike situation in public forums, but did not speak on behalf of SORWUC as a union. Nor did First Nations workers take an activist position within SORWUC or other trade unions.
Further research by First Nations people could provide insights into how their community felt about this dispute and about trade unions in general. What were the repercussions of this strike within their community? How did the women strikers view the relationship between race and gender? Did the aspect of a visibly divided leadership among the First Nations organizations and among First Nations restaurant workers create long term problems, negative feelings about trade unions and distrust of the white community?
The closure of the restaurant and the loss of jobs for First Nations strikers does not suggest a victory for the workers. And while the LRB ruled in favour of the union, the monetary remedies were not rewarded to the strikers. Muckamuck workers, however, gained a sense of dignity and respect because they stood up for their rights. Restaurant employers elsewhere in the city may have improved their practices in light of the publicity and support for this dispute. The wider community had been made aware of First Nations, class and trade union issues. The First Nations and trade union communities found an opportunity to develop a bridge which can be crossed in the future.
Two of the original strikers spoke positively of their experience, Sandra Eatmon said she gained a respect for trade unions. “I learned about unions and workers’ rights,” Sandra said. “I thought it was the right thing at the time. We deserved better treatment.” Overall Ethel Gardner believes the dispute was a success. She said, “Looking back now, I see how we took it upon ourselves as a group of Native workers to make a statement that we weren’t going to be run in that way. So I think it was a success. We learned a lot, gained a lot and it was empowering.”

Related:

A 1987 story on Chrismas’ sketchiness by Douglas Coupland
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On Conjuring Property: An Interview with Jeremy Campbell

Photo: Forest fires near Castelo de Sonhos (Jeremy Campbell, 2013).

This article originally appeared on the Anthropology and Environment Society blog. This post is part of the series on Settler Colonialism: Life on the Frontier

Theresa Miller (Postdoctoral Fellow, Smithsonian Institution) spoke with Jeremy Campbell (Associate Professor, Roger Williams University) about his recent book on political economy in formation in the Brazilian Amazon.

conjuringproperty

As an “ethnography of political economy in formation” (p. xiii), your book stands out in its focus on the temporality and dynamism of property and the state for settlers in Western Amazonia, concepts that are often categorized as fixed or static. Could this approach be applied to other contexts of settler colonialism throughout the world, or do you think the political economy in formation in western Pará state is unique to that particular context?

Political economies are constantly taking shape, so the study of one “in formation” can be attempted in nearly infinite contexts, contemporary or historic. The challenge is in crafting the boundaries of study: what, exactly, is subject to creative labors and thus taking shape in interesting and impactful ways? In rural Amazonia, property (itself a cornerstone of political economy) is the focus of ideological and material labors for colonists and the state, so there exists an opportunity to track, in real time, the contradictions and surprises that attend to its creation. I think that paying attention to property’s arrival in the hands of colonists—those who have no official backing but who aspire to incorporate themselves and “their” lands into the economy of a nation-state—sheds light on the broader dynamics of settler colonialism. So often the story of landed property’s creation is occluded from the histories that settler colonial states tell themselves—try asking the typical American about the Yazoo land frauds, for example—that I thought it crucial to document the violence, fraud, and confusion through which this mundane cornerstone of social life emerges. Property and the state are always dynamic; much can be learned from seeing them as moving in our analysis, rather than fixed.

Your book centers on the “world-making qualities of property,” as you put it: “how it comes into existence as an institution to order territorial, social, and even historical relations between the colonists who are active agents in its creation” (pp. 18-19). Would you say that your book engages with the recent “ontological turn” in anthropology? If so, would you say that your approach deals with the recent critiques of the “ontological turn” (Bessire and Bond 2014) that maintain it often lacks attention to history and political economy?

I suppose that it’s hard to be an anthropologist these days and not take a position on the ontology debates (though it does seem to be a dust-up that is winding its way towards familiar impasses). But as an Amazonianist, there is nothing either novel or controversial about “the ontological turn.” For nearly thirty years, the key points of this perspective have been discussed, elaborated, and critiqued, perhaps resulting in the feeling among Amazonianists that an ontological approach is, like a feminist or a Foucauldian or a Marxian approach, a set of tools that may or may not be appropriate for a given intellectual task. Amazonian anthropologists—excited as any anthropologists are about the novelty of ontological precepts—have had more time to domesticate them, to find room for them in the cluttered toolbox. In my view, what’s been so breathlessly exciting about the turn is this: since its inception, anthropology has been premised on the idea that there are multiple ways to see and interact with the (singular) world; the ontological turn insists that in fact multiple worlds exist, and that the task of the anthropologist is to translate across the boundaries of worlds that have altogether distinct natures. This is an interesting provocation, but I agree that it can be difficult to see the politics of such an approach (as Bessire and Bond 2014 contend, and as Ramos 2012 does even more forcefully in an Annual Review article). In my effort to understand property speculation in Amazonia, the idea of property as a world-making institution was important, since it seems to me so self-evident that property—both as a concept and a set of material and habitual practices—is infrastructural to the day-to-day operations of the world. Or, if you like, any given world, since I have no need to forestall the possibility of multiple, ontologically divergent worlds.

During fieldwork, however, it became abundantly clear that colonists were engaging property in an effort to make a world that would be recognizable to and eventually subsumed by the already extant world of the Brazilian nation-state. So even though it makes some sense to say that Amazonian colonists inhabit a different world from residents of Rio de Janeiro or Belém, the categories governing what is real are broadly shared among these groups. Colonists are aspiring to join what they perceive to be the modern Brazil that has left them behind or betrayed them, and although property is wildly unstable and generative, all concerned see property as a means to “settling” the universe of possibilities into a singular one in lockstep with Brazilian norms. It’s at this point that the ontological approach hits an analytic dead end when it comes to my material.  My point is to show how property does not pre-exist the labors that bring it into existence, and that if we pay attention to these labors we can understand how productive the instability of categories that are often taken for granted (class, gender, territory, and history) can be. This then enables a critique—and a politics—in which we can gauge to what extent terms (like “sustainable development”) and actors (e.g. colonists, the state) circulate, proliferate, and create stark inequalities and power imbalances. I am sympathetic to the point that political economic norms—which are the focus of my work, showing how they stabilize out of fits and starts and reversals in one particular place, over time—themselves constitute a particular way of being in and generating knowledge about the world. In other words, the concept of divisible and salable property may be construed as constitutive of an ontology that pulls individual persons out of the networks of energy and matter that sustain and create them, networks that could be (and are) understood and occupied with a radically different set of terms and habits. But here’s the point: Amazonian colonists are yearning to be so pulled out of what, for them, is the messy and indeterminate mash up of territories and claims that lack order; they already see the forest like the state does (or “like it should,” in the words of one settler), and not in the same manner as the Amerindians who Viveiros de Castro, Descola, and others have made famous as the exemplars of ontologically-divergent practice. Rather than engaging the ontological question—which generates only a shallow or obvious answer in the case of property dynamics in Amazonia—I erred on the side of staying close to the trouble, and tried to grapple with how property conjuring fuels inequality and environmental destruction.

document-forging-2007
Document forging (Jeremy Campbell, 2007).

Throughout the book there is an emphasis on the creation of boundaries, borders, and lines to support overlapping, contingent, and in many cases fraudulent property claims. As you maintain, frontiers are emergent as “world-making cultural objects” (p. 30). Yet settlers, both grandes and pequenos, are in a constant process of attempting to solidify the boundaries they have created through government approval and regularization. How do you reconcile this apparent contradiction between the reality of boundaries always in formation and contested, and the “ideal” of fixed boundaries that settlers pursue?

The relationship is fundamentally dialectical. In rural Amazonia, the law—the status of being recognized as in keeping with formal regulations—only takes shape through foundational acts which are illegal, illicit, and opportunistic. I don’t think this is unique to my field site, by the way. In Amazonia, part of the problem is that there have been so many distinct policies and regulations governing and encouraging colonization of the region. Colonists thus believe their actions have the force of law even if contradictory regulations also exist. Another factor is the relative weakness of the federal government in Brazil in terms of material presence in rural communities: there are no courts, few police, and all land registry offices are actually private businesses. Yet, in another sense, government is everywhere, in that colonists are working to bring about structures—property foremost among them—that will be acknowledged and regulated by the state in the future. The boundaries that these colonists cut through the forest, and the title documents they confect to their bolster claims, are real and impactful acts, but they are also notional expressions, speculation as to what might be recognizable as legal in the future.

There’s a great phrase that I heard often in Pará, and which gives a sense of how colonists think about the mercurial quality of law: “se a lei pega,” or “if the law sticks.” Colonists are aware of the letter of the law—and as I said, there are often contradictory precepts in law anyway. But colonists also understand, on a practical level, that law is a social construct that can be shifted in meaning and application. I heard “if the law sticks” often as colonists discussed new land regularization policies emerging from far-off Brasilia. The phrase reveals how the new law might not “stick,” and opens the possibility that policies might be able to be molded to “fit” preexisting practices. It’s at this moment that we see colonists as active agents in turning illicit and speculative activities into the settled and predictable ones that form the basis of political economy and become routinized as law. They are not trying to evade law, to get away with something without getting caught. They recognize, rather, that different governmental plans have come and gone, have been more or less “sticky,” and that this represents an opportunity to be creative in anticipating and trying to shape what comes next.

Your ethnography is incredibly nuanced in its ability to show the unequal yet overlapping realities of “conjuring property” for both small-scale, poor settlers (pequenos) and landed elites (grandes). Can you describe in more detail how you came to approach writing the book without falling into the common trope of victims and villains (p. 23)? In addition, how have you been able to conduct research with individuals from both groups who are often at odds with one another?

I find the victims/villains trope a bit cartoonish and ultimately unhelpful for the task of taking colonists’ lives seriously in Amazonia. Within anthropology, it has sometimes been fashionable to see colonists as demons of one shape or another, with the harshest opprobrium reserved for loggers and ranchers. I was curious to know how these very “villains” saw the world, to be sure, but I was also interested in telling the overlooked story of land-grabbing and speculation. Often, land-grabbers (grileiros) and the “big guy” (grandes) ranchers or loggers are one and the same, and if that were the whole story I’d certainly measure these folks for villainous garb. But property conjuring exerts a centripetal force in colonial Amazonia, drawing in small famers and landless workers (pequenos) as well. Though smallholders did not have the sophisticated document-forging capacities of their grande counterparts—nor did they have connections with dubious real estate firms in southern Brazil which sold land to third parties illegally—pequenos also crafted methods to claim property without official sanction from the state. Though the game was lopsided in favor of grandes from the start, pequenos co-opted elements of socio-environmentalism to take possession of land and anticipate that it would be deeded to them. This is clearly shady stuff too—maybe even villainous—but if we stop the analysis here, no texture or distinction is possible. People are so often more complicated than the one-dimensional props that we use to animate our stories. Furthermore, I feel that any principled defense of indigenous Amazonians’ land rights—a defense that I am directly engaged in and morally in favor of—needs to understand the outlooks and methods of those colonists that are, very rapidly, coming to speak for Amazonian forests as wholly-owned parcels of private property. The steps between terra nullius and deforested ranchlands are many, the set of characters is diverse, and the stakes for Amazonian peoples and places are too high for shoddy social analysis.

It took a lot of time, and many false starts, before I gained sufficient trust of both grandes and pequenos. I was a suspicious character—why would a North American be living in a colonial outpost unless he worked for the CIA or was a spy for an arch-enemy type (insert Greenpeace or any other prominent environmental organization here; I was called ‘em all). Grandes were doubly skeptical of my motives, since I first arrived in the region through contacts with the landless workers’ union. As I explain in the book, though, the line between pequeno and grande dissolved in moments of crisis—when both sides felt that the land claims they had curated would be rejected entirely by the state. Parties on both sides collaborated and colluded, and many were happy to have a researcher documenting what they were up to. It was another potential source of validation—we’re here, see, this guy is writing about us! I think that, over time, the people with whom I worked allowed their suspicions of me to subside (though I’m not sure that the elites ever truly let them go), since I was, for good or ill, sticking around. Anyone who has done research in Amazonia can attest that “researcher” (pesquisador) can be a difficult label to bear, and can muck up relationships before they’re even able to materialize. There are important reasons for this suspicion, and it is also important to recognize the considerable differences between, say, the suspicion of researchers exhibited by indigenous peoples concerned with how “research” can be marshalled to take away their lands and, on the other hand, the suspicion of land-grabbers towards researchers who might reveal their scheming. In my experience, the most potent feeling for settlers in Western Pará was one of being willfully misunderstood by outsiders, conveniently villainized when not altogether forgotten. My prolonged presence in Castelo de Sonhos activated these concerns. Interviews ended abruptly, people gave me the cold shoulder, and I spent close to a year on repeat, explaining myself, sometimes to amazed disbelief. But unlike other researchers who may have passed through the village or stayed for a week or two, I simply didn’t leave. I realize now that I was incredibly lucky to not have been chased out! So, for many people, I think I became the guy who was going to tell their story. I hope I did it justice.

The book is also unique in its sustained focus on fraud – through doctoring paperwork to make it appear older, forging picada border trails, violence and intimidation, and the interesting system of laranjas, wherein grandes use the names of pequenos to register land parcels that they actually own, initiating a system of essentially debt peonage (pp. 74-75). How did you come to discover these different types of fraud during your extensive fieldwork?

picada-trail-property-boundary-2007
Picada trail property boundary (Jeremy Campbell, 2007).

Again, it took a lot of time and many errors on my part to uncover how property conjuring works in practice. I know for sure that, without the backing of a well-liked radio DJ who doubled as a self-styled community activist, I would never have made the progress I did. This DJ was friendly with both grande ranchers and pequeno workers, and also had a keen understanding of the local economy. Gold and lumber had each boomed and busted by the time I arrived in Castelo de Sonhos, and understanding the remnants of these economic activities—the firms and workers and dreams left behind—provided crucial context for understanding the rise of property speculation and land grabbing. One of the most shocking things to me was that, after about a year or so of establishing rapport (I spent nearly three years in the field), my timid questions about land fraud were not met with anger or denial as I expected. Rather, informants responded with detailed descriptions of how fraud was actually carried out—the document forging, trail management, illicit sales and phony registrations. Everyone was really open about land fraud, since they figured (correctly) that just about everyone else was doing it too.

Despite the surprising frankness about property games, there were still several vexing puzzles that took me years to figure out. The laranja scheme, in which grandes use the good names of pequenos or other third parties to consolidate massive properties for the grande, was particularly difficult to understand. Only when I discovered multiple examples of grandes “giving” land to pequenos—properties that the latter thought were theirs but which lacked any reliable documentation—did I finally piece together how it all worked. I had to learn how to listen to grandes and pequenos from where each sat in a patron-client network; descriptions of land claims might change depending on who was in the room and who was in debt to whom.

You mention that women often held positions of authority in certain settlers’ movements such as the Rural Worker’s Union (STR; p. 87). Could you elaborate on the role of women in the practices of conjuring property? For example, do women ever take on the role of cutting picada trails?

landless-workers-in-western-para%2c-2008
Landless workers in Western Pará (Jeremy Campbell, 2008).

I never observed women involved in cutting trails (picadas) through the woods to mark property limits. In truth, though, this is but one technique for making property “show up” to others in rural Amazonia. Women do walk property lines as a means of surveying whether other trails have been cut—and they often do this in mixed-gender groups. But far from the trails that define claimed parcels, women are deeply involved in other techniques of property conjuring, which include the falsification of deeds and the curation of intricate chains of title, receipts of sale or mortgage, and the like. Women and men alike do this sort of paper-making labor. Women also, it should be noted, do most of the food-production and other domestic labors that sustain colonial outposts in Amazonia. But what I found most at odds with the typical gendered division of labor is also what I think is most important about the question of gender in conjuring property: more often than not, it was women who were leaders in linking property claimants along, and even across, class lines. This was true for pequenos—the most effective leaders of landless worker organizations were all women—and for grandes, among whom women were most likely to organize meetings or to propose and discuss strategies. Women in rural Amazonian colonial settlements are the key entrepreneurs—this term is imprecise, but gets at both the leadership roles women took on and the considerable risk they were willing to bear when coordinating, for example, across class lines. We see this most clearly in the “paper settlements scandal” (described in Chapter 4), when smallholder farmer associations colluded with powerful loggers to take possession of agrarian reform settlements for the purpose of profiting off of logging the forests. Women leaders negotiated that “deal” on both sides of the pequeno/grande divide. Why this would be the case—why women would be the most effective and creative coalition-builders when it comes to the Brazilian “settling” colonial frontier—is a question of huge importance, though unfortunately beyond the scope of the book.

Your application of Tim Ingold’s (2000) concept of “sentient ecology” to describe working on conjuring property in the local landscape (pp. 78-79) was quite interesting, especially because Ingold’s theories on environmental knowledge are typically applied to indigenous or other “traditional” communities. Would you say that the “sentient ecology” of cutting picada trails can be applied to all settlers, or is this more of an expert knowledge acquired by certain people?

Intimate knowledge of forests is acquired by those who first “mexer com terra” (“mess with land”) among Amazonian colonists. This includes those who cut picada boundary trails and people who patrol these trails or scout out new territories for land-grabbing. Knowledge of soils and forest fauna is also acquired by homesteading farmers who emigrate to the region with little capital and no experience with the Amazonian biome. So this knowledge is hard-won, though even a colonist-made-knowledgeable through experience in the forest is not guaranteed to be a successful colonist. Ingold’s idea of “sentient ecology” seemed apt because, as colonists learned to read, use, and move through an alien environment they also came to understand how their actions—cutting trails, setting fires, and opening farms—were messages that other forces (human and non-human) could decipher and respond to. Making a move on land—by sending a message with a trail or with a homestead—was always riddled with the risk of failure: environmental conditions could doom a farm, a wildfire could swallow up a homestead, and an ill-timed opening of a new boundary trail could be met with violent reprisals from a neighbor. Listening to one’s surroundings—and “speaking” intelligently so that your actions might incur less risk—became crucial skills for self-styled pioneers.

However, this “sentient ecology” seems only to be an important circuit of careful listening-acting-speaking for those who initially “mexer com terra,” the very first to open up homesteads and boundary trails. Maintaining these labors requires careful skill and attention, but the very point of these activities is to settle and civilize the territory. Which is to say, those who learn to listen to and engage with an alien environment are simultaneously fiercely dedicated to diminishing the utility of these newly acquired skills. Speculators, ranchers, and other colonists who move to Pará after some semblance of colonial territoriality has been established need not acquire the skills necessary to walk or “read” a boundary trail, or to find cultivars that grow in Amazonian soils. These later arrivals still must learn skills, but they are coming into a country already transformed enough to resemble, at least aspirationally or proleptically, the industrial agricultural lands of Brazil’s south and center-west.

Settlers are constantly reshaping history through forging property documents, and as you convincingly argue, are living “proleptically” (p. 129) – representing themselves as inhabitants of the land before they actually were. Can you elaborate further on this interesting concept of settler prolepsis? Do you think it could be applied to other contexts of settler colonialism as well?

I do see prolepsis as having greater analytical purchase beyond land dealings, and far beyond the lowland South America context I explore. In my use of the term, prolepsis gets at how people attempt to occupy a rhetorical stance that inoculates them from criticism. It’s a kind a preemptive changing of the script, a prophylaxis against counter-arguments. The temporal effect of this is what I wanted to show in Conjuring Property: prolepsis has effect of sowing things back in time that didn’t really happen, as a way of blunting an anticipated criticism. As in rhetoric or debate: “I was already anticipating your thought…so here’s how you were always wrong about the matter…” In Amazonian land disputes, the “already” is entailed with how colonists narrate the past, whereas the anticipation is oriented towards what the state might ratify as viable claims on land at some point in the future. To prolept the state’s moves (and those of other potential claimants) is to guess what future regulations might dictate about the historical profile of viable claims. That is, a claimant has to be ready to fit with what will be considered lawful occupation of the place at a given time in the past and under certain conditions. To prepare their claims, colonists make their forged deeds look older than they really are, but they also assume the rhetorical stance of being already owners, already old and established in this place, even though they are anything but. It’s a political tactic meant to bend the regularization process towards honoring colonists’ claims. At base, prolepsis tries to turn into a fait accompli something that is still very much subject to dispute and interpretation by removing it—in this case property and its legitimate establishment in time—from the realm of debate. I do think there is something specific and important to how faits accomplis are “weaponized” in lowland South America as a cultural-cum-political style. Using prolepsis, ranchers and loggers can anticipate and deflect environmental regulations by making themselves into environmentalists, as I show in the book and as is happening in Peru, Ecuador, and Paraguay, far from the western Pará case.  But I imagine that the rhetorical stance of being “already with the program” would be recognizable to scholars and activists working in resource frontiers throughout the world. In the end, prolepsis is a strategy for speaking about resources in a way that naturalizes their ownership by particular parties—the details can differ, but the end result is to forestall debate about whether such resources should indeed be owned at all.

What was perhaps most surprising in the book was the settlers, both grandes and pequenos, co-opting the language of Brazilian socio-environmentalism for their own purposes, seen especially in the argument that “production” (ranching, logging, farming) was akin to “protecting” the environment (pp. 140-141, 153). As you state, this co-optation ended the era of socio-environmentalism projects in the region, that only lasted for 2 years (2006-2008). Do you think that settlers would respond to environmentalist projects differently in the future, especially if pursued differently by outsiders?

My current work with indigenous peoples engaged in anti-dam activism in the Tapajós Valley has brought me at the question of territorial disputes from a slightly different vantage, only to see similar things. Miners, ranchers, and loggers have persistently tried to cloak their activities in the trappings of sustainable development. They also hardly hide their efforts to shape land use policy through direct manipulation of government entities at the local, state, and federal levels. Activities like mining, ranching, and logging need a lot of land to generate profits, and the vast majority of land in Amazonia falls under a federal- or state- protective designation. National forests are a great example: these are protected lands that are open to logging and mining (and, in some cases, even ranching) provided that the “producer” has a land-use protocol approved by the state. Big businesses—Brazilian and foreign—are best situated to develop these protocols, and it is precisely these firms that are attracted to the region due to the low start-up costs of doing “productive” activities in greenfield sites as opposed to buying up land that has already been deforested. So the last obstacle for well-capitalized firms to work in the region is appearing to be respectful of the environment. This is greenwashing for the sake of government types and for local settler communities, who constitute a labor reserve for such “productive” projects. These laborers need to be “equipped” to see themselves as environmentally-conscious miners, ranchers, or loggers. In this rendering, environmental engagement is turned into something very specific: a way to speak about territories so as to commoditize them. And everyone from capital to labor to the state is in on the farce of “sustainable development,” making the role of environmental organizations and activist (like the ones I discuss in Chapters 4 and 5) all the more difficult in the Brazilian Amazon.

It’s also important to note that this nature-as-commodity logic emerges not in the absence of regulations or as the result of conflicts about the meaning of environmental protection. Rather, the very regulations posit that the way to protect the environment is to sell it. Outside firms, government agencies, and the vast majority of colonial settlers come to a sort of negotiated settlement that free markets will ensure profits, preservation, and the establishment of law and order on the frontier. Smallholders and native communities are often subject to divide-and-conquer techniques as developers try to win locals to their cause; many of these locals then speak, in their own terms but in ways that parrot the greenwashers, a version of market environmentalism. The tragic results of this dividing-and-conquering can be seen in the case of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Complex, in the Xingu Valley just to the east of where I work (see Laura Zanotti’s [2015] and Eve Bratman’s [2014] great work on this case). So, no, I’m not hopeful that colonist populations will respond differently to future environmental projects in the region; these communities understand their “productive” work to be already green, in both senses of the word.

You conclude the book with some indication of what may lie ahead in land-grabbing in Western Pará, especially as Brazilian governmental policy shifts toward the market-driven “environmental governance” (p. 158-159). Could you speculate further here on the future of settlers’ future-oriented speculative accumulation?

I wrote this book to explore a puzzle: Brazil has progressive environmental laws, but bad outcomes.  Deforestation has spiked again recently, native peoples’ lands are in peril, and indigenous leaders and environmental activists are in constant danger of assassination. Understanding the disposition of land—who controls it, comes to speak for it, and how rules are selectively marshalled or bent to sure up claims—seemed like crucial things to understand. But I wanted to avoid reductionist or silly tropes that often guide what we think is going on with deforestation or environmental change more generally. So, this is a story about colonialism, and specifically the socio-cultural dimensions of colonialism, the set of habits of mind and daily practices that amount to normalization of destruction and dispossession. I think there are three take-away messages from this sustained examination of property conjuring in Amazonia: first, claims-making is all about the metaphorical emptying of land—of its indigenous histories and ecological networks—so that it might be filled up with property, which both propels and is propelled by a normative faith in “settling the frontier.” Second, the frontier dreams draw so many to Amazonia become ensnared in a system that, by manipulating of the hopes of the poor to own land, actually delivers more land to the rural elite. Property conjuring and land speculation offer hope to the marginalized, but only accelerate environmental destruction and the concentration of wealth. Finally, through all of this we can see that deforestation is not a technical matter of “poor incentives” or a lack of “command and control.” Rather, environmental change is thoroughly tied up with, and a result of, the elaboration of a cultural outlook on land and economy: property is the bridge between these two, but property emerges from the actions and aspirations of people. We need to see those people, and their habits and practices, if we’re ever going to understand what’s going on in Amazonia and work to change it.

Change is possible, and victories can be won. My current work with the Munduruku and their river-dwelling allies (ribeirinhos) in the Tapajós is a case-in-point. These communities were (and remain) threatened by land-grabbers and their allies in government who backed the “development” promised by hydroelectric dams in the region. Among the dams’ backers were Brazil’s powerful agribusiness sector, which sees expansion into Amazonia as crucial for continued profitability in commodity exports (soy chief among them). Add to this an array of smallholders and ranchers who see themselves as “green,” and who describe hydroelectric energy as the clean and responsible way to grow the region. So here is the entire settler machine—its consciousness, proleptic strategies, and tremendous material power—focused on the Tapajós Valley. What chance do the Munduruku and ribeirinhos have? Shockingly, in August (2016), the largest proposed dam in the valley was cancelled due to a judicial suit brought by these traditional communities. The suit—and the well-organized social movement which drove it forward—argued for a different, non-commoditized view of territory and described how this territoriality has sustained differentiated cultures for generations. And they won, at least for now, by entering the space of politics proleptically: they knew their opponents, anticipated their moves, and firmly repudiated them. This victory gives me cautious hope, because it demonstrates that the state can yet be a tool for reigning in the settler ethos and for guaranteeing traditional peoples’ constitutional rights. Such work is difficult, and requires allies within and outside government offices willing to harness, cajole, or embarrass the state to get results, but it can be done.


Dr. Jeremy Campbell has conducted ethnographic research in the Brazilian Amazon since 2005, where he has focused on land conflicts, forest governance schemes, and indigenous rights movements. Campbell teaches at Roger Williams University, where he also coordinates the program in Sustainability Studies. He also serves as a member of the executive board of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA).


Works Cited:

Bessire, Lucas and David Bond. 2014. Ontological Anthropology and the Deferral of Critique. American Ethnologist 41(3): 440–456.

Bratman, Eve. 2014. Contradictions of Green Development: Human Rights and Environmental Norms in Light of Belo Monte Dam Activism. Journal of Latin American Studies 46: 261-289. DOI: 10.1017/S0022216X14000042.

Ingold, Tim. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. New York: Routledge.

Ramos, Alcida. 2012. The Politics of Perspectivism. Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 481-494. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-092611-145950.

Zanotti, Laura. 2015. Water and Life: Hydroelectric Development and Indigenous Pathways to Justice in the Brazilian Amazon. Politics, Groups, and Identities 3(4). DOI: 10.1080/21565503.2015.1080621.

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America’s “Good Guys” in Venezuela: Terrorists and racist lynchers

[Pictured: Oscar Pérez, a disgruntled Venezuelan police intelligence officer, reads an anti-government manifesto in a video he posted on Instagram. Pérez and his compatriots hijacked a police helicopter and lobbed grenades at the Venezuelan supreme court.] 

Oppositional Performance Art, Democratic Farce

Last weekend, on Saturday the 29th of July, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela officially opened elections for its Constituent Assembly, a body of elected delegates which will eventually convene to develop a new constitution for the country to be presented and approved by plebescite by the Venezuelan people. This will be the second time in recent history that Venezuela has undertaken such a process, the first being on the initiative of late President Hugo Chavez Frias. Just as during the Chavez years, there is a right-wing opposition movement, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), which opposes the Constituent Assembly process as somehow fraudulent and a power grab by a greedy executive strongman.

This opposition movement, led by former oligarchs and US-trained “leaders” like MUD chief Leopold Lopez, are the darlings of the media. Canadians have been saturated with beaming coverage of the Venezuelan opposition from the supposedly independent and investigative CBC, which has not presented a single Chavista or pro-government commentator on its programming, while in the US the usual suspects – CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and the New York Times – have all peddled the mythos of the opposition, which the US has supported with millions of dollars in covert funding since 2007, and which wikileaks has revealed consistently supported since 2004 in preparation for overthrowing the left-wing Socialist Unity Party-Communist Party (PSUV-CPV) coalition government then led by Chavez and currently led by President Nicolas Maduro (Beeton, et al. 2011) [see especially cable 06CARACAS2104_a and cable 09CARACAS1132_a].

It is quite strange to use so much taxpayer money, logistical resources, and manpower allotted towards “democracy promotion” on an opposition whose electoral activity has consistently proven to be precisely undemocratic, opposing the “socialism” of the government while 75% of Venezuelans support socialism, holding rigged, sham referenda, and tampering with actual parliamentary elections. There are also reports that armed opposition gangs have attacked voting centers intended for the Constituent Assembly. This is acceptable to their sponsors in Washington because the term “democracy” in US foreign policy circles does not actually mean rule by the polis, but conformity to the liberal world order and willingness to submit to neo-colonial status under US imperialism.

Not only is this “opposition” wholly undemocratic, but it promotes its agenda through terrorist activity and racist violence. Gangs of Gurimbas, composed mostly of wealthy students and paid protesters, and military and police dissident have been especially belligerent in their efforts to bludgeon the government’s mostly working-class, African, and indigenous popular support base into submission.

Terrorism Anywhere Else

The helicopter attack on the Venezuelan supreme court by a pro-opposition military general grabbed international, and especially US, media attention and refocused coverage on the supposedly rising discontent among the Venezuelan population which the Chavismo government. Disgruntled police intelligence officer Oscar Pérez hijacked a police helicopter, which he and his compatriots used to throw four grenades into the supreme court building in Caracas and fire fifteen shots into the interior ministry during a conference.

perez-attack-guardian
Details of the attack by Perez and co. mapped (source: The Guardian)

The attack was hailed, especially in the Washington Post, as a heroic and selfless act against a tyrannical government. The bourgeois media, ever intent on advancing its agenda of regime change in Venezuela, thus neglected some key information about Perez and the nature of the attack itself. President Maduro identified the attack as “terrorism”, and under the internationally recognized legal definition, he is correct. International law makes a distinction between terrorism and armed struggle, and Perez’s attack on civilian infrastructure clearly falls in the category of the former, however much the US media in collaboration with the State Department mind try to portray it as the latter.

 

 

Perez, in his Instagram “manifesto” wears a purple ribbon tied around his left arm, which he says shows his allegiance to “the truth and to Christ”, a gesture that signals something of an affiliation to the Christian right, which has a long history of fascism in Latin America. Perez’s Instagram also features images comparing himself and his police team to one of God’s angels and images of Jesus Christ cleansing the world in a crusade. Hardly the secular democrat darling the Washington Post would have you believe he is. Instagram has been flooded with fake Perez profiles since the incident and his original account has disappeared, but these images are recurring throughout the replica accounts.

A Taste for Strange Fruit

When Abel Meeropol wrote the lyrics to “Strange Fruit”, which were hauntingly brought to life in song by Billie Holiday, he had the racist lynchings in the United States targeted against Blacks by ex-Confederates and the KKK in mind, but he could have easily been writing about the actions of the Venezuelan opposition against Black and Brown Chavistas. American poster-boy Leopold Lopez was intimately involved in coup attempts to oust the late Chavez, and during that time called for Black pro-Chavez mayors to be lynched (Beeton et al. 2011, Grandin, 2015), and as head of the MUD continues to ignore, and thus remains complicit, in the racist actions of MUD-affiliated Gurimba groups.

Orlando Figuera was set alight in Altamira on May 20. (archives)
Orlando Figuera, a Black Chavista, was singled out and set on fire by a Gurimba opposition group (source: venezuelanalysis.com)

Like most of the sordid realities of the MUD and Gurimbas, incidents of attacks against Blacks by the opposition, like the one on Orlando Figuera (burned alive), or Danny José Subero (beaten to death with clubs), including attacks on young children, have gone without condemnation or even comment by western media or by either the Canadian or American governments, who prefer their “concern” to be focused exclusively on the government. Reminiscent of the events leading up to the Libyan “humanitarian intervention”, which also featured an anti-Black opposition, there is bipartisan support in the United States and tripartite support in Canada, including from the supposedly “left wing” NDP, for opposition organizations that I can only image make the KKK salivate given the extent of Gurimba anti-Black terror and the impunity which the media affords them. Any government brutality in Venezuela is small potatoes compared to the viciousness of Gurimba violence.

Conclusion: The Spectre of Recolonization

Given their US and Canadian sponsorship, and their emphasis on anti-working class and anti-black sectarian attacks, it is safe to compare the MUD and the Gurimbas to the US-backed contras of yesteryear and the overall US-MUD project in Venezuela to the more recent attempt at recolonization under the guise of humanitarianism, with disastrous consequences, Libya. It is more than likely, given the consistent support for the opposition, the escalation of a diplomatic and economic sanctions regime, that the US’s next maneuver will be an attempted intervention, which will work to restore Venezuela to its historically patronized status as part of “America’s backyard”. This would be a complete unraveling of the achievements of Hugo Chavez, who ended this submissive colonial status with surprising decisiveness, like Castro and Gaddafi had done for their countries before him.

While the Anglo-North American Left tends to have much more sympathy for progressive Latin American states than it does Arab or African ones, I remain skeptical that there is yet sufficient anti-war and anti-imperialist clout among mainstream “left” organizations, particularly the social democrats and other center-left tendencies, to head a strong anti-intervention movement. However, understanding the racist and violent nature of the forces which seek to replace the current Venezuelan government demands a substantial response, and there are organizations working towards this end. Readers are especially encouraged to contact the Hands Off Venezuela coalition.

It should be clear that the MUD opposition possesses no democratic legitimacy whatsoever, and that its activities represent an obstruction and violation of the basic foundations of democracy, of self determination, and of collective rights. Regardless of the errors of the current government, attempts to replace it, in the current context, only represent a reactionary, pro-imperial process which would undermine any sense of majority rule and popular sovereignty in Venezuela.

References

 

BEETON, D., J. Johnston, & A. Main (2011). “Venezuela”. Wikileaks: The World According to US Empire. New York: Verso. pp. 515-545.

BIGWOOD, J. (n.d.). “Buying Venezuela’s Press With U.S. Tax Dollars.” North American Congress on Latin America. 

GILBERT, C. (2017). “Strange Fruit: Venezuela has an Opposition that Nobody Should Support.” venezuelanalysis.com 

GRANDIN, G. (2015). “Leopold Lopez is not Venezuela’s Savior.” The Nation. 

KOERNER, L. (2017). “Three Dead in Venezuela as Violent Protests enter 9th Week.” venezuelanalysis.com 

LOPEZ, V. (2017). “Venezuela: Police helicopter attacks supreme court with grenades.” The Guardian. 

STAFF (2017). “Monitor País: 86% «de acuerdo» con que Gobierno promueva inversión privada“. Hinterlaces

STAFF (2017). “Opositores violentos asediaron 200 centros de votación en todo el país y asesinaron un GNB en Táchira.” ALBA Ciudad. 

 

 

 

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Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria

Reconciliation” has become something of a buzzword in Canada, the country of my birth, underpinning much of the mainstream discourse around the historical mistreatment of indigenous people and the future of relations between settlers and natives. One might be surprised to learn that Reconciliation is also a buzzword in Syria, but for rather different reasons. Mussalaha” (تصالح), reconciliation, has been a priority of the Syrian Arab Republic as part of its strategy to end internal strife in Syria since the 2012 constitutional reforms.

There is no denying that the war in Syria has transformed the country, and obviously in many ways for the worse; proud and ancient cities lay in ruins, millions have been forced to flee their residences and the homeland their ancestors have inhabited for centuries, terrorist gangs backed by Syria’s neighbors and by the United States continue to plague the country. Yet, as the war shifts in favor of the Syrian government, there is an ember of hope for the masses of  Syria (though you wouldn’t know it from mainstream media), and that hope is Mussalaha. Mussalaha has played a key role in the Syrian government’s political as well as military victories, and holds important implications that country, and the world’s, future.

The Mythologies of Imperial Divide-and-Conquer

In order understand the significance of this concept, it is necessary to understand Syria’s recent history, as well as to dispel some often-peddled myths about Syria, its people, and its government. Thankfully, due to the tireless work of committed independent journalists, historians, anti-imperialist and solidarity activists, and even some research by traditionally pro-imperialist journals and think-tanks, there is a wealth of evidence to construct a counter-narrative to the one promoted by the imperialists in the US State Department and corporate media.

The narrative which underlies coverage by large corporate conglomerate media usually goes something like this: The government of Syria is a ruthless dictatorship of the Al-Assad family, which hordes power for itself and its political allies in the Alawi religion. In 2011, there was an uprising against this dictatorship by the marginalized Sunni Muslim majority which was violently repressed by the government using chemical weapons and “barrel bombs” (in quotation marks as the term “barrel bomb” has yet to be clearly defined). Faced with great repression, the protesters turned to armed struggle. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, in an elaborate conspiracy, implanted radical Islamist elements into the resistance which led to the growth of modern terrorist organizations like Ahrar Al-Sham, Jahabat Al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda and ISIS outfits in Syria.

The most comprehensive and richly historicized rebuttal of this narrative is Stephen Gowans‘ recent book Washington’s Long War on Syria (2017), which I will cite extensively (you can read an excerpt of the book here). The first myth Gowans dismantles is the idea that the 2011 protests were a peaceful “popular uprising”, using sources that would certainly not be considered “pro-Assad” by any standard. For example, Gowans quotes an article by Rania Abouzeid published in Time shortly before the 2011 protests, “Even critics concede that Assad is popular and considered close to the country’s huge youth cohort, both emotionally, ideologically and, of course, chronologically.” Abouzeid added that unlike “…the ousted pro-American leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Assad’s hostile foreign policy toward Israel, strident support for Palestinians and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah are in line with popular Syrian sentiment.” (Abouzeid, as quoted in Gowans, 2017. Emphasis added.). The same article features interviews with Syrian youth whom express support for Bashar Al-Assad’s political coalition, the National Progressive Front, for implementing fully public education and enforcing secularism.

Image result for pro assad rally syria
An almost iconic photo, a pro-government rally in the city of Saba, Syria,  draws thousands (Reuters, 2011).

On the protests which triggered the so-called “Syrian revolution”, Gowans demonstrates that these were in large part riots led by unpopular organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood who have been trying to topple the secular NPF government, with extensive US support, since the 1980s, and were violent from their outset – attacking public infrastructure and innocent bystanders, as well as, interestingly, calling for solidarity with various Al-Qaeda and proto-ISIS militias in Libya. These groups would go on to form the militias which, composed mostly of foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia to Sweden with covert US and Israeli support, would go on occupy and terrorize vast swaths of Syria.

We should also note the not insignificant fact that western media has propagated the idea that the Syrian government has deployed an arsenal of chemical weapons (in particular Sarin gas) during the course of its military campaign against these forces, including on civilians. What coverage of these alleged attacks ignores is that only one of these alleged attack sites has been subjected to an independent United Nations fact-finding mission (as they are required to be under international law) and the results of that mission were that the the Syrian government did not use chemical weapons. Therefore, all allegations of “Assad gassing his own people” and other such sensationalism are by default presumptions of guilt and should be immediately suspect, especially considering that the Syrian government surrendered its chemical weapons stores in 2013 and that the United States and its allies have blocked any independent investigations of attack sites. Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh (2017) believes this to be intentional, using insider sources from the US military to demonstrate an active campaign to demonize the Syrian government.

Hersh’s allegations are significant, because they come at a time when the US narrative on Syria is quickly unraveling. Several voices close to the US establishment; namely The Century Foundation, the New York Times, and former UN prosecutor Clara Del Ponte, have all had to make admissions that the narrative Gowans’ and other independent researchers and journalists have dedicated to deconstructing is indeed flawed. Sam Heller (2017), writing for the Century Foundation makes perhaps the most dramatic admission. Commenting on US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull funding from covert CIA support for Syrian rebel groups, he writes:

The program was intended to build a moderate rebel force that could apply serious enough military pressure on the regime to force Assad to step aside as part of a negotiated political settlement. But the latter part of that objective, a compelled transition, was always fantasy. As for the “moderate rebel force,” for the last several years much of America’s support has gone to “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) factions that have functioned as battlefield auxiliaries and weapons farms for larger Islamist and jihadist factions, including Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.

(Heller, 2017. Emphasis added)

This admission of funding outright terrorist forces in Syria (not a “moderate opposition” by any stretch) is a significant victory for peace activists, anti-imperialists, and everyone else who has worked to oppose the demonization of the Syrian state and US-NATO interventionism and warmongering. With the facts now established, we can better appreciate the role Reconciliation plays in Syrian state policy as both a political and ideological struggle against US-backed proxies and sectarianism.

 The National Ministry of Reconciliation and Political Reform

Of course, assuming that all is well and good within the ranks of the Syrian government would be an asinine simplification. The unleashing of the war in (or more accurately “on”) Syria revealed the need for state reforms in order to maintain stability and prevent sectarianism from being instrumentalized by the insurgency. These manifested in the 2012 constitutional reforms, which included removing the Ba’ath Party’s exclusive claim to executive office, expanding parliamentary powers, and creating mechanisms for reconciliation between different ethno-religious groups, including the National Ministry of Reconciliation, led by Dr. Ali Haidar of the opposition party the Syrian Social-Nationalists, and the forthcoming Committee of National Reconciliation. Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett interviewed Haidar in 2014. In the interview, Haidar provides an outline of the philosophy and policy objectives of Mussalaha: 

Reconciliation isn’t that we are making a deal with armed insurgents. The idea is to restore the state of security in Syria. In our work towards reconciliation, we look at two main sectors: One, the insurgents, and the other, Syrian civilians living in areas controlled by the insurgents.

Regarding the insurgents, we differentiate between the Syrian insurgents and the foreign militias. The latter refuse any dialogue with the government and are simply terrorists in Syria. And unfortunately, they are large in numbers and are the leaders of the dominant insurgent groups. The only people we communicate with are armed Syrians, not with the foreign militias.

We encourage armed Syrians to cut any ties with the foreign militias. Then, we negotiate with them on how to reconcile. We’ve been very successful, in many areas, having them disarm and go back to their normal lives. We’ve had thousands of successes.

The second focus is on Syrian society. Syrians are suffering in all respects: their security and safety, the economy, social services, education, the large number of martyrs and injured, the kidnapped, the missing, the internally-displaced… We are trying to find a solution to each one of these cases. That is the deepest meaning of ‘reconciliation’: to return people to their normal lives.

(Haidar, as quoted in Bartlett, 2014. Emphasis added)

From this, we can conclude that Reconciliation is a nationalist project. “Nationalist” not in the sense that it is ethnic or volkish but nationalist in what some might call the “Civic” sense, that is Nationalism as the construction of a community around the State – of unifying the religious, ethnic, and national groups within Syria into a coherent Syrian community which neither submerges or emphasizes these differences, but compliments them. This is a vision, according to Syrian state hagiography, that was first expressed in the 1936 Syrian rebellion and is the guiding vision of the  philosophy of Arab Socialism. This necessarily, as Haidar clarifies, includes expelling foreign fighters and insurgents, but is at its heart an inclusive project.

Dr. Ali Haidar, photographed in his office by Eva Bartlett (2014).

This policy stands in stark contrast to the image of the Syrian government, with Bashar Al-Assad at its head, as a divisive force. But understanding that Syrian state policy is primarily about maintaining social unity and preventing breakdown into sectarianism, it begins to make sense why over 50% of the Syrian population supports the Syrian government and Bashar Al-Assad specifically, why refugees tend to be fleeing from rebel-held territory and have a relatively positive view of the government (a fact I can attest to personally in addition to the linked study) and why refugees have started to return to Syria now that the war has shifted in favor of the government.

Syrian Sovereignty and the Reinvention of the Border

Of course, the concept of a “National” (read: State) Reconciliation might seem outlandish in the framework of neoliberalism, which has increasingly overrun the so called “left”, particularly in North America. Compare, for example, the attitude of the Canadian left to the US “humanitarian intervention” in Grenada in the 1980s to attitudes to the recent  interventions in Libya or Syria. There was no debate along the lines we see today; that maybe anti-imperialism should be sacrificed for the sake of “human rights”, that x, y, or z “third world dictator” had “killed his own people” and thus did not deserve our support, or that we should narcissisticly uphold “our” western models of liberal democracy as the only legitimate form of popular rule.

There are, of course, numerous things worth criticizing about the various parties and formations which made up the 1980s left, but one common position which has proved correct over the last thirty years is the understanding that the construction of centralized, yet ultimately pluralistic, states serve as one of the most powerful tools of decolonization in the contemporary era. This is precisely the kind of state that countries which have made some of the most world-shaking strides in decolonization – China, Algeria, Libya, Zimbabwe, Cuba – have all constructed on socialist foundations.

Mussalaha urges us to harken back to this understanding of what decolonization, self-determination, and democracy means, both in the first world left’s defense of third world states in the crosshairs of American Empire, and in our political programs for our own countries. Of significance in the case of Syria, both in geostrategic and ideological terms, is the existence of internationally recognized borders. The dynamics of “border control” have been precisely what has allowed the Syrian state to win victories and repel US imperialism, its proxies, and ISIS forces, and it has been precisely US efforts to either force open Syria’s borders or to fracture the country into various ethnic enclaves which have allowed the US to exercise undue influence there. While this reality’s universal implications are not the focus of this article, it is worth noting the importance of unitary state power and borders in combating imperial terra nullius.

Syrian Government Rebuilding Aleppo City (Photos, Video)
Syrian workers begin repairing streets in newly-liberated Aleppo, a key area of reconstruction for the Syrian state (SouthFront Database, 2017).

What we can say however, is that the Syrian Reconciliation project requires both a conceptual and spatial recognition of “Syria” as a political unit, which both the sectarian projects of imperialist intervention and the neoliberal discourse of left-liberals both seeks to negate in their reiterations of “ancient” Sunni vs Shia rivalries, “Alawite minority rule”, and other overt focuses on the divisions within Syrian society and exploiting them for regime-change ends (often neglecting actual minority persecution, such as the mass killing of Alawites, Christians, and Shia by opposition forces). This overcoming of sectarian division and the misapplied transference of neoliberal identity politics by left-liberals to political sectarianism to the Middle-east will be elaborated on in Part 2.

 

Conclusion

As the US vision for a fragile, recolonized Syria crumbles and forces like ISIS and Al-Nusra lose ground to the Syrian Arab Army and its domestic and international allies, and the bipartisan warmongers of the US government must begrudgingly concede defeat, I expect that the media of the “international community” (read: US imperialist world order) will produce some combination of weeping and wailing about the defeat of the nonexistent “democratic uprising” against the government and of quiet deflection away from the reality of the failure of a US campaign against another sovereign country. Because, after all, Syria, like Vietnam before it, has proven to the world that the military might of the United States is, in fact, not invulnerable to resistance, and that it can even be overcome. While the rebuilding and reconciling in Syria will take many years to come, the impending defeat of the long war on Syria is an inspiration for the modern age.

References

ABRAHMS, M., D. Sulivan, et al. (2017). “Five Myths About Syrian Refugees“. Foreign Affairs. 

BARTLETT, E. (2014). “As Foreign Insurgents Continue to Terrorize Syria, the Reconciliation Trend Grows.” Dissident Voice. 

GOEL, T. (2017). “Half a million Syrians return home as Syrian gov’t, allies liberate more areas.” Liberation News. 

GOWANS, S. (2017). Washington’s Long War on Syria. Montreal, QC: Baraka Books

HELLER, S. (2017). “America Had Already Lost Its Covert War in Syria – Now its Official“. The Century Foundation. 

HERSH, S. (2017). “Trump’s Red Line.” Die Welt. 

STAFF (2017). “Future Syrian Reconciliation Committee to Comprise Only Syrians – Minister.” Sputnik. 

STEELE, J. (2012). “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media.” The Guardian. 

WORTH, R. (2017). “Aleppo After the Fall.” The New York Times. 

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Canada 150, Ricardo Duchesne, and the Genocidal Impulse

My university harbors a white supremacist.

Dr. Ricardo Duchesne is a tenured professor in the Department of Social Science at the University of New Brunswick, on its Saint John campus. Duchesne’s belief system is based on a belief in the uniqueness of “western civilization” and the inherent superiority of “European” and white culture in relation to others. Duchesne, proceeding from this position, has attacked “multiculturalism”, “mass immigration”, and, most famously, was involved in a spat with a Vancouver city Councillor after Duchesne described Vancouver as being transformed from a “serene, community-oriented, British city” into “a loud, congested Asian city (still attractive only because of the architectural and institutional legacy of past White generations).”

While there are numerous covert and overt white supremacists within Canadian academia, I have chosen to single out Ricardo Duchesne in this article for three reasons:

1) He is attached to the same institution as I am (though in different capacities, I am a student and he is a tenured professor).

2) He has chosen to act politically on his beliefs, founding an organization called the Council of European Canadians, which exists to “defend the interests of European Canadians,” which apparently has members across Canada.

3) Duchesne’s ideas represent an interesting example of how white supremacy operates in Canada and North America more broadly. That is, in a settler-colonial society which has come into being through the domination and genocide of indigenous peoples.

Purpose

I hold no illusions that this piece will convince Duchense to abandon his disgusting views, in my experience such people will only renounce their colonial mythologies when directly and aggressively pummeled into renouncement (and even then, very rarely), and I am not in a position to do that as of now. What I do hope is that this will help the reader understand and deconstruct the logic of Eurocentric, white supremacist views by narrowing in on a particular case. I especially hope some fellow UNB students, especially on the Saint John campus, will be aware of the paucity of Duchesne’s worldview.

Duchesne has an advantage over those who might criticize his views from a liberal standpoint in that his work is steeped in political economy (at one time his thesis supervisor was Marxist historian Georges Rude). Liberals often assume that racists are unintelligent or ignorant (often creating classist stereotypes of rednecks and country bumpkins to serve as projections of their own racism), but Duchesne is far from ignorant, however wrong he might be. His philosophy is an eclectic fusion of both right-wing Hegelianism and banal ethnocentrism with interesting appropriations from Marxism and Dependency Theory (in a grossly bastardized form, of course). In an ironic way, Duchesne demonstrates the effectiveness of historical materialism as a method, employing it selectively to bolster his ideas of European superiority and give them an air of objectivity. In order for there to be a  “left” response to such claims, we cannot cede the territory of objective political economy and retreat to postmodern relativism. As such, it is my goal here to begin to criticize Duchesne’s philosophy and epistemology with historical and material facts.

I should note that Duchesne is an immigrant from Puerto Rico. This presents some challenges to the approach of Liberal identity politics, which tends to attribute perspectives to the sum of people’s identities. By this logic, it might be assumed that Duchesne would default to anti-racism because of his experience as a non-European immigrant, yet this is clearly not the case. I will not speculate on why Duchesne holds the views he does, but I will attempt to disprove them.

Faustian Civilization, the underlying myth

In order to criticize though, it is first necessary to understand. Duchesne believes in a “Faustian impulse” at the heart of everything western. The abstract, and historically quite arbitrary, concept of “western civilization” is united by this “prime-symbol” of expansionism, of “pure and limitless space” (Spengler, as quoted in Duchesne, 2012). In this way, Duchesne unifies historically divergent and often antagonistic cultures – Indo-Europeans, Francs, Vikings, Slavs, Spaniards, and Brits –  into “Europeans”. Not only does this flatten historical differences between these peoples (Slavs historically did not get along with Vikings or Francs, who did not get along with each other), the qualifier for “Faustian impulse” seems quite ahistorical itself.

What constitutes the Faustian impulse? According to Duchesne, it is the Indo-European legacy of a collective, rather than despotic, elite who garnered respect from victory in various forms of mobile warfare. This rather vague generalization apparently constitutes the expansionist spirit which unites Vikings and Romans, who not only warred with each other, but had vastly different socioeconomic realities. Rome was a land empire managed with a centralized military force, while the Vikings were a loose, often divided coalition, focused mainly on raiding their neighbours and not on permanent conquest.

Duchesne’s “evidence” for this Faustian expansionism is hilariously scant. For example, Duchesne claims in both his essay “the Faustian impulse and European exploration” (2012) and his book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (2011), he claims that all Europeans inherited the Indo-European knack for map-making and cartographic expedition. Duchesne argues that because there are only 15 non-European explorers out of 274 recorded explorers, the Europeans simply must have been more driven to explore! Again, I cannot emphasize enough how hilariously elementary this “evidence” is.

Duchesne of course produces more “evidence” for his argument but it is based on the above underlying assumption. He praises early Greek cartography while lambasting Indian and Chinese civilization for being “disinterested” in exploration (this argument does not address the existence of the Silk Road or the potential for merchants to act as explorers). To my knowledge, India and China are the only non-European civilizations which Duchesne contrasts with “Western” Civilization. This betrays a selection bias which is wholly racist in its presentation of non-European civilizations as complacent and unmoving. Duchesne might be surprised to learn that other, non-European, civilizations were indeed very interested in exploration and cartography. For example, the Muslim Caliphates were aware of Australia several centuries before the Europeans, and the Pacific Islander indigenous peoples have extensive records of the Pacific Ocean.

Image result for piri reis map
The Piri Reis Map, named for a 16th-century Turkish/ Ottoman (i.e. non-European) cartographer.

Historical Whiteness and White myth-making

All that Duchesne says about “Western” Civilization and “Europeans” sounds hilarious when properly examined because his work projects a collective identity – the European identity – far into the past when, in fact, the idea of Europe is a recent one. There is no unified notion of “Europe” before 1492. There is no Europe and there is certainly no concept of a unified “white race” before the advent of capitalism and capitalist-imperialism. The unity of “Europeans” did not come into being out of a shared “spirit”, but out of the economic realities of the capitalist mode of production.

This also explains why the racial category of “white” is constantly in flux, and indeed reveals further gaps in Duchesne’s Faustian grand narrative of Europe. Slavs, Italians, and the Irish, while “European” geographically speaking, have historically had a contentious relationship with “whiteness”. In fact, the Irish and Italians were never considered whites until midway through the twentieth century (see Ignatiev, 1995), while Slavs continue to occupy a contentious position within whiteness, in many ways now defined by American imperialism’s attitude towards Russia and its neighbors.

Duchesne also neglects the question of non-white European peoples, especially the Roma and the Saami (indigenous people of northern Scandinavia). Are these peoples part of the “Faustian impulse”? Oddly enough, the Roma are the only people who can trace their genetic and cultural ancestry directly back to Indo-European migrants and yet they seem rather disinterested in pursuing their Faustian impulses and more concerned with surviving the state-sanctioned racism directed at them by white Europeans.

If Duchesne’s ahistorical conflation of Europe, whiteness, and the Faustian impulse is false in Europe, it is even more so in the colonies! Take Canada, for instance, Duchesne’s chosen home. Duchesne imagines that Canada is a product of the union of the French and British nations in a historic project and destiny. This romanticism of settler-colonialism is a gross simplification of the actual process of settlement. Most British settlers were not plucky explorers or devout missionaries of the Judeo-Christian worldview, but rather surplus populations that the crown felt did not belong in the capital; orphans (or “boat children”), Irish rabble-rousers, prostitutes, and other proverbial human waste picked off the streets of London and deported. The French for their part had no real settlement program until competition with England over the fur trade encouraged them to establish Quebec and Acadia, again populated with deported surplus populations, especially from the French countryside.

Of course, Duchesne might explain away this population management aspect of colonization as some sort of path to redemption for these dumped populations, as many settler-colonial hagiographies do. However, the persistence of class-based eugenics and social cleansing of the poor and homeless in Canada and the United States well into contemporary times shows that settler-colonial societies have always sought the dispossession and exclusion of designated surplus populations rather than their redemption.

There is one point in Duchesne’s argument that is correct: that the process of settlement created new nationalities out of these populations. It is true that Quebecois, Acadians, Anglo-Canadians, and Anglo-Americans are all national identities distinct to North America and produced by settler-colonialism. But this produces a problem for Duchesne’s epistemology – if these nations are distinctly North American are they still European? Duchesne assumes that they are because they are white nations (because remember, the assumption is that European = White).

Speaking of surplus populations, Duchesne’s mythology most significantly ignores the plight of indigenous peoples in “European” Canada. In a disgusting video on the Council of European Canadians’ website produced by Red Ice Creations (a noted “alt-right” media group which has also promoted Holocaust Denial), white supremacists respond to the supposedly “anti-white” phrase “go back to Europe” by alleging that the territories of the United States and Canada were, basically, won fair and square in some sort of epic war of hegemony. Such a claim would be hilarious if not for the harm it causes to our collective understanding of reality.

vids.png
Some of Red Ice’s videos, showcasing their flirtation with sleek-looking white populism and conspiracy theory.

What Duchesne wants to ignore, and what we Canadians are taught to ignore as we are compelled to celebrate this July 1st, is that this land was not claimed by some heroic feat of the Indo-European spirit, but stolen through a series of cheap tricks, broken promises, and mass slaughter of innocents, and it is this series of criminal, hypocritical activities which the collective identity of “white” or “European” rests upon. This country’s history is not a story of European warrior-princes carving out “pure and limitless space”, but of gangsters, soiling the earth in blood in search of the next fix of saleable commodities. Europe was not born out of a “Faustian impulse”, but a genocidal impulse.

Indigenous societies and in defense of their title

Duchesne, and I would speculate most white supremacists, subconsciously know this. They know that whiteness is a fragile identity which they must cling to precariously at the expense of others. They know that what unites German, British, Welsh, Irish, French, Basque, Spanish, Dutch, and Italian-descended North American whites is not centuries-old ethnic consciousness but a manufactured identity which only exists in the context of genocidal capitalism. Duchesne in fact explicitly warns against whites adopting the “shame” of acknowledging historical (and I would add ongoing) genocide in North America, arguing that this would unravel the cohesion of the European identity.

This is compatible with historical accuracy in Duchesne’s worldview because, in typical Eurocentric fashion, he dismisses Indigenous civilizations as “tribes” and ignores their achievements. In a recent talk, Duchesne defended the use of the term “Aboriginals” over “First Nations” because indigenous peoples did not constitute nations on three grounds (1) there was a lack of state-formation in Indigenous societies, (2) the indigenous population was relatively small, (3) they lacked cartographic or exploratory impulses (again with the “Faustian impulse”!).

This is a reproduction of terra nullius (“no one’s land”) ideology, the idea that the space we now call the Americas was “empty” of civilization and thus free to claim by settlers. There are, of course, numerous examples that prove that this is not the case. Not just the mighty Maya and Aztec states to the south, but numerous “Canadian” indigenous states besides; in Duchesne and mine’s own home province, the Mi’kmaq and the Wulastoq/Maliseet possessed a binational state in the form of the Wabanaki Confederacy. We know this because there is explicit recognition of the Wabanaki state as such in the Peace and Friendship Treaties signed with the British, an inter-state treaty agreement. 

A state I am more familiar with (and there is significantly more research on), the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy was territorially significant, comprising much of central-eastern North America, and a centralized state with a monopoly on force, i.e. a state in the Weberian sense. Again, this fact was recognized by the European powers. The Articles of Agreement and Peace signed September 24th and 25th, 1664, between the Iroquois and the British, Articles of Treaty of Peace proposed by Six Ambassadors from the Iroquois to the French signed in 1665, and Article 15 of the 1713 Treaty of Urecht all recognize this.

While the exact pre-colonial population of North America is (and likely always will be) up for debate, recent scholarship seriously contests Duchesne and other academics’ claims that the indigenous population of North America was only a few thousand. Research for Stannard’s work American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (1992), places pre-Columbus North American populations in the tens of millions. It would be a strange occurrence indeed if only a few thousand of these tens of millions lived in the bountiful forests, plains, and mountains of what is now called Canada. Indeed, it would defy everything we know about how populations choose to inhabit space. The current indigenous depopulation is a product of genocide, not a reflection of the “normal” population levels of Indigenous nations.

Finally, while I do not think it is particularly important to establish non-European civilizations as sufficiently “Faustian” to constitute nations, I do have a rejoinder to the implicit assumption of indigenous peoples as primitive and tribal due to their supposed lack of map-making. The work of M.G. Lewis (1998) on native map-making and “charte” art post-1540 shows that many indigenous societies, while not constructing formal maps in the Eurasian fashion, did possess records of places and spatial relations which they found easily transferable to cartography, implying an extensive knowledge of place and explorations into the territory of indigenous neighbors.

Conclusion

Frantz Fanon wrote in Wretched of the Earth (2008) that “Europe is literally a creation of the Third World,” and I cannot think of a discourse where this becomes more apparent then in the deconstruction of white supremacist ideologies. Everything that makes the various white and European nations white and European exists only because of imperialism and colonization, it exists only because of the exploitation and appropriation of resources from other lands and nations, it exists only because of genocide of non-Europeans.

Today, July 1st, marks the inauguration of “Canada” under the British North America Act, which explicitly defines Canada as an instrument of British imperialism and settler expansion. If settlers (or “Euro-Canadians” as Duchesne calls them) are to have a sustainable future, they must work to actively reject “Europe” and whiteness as defining characteristics, and seek collective reconciliation with indigenous people. At the absolute minimum, Canada must become a multinational state in both policy and practice which recognizes the unconditional right to self-determination for Indigenous people.

Duchesne might see the “demographic threat” to white Canadians as a tragedy, but the real tragedy is the demographic threat that the lie of whiteness has posed to indigenous people for these last 150 years. It is high time Duchesne and all Europeanists are thoroughly rejected as having anything good to say about Canada and its future and time the Indigenists take center stage in showing us the way forward.

Note: A previous version of this piece described Dr. Duchesne’s affiliation as the Department of Sociology. A colleague of mine pointed out that this was incorrect, and leading some readers to believe that Duchesne’s department was connected to the Department of Sociology at the UNB Fredericton campus. In the interest of accuracy and preventing confusion, the piece has been edited to read “Department of Social Science” at UNB Saint John, which is his correct affiliation.

References

DUCHESNE, R. (2012). “The Faustian Impulse and European Exploration,” Fortnightly Review.

DUCHESNE, R. (2011). The Uniqueness of Western Civilization. Boston: Brill Publishing.

FANON, F. (2008). The Wretched of the Earth. orig. 1961. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press.

IGNATIEV, N. (1995). How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge Publishing.

LEWIS, M.G. (1998). Cartographic Encounters: Perspectives on Native American Map-Making and Map Use. New York: University of Chicago Press.

STANNARD, D. (1992). American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

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Immigration: Critical Readings on the buzzword of 2016

2016 was a year of disruptions, collapses, and reactions and nothing embodied this more than the dominance of discussions around immigration, and the resurgence of the right-wing in the United States and Europe under the auspices of controlling a migrant crisis which threatened the survivability of the State and its citizen-subjects alike.

eu-poll-immigration-as-top-concern-2Many readers might think of the rhetoric of Trump and nod in understanding, but this is even more pronounced in EU member states, where concerns about broadly-framed immigration surged to the top of the domestic public’s list of concerns. The attached graph shows the six most frequently mentioned concerns among Brits leading up to Brexit. Note the shift from “economic situation” to “immigration”.

However, I think it is wrong to chock this up purely to xenophobia and some sort of nebulous hatred for the “other” among the populaces of the captialist centers (though such attitudes are certainly cultivated and exploited to varrying extents). In acknowledgement that immigration is a complex, dynamic component to an equaly complex worldwide capitalist system, I am sharing three choice links which I believe stimulate critical thought on the topic of immigration. As both a student of critical social sciences and as someone who exists within the milleu of “migrant justice” activism, it is my hope that this topic is handled delicately by those concerned with justice and dignity for the masses of the world, perhaps these works will help.

(1) PRO-IMMIGRATION ACTIVISTS IN THE WEST MISS THE POINT 

by Nemequene Tundama

While these pro-immigration movements are indeed helpful and necessary in the short-term they also neglect the background story and therefore tend to reinforce Western-centric narratives in the long-term. Narratives that fundamentally portray us migrants and refugees as people to be saved from what is ‘self-inflicted barbaric’ conditions back home. Narratives that entertain the idea that the solution lies in the West’s reaction to the ‘crisis’ rather than in destroying its cunning parasitism that lies at its source.

Here, Nemequence Tundama provides a salient critique of pro-immigration movments in the “west” (i.e. the global centers of capital – Canada, the United States, and western Europe) and their relation to imperialism. They argue that such movements have a tendency to erase the role that imperialism plays in creating mass migration and refugee crises, helping reproduce colonial attitudes of superiority among liberal, cosmopolitan professionals who have the resources to co-opt these solidarity movements as they exist now.

Nemequene Tundama is an anti-imperialist activist based in London, UK, originally from Muisca Territory, Colombia. They are currently working on organising an anti-imperialist study group in London. If interested in this study group or for other inquiries, Nemequene can be reached at nemequenetundama@gmail.com.

(2)IMMIGRATION AND CAPITAL (series)

by Maximillian C. Forte

Immigration, rightly or wrongly, has been marched to the frontline of current political struggles in Europe and North America. Whether exaggerated or accurate, the role of immigration is situated as a central factor in the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the rise of the “America First” Trump movement in the US. It seems impossible that one can have a calm discussion about immigration today, without all sorts of agendas, assumptions, insinuations and recriminations coming into play. Staking a claim in immigration debates are a wide range of actors and interests, with everything from national identity and national security to multiculturalism, human rights, and cosmopolitan globalism. However, what is relatively neglected in the public debates is discussion of the political economy of immigration, and especially a critique of the role of immigration in sustaining capitalism.

 

This work introduces a critique of immigration discourse in relation to capitalism and the role immigration can play in sustaining a capitalist, imperialist world-system through acting as a “safety valve” for collapsing neo-colonial regimes or flooding markets with cheap labor so as to drive down the wages of domestic workers. Forte expands this critique in two other posts (linked below) discussing the liberal ideology of “immigrationism” which serves to silence discussions about the causes and effects of the current worldwide migrant crisis. Forte also disects popular accompanying buzzwords to immigration such as “undocumented” or “illegal immigrant” which serve to polarize politics, particularly US politics, without offering real solutions to either migrants or domestic workers.

Max Forte, who’s work has be shared and cited frequently on this blog, teaches full time in Anthropology and Sociology at Concordia University in Montréal, Québec. He is the author of numerous books as well as the publisher of  The New Imperialism series, which features research by students in his advanced seminar as well as his own research. He tweets at @ZeroAnthro and can be reached for inquiries at max.forte@openanthropology.org

(3) SOUTH OF THE WALL

by Matthew Hayes

Yet, Trump’s election also reproduces the conditions of political polarization and economic vulnerability that has helped spur a migration flow of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens to Ecuador over the last decade. As the impact of North-South migration to locations in lower cost Latin American countries leads to various forms of transnational gentrification, and even land expropriation and displacement, they also risk reproducing the poverty and dislocation that are often at the heart families’ decisions to send loved ones across the border to the North – any way they can.

Here, Matthew Hayes explores the contradicitions of immigration discourse by contrasting the position of Ecuadorian migrant workers in the United States (“Cuencanos”) and the large expatriate community in Ecuador, which is primarily of white, North American origin. Hayes suggests that immigration, rather than simply poor migrants coming to wealthy states, is instead a more dynamic system of moving capital and labor around the world, leading to “globalized gentrification”.

Matthew Hayes is an Associate Professor and has been with the Saint Thomas department of sociology in Fredericton, New Brunswick, since 2009 and is a colleague of mine at the NB Media Co-op. His current research is on North-to-South migration, particularly expatriates from North America living in Ecuador.He tweets at @matthewfhayes and can be reached for inquiries mhayes@stu.ca

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#Aleppo

If I had time, perhaps this post would be better organized and more thought-out. However, given the nature of the news-media cycle and the imperative to be timely, I present this post as-is with the reservation that it may be edited for clarity should the need arise. 
No doubt, this post and position it takes will receive backlash. Firstly, I apologize for the UK-centric aspect of this post. The bulk of the writing is from a UK newspaper, and most of my linked sources are also based in the UK. The unfortunately reality is that the press in the United Kingdom, of all places, seems to have a more critical take on the events unfolding in Syria.
Secondly, I understand that the situation in Syria is contentious and that there may be some “pro-opposition” or “humanitarian” individuals and everyday people who are genuinely concerned based on the coverage of Aleppo. This post is, to some extent, for them.
In the era of the Chilcot Report and Wikileaks, which has demonstrated that the United States and NATO are willing to develop elaborate lies about any government they consider a threat to their hegemony, I cannot readily accept dominant narratives about Syria. 
 The Syrian state has been under direct attack by imperialism for the last two and a half years (although the US and others have been “accelerating the work of reformers” for much longer than that). The forms of this attack are many: providing weapons and money to opposition groups trying to topple the government; implementing wide-ranging trade sanctions; providing practically unlimited space in the media for the opposition while enacting a blackout on pro-government sources; and relentlessly slandering the Syrian president and government. With a few notable exceptions, the western media and governments have  “created this climate that legitimates” a regime change project in Syria.
For example, most western and corporate-owned media claims the Syrian government is responsible for the “vast majority of deaths” from the war against Syria — yet NATO military airstrikes, crippling economic sanctions, and CIA-trained rebels ravage the nation. The lone fact that sanctions have been imposed  by the west is an act of war.

The primary source for these claims is pro-opposition outlet Syrian Observatory for Human rights or “SOHR”. The organization was founded and to this day is operated by one man living in the UK . Rami Abdul Rahman, the man behind SOHR, refuses to disclose his methodology, which led the UN to abandon its reporting of Syrian casualty figures in 2014. Interestingly, dubious as it may be SOHR’s own data shows “In the past year, more Syrian regime forces (17,600) died than civilians (13,000).”

With this in mind, I have provided two samples of an alternative narrative on the war in (or on) Syria, with a focus on Aleppo. It is not my intention to negate the genuine concerns people who are not already self-described anti-imperilaists might have for the people of Aleppo; I have forced myself to resist falling into the cynical notion that liberal concern cannot be directed elsewhere. Instead, by critique is of the “humanitarian” imperialist lens this concern is filtered through to reinforce the legitimcacy of empire and its practices.

EVA BARTLETT

EVA BARTLETTThe following biography is borrowed from Zero Anthropology :

Eva Bartlett is an independent Canadian rights and justice activist and freelance journalist. She has spent years in occupied Palestine, documenting Zionist crimes against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).

In November 2008, Eva sailed with the third Free Gaza Movement boat from Cyprus to the Gaza Strip, where she then joined the ISM in accompanying fishermen on the sea and farmers in the border regions (see compilation video here and her blog posts and reporting here). In both cases, fishers and farmers were violently attacked by Israeli army, injured, killed, or abducted.

During the 2008/9 Israeli attacks, Eva and other ISM volunteers accompanied Palestinian medics in Gaza, documenting Israeli crimes, including victims of White Phosphorous attacks and other war crimes. During the November 2012 attacks, Eva documented from a central Gaza Strip hospital.

In 2014, Eva twice visited Syria, for a period of a month, taking testimonies of Syrian and Palestinian victims of terrorism in Yarmouk camp, as well as Homs, Maaloula, Kessab and Latakia. She experienced first-hand the terrorists’ mortars on Damascus, including being shot at by a terrorist sniper. She reported on the Syrian Presidential elections from Lebanon, and re-visited Syrian a week after the elections. She has also interviewed the Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, Dr. Bashar al-Ja’afari.

Eva has given numerous talks on Palestine across North America, Ireland and Britain, and has also given many interviews. Her website is ingaza.wordpress.com

She is also a founding member of the Syria Solidarity Movement, which advocates for a sovereign Syria and against foreign intervention. She speaks colloquial Arabic and rusty French.

Eva Bartlett’s articles on Zero Anthropology (and highly recommended by Peripheral Thought) include:

  1. Interview with Syria’s Minister of National Reconciliation
  2. The Terrorism We Support in Syria: A First-hand Account of the Use of Mortars against Civilians
  3. Road to Victory: Syria’s Zenobians Stand to Win International Rugby Tournament
  4. Useful Atrocities

Bartlett’s latest exploit is a press conference regarding her work in Syria and the troubling implications of Aleppo coverage:

ROBERT FISK: There is more than one truth to tell in the terrible story of Aleppo

This story originally appeared in the UK Independent. Emphasis is added. I have also linked a relevant talk by Italian journalist Loretta Napoleoni, which Fisk references. 

Western politicians, “experts” and journalists are going to have to reboot their stories over the next few days now that Bashar al-Assad’s army has retaken control of eastern Aleppo. We’re going to find out if the 250,000 civilians “trapped” in the city were indeed that numerous. We’re going to hear far more about why they were not able to leave when the Syrian government and Russian air force staged their ferocious bombardment of the eastern part of the city.

And we’re going to learn a lot more about the “rebels” whom we in the West – the US, Britain and our head-chopping mates in the Gulf – have been supporting.

They did, after all, include al-Qaeda (alias Jabhat al-Nusra, alias Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), the “folk” – as George W Bush called them – who committed the crimes against humanity in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on 11 September 2001. Remember the War on Terror? Remember the “pure evil” of al-Qaeda. Remember all the warnings from our beloved security services in the UK about how al-Qaeda can still strike terror in London?

Not when the rebels, including al-Qaeda, were bravely defending east Aleppo, we didn’t – because a powerful tale of heroism, democracy and suffering was being woven for us, a narrative of good guys versus bad guys as explosive and dishonest as “weapons of mass destruction”.

Back in the days of Saddam Hussein – when a few of us argued that the illegal invasion of Iraq would lead to catastrophe and untold suffering, and that Tony Blair and George Bush were taking us down the path to perdition – it was incumbent upon us, always, to profess our repugnance of Saddam and his regime. We had to remind readers, constantly, that Saddam was one of the Triple Pillars of the Axis of Evil.

So here goes the usual mantra again, which we must repeat ad nauseam to avoid the usual hate mail and abuse that will today be cast at anyone veering away from the approved and deeply flawed version of the Syrian tragedy.

Yes, Bashar al-Assad has brutally destroyed vast tracts of his cities in his battle against those who wish to overthrow his regime. Yes, that regime has a multitude of sins to its name: torture, executions, secret prisons, the killing of civilians, and – if we include the Syrian militia thugs under nominal control of the regime – a frightening version of ethnic cleansing.

Yes, we should fear for the lives of the courageous doctors of eastern Aleppo and the people for whom they have been caring. Anyone who saw the footage of the young man taken out of the line of refugees fleeing Aleppo last week by the regime’s intelligence men should fear for all those who have not been permitted to cross the government lines. And let’s remember how the UN grimly reported it had been told of 82 civilians “massacred” in their homes in the last 24 hours.

But it’s time to tell the other truth: that many of the “rebels” whom we in the West have been supporting – and which our preposterous Prime Minister Theresa May indirectly blessed when she grovelled to the Gulf head-choppers last week – are among the cruellest and most ruthless of fighters in the Middle East. And while we have been tut-tutting at the frightfulness of Isis during the siege of Mosul (an event all too similar to Aleppo, although you wouldn’t think so from reading our narrative of the story), we have been willfully ignoring the behaviour of the rebels of Aleppo.

Only a few weeks ago, I interviewed one of the very first Muslim families to flee eastern Aleppo during a ceasefire. The father had just been told that his brother was to be executed by the rebels because he crossed the frontline with his wife and son. He condemned the rebels for closing the schools and putting weapons close to hospitals. And he was no pro-regime stooge; he even admired Isis for their good behaviour in the early days of the siege.

Around the same time, Syrian soldiers were privately expressing their belief to me that the Americans would allow Isis to leave Mosul to again attack the regime in Syria. An American general had actually expressed his fear that Iraqi Shiite militiamen might prevent Isis from fleeing across the Iraqi border to Syria.

Well, so it came to pass. In three vast columns of suicide trucks and thousands of armed supporters, Isis has just swarmed across the desert from Mosul in Iraq, and from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria to seize the beautiful city of Palmyra all over again.

It is highly instructive to look at our reporting of these two parallel events. Almost every headline today speaks of the “fall” of Aleppo to the Syrian army – when in any other circumstances, we would have surely said that the army had “recaptured” it from the “rebels” – while Isis was reported to have “recaptured” Palmyra when (given their own murderous behaviour) we should surely have announced that the Roman city had “fallen” once more under their grotesque rule.

Words matter. These are the men – our “chaps”, I suppose, if we keep to the current jihadi narrative – who after their first occupation of the city last year beheaded the 82-year-old scholar who tried to protect the Roman treasures and then placed his spectacles back on his decapitated head.

By their own admission, the Russians flew 64 bombing sorties against the Isis attackers outside Palmyra. But given the huge columns of dust thrown up by the Isis convoys, why didn’t the American air force join in the bombardment of their greatest enemy? But no: for some reason, the US satellites and drones and intelligence just didn’t spot them – any more than they did when Isis drove identical convoys of suicide trucks to seize Palmyra when they first took the city in May 2015.

There’s no doubting what a setback Palmyra represents for both the Syrian army and the Russians – however symbolic rather than military. Syrian officers told me in Palmyra earlier this year that Isis would never be allowed to return. There was a Russian military base in the city. Russian aircraft flew overhead. A Russian orchestra had just played in the Roman ruins to celebrate Palmyra’s liberation.

So what happened? Most likely is that the Syrian military simply didn’t have the manpower to defend Palmyra while closing in on eastern Aleppo.

They will have to take Palmyra back – quickly. But for Bashar al-Assad, the end of the Aleppo siege means that Isis, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and all the other Salafist groups and their allies can no longer claim a base, or create a capital, in the long line of great cities that form the spine of Syria: Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo

Back to Aleppo. The familiar and now tired political-journalistic narrative is in need of refreshing. The evidence has been clear for some days. After months of condemning the iniquities of the Syrian regime while obscuring the identity and brutality of its opponents in Aleppo, the human rights organisations – sniffing defeat for the rebels – began only a few days ago to spread their criticism to include the defenders of eastern Aleppo.

Take the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. After last week running through its usual – and perfectly understandable – fears for the civilian population of eastern Aleppo and their medical workers, and for civilians subject to government reprisals and for “hundreds of men” who may have gone missing after crossing the frontlines, the UN suddenly expressed other concerns.

“During the last two weeks, Fatah al-Sham Front [in other words, al-Qaeda] and the Abu Amara Battalion are alleged to have abducted and killed an unknown number of civilians who requested the armed groups to leave their neighborhoods, to spare the lives of civilians…,” it stated.

“We have also received reports that between 30 November and 1 December, armed opposition groups fired on civilians attempting to leave.” Furthermore, “indiscriminate attacks” had been conducted on heavily civilian areas of government-held western as well as ‘rebel’ eastern Aleppo.

I suspect we shall be hearing more of this in the coming days. Next month, we shall also be reading a frightening new book, Merchants of Men, by Italian journalist Loretta Napoleoni, on the funding of the war in Syria. She catalogues kidnapping-for-cash by both government and rebel forces in Syria, but also has harsh words for our own profession of journalism.

Reporters who were kidnapped by armed groups in eastern Syria, she writes, “fell victim to a sort of Hemingway syndrome: war correspondents supporting the insurgency trust the rebels and place their lives in their hands because they are in league with them.” But, “the insurgency is just a variation of criminal jihadism, a modern phenomenon that has only one loyalty: money.”

Is this too harsh on my profession? Are we really “in league” with the rebels?

Certainly our political masters are – and for the same reason as the rebels kidnap their victims: money. Hence the disgrace of Brexit May and her buffoonerie of ministers who last week prostrated themselves to the Sunni autocrats who fund the jihadis of Syria in the hope of winning billions of pounds in post-Brexit arms sales to the Gulf.

In a few hours, the British parliament is to debate the plight of the doctors, nurses, wounded children and civilians of Aleppo and other areas of Syria. The grotesque behaviour of the UK Government has ensured that neither the Syrians nor the Russians will pay the slightest attention to our pitiful wails. That, too, must become part of the story.

About Robert

From his profile on the Independent:

Robert Fisk is the multi-award winning Middle East correspondent of The Independent, based in Beirut. He has lived in the Arab world for more than 40 years, covering Lebanon, five Israeli invasions, the Iran-Iraq war, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Algerian civil war, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the Bosnian and Kosovo wars, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and the 2011 Arab revolutions. Occasionally describing himself as an ‘Ottoman correspondent’ because of the huge area he covers, Fisk joined The Independent in 1989. He has written best-selling books on the Middle East, including Pity the Nation and The Great War for Civilisation. He was born in Kent in 1946 and gained his BA in English and Classics at Lancaster University. He holds a PhD in politics from Trinity College, Dublin.

FURTHER DISCUSSION

If the US topples the government and turns Syria into a client state, history shows this means infinitely worse conditions for the people. There is no denying this. In the words of Hillary Clinton, it would mean “Killing lots of Syrians“.

In addition to my comments above, we should remember that a majority of Syrians conditionally support the government as does the Syrian left. Since I expect many will retort that parties like the Syrian Unified Communist Party are merely puppets of Assad’s Ba’ath party, we should remember that the left’s token favorites, the Kurdish YPG/PYD fought alongside the Syrian Arab Army in Aleppo

Even if one were to believe the absolute plausible worst about the Syrian government, intervention is unjustifiable. This puts the left in a similar position to Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” or Qaddafi’s “Viagra-fueled mercenaries“, these are colonial mythologies – “useful atrocities” in the words of Eva Bartlett, that exploit legitimate criticisms and opposition to these governments as justifications for  western imperialism.

Chavez AssadIt is saddening to see the left fall head-over-heels into this deception. Left movements and anti-imperialist governments in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua (pictured is Hugo Chavez with Bashar Al-Assad) and elsewhere have a much richer understanding of the meaning of solidarity and supporting self-determination for Syria.

Though, to be fair to the western left, the PR/ propaganda campaign against Syria has an extremely effective group advocating through humanitarian seduction- the white helmets. Despite having direct ties to the Syrian opposition (and in particular, Al Qaeda) and receiving generous funding and public relations support from western governments, they present themselves as a “neutral”, “humanitarian” arbiter in the conflict. This has had a particular allure to the “establishment” left such as the NDP in Canada.

To understand the moral hypocrisy of the imperialists and those supporting them in one form or another on “humanitarian” grounds, I will return to the three points of imperialist manipulation of morality as noted by Maximillian Forte which I have used before:

  1. Moral Dualism – Consider the hypocrisy of coverage of the reconquest of Mosul versus the reconquest of Aleppo.
  2. Moral Narcissism – what matters most are words and declarations, the positions that stake. It’s not actions that count, what we say we feel that matters most.This is how the White Helmets can call itself a “humanitarian” force while lobbying for western bombing runs, or how said bombing runs can be called humanitarian intervention.
  3. Demonization – Yet again we hear “Assad forces”, “murderous Assad”, etc.as typical labels by journalists and pundits, stripping away even the nominal objectivity of the corporate press. While some criticisms of Assad are of course valid and deserve due consideration, these kinds of labels are not concerned with a robust critique of the Ba’athist regime, but with decimating it.

It is clear that we are not seeing some sort of exceptional series of events, but instead a project consistent with NATO regime change efforts in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Haiti, Libya, and elsewhere. If you have reached this far in this post and are concerned about the future of the Syrian people, I encourage you to direct the energy you would have put towards supporting the dubious humanitarianism I have described above, and instead put that energy towards helping build the struggle to overthrow colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism. The events in Syria only show that the Empire has no moral high ground; it must be abolished.

Once again, I am indebted to Invent the Future and Zero Anthropology for providing a large number of my links and citations

I also highly recommend the “Non-Fake News Syria Reading List” which includes articles from mainstream sources with a critical perspective on Syria. The document is a collaborative project on Google Docs which anyone can provide comments, feedback, and request to edit. Thanks to Dru Oja Jay for alerting me to the project. 

PERIPHERAL THOUGHT SUPPORTS HANDS OFF SYRIA

“Our objective is to create the broadest possible united front for peace and justice by peace activists and organizations in the U.S. and around the world to fight for an end all violence, intervention and sanctions against Syria, which is now threatening world peace.” – Hands Off Syria Points of Unity

In light of this situation and the viewpoint expressed above,  I am endorsing the Hands Off Syria Coalition in an effort to advocate a just, lasting peace which ensures the self-determination of the Syrian people. I encourage all readers who have had the patience to survive this post to do the same as a first step towards advancing the struggle. Organizational endorsements are especially helpful.

There is, unfortunately, no Canadian equivalent to the Hands Off Syria Coalition, several Canadian signatories have signed the Hands Off Syria statement. Hopefully similar efforts will emerge.

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Hands Off Syria Coalition — Points of Unity Statement

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From the Margins: False Security, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

The October 2nd episode of From the Margins features interviews with authors and professors, Kent Roach and Jennifer Brant.

From the Margins spoke to Roach on his new book, False Security: The Radicalization of Canadian Anti-Terrorism, co-authored with Craig Forcese.

Brant spoke about the new book she co-edited with D. Memee Lavell-Harvard, Forever Loved: Exposing the Hidden Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada.

False Security

false-security

Kent Roach is Professor of Law and Prichard-Wilson Chair of Law and Public Policy at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. He served on the research advisory committee for the inquiry into the rendition of Maher Arar, the Ipperwash Inquiry into the killing of Dudley George, and as volume lead for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report on the Legacy of Residential Schools. False Security won the Canadian Law and Society Association best book prize.

On 20 October 2014, a terrorist drove his car into two members of the Canadian Armed Forces, killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. Two days later, another terrorist murdered Corporal Nathan Cirillo before storming Parliament. In the aftermath of these attacks, Parliament enacted Bill C-51 — the most radical national security law in generations. This new law ignored hard lessons on how Canada both over- and underreacted to terrorism in the past. It also ignored evidence and urgent recommendations about how to avoid these dangers in the future.

For much of 2015, Craig Forcese and Kent Roach have provided, as Maclean’s put it, the “intellectual core of what’s emerged as surprisingly vigorous push-back” to Bill C-51. In this book, they show that our terror laws now make a false promise of security even as they present a radical challenge to rights and liberties. They trace how our laws repeat past mistakes of institutionalized illegality while failing to address problems that weaken the accountability of security agencies and impair Canada’s ability to defend against terrorism.

Brant: Forever Loved

forever-loved-final-cover-smallJennifer Brant is currently employed at the Tecumseh Centre for Aboriginal Research and Education, as the Program Coordinator for the Gidayaamin Aboriginal Women’s Certificate Program. She is a PhD candidate in Educational Studies at Brock University, where she is researching barriers Aboriginal women face in mainstream education, and the vision for a holistic support model that honours the educational realities and familial responsibilities of Aboriginal women.

The hidden crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada is both a national tragedy and a national shame. In this ground-breaking new volume, as part of their larger efforts to draw attention to the shockingly high rates of violence against our sisters, Jennifer Brant and D. Memee Lavell-Harvard have pulled together a variety of voices from the academic realms to the grassroots and front-lines to speak on what has been identified by both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations as a grave violation of the basic human rights of Aboriginal women and girls. Linking colonial practices with genocide, through their exploration of the current statistics, root causes and structural components of the issue, including conversations on policing, media and education, the contributing authors illustrate the resilience, strength, courage, and spirit of Indigenous women and girls as they struggle to survive in a society shaped by racism and sexism, patriarchy and misogyny. This book was created to honour our missing sisters, their families, their lives and their stories, with the hope that it will offer lessons to non-Indigenous allies and supporters so that we can all work together towards a nation that supports and promotes the safety and well-being of all First Nation, Métis and Inuit women and girls.

LISTEN to From the Margins

About From the Margins

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In more of an analytical / in-depth spirit, From the Margins covers issues of local, regional and international concern (present and historical), in that order. Over the years, I’ve covered issues revolving around workers, students, unemployed people, the arts and even sports. Buried in the heart of the From the Margins is an understanding that social problems are rooted in the socioeconomic system, capitalism, through which social relations are mediated. The show is about lived realities within this context and political challenges to these relations. That sense weaves in into many of the pieces, but can be subtle at times or can be completely in the background so perhaps no one can see it but me. The show features live and recorded interviews, recordings of presentations, the odd reading of something interesting, discussions and sometimes more creative approaches. There may be surprises.

H : I : S : T : O : R : Y

From the Margins originally started out as a radio show in the deep woods of Fredericton on the airwaves of CHSR 97.9 FM, the campus – community station amongst thickets of trees. It’s original concept was as an anti-poverty show that largely publicized and discussed the activities and ideas of the Advocacy Collective, an anti-poverty collective in Fredericton at the time. Eventually, the show’s issues became more generalized, discussing the struggles people faced at the expense of Capital. It weaved in and out of production in Fredericton, with the odd co-hosts here and there. Then, yours truly moved to Halifax and decided to re-start the show on CKDU 88.1 FM. And there it stayed for a few years…

But then we (me) started to realize how much we loved those old woods. And we were also unemployed and SOOL in Halifax. We sadly left CKDU, but were happy that it was safe and in capable hands. We trotted to Fredericton for another chapter of our existence. Trudging through the woods we found CHSR’s warm hearth and found an abundance of good things. Now, From the Margins is ready to embark on more of its critical news coverage, analysis and occasional creative approaches to addressing subjects. We remain venomous towards the dictates of capital. Ever our nemesis, we shall do our part against it: providing information and understanding of its lived reality, mechanics and ongoing resistance to its many facets. Well, we’ll try our best, “from each according to our ability … ” and all that jazz. We hope the journey will prove interesting.