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Empires of Aid and Compassion: Foundations as Architects of Neoliberalism

They seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see in poverty, but their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it… the proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.

(Oscar Wilde on philanthropists, quoted in Global Justice Now, 2016. Emphasis added.)

The existence of, and significance, of philanthropic foundations and their influence are increasingly becoming part of public discussion. Foundations have come to be significant in US partisan politics after the 2016 election, with criticism from both the left and right being directed towards Bill and Hilary Clinton’s Clinton Foundation, including its scandalous kickbacks schemes in Haiti, and its dependency on donations from the Saudi royal family. Asra Nomani also brought attention to the dominance of organizations funded by one of Clinton’s most generous financial backers at the Women’s March on Washington, George Soros, who also heads the Open Society Foundation, a significant philanthropic actor in its own right. More recently, Donald Trump’s philanthropy has also come under scrutiny.

Perhaps the most critical analysis of modern philanthropic foundations available to the wider public is a report by the UK pressure group Global Justice Now. Their report Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good? (2016), which provides a damning assessment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMG for short), received little attention in the mainstream media, apart from an article in the UK paper The Independent. The article summarizes the Global Justice report as saying that the Gates Foundation promotes neoliberal economic policies and “corporate globalization” in service of its allies and funders, including major transnationals, agricultural companies, and pharmaceuticals.

Given the Gates Foundations’ significant investments in ExxonMobil, Dutch Shell, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and McDonald’s, and its significant ownership of pharmaceutical intellectual property (McGoey, 2012), Global Justice’s claim deserves more attention than it has been given by the media. The Gates Foundation purports itself to be at the forefront of improving quality of life in the Global South, yet invests in some of the largest transnationals involved in destructive resource extraction and exploitative labour practices throughout the world, to say nothing of Microsoft’s own exploitative, neoliberal growth schemes (Microsoft is one of the largest funders of the Gates Foundation besides Warren Buffett and the Gates themselves), which provided the surplus wealth necessary to create such a massive philanthropic enterprise.

Transnational Oligarchs, gangsters turned self-appointed Saviors

The Gates Foundation is often seen as the global vanguard of what its proponents call “philanthrocapitalism” – the application of business strategies to the distribution of charity and aid through philanthropic organizations. Such a strategy and ideological fixation has recently come under criticism, even by the “cautious fans” of philanthropic organizations, pointing out how profit-maximizing logics when applied to international development often result in shortsightedness (Youde, 2013; Edwards, 2009)

Looking at history, it is clear that this is by design, rather than by accident. Birn (2014) provides a historical comparison between the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Both foundations have been significant in shaping the development of global health policy, operating on similar models, which the Rockefeller Foundation pioneered and the Gates Foundation claims to innovate upon. Thus, the contemporary hype around “philanthrocapitalism” is more of a re-brand of old-fashioned oligarchic foundations rather than anything substantially new. Both Gates and Rockefeller disbursed charity strategically, as way to secure their for-profit companies’ investments, fend off radical alternatives, and promote development strategies which keep recipients dependent on their aid and their products.

It is difficult sometimes for the public to imagine philanthropic foundations, which spend lots on public relations emphasizing the selfless “good” their work does, are actually doing harm or advancing private interests. I myself remember growing up in an environment saturated with stories of the benevolence of Bill Gates, “the billionaire who wants to give it all away”. Gates in those days, and to an extent still does today, possessed a veneration as a kind of philosopher-king, making it somewhat unthinkable to question in decent company why this one individual should have more wealth than the GDPs of forty-five countries. This is consistent with the capitalist moral ethos which Linsey McGoey (2014), an expert in philanthropic foundations, says that philanthropy helps reinforce.

bono-philanthropy

Yet this humanitarian morality, what Maximillian Forte calls “moral narcissism” (2012), hardly stands up to examination. After all, as the Global Justice Now report points out, the practices of the BMG Foundation are consistently part of a strategy to bolster the investments of its funders and those companies it holds shares in. Funds and resources are often disbursed not to the poorest of the world’s population, but to countries and populations that the BMG can expect a return from (Global Justice Now, 2016). Furthermore, similar programs could easily be funded through state revenue acquired by taxing such large personal fortunes as that of the Gates and Buffets, thus private, unelected actors are taking over what was historically the responsibility of democratic, sovereign state formations (Global Justice Now, 2016; St.-Pierre, 2014). Such philanthropic elites often circumvent their obligations to their fellow citizens in the form of taxes through elaborate tax evasion schemes, such as those uncovered by the Paradise Papers.

Biopower and “Compassionate” Biological Imperialism

Each of these two über-powerful foundations [Rockefeller and Gates] emerged at a critical juncture in the history of international/global health. Each was started by the richest, most ruthless and innovative capitalist of his day” (Birn, 2014)

The use of philanthropic foundations towards the insurance of capitalist ends is particularly evident in global health governance, a sector itself pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. Rockefeller’s motivation for establishing global health as a humanitarian sector was primarily driven by his desire to stave off criticism of his business practices and combat the rise of militant labor unions and radical socialist organizers within his US workforces, especially after armed guards massacred striking workers at a Rockefeller-owned mine (Birn, 2014; Youde, 2013). The Rockefeller Foundation represented the entrenchment of philanthropy, as opposed to church charity, which explicitly understood itself as being a defensive investment in alleviating suffering among the masses to forestall said masses from taking issues into their own hands.

Michel Foucault described biopower as “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (1976) pursued by states and the administrators of various capitalist power structures. In the case of global health governance, the “bio” in biopower is quite literal. The BMG, in continuation of its predecessor the Rockefeller Foundation, is one of the largest players in global health governance, policy, and research development today. It is the second-largest funder of the World Health Organization, second only to the United States government, and owns most of the HIV/AIDS research being conducted in the world today, leading to increasing concern among the scientific community about the independence, accountability, neutrality and purposes of HIV research being conducted (Birn, 2014). Meanwhile, Brazil and India were both served lawsuits for subsidizing the manufacture of cheap, no-name HIV and Malaria treatments (St-Pierre, 2014).

Further exercise of oligarchic-imperialist biopower by Gates Foundation includes reproductive health aid and in agricultural reform, pushing alarming agendas. Research shows that the BMG’s promotion of genetically modified seeds has served as an instrument to displace Indian peasants, as intellectual property ownership over seed DNA is given priority over traditional land rights. Meanwhile, concerns have emerged that Gates Foundation-funded hospitals and medical facilities are performing forced sterilizations and other non-consensual population control operations on African women as part of BMG’s reproductive health programs.

Africa: The Philanthropic Playground

Nowhere is this philanthropic power-grabbing most pronounced than on the African continent. After all, it is usually African children, African cities, and African landscapes that are used as props for philanthropic advertising, a sadistic showcase of desperation if there ever was one. The BMG is of course active in creating these “poverty porn” productions, but these visual manifestations of imperial humanitarianism also enlist the talents of celebrities, such as U2’s Bono, who readily embrace the “private sector” as a solution to “Africa’s problems”. Nowhere do these philanthropists indict colonialism, imperialism, or neo-colonialism in Africa for contributing to the continent’s many problems, because this of course would indict them and their own enterprises in perpetuating Africa’s status as a vast dependency.

The “concern” generated by such imagery, and the push for “innovative” solutions aggrandized by them, is mobilized selectively. For example, Mozambique’s public healthcare system, dubbed a model for the developing world, was gutted after the fall of the USSR (Mozambique’s main financier and ally) and USAID support was redirected to be filtered through NGO’s and Private-Public Partnerships (P3’s), some overseen and lobbied for by the BMG. P3 hospitals poached Mozambique doctors away from the public service with promises of higher salaries, eventually causing the public health system to completely implode, and for health services in Mozambique to be operated primarily by private actors (St-Pierre, 2014). This is consistent with Global Justice Now’s accusation of promoting “corporate globalization” (2016) – using aid as an instrument to force the privatization of robust public services, transforming them into profitable commodities for sale with captive markets of desperate citizens looking for adequate health services.

One should also scrutinize the positions of humanitarian imperialists like Bill and Melinda Gates about issues not immediately within their sphere of influence. The language of humanitarian imperialism has existed quite comfortably for some time now in the circles of militarists and interventionists overseeing US imperialism’s operations on the African continent. It was the same humanitarian imperialist discourse of “saving” that was used in the US-NATO intervention in Libya (Forte, 2012), which after months of indiscriminate bombing and support for jihadi terrorist organizations, resulted in the looting of that countries oil and mineral wealth and the absolute collapse of Libyan society. The fall of Libya’s pan-Africanist, anti-imperialist oriented government also created a power vacuum quickly filled by the US African Command (AFRICOM), which is now waging wars throughout the continent.  Given that statistically speaking, wealthy Americans are the demographic most likely to support foreign military interventions abroad, and often lobby for such interventions, it would not be ridiculous to suspect that philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates were quite pleased with the Obama administration’s interventionist strategy in Libya, and the subsequent expansion of AFRICOM, seeing it all as part of the West’s great humanitarian project. A 21st-century white man’s burden.

Image result for sirte us intervention
Sirte, Libya, post US-NATO “Humanitarian” Intervention

Conclusion

While the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are perhaps the most obvious culprit given their foundation’s massive size, one should not let other foundations like the Clinton Foundation, the Trump Foundation, George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, or new entrants like the Zuckerberg Foundation, off the proverbial hook. It should be evident that philanthropic foundations, being extensions of capitalism and of the financial and political dominance of capitalists, operate according to the rules of profit-maximization and continued accumulation by dispossession. Far from being passive entities in this process, they are often its active architects and thus deserve to be regarded and scrutinized in the same way any for-profit corporation performing similar roles should be.

References

Birn, Anne-Emmanuelle, 2014. “Philanthrocapitalism, past and present: The Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the setting(s) of the international/ global health agenda.” Hypothesis Vol. 12, no.1: 1-27.

Connett, David. 19 February 2016. “Gates Foundation accused of ‘dangerously skewing’ aid priorities by promoting ‘corporate globalisation‘” Independent.

D’Souza, Dinesh. 2016. “How the Clinton Foundation got rich off poor HaitiansNational Review.

Edwards, Michael. 2009. “Why ‘philanthrocapitalism’ is not the answer: private initiatives and international development” in M. Kremer et al., eds., Doing Good or Doing Better: Development Policies in a Globalising World, 237-250.

Forte, Maximillian. 2012. Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Africa and Libya. Montreal, QC: Baraka Books.

Foucault, Michel. 1976. The History of Sexuality Vol. 1. Paris, FR: Editions Gallimard.

Global Justice Now. 2016. Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?

Greenwald, Glenn. 2016. “Why Did the Saudi Regime and Other Gulf Tyrannies Donate Millions to the Clinton Foundation?The Intercept.

McElwee, Sean, Brian Schaffner and Jesse Rhodes. 1 March 2017. “How Wealthy Donors Drive Aggressive Foreign Policy” in The Nation.

McGoey, Linsey. 2012. “Philanthropcapitalism and its critics.” Poetics Vol. 40, no.2: 185-199.

Morgan, Wesley and Bryan Bender. 10 December 2017. “America’s Shadow War in Africa.Politico.

Nomani, Asra. 2017. “Billionaire George Soros has ties to more than 50 ‘partners’ of the Women’s March on Washington.Women in the World. 

St-Pierre, Emile. 2014. “Iatrogenic Imperialism: NGOs and CROs as Agents of Questionable Care” in Maximilian C. Forte, ed. The New Imperialism, Volume 4. Good Intentions: The Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 37-55.

Youde, Jeremy. 2013. “The Rockefeller and Gates Foundations in Global Health Governance.” Global Society Vol. 27, no. 2: 139-158.

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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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ANTI-IMPERIALISM DONALD J. TRUMP EMPIRE GLOBALIZATION IMPERIAL DECLINE NEOLIBERALISM

Trump, Empire, and Syria (or, The Elites Just Bought Another War)

DONALD TRUMP: ANOTHER MAN FOR EMPIRE

“After losing thousands of lives and spending trillions of dollars, we are in far worst shape in the Middle East than ever, ever before. I challenge anyone to explain the strategic foreign policy vision of Obama/Clinton. It has been a complete and total disaster.” — Donald J. Trump, Campaign Speech on Foreign Policy

If anyone retains any illusions that Trump represented a true challenge to the “establishment” which he so vehemently claimed to oppose, it’s time to bury such fantasies alongside the bodies of the victims of the 59 ballistic missiles fired into an airfield outside Homs, Syria. Not only has Trump done nothing to alter the Bush-Obama proxy wars and occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Ukraine, but has escalated the US aggression against Syria, but now potentially in Korea (and I assume, eventually, Iran and Venezuela). Like Bush in Iraq, Trump is lunging into Syria on the presumption that the Syrian government used chemical weapons despite questionable evidence of this. Ironically, this also comes after a recent admission that the United States has used depleted uranium in Syria just as it did in Iraq.

This is in stark contrast to the foreign policy Trump campaigned on, or more precisely the foreign policy many Trump voters thought he was campaigning on. Despite threatening to tear up the Iran Nuclear Deal and bolster support for Israel, as well as the wild suggestion the US station nuclear warheads in South Korea, Trump also made a number of isolationist, even anti-imperialist sounding statements on the campaign trail, which appealed to voters who are  feeling exhausted by decades of imperialist wars. These statements were surprisingly consistent as well, alluding to positions Trump had described in his books, The America We Deserve (2000) and Time to Get Tough (2011). More recently, they also appeared in his tweets:

 

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The Orange Canary now sings a different tune.

What happened to the Trump who wrote these tweets? What happened to the Trump who trashed NATO, sought good relations with Russia, attacked the Clintons for overthrowing Qaddafi, who called the United States “not so innocent”, and promised to build jobs at home instead of sending soldiers aboard? I admit, I entertained the possibility that Trump might make good on these promises, but no longer. It’s  likely that this “progressive Trump” never really existed.Like Nixon and Obama before him, Trump is an opportunist, playing to both working class conservatism (in the form of anti-blackness, xenophobia, and settler-colonial nationalism) as well as more progressive impulses like universal health coverage and, of course, anti-interventionism, positions which are quickly abandoned once the opportunist is catapulted into power.

A possible silver lining in these dark times is that  perhaps now the nebulous “Trump coalition” will shatter into a million pieces. Between trying to push through detrimental health care policy and plunging the United States into another bloody, potentially catastrophic war, Trump has isolated both the working class and rural-dwelling voters who brought him victory and the bourgeois white nationalists who aggrandized him to the public. There may be an opportunity, through the channel of a revived anti-war movement, for the left to recapture the working class in the United States.

It should also be apparent to anyone paying attention now that the media is not a friend of progressives or any critics of US imperialism.  It should be clear that in spite of the aggressive attacks against Trump in major media outlets during the election, that the elites and their propaganda outlets were not really ever concerned with Trump’s xenophobia, his racist and sexist comments, or the likelihood that he is a rapist (and indeed, why would they be?),  these things were only instruments to the transnational capitalists against a figurehead they feared might put a wrench in their otherwise well-oiled war machine by seeking rapprochement with Russia and Syria. Now that Trump has fully committed to their version of Yankee imperialism, press coverage of Trump is glowing with praise. Of eighteen major editorials on Syria in five major papers, not one is critical.

Below is a stunning report featured in The Nation in March of 2017 which darkly foreshadows the pressure Trump must have felt from his wealthy friends and neighbors to have a good war. Trump himself has a vested interest in the war economy, owning significant shares in Raytheon, the manufacturer of the missiles launched at Syria. While reading this, consider that the “wealthy donors/elites” described as pushing for war also likely have controlling interests in the mainstream American media, which now rallies behind Trump’s genocidal ambitions.

WEALTHY DONORS AND MILITARY INTERVENTION

McElwee, Sean, Brian Shaffe, & Jesse Rhodes. 2017. “How Wealthy Donors Drive Aggressive Foreign Policy.” The Nation. 

Since Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency Washington has struggled to get a handle on his administration’s approach to matters of war and peace. In recent weeks, there has been intense focus on the perceived influence of top presidential aide Steve Bannon, who is seen as extremely hawkish on national security matters, especially when it comes to combating Islamic terrorism and confronting China’s rising influence. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that Bannon’s prominence within the administration – highlighted by his appointment to the National Security Council – portends a more bellicose turn in American national security policy.

And despite his purported skepticism of defense spending and aversion to spending cuts, Trump’s new budget bolsters spending for defense by $54 billion while cutting spending elsewhere.

There are undeniable reasons for concern – if not outright fear – about Bannon’s appointment, particularly coupled with soaring military investment. But these worries obscure more systematic – if also more subtle – reasons for the United States’ persistent aggressiveness on the world stage. (After all, American military interventionism long preceded the Trump Administration and continued during the presidency of Barack Obama). Our research suggests that a major, if under-appreciated, base of support for the frequent use of American military force abroad is the enthusiasm of wealthy persons – and especially large political donors.

On several key questions, wealthy people – and, in particular, “elite donors” (those who contribute $5,000 or more, or the top 1 percent of all donors) – are much more enthusiastic about the projection of American force than are American adults. The enthusiasm of the most wealthy and influential private actors in American politics provides a durable reservoir of support for the assertion of American power abroad. Given the profound, and likely growing, influence of political donors in American politics, our findings suggest that strong political supports for American foreign interventionism will remain long after Bannon, and Trump, have departed the executive branch.

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These conclusions come from our ongoing research project on the preferences and contribution patterns of big donors. As part of this work, we investigated how preferences toward American military spending and the use of force compared between elite donors, wealthy individuals (those with family incomes of more than $150,000), all donors, and all American adults.

Our analysis drew on a cumulative data file from the 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies surveys. By pooling together multiple surveys, we were able to obtain an unusually large sample of these elite donors, as well as extremely large samples of several other groups: all political donors, individuals with family incomes over $150,000, and all American adults. (Across all surveys, there were 196,000 respondents.) To make the elite donor sample nationally representative, we re-weighted the sample using information from Catalist, a political data firm with information on more than 260 million adults, and the Federal Election Commission.

We also made efforts to ensure that we correctly identified large donors. While it’s unlikely that many people lie about contributing large amounts of money to campaigns — being an elite donor is not exactly a status that most people aspire to — we tried to account for this possibility by dropping from our analysis any self-identified elite donors who were not also validated registered voters. On the whole, our approach allowed us to examine the preferences of elite donors, and other groups, with a great deal of precision.

As a first observation, “elite donors” and wealthy Americans are more supportive of American military spending than are ordinary Americans. When requested to indicate whether they preferred to balance the federal budget primarily through cuts to defense spending, domestic spending cuts, or tax increases, 42 percent of American adults indicated that they preferred defense cuts. But only 25 percent of elite donors, and 36 percent of wealthy Americans, preferred that route.

We found that cutting defense spending was the most popular option for balancing the budget among ordinary Americans, but the least popular option among elite donors. And this is not simply a matter of partisanship — the “elite donors” and wealth Americans in our sample are fairly evenly divided along party lines. Further, within the parties, elite donors are more interventionist (that is, Democratic elite donors are more interventionist than non-donors and Republican elite donors are more interventionist than Republican non-donors).

Graph 1

Elite donors and wealthy Americans also seem to be more sanguine about the United States’ interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among all adults, 60 percent consider the United States’ involvement in Iraq a mistake. But only 52 percent of elite donors do. The opinion gap between adults and elite donors on the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan is even wider. While 43 percent of the general public consider the Afghanistan intervention a mistake, only 27 percent of elite donors do.

Graph2

These findings point to the possibility that elite donors and wealthy Americans might be more favorably disposed to the use of American military force than are ordinary Americans. And, in fact, when it comes to attitudes about hypothetical military interventions, we find similar income- and donation-based effects. For example, while all of the groups in our analysis strongly support the use of American military force to protect allies under attack, elite donors and wealthy Americans are even more enthusiastic than are all American adults. Eighty-five percent of elite donors and 80 percent of wealthy Americans express support for the use of force in these circumstances, compared with 71 percent of adults.

“Elite donors” and the wealthy are noticeably more likely to support a military intervention to prevent genocide (50 percent and 51 percent, respectively) compared to the general public (40 percent). And elite donors and wealthy Americans are also much more likely to express support for military interventions to destroy terrorist training camps. Sixty-four percent of American adults supported this hypothetical; but 80 percent of “elite donors” and 76 percent of wealthy Americans did.

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Strikingly, we found that elite donors and wealthy Americans are more likely to express support for military interventions to ensure the American oil supply. While just 25 percent of American adults expressed support for such interventions, 35 percent of elite donors did, and nearly half (48 percent) of Republican elite donors did.

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These attitudinal differences matter. Recent scholarship on representation in politics strongly suggests that large donors and wealthy Americans exercise disproportionate influence on politicians, and that this bias is most notable on matters of national security and foreign policy. One reason that this might occur is that Americans feel less confident in judging debates over foreign interventions and often defer to elites on such matters, especially during conflicts.

Benjamin Page and Jason Barabas compared the foreign policy preferences of foreign policy elites using the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations surveys and found “many differences of 30, 40, and even 50 percentage points compared with the general public.”  Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton find, in their book The Foreign Policy Disconnect, that “contrary to the assertions of many scholars, pundits and political elites,” “collective public opinion about foreign policy is not inconsistent, capricious, fluctuating or unreasonable.”

Rather, they argue, the general public “generally prefers to use cooperative and multilateral means to pursue foreign policy aims.” Kull and Destler also find that elites tend to misread public opinion, and that Americans aren’t isolationist, but rather favor multilateral intervention.

Political scientists Matt Grossmann and William Isaac also found the wealthy are more likely to favor “international intervention, international institutions, foreign aid, and trade agreements.” They found that the wealthy have a disproportionate impact on foreign policy: “affluent support for foreign policy proposals without average support leads to a very high adoption rate (69 percent) compared to foreign policy proposals with only average citizen support (38 percent).”

This applies not only to a more aggressive use of force internationally, but trade policy as well, as donors are more likely to support free trade agreements. In the 2014 CCES, 68 percent of donors contributing $1,000 or more support a US-Korea free trade agreement, compared to 57 percent of the full sample.

Most of the debates about money in politics center around domestic policy: Bernie Sanders’s campaign centered around the way that millionaires and billionaires blocked the progressive agenda. However, our research suggests that elite donors have different views about the global economy and use of force overseas than the general public. Donors often give money to enact that vision, such as the millions Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban have given to shape policy on Israel. Politicians who buck the establishment on trade and military force overseas often find themselves quickly on the defensive. Donors are likely to oppose any attempt by Trump to cloister America from the international community, but they also are unlikely to tap the brakes if he moves the country towards war.

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Anti-Vietnam War cartoon from 1975.
Categories
USA

CULTURE AS A WAY TO KNOW THE WORLD

[This essay excerpt was written by Jimmie Durham of the Cherokee nation.  Durham was a member of the American Indian Movement and founder of the International Indian Treaty Council that lobbied the United Nations in favour of decolonization of indigenous peoples worldwide. He is also a sculptor and poet.  The entire essay can be read here.]

CULTURE AS A WAY TO KNOW THE WORLD (Jimmie Durham, 1974)

“. . . The white left in particular has a tendency to take the words and concepts of revolutionary leaders from around the world instead of participating in the hammering-out of a true understanding of what is going on here, and how to use it.

That is especially true when we consider questions of culture in the U.S, either white culture or some other.

For example, a group of white leftists decides to hold a conference. They know, in an abstract way, that they have been robbed of their culture and that culture is important in revolution. Therefore they set aside one or two evenings during the conference as “cultural evenings.” Songs are sung and poems are read, but these “cultural activities” are not integrated into the conference itself, instead they are isolated as special events. More important, and more to the point, no one really sees and analyzes the ways in which the conference itself is a cultural event. . . . The reason people do not see the conference itself and its interactions as a cultural event in itself is because they have been robbed of their culture.

At the first level, the culture of the society is “Western.” That is, most structures of social action are like those of any other Western country, and are clearly unlike those of American Indians, Lapps, Masai, or even societies that have become “Westernized” in many aspects, such as the black population in the U.S.

But at the second level, the people at that conference are culturally part of a society that has taken the Western tool of “specialization” and changed it to what Paulo Freire has called “specialism” in his study of mass society. (The concept of mass society is not associated with the emergence of the masses in a historical process.) Freire describes this phenomenon in Cultural Action for Freedom:

“Mass society appears in highly technological, complex societies. In order to function, these societies require specialities, which become ‘specialisms,’ and rationality, which degenerates into myth-making irrationalism.”

“Distinct from specialities, specialists narrow the area of knowledge in such a way that the so-called ‘specialists’ become generally incapable of thinking. Because they have lost the vision of the whole of which their ‘speciality’ is only one dimension, they cannot even think correctly in the area of their specialization.

“In mass society, ways of thinking become as standardized as ways of dressing and tastes in food. People begin thinking and acting according to the prescriptions they receive daily from the communications media rather than in response to their dialectical relationships with the world. In mass societies, where everything is prefabricated and behavior is almost automatized, people are lost because they do not have to ‘risk themselves.’” . . .

Our societies, our culture, defines us, in large part, and our way of experiencing the world is through our culture. Politics, economics, science and technology, language, etc., are all cultural phenomena, and finally, of course, political phenomena. Many progressive people in this country, both whites and blacks, are not critically conscious of that process, and are a part of that mass society in one degree or another.

So, when white people look critically at the Indian Movement (as they should), it should be with a critical consciousness that they are looking through their own culture, which is a particularly alienating one and therefore difficult to see through.

As if the problems mentioned above were not enough of a barrier to communication and analysis, there are still two more blocks. The first is racism, which cannot really be separated from the cultural problems I’ve been talking about. Racism is used so effectively and insidiously as a tool of oppression that some people think that it is some absolute of human nature, or at least some absolute of white human nature. Most white progressives will freely admit that they carry some racist attitudes (whereas most Indians, also infected with racism, will not), but will not take the trouble to commit themselves to identifying and eliminating those attitudes, partly because that can be done only by the kind of praxis that U.S. culture makes so difficult. Those attitudes are especially obnoxious and destructive in white people who have the aggressiveness or self-confidence to be in leadership positions of one form or another.

Racism often takes the subtle forms of assuming Indian people to be just like white people, or totally different from white people, or other unspoken generalities, which further blind the people to the realities of Indian culture. It is also the primary cause of the most hateful piece of miscommunication now going on between Indians and white progressives: “political missionary-ism”. Particularly, by young white Marxists who have never been in real situations of struggle in a working-class movement, who in fact have seldom worked with anyone except fellow-students, and who come to us as though we were ignorant “lumpen proletariat” in need of being “taught”, not only Marxism, but the realities of our own struggle. . . .

The second block is the colonial tool that I call “romanticism.” The U.S. has used romanticism more effectively to keep Indians oppressed than it has ever been used on any other people. The basis of that romanticism is of course the concept of the “Noble Savage,” but the refinements over the years have worked their way into how every non-Indian thinks about us, and how we think about ourselves. In the U.S. there is a special vocabulary of English deliberately developed to maintain oppression of Indians. This vocabulary has connotations of “primitiveness,” backwardness, savagery, etc., and affects the ways every Indian and non-Indian in the U.S. thinks about Indians, whether or not people are conscious of them. This vocabulary has become so ingrained that the use of just one of the words conjures up the thought of Indians, and we have come to assume that these are “Indian” words, or at least direct translations from an Indian language into English.

Who decided that the word “chief,” which has the connotation of meaning the head of a land or tribe, is the correct translation of theconcept of the Creek Indian word “Enhomvta”? Did white people decide that was the correct word by studying the Creek political system? No. They decided because they wanted to show the Creek nation as a “primitive” body of people and “chief” carried this connotation. At first, colonists called Indian leaders “kings,” as in the example of King Phillip of the Wampanoag “tribe.”

Compare the two following sentences describing the same event and the reasons for a colonial vocabulary may be clearer:

1. Today Archbishop Tatanka Iotanka, Minister of Interior Affairs of the present government of the nation of Lakota and the most respected religious leader of the Lakota people, was assassinated by paid agents of the United States government.

2. Today Chief Sitting Bull, a medicine man of the Sioux Indian tribe, was killed by another Indian.

Of course, I am not suggesting that the word “archbishop” would describe Sitting Bull’s position correctly or adequately, but I am saying that it describes the Lakota concept for his position just as well as the English phrase “medicine man” in the English of non-Indian people.

The romantic colonial vocabulary serves to dehumanize us, and make our affairs and political systems seem not quite as serious or advanced as those of other people. The English vocabulary used to describe us is designed to prove that we are inferior.

Here is a list of English words used in the romantic vocabulary with parallel English words in normal vocabulary. . . .

Tribe—Nation

Band—State or province

Medicine Man—Doctor, minister, psychiatrist, etc.

Chief—President, prime minister, secretary general

War chief—General

Warrior, brave—Soldier

Squaw—Woman

Band of warriors—Army, regiment

Great council—Cabinet, parliament, central committee

Pow wow—Festival

Great Spirit—God, Allah, etc.

Some words refer to concepts specific to the way Indians are spoken about: “full-bloods,” “1/4, 1/16, 1/64 Indian,“ “mixed breed,” etc. This is a kind of racism that is not used against any other people. And even when white society as a whole has used words like “mulatto,” white progressives have not. But today they do speak of “full-blood” Indians and so on. It is no excuse to say that many Indian people themselves use those terms—many blacks in the South also used words like “mulatto,” “yallah,” etc., at one time and some still do now. . . .

As we in our struggle break out of isolation, we also break that language barrier, usually before the non-Indians know what has happened. Today we have learned what “tribes” really means so we refuse that definition. Non-Indians, including progressive whites, still use it. Tomorrow we will no longer speak of “full-bloods”; whites may still use that racist terminology. Those who are truly committed to liberation, however, will use the advantage of their outside position to begin an understanding of what we mean by certain words and phrases, such as “traditional,” and so work in solidarity with us in the process of coming back into the world. Those whose unconscious racism makes them decide that our specialized language makes us simple-minded or romantic, or Noble Primitives will continue to enhance their own self-image by “helping” us stupid Indians.

It is not an easy situation, nor is it completely one-sided. To add to the confusion there are many young Indians today who have been brought up in cities, sometimes in white foster homes, who have been denied their own culture and the education of their people. Romantic white society gives them their concepts of what “Indianness” is. Because these young people are so alienated, they are in many ways more oppressed than the rest of us, and so their zeal and desperation makes them our “revolutionary vanguard” in many ways. They are the people most articulate and willing to talk to non-Indians. They are also more visible than the “traditionals” on the reservations.

Because they are often in leadership positions and because what they say about our culture and politics fits the romantic stereotype, non-Indians sometimes take everything they say whole-cloth, and then either write off Indians as mystics or embrace Indians as fellow-mystics according to where they, the non-Indians, are politically.

All I have written so far should serve as a backdrop and framework for the main purpose of this paper.

The Founding Fathers of the United States equated capitalism with civilization. They had to, given their mentality; to them civilization meant their society, which was a capitalist society. Therefore, from the earliest times the wars against Indians were not only to take over land but also to squash the threatening example of Indian communism. Jefferson was not the only man of his time to advocate imposing a capitalist and possessive society on Indians as a way to civilize them. The “bad example” was a real threat; the reason the Eastern Indian nations from Florida to New York State and from the Atlantic to Ohio and Louisiana are today so racially mixed is because indentured servants, landless poor whites and escaped black slaves chose our societies over the white societies that oppressed them.

Beginning in the 1890s we have been “red-baited” and branded as “commies” in Congress (see the Congressional record) and in the executive boards of churches. That was a very strong weapon in the 1920s and 1930s, and in the Oklahoma area any Indian “traditional” who was also an organizer was called a communist or even a “Wobbly.”

So we have always defined our struggle not only as a struggle for land but also as a struggle to retain our cultural values. Those values are “communistic” values. Our societies were and are “communistic” societies. The U.S. government has always understood that very well. It has not branded us all these years as communists because we tried to form labor unions or because we hung out with the IWW or the Communist Party but because the U.S. government correctly identified our political system. It did not make that a public issue because that would have been dangerous, and because it has been far more efficient to say that we are savages and primitives.

Marx used our societies as examples of what he meant by communism on two different occasions in his writings. He said that we are “Primitive Communists.” The word “primitive” means “first,” but people who have skimmed through Marx often decide, because of theconnotations of the word “primitive” which come from political manipulation, that Marx meant that we were backward or “childlike” communists. Marx was, nonetheless, very Eurocentric, and he assumed that European history was the main body of humanity’s history.

We do not need Marx’s words to teach us how to live our lives in our own society. We do not need to go through an industrial revolution so that we can come out as communists on the other side.

We do need Marxism-Leninism as a method and system for knowing the human world as it is today and for knowing how most effectively to fight our oppressor. We do need to join forces with world Marxism-Leninism, because that is the liberation movement for the world. But we will not come into that world community as a “primitive” younger brother.

Our struggle has always been not only to maintain our own lands and culture, but to fight the political system of capitalism itself. That is evident in all the speeches and addresses given by our leaders throughout U.S./Indian history. The struggle to maintain culture is in itself a revolutionary struggle. It is a dynamic and positive struggle, not a passive holding action. We speak of our traditions, and because the romanticism of non-Indians always speaks of us in the past tense (What did the Cherokees eat?, instead of What do the Cherokees eat?), it is assumed that we are speaking of things that we used to do, such as “roaming the Plains” or making arrowheads. The traditions that we mean are not the exterior manifestations that are easily identified as “Indian,” not the “artifacts” and objects of our culture, but what we call our “vision”—the value system that makes our culture. In short, we mean our political system (but remember we have been taught a special vocabulary), not our well-made arrowheads. . . .

Taking new ideas that are useful is a very Cherokee activity. It is a very Lakota activity, or Mohawk activity. We took glass beads, horses, wool blankets, wheat flour for fry-bread, etc., very early, and immediately made them identifiably “Indian” things. We are able to do that because of our cultural integrity and because our societies are dynamic and able to take in new ideas. . . .

Another of our valued traditions is to take weapons from the enemy. Thus, in the 1920’s some “benign” branch of the B.I.A. decided that if properly controlled it would be a good thing if Indians sitting on barren reservations in Oklahoma were appeased and distracted by letting them hold a dance or two in the summer months. They reasoned that this would also give white people a chance to see “real Indians” doing “real Indian stuff.” The B.I.A. decided that it would be easier and less dangerous if these affairs were inter-tribal. In those days the different Indian nations which had been forced into Oklahoma did not have much contact with each other, and were relative strangers to each other. Therefore the B.I.A. decided that small groups from each tribe would find it harder to communicate or plan an “uprising” than one nation of people, or two neighboring nations. The B.I.A. named these events “pow wows,” after the word “P’houwah” which means “elder” or “medicine man” (the white trappers a century earlier made the mistaken translation).

To be able to sing together and dance together the Indians invented new dances and songs that did not require words in any one national language. The A.I.M. “song” is a pow wow song, but it should not be thought of as a contrivance because of that. It is a very real, valid and heartening cultural experience for us. The words are the “chant” part—the chorus—common to most Indian singing.

We were not degraded and made to feel like tourist attractions by these pow wows. We used them to create unity among us. We used the English our oppressor taught us as the most available common language. In that language we exchanged information and ideas. Now the pow wows are “our thing.” We hold them all over the country all summer long, and Indians from Maine meet with Indians from New Mexico to hear a political speech from an Indian from South Dakota. This century, pow wows have been our main tool towards forming ourselves into one confederation of people and reorganizing our struggle. What was meant to alienate us we used, in ourtraditional way, to strengthen our will.

Some people get the idea that “traditional” Indians want to go back to the “good old days.” Especially, they imagine that because of our grave concern over the environment we are escapists who want to reject technology and progress. That is another part of the romantic stereotype. We have, and have always had, technology. We accept all technology that contributes to the well-being of our people, whichmust include the well-bring of the Earth itself and all the life upon it; that acceptance is neither a new thing nor an “accommodation”: it is one of our traditions. . . .

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Something that few people realize is that our culture and our vision have not remained static during our five hundred years of oppression. Indian nations which were once large (the pre-Columbian population of what is now the U.S., not counting Alaska, was 20 to 35 million) are now comparatively small and are “inside” the illegal boundaries of a giant European settler regime. These nations have had to come together, and such factors make for important cultural changes. Before Columbus we were not “warring tribes” as the history books have it, but neither did we always have a clear and motivating concept of an international “brotherhood” of humanity. Many of us had a national chauvinism which was sometimes very destructive. Also, given that we are speaking of a large continent with many countries, naturally every one of those countries did not have a good political system. No one, of course, was or is perfect. Some nations in the Southeast had very ugly class systems; in other areas some nations had pretty strange “consumer societies.” However, those aberrations were distortions of real values in a political (cultural) vision (concept) underlying all Indian societies, just as the Aztec sacrifices were horrible distortions of a common Indian concept of “society cannot develop without sacrifice.”

Colonization and our struggle for liberation accelerated a process of unification and clarification that had already begun (witness the Iroquois Confederacy and its vision). That political process of welding together, and refining and improving a unified concept of society on the Earth, is a cultural process. It is a process that is going on right now.

But it is a process, of course, that is going on internally and is seldom seen or understood from the outside. Because it is a process in a struggle for liberation, inside the most oppressive colonization the world has ever seen, it is not a smooth, clear road towards an ideal. Remember that oppression is more than skin deep; it is not exterior to a person’s inner life. It gives us confusion, self-loathing, and a natural urge to escape, which in some people takes the form of a “mental” escape—into mysticism, alcoholism, suicide, reactionism. It does that to each of us to some degree at some time or another. Some of us, in our confusion, try to escape the oppression in ways that do not help our struggle but which are not often seen as escapism either by ourselves or by non-Indians.

Some of us, particularly Indians who have been cut off from their own roots (the “urban” Indians mentioned earlier), use guilt-trip tactics on non-Indian supporters. They can easily find valid reasons for verbally blasting white co-workers because those white people have racist attitudes which make such blasts easy and seemingly excusable. But the people who escape by doing that are taking an easy and “self-satisfying” role instead of really struggling with racism, and they also get locked into attitudes that can serve to maintain our isolation; and non-Indians who simply react to those attitudes, by acceptance or belligerence, hinder our struggle.

It is a universal truth that human beings do not exist outside of their culture, their society. A biologically human animal is not fully human without, for example, language which is a cultural/political phenomenon. To speak of an alienated society is to speak of people robbed of their culture, always so that some political system can exploit them. That is what makes culture so important to liberation, and that is why it can never be considered a separate piece of human activity . . . .

Those white people who would “teach” us Marxism should realize that we have come to understand these things because we struggle to break out of isolation. The fact that white people meet us and are in solidarity with our struggle is not because they came to us, but because our struggle to regain our place in the world is effective and successful. The more we struggle the more we learn of the things in the world that we need to know, because we have broken our isolation.

We have made and will continue to make mistakes, as individuals and as a people. We are using those mistakes to further our struggle and to learn more.

Progressive non-Indians in the United States cannot be either teachers or spectators in that process, but must stand with us in true solidarity, which means a commitment to clarity, Marxist criticism and analysis of actual situations. We are, by every criterion, colonizednations of people, whose culture is not Western. Blacks, Mexicans, Chicanos, and whites all have more in common with each other than any have with us.

Our culture and our political systems have many faults, and had many faults in pre-colonial times. We have never claimed to be perfect or to have the “secret of life”. We demand, though, an end to romanticism, paternalism, and racism. We must include in that a demand for an end to liberalism directed against us. We demand to be taken seriously as the people we are, by the world and especially by other peoples on this continent. We must demand criticism of ourselves.

AMERICAN INDIAN SPIRITUALISM

Our “spiritualism” is a controversial issue right now. Marx said that religion is the opium of the people. We agree that for many, religion is a drug that exploits people for the State. That is why we have fought Christianity so vehemently. But we say that our own “religion” is a force of liberation. . . .

The basis, then, of what is called our “spiritualism” is the concept of Mother Earth. That is no more nor less than a formalized realization that we are human beings, whose sustenance and creation comes from the earth. This is not counter to Marxism. From this basis, built into our culture is a critical consciousness that our methods of production coincide ecologically with what is being produced. For this reason, in our farming methods we developed an agricultural technology which has not yet been approached by Western civilization. (The same holds true of our hunting methods in most cases.) So we maintain a critical consciousness and form our political systems by making sure that that relationship and the critical consciousness of it continue. We do this through our “mythology,” our festivals and celebrations, even by our social family structure. We formalize it and ritualize it in a non-static way. The ramifications of this process are what is translated into English as our “religion” or “spiritualism.” . . .

In the system described above there is an overriding value that is also a main ingredient in our “spiritualism.” We apply the same critical consciousness that I have been speaking about to a concept of what I will call the “quality” of things: the quality of actions, changes, systems, so on. We don’t accept ideas of “development” or “economic growth” unless we can clearly see both the long-range and short-range benefits they will provide to human beings. Benefit to some abstract notion of “society” or even “the masses” is not within our framework of understanding. We might also call this value the “spirit of things.” . . .

In our “spiritual” system we have come to know that human beings, to be fully human, must be integrated into society. We’ve also found out that society is nothing without personalized human beings. Our culture denies the concept of “masses” because it carries a connotation of depersonalization. Our culture also denies the concept of an “individualistic” society. “Individual” carries a connotation of objectification of persons. A person is a person, not an “individual”. One ant in an ant hill is an “individual”. Human beings are persons, and that is not the same as “individuals”.

This is an extremely important point. A person in U.S. society who thinks of himself as, or wishes himself to be, an individual will always be trying to prove/achieve his individualness. He will try desperately to be “different” from others in his society (while making sure that his “difference” is socially acceptable to his peer-group). What he is doing is volunteering to participate in his own alienation, his own victimization. It seems to us that the concept of “masses” is just the other side of that same coin.

It is our “spiritualism” that allows us to know that we exist only as human persons, and that our only way to be human persons is through our society. “Our way of being human is to be Indian, and that is our only way.” But we have no culture, no society, if it is not a society of persons. Our communism depends upon persons and our personhood depends upon our communism. We will not compromise on this concept; and there is no friction between this concept and Marxism.

MAKING THOUGHTS MATCH ACTIONS

Image result for american indian movementThere are about a dozen American Indians in the U.S. today who say they are Marxist-Leninists. There are quite a few more who are in Marxist study groups. But the very large majority are, to differing degrees, verbally, “anti-communist” whilst their actions are communistic. But we need to be able to use the tools of Marxism-Leninism if we are to see effectively and fight our enemy. I do not believe that we have time to “let nature take its course,” or to have that kind of liberal “faith in the people” which means escaping one’s own responsibility for leadership and action.

Disorganization, lack of perspective and clarity, and everyone “doing their own thing” are American phenomena which are destructive to our struggle. Lack of strategic unity plays right into the hands of the enemy. A Marxist-Leninist analysis of the detailed realities of our situation, I believe, is the only way to combat such phenomena. The greatest weakness of the American Indian struggle is our inability to analyze properly the enemy’s make-up, weapons and tactics, and to figure out how to use them against him. That weakness, of course, is a direct result of, and is part of, our oppression, just as alcoholism is part of our oppression. So it cannot be singled out and dealt with through “special programs.”

Progressive people, Indian and non-Indian, who take our struggle as theirs must have a commitment to see the particulars and take responsibility to engage themselves and others in a battle that will further changes. I have spoken repeatedly in this paper about “real situations,” “details,“ and ”particular situations,” because I am addressing what I have perceived as a serious weakness in the white American left.

A real situation: American Indians as a whole are suspicious of the English language, especially when white people speak it. Rightly so, because we have been deceived by that language. We are also suspicious of non-Indians or even Indians educated and articulate in the white society, who come to us with new plans and new answers. All of the new plans and answers over the past 200 years have been disastrous to us. . . .

These suspicions are well-founded, but they are a sizeable object to be overcome. I repeat, it is not for our few Marxists to overcome them; it is for all of us together to join the struggle that is already effecting changes—the struggle of the Indian people as a whole. And yet, neither am I willing to say that we “play it cool” and so let the government continue its indoctrination unchallenged. I am not going to suggest facile “solutions” to this problem because it does not make sense for one person to come up with solutions. We should commit ourselves to work, Indians and other Third World people in the U.S., and everyone whose goal is liberation, not as one nebulous mass nor as divided groups which cannot communicate with each other. Now is the time when we must begin the process of coming together as the peoples we are. No one group of us can be the student or the teacher of revolution, only the struggle—in unity, clarity, and commitment—can teach.”

Jimmie Durham, “American Indian Culture: Traditionalism and Spiritualism in a Revolutionary Struggle,” in A Certain Lack of Coherence: Writings on Art and Cultural Politics, ed. Jean Fisher (London: Kala Press, 1993).

DISCUSSION

With the Indigenous population on the rise in Canada, it becomes ever clearer that a key question for the Canadian “left” as it exists today is how to relate to the indigenous struggle and its associated process of “nativisation” and cultural revival. The pressing question is how does the left decolonize itself and its practice? In some ways, the anarchist left leads the charge here ahead of the Marxists, yet traditional anarchist organization and theory is not sufficient for addressing subjects such as the nation question for native peoples, descending into a kind of liberal performative “privilege” politics without being able to articulate how indigenous people will take ownership over their stolen lands and culture in a material way. Durham here proposes something akin to indigenizing political practice, no doubt a contentious and sensitive process.

A related problem is the question of the non-native, working-class population. How does this large demographic, and traditional base of the left, become indigenized? We know that in spite of genocidal policies, there is a growing status-native population in Canada and an even larger “non-status” population. Is this purely a question of land ownership and statehood? What role does acculturation need to play in working-class organization?