Blurred musical lines in South Asian religions

South Asia has seen more than its share of horrific religious violence, whether it was the mass displacement and mass killings of Partition in 1947, or the genocide during Bangladesh’s 19671 war of liberation, or the pogroms of the 1980s in India, or the communal riots of 2002 in Gujarat or of 2013 in Uttar Pradesh.

But present in this backdrop of religious divisions are cultural and musical traditions that blur the lines that have been imposed between Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, etc.  Take, for example, the musical collective of Riyaaz Qawwali, based in Texas, whose work fuses the musical and philosophical tenets of the various South Asian religions via the medium of Qawwali, a traditional form of Sufi Muslim devotional music.  Here is a video of them singing a Hindu bhajan from 15th-century Gujarat in Qawwali style.

This kind of syncretism isn’t just present in the diaspora — it is present in the homeland too.  Indeed, this style of inter-communal tradition is precisely the target of far-right extremist groups like Islamic State who abhor the notion of religious harmony, diversity, and heterogeneity.  The recent attack in the Sindh province of Pakistan, which killed over 70 people and injured hundreds, was an attack on a shrine whose popularity and meaning transcended religion and culture:

Religious devotees at the shrine of this 12th century saint cannot be compartmentalized into categories through which ISIS sees the world. To his devotees, he is not a Muslim or a Shia saint. He is a peer, who cannot be constrained by confines of religious boundaries. To the Sindhi Hindus, forming the largest religious minority in [Pakistan], he is their peer as much as he peer for Muslims. Some might label him to be a Sindhi saint, but songs of his praises are sung at the Sufi shrines in Punjab as well. In the summers at the time of his urs celebration special trains are booked to bring his Punjabi devotees into the heartland of Sindh.

There is perhaps no other shrine in the country that captures the essence of religious syncretism like the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. In his courtyard, it feels as if the riots of Partition never happened, as if Sindhi Hindus were never forced to abandon their land, as if Christian settlements in Punjab had never been burned after alleged cases of blasphemy. The courtyard of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar represents a different world, a world that once existed but has slowly disappeared outside its confines. That’s why this courtyard represents such a threat. It defies all narratives, of exclusive nationalism and religious identities. It maybe just a few thousand people but a powerful narrative. The attack is not on the shrine but on this worldview which does not divide humanity into simplistic separate categories.

Tech workers are becoming politicized; can they also be radicalized?

The Trump administration is sparking a surprising amount of political and social mobilization among tech workers.  Some are protesting along lines that are concurrent with their bosses, such as the “walk-outs” at Google, which the CEO and other executives also attended; others are protesting companies like Palantir for their complicity in Trump’s ultra-reactionary programs.  Overall, while many tech elites are either ambivalent or even supportive of this new wave of political mobilization, its clear that workers are leading the charge, and not simply tailing the capitalists who pay them.

Right now, much of the unrest (within Silicon Valley or otherwise) seems tailor-made to get appropriated into mainstream liberal-progressive politics and act as an energizer for the Democratic Party, much like how the anti-war movement got co-opted during the Bush administration.  Discourse at protests seems targeted uniquely at Trump, as opposed to the general failures of establishment politicians, let alone capitalism.

But the radical left is in a much better position today than it was in the 2000s — socialist groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are seeing a big spike in new members, as are radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  And the election season saw tech workers breaking toward the left during the Democratic Party’s primary season, supporting Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, and even engaging in protests against Silicon Valley venture capitalists and their participation in Clinton’s elite fundraisers, during which their own class grievances got brought up:

Much of the protesters’ language centered on white-collar work frustrations, as the man with the bullhorn asked: “How many people here have weekends off – hands up? They have us working around the clock so they can get richer. How many of you are expected to be online over the weekend? Or get a call from your boss at 9pm?”

Thus, there seems to be great potential for the radical left to carve out a revolutionary pole among the general mish-mash of anti-Trump unrest among tech workers.  Part of this strategy ought to be double-down on ongoing efforts to connect with radical and revolutionary tech workers, and put a spotlight on radical left perspectives on techno-scientific labor and the nature of technological development in capitalism.

In particular, the radical left and those of us who are tech workers ought to put an emphasis on rank-and-file workplace organizing, and help tech workers fight against both their immediate problems (i.e. long working hours) as well as the lack of control they have over their companies’ politics.  This will be key in getting people to think beyond liberal politics (electoral campaigns and protest theater) and view their workplace (and the means of production in general) as a key site of political engagement, build class consciousness, and bring tech workers into political compositions with other segments of the working class.

The gang-fight in Yemen: enter player seven!

There has been a lot of controversy over Trump’s recent special operations raid in Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  Predictably, the liberal reaction is one soaked in moralism and superficial analysis, more rooted in anti-Trump partisanship than any serious interest in Yemen.  Not that the killing of dozens of civilians and an eight-year old girl (whose older brother and father were killed by Obama) isn’t horrifying — just that the reaction doesn’t do a good job of conveying just how complex and weird (and fascinating) the situation on the ground in Yemen is.

The US has been conducting military operations in Yemen against AQAP for quite a while now, mostly via drone strikes, but has also been playing a very important role in the civil war by providing logistical and intelligence support to the military forces of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are backing up the regime of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi against Houthi rebels and loyalists of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the old dictator.  The Hadi regime and the Saudi-lead coalition also maintains an opportunistic relationship with AQAP; sometimes it fights them, sometimes it fights alongside them.  And then there is the Southern Movement, a secessionist movement in the south-west of the country with roots in the old revolutionary leftism of the region, which has its own militias and is currently in a tense alliance with the Hadi regime.

What’s truly hilarious in all this is that Saleh is now fighting against the very people that supported him in his 33-year reign.  But this is expected; as Andrew Cockburn put it in a Radio War Nerd interview on Yemen, Saleh is “a man of no fixed principles whatsoever”, a true gangster.

The Hadi regime’s opportunistic stance toward AQAP is merely a reflection of Saleh’s own masterful double-game, during which he raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from the US to fight AQAP even as he kept militants on the payroll and used them against political opponents.  And Saleh’s current alliance with the Houthis belies the fact that he killed the movement’s founder and fought a brutal and ineffectual counter-insurgency campaign against them between 2004 and 2010.  But after the Arab Spring, Saleh was forced to step down in favor of his old defense minister and vice-president, and he and his many loyalists (or rather, clients and employees) found their power threatened — so why not ring up the Houthis, who had also been sidelined by the GCC-brokered transition deal, and shoot your way back in together?

It is into this utter mess of shifting alliances and power-politics that The Donald is now looking to wade in to.  Trump is looking to escalate the war against the Houthi-Saleh alliance as a way to push against Iran, but how might this sit with a simultaneous anti-AQAP strategy?  Swinging matters back to the violent melee between AQAP and US Navy Seals on the night of January 29th, as discussed toward the end of the Reuters article:

Though al Qaeda claimed one of the dead, Abdulraoof al-Dhahab, as one of their “martyrs”, some officials on the government side denied that and said he was an important partner with local tribes in battles against the Houthis. “Trump must have launched the raid without enough information – Abdulraoof was a good, honest man, not with al Qaeda. He fought the Houthis,” a local tribal leader and security official told Reuters.

Now, Mr. al-Dhahab could very well have been both an AQAP leader and a respected ally of the Hadi regime — which is an excellent illustration at how the new administration is likely to inflame tensions across the board with its flailing and incoherent strategy, supporting and angering every faction at the same time.  Sit back and much on the popcorn — unless you’re in Yemen, in which case good luck with dealing with a horrific humanitarian crisis which is likely to get much worse.

Bill Burr on dual power

Yes, that’s right, Bill Burr just came out as a Leninist — a real Leninist, not whatever twisted reactionary kind Bannon thinks he is.  Check out his interview on Monday with Conan O’Brien, specifically the part starting at 21:00, where he talks about what he didn’t like about the Women’s March.

But at the end of the day, they were still going to men!  That’s what I didn’t like about it.  You still had to go down to [Trump’s] house, and be like “hey knock it off”.  They should’ve been like, networking, handing out business cards, “you build websites, I wanna do this”.  I think the way to get people in power to pay attention is, you don’t go to them, you kinda have a meeting over here; then that freaks ’em out, like “oohh uh, what’s going on over there??!” and then they come over to ya.  You don’t walk up to their house!  That’s a weak move!

Okay, so he’s not really talking about dual power or Marxist political theory, but still, not bad for a blurb on a late-night show, eh?  It gets at why I personally don’t really have much of an appetite for going to protests and rallies, and prefer doing the quieter work of trying to develop institutions and networks that can slowly replace those of state and capital.  It’s probably because I’m a hardcore cynic — I just don’t believe that politicians and capitalists care all that much about protests, and don’t think it will change their behavior, and ultimately serves to legitimize their authority and power.  And also, the act of protesting — even when carried out by radical leftists — seems to rely on the idealist notion that power is won through the spread of ideas, rather than the more materialist/Marxist notion that power must be rooted in control over tangible, concrete resources (and the democratic and working-class governance of these resources).

Of course, the new proto-fascist era of Trump isn’t quite like the old, stagnant neoliberal era, and I buy the argument that fascists and their like ought to be met in the streets, and their organizing disrupted by direct action.  And more importantly, direct action (i.e. mobbing the airport and harassing/accosting DHS and ICE agents) intervenes immediately at the source of grievances, rather than pleading for politicians to do something.  More of that, please!

A critique of socialist “intervention” by a comrade in Texas

I always thoroughly enjoy reading in-depth reflections and critiques of radical left-wing strategy rooted in practical experience, and this critical essay on Socialist Alternative by a comrade in Austin, Texas is no different.  I’m not sure about the general context of the essay — seems mainly about some issue about how the core organizers in Seattle weren’t taking into account the local conditions of members in the South — but there were some notes on issues that I think are relevant to radical leftists in general.  In particular, a section about the idea of “intervening” against liberal politics in spaces of labor organizing was interesting:

When I talk to people in our Party around the country about their relationship to the Fight for 15, they invariably say they have an awful experience with organizers, or, as they are sometimes referred, bureaucrats. When I investigate the manner of the intervention, it is always at a single, discrete point in time. They attempt to talk to workers at a meeting or at a strike, but when I ask if anyone has gone to try to speak to fast food workers before these events ever happen, I get blank responses. The very idea of speaking to workers outside those single moments has never occurred to them.

But let’s consider it, no? Let’s look through the eyes of the organizer. This person has spent likely somewhere around 60 or more hours a week grinding through the field, talking to workers, driving them to their shifts, helping them get their groceries home, breaking bread with workers’ family members. They have suffered emotional disappointment when workers seem fired up and then vanished, when worker leaders suffer family hardships or when those worker leaders find better jobs and leave a vacuum in the local movement and on the shop floor.

The workers that go out on these strikes have seen these organizers many, many times. They have learned to trust these organizers and have faith that they have their best interests at heart. That relationship has been built over time.

What reaction would you expect when, at the moment of spectacle, some stranger comes up, having made no attempt to get to know the worker ahead of time, and says, “Hey, that organizer is actually just using to you to get Hillary elected and they don’t really care about you. Come join us because we actually know the way forward. We have the Winning Ideas. Just look at our newspaper.”

The organizer is going to treat you like an asshole and the worker is going to think you’re a weirdo. Period. Interventions are not moments. They take place over time and respect has to be earned by using building as intervention itself. The “intervention” must be spread over time, building the base necessary to launch a successful intervention. The War of Position and War of Maneuver must interrelate organically and develop dialectically. Going to a meeting and forcefully arguing a good point alone will not succeed in and of itself.

These arguments make a lot of sense to me.  Too many of us radicals are impatient about social change (not surprising, we’re radicals after all), and let our frustrations get in the way of doing the gritty work of long-term organizing, base-building, and network development.  And oddly enough, it often seems like too many of us also take a fundamentally idealistic approach to social change (emphasizing the role of spreading ideas through discussion and speeches and so on) instead of a more materialist approach (recognizing the way radicalization proceeds from personal experience and concrete engagement with struggle, like the sort described above in Fight For Fifteen).  All of this touches on what I observed in the International Socialist Organization (as a fellow traveler, not a member); specifically, the dynamic of socialists popping in and out of various local social movements, but not sticking around long enough to be a serious part of the movement and taken seriously as a committed militant.

Debates among French Marxists in the 1970s on the class position of engineers

The 1970s saw a lot of debate among French leftists of various organizations and schools of thought on the issue of how to interpret and deal with the restructuring of capitalism and the new classes that were being created.  These debates are summarized quite nicely in “Marxism and the New Middle Class: French Critiques” by George Ross, published in 1978 in Theory and Society, Vol. 5, No. 2.  The debates were about the character of the middle class as a whole (generally understood as those performing mental labor and getting a relatively higher salary), and much of this concerned techno-scientific workers.  The debates happened in the context of the post-1968 era, when people were trying to understand what to make of the student protests and the participation of skilled technical workers in the mass strikes.  Here is a list of each “faction” in the debate, as I understood Ross’ paper, and the main points of their class analysis.

French Communist Party (PCF):  The PCF saw a strict division between the working class and the capitalist class, and lumped any “sub-classes” (i.e. peasants, administrators, shopkeepers) into one or the other main class.  They argued that the new middle classes were part of the working class, and for the need to reach out to them.  But unlike their traditional working class base, they saw the new middle classes as not inherently revolutionary, and so argued for the need to tone down their militancy and put off revolutionary organizing.  This was roundly criticized by other sections of the French left for being reformist and evidence of the party’s decline.  (p. 165-70)

Nico Poulantzas:  This influential Greek-French Marxist-Leninist and comrade of Louis Althusser saw the new middle classes as being petite-bourgeoisie, because they neither owned the means of production, nor directly produced surplus value.  He also saw them as being a primary enforcer of capitalist social relations in the workplace, through their monopolization of knowledge, and tending away from class consciousness due to the way the education system conditions them to be “professional” and career-oriented.  However, Poulantzas also pointed out the divisions within this new middle class: he saw engineers and technicians as being relatively closer to workers, and administrators and accountants and the like being closer to the capitalists.  And despite the role of the education system, the petite-bourgeoisie are still heavily influenced by the level of class struggle in society, and can be brought into a coalition with workers if efforts are made to intervene against pro-capitalist and careerist ideology.  Poulantzas argued that when the petite-bourgeoisie become discontent, their politics tend to range from social-democratic reformism to anarcho-syndicalism.  (p. 171-5)

Baudelot et. al.:  A paper written by Christian Baudelot, Roger Establet, and Jacques Malemort (it was unclear who they’re associated with) argued that capitalist restructuring created both new groups of workers and new groups of petite-bourgeoisie.  They analyzed the wages of various salaried sectors and compared this to the estimated cost of “reproduction” (i.e. the costs of education), and found that some sectors were just barely compensated (accountants, administrative assistants, clerical workers) while others were compensated far beyond the cost of education (engineers and managers).  They also divided the petite-bourgeoisie into three analytical fractions: Fraction I was the old petite-bourgeoisie, the shopkeepers and business-people who were losing from capitalist restructuring and were lurching toward far-right politics; Fraction II was private-sector professionals who identified heavily with their firm’s success, and thus were distant from leftist politics; Fraction III was public-sector professionals who tended to have social-democratic and reformist politics.  Unlike Poulantzas, Baudelot et. al. argued that the politics of the petite-bourgeoisie were generally predictable, instead of being subordinate to the level of class struggle.  (p. 176-80)

Serge Mallet: This dissident militant from the PCF broke somewhat significantly from the dominant Marxist-Leninist currents to argue that the contemporary mode of capitalism was distinct from previous modes.  Mallet periodized capitalism into three phases: first was the mercantilist phase where the vanguard class was skilled craftsmen who were being exploited and displaced, second was the industrial age of mechanized production where the vanguard class was unskilled assembly workers, and the third and newest was the contemporary age of automated mass production where the vanguard class was skilled intellectual workers — engineers, technicians, etc.  Mallet argued that the technical knowledge of the new classes created a contradiction where these workers were fully aware of how to run and control the means of production, but still lacked political and workplace power, and thus would resist and fight capitalist control, and veer toward anarcho-syndicalism and the politics of worker self-management.  (p. 181-3)

Alain Touraine: This apparently famous sociology seems to have broken the most with Marxism, in that he argued that the accumulation and use of knowledge (rather than the accumulation of capital) was the driving force of a new post-industrial political economy.  Like Mallet, he saw the new intellectual workers as being the key force for socio-political change in this new era, as they demand more real power and resist the capitalist drive for profits and push for self-management; but unlike Mallet, he sees them as a class that can effect change by themselves, rather than being necessarily tied with the old working class.  (p. 183-6)

Of these, the most relevant and interesting arguments to me are those of Poulantzas and Mallet.  Both see techno-scientific workers as being potentially radical forces and allies of the working class in general.  Mallet, in particular, is interesting because unlike many of the other theorists, he was an active militant organizer and seems to have developed his views from real praxis (as opposed to reading things via academia).

Potential imperial co-option of the radical left in Syria

This interview with Josha Landis, an academic studying the Middle East and an expert on Syria, is quite a good dissection of the contradictory and incoherent nature of US foreign policy in the region.  I disagree with some of his points — particularly when he downplays the radical and democratic dimensions of the initial uprising by sidelining the importance of unarmed factions — but his analysis of the tensions in the US foreign policy and military establishments are spot-on.  There are strong desires to both 1) contain and roll back Iranian regional hegemony, and 2) contain and roll-back Salafi-jihadist organizations, but the kicker is that these goals can’t be accomplished at the same time since these two forces are primarily fighting one another.

These aren’t the only forces at play, however, and this passage from the interview raises the question of how the US relationship with the radical leftists of the Syrian Kurds and their allies will evolve.

The present critique among some think tankers in Washington is that Assad is too weak to reconquer Syria, so the United States will have to step in, particularly if it wants to defeat ISIS quickly. They argue that Syria is a land of many different social and cultural environments. The Century Foundation, the New America Foundation, and the Center for a New American Security have published policy papers advocating in one way or the other that the United States keep special forces on the ground and reinforce regional rebel groupings. They envision carving out autonomous areas that would give the U.S. leverage and presumably force both the Russia and Assad to the negotiating table. They refuse to say that they are for partitioning Syria. Instead, they talk about a framework of autonomous regions. But in the end, it is all pretty much the same thing. It’s about retaining control over areas of Syria to give the US leverage.

This rhetoric of Syria’s diversity of “social and cultural environments” and “a framework of autonomous regions” sounds a whole lot like the ideology of the Syrian Kurds and their allies, derived from Marxist and anarchist thought, which emphasizes a decentralized political system, local governance, and respect for religious and linguistic and ethnic diversity.  How much the US would actually be willing to support such a system is deeply questionable, of course, especially considering that there have been plenty of cool rhetoric from both rank-and-file members and officers in Syria about abstaining from any long term alliance with US imperialism.  But it is still very likely that the political vision of the Syrian Kurds and their allies will get rolled up into the US plan for the region, at least to the extent that it hampers the ability of the Assad-Iran-Russia alliance from pushing the US and the Gulf monarchies back out of Syria.

Opportunistic support is hardly a new thing for DC foreign policy and military elites.  Consider the fact that many of the ghouls and goblins in the incoming Trump administration have deep ties with a self-styled “Marxist Islamist” Iranian rebel group, which sounds like a caricature of what American right-wingers are supposed to have nightmares about.  One wouldn’t think that US elites would have any interest in such a group ideologically — but in geopolitics, ideology is easily trumped by whether one can poke at an enemy.