Second-order imperialisms in South-East Asia and the Middle East

Viewpoint Magazine just released their latest issue, on imperialism.  One essay, “The Specificity of Imperialism” by Salar Mohandesi, critically examines Marxist definitions and analysis of imperialism. The main points revolve around moving away from the classical Marxist conception of imperialism as purely an extension of capitalism and economic dynamics, and toward viewing imperialism as an inherent quality of most nation-state formations, independent of whether they are capitalist or not.  Socialist nations have been imperialist (i.e. the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and of Afghanistan in 1979), as have Third World nations who themselves supposedly upheld anti-imperialist politics (i.e. Egyptian meddling in Syria and North Yemen in the 1950s, Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980).

To elaborate on the idea that imperialism is a product of modern states rather than of capital, the essay looks at the Third Indochina War, fought in the late 1970s mainly between three supposedly socialist states: Vietnam, Cambodia, and China.  The commentary draws mostly from the book Red Brotherhood At War: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos Since 1975 (1990).  Despite the fact that socialist politics is supposed to be transnational/internationalist, the socialist states of the time were cheerfully engaging in cynical geopolitical maneuvering on the basis of their own nation-state’s territorial integrity and security, even at the expense of other socialist states and movements.  The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia was more interested in pursuing ethnic grievances against the Vietnamese and the restoration of the old imperial glory of the Khmer Empire, and China — extremely hostile to the USSR after the Sino-Soviet split — was allied with them as a counterweight to Soviet-backed Vietnam.  And so border conflicts between Vietnam and Cambodia escalated, as did genocidal policies within Cambodia against Vietnamese people and other minorities, and eventually Vietnam invaded Cambodia, provoking a brief Chinese invasion of Vietnam, and then many years of occupation and guerrilla warfare and sabotage.  Not a great look for states supposedly upholding the legacy of a global working class undivided by borders and nationalism.

Aside from the fact that socialist and/or anti-imperialist revolutions don’t overthrow the potential for such states to engage in imperial behaviors themselves, it is also worth expanding on the essay’s comments about the way smaller states replicate or fit into larger imperial systems.  The Middle East is a fine region to use to unpack this.  A certain kind of reductive anti-imperialist perspective will try to pin every single thing that happens in the Middle East as a consequence of US/Western imperialism, but the reality is much more complicated and interesting, and requires looking at the roles played by the regional bourgeoisie classes and their relative autonomy from the US.

The UAE, for example, is firmly meshed with US imperialism, whether you look at its banking system or its contracting with various American defense companies.  But at the same time, the UAE demonstrates an ambitious will toward a level of autonomy, with its military taking a lead on interventions in Libya and Yemen.  Indeed, the latter case demonstrates the most independence that the UAE has shown yet, with its recent actions in backing southern separatists against the Hadi regime, which is backed by the UAE’s close ally Saudi Arabia.  The separatist insurrection could very well threaten the entire Saudi project of crushing the Houthis, and so it remains to be seen how this will affect Saudi-Emirati relations.  And of course it doesn’t seem like the US is playing much of a role in this at all despite its ongoing support for the anti-Houthi coalition, similar to its lack of interest in post-Gaddafi Libya, where it also accepted a situation where regional allies fought a proxy war against one another (Egypt/UAE vs. Qatar).  The UAE has also carved out some relative autonomy in Afghanistan, which while still dependent on US military presence, is its own significant player when it comes to finance and banking.

Turkey is another example of an imperialist power that is on a lower order than that of the US.  Turkey has of course long been a junior partner to US imperialism as a key member of NATO.  But while recent policies such as the funding of various Sunni militias in Syria continued this tradition, Turkey has also clearly gone increasingly further from the US imperial orbit as it seeks to prioritize its own imperial interests, namely against Kurdish nationalism and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).  Today this pits it directly against US imperial strategy in Syria, which is to continue to oppose the Assad regime and Iran by arming the Syrian Kurds, who are largely affiliates of the PKK, and ensuring their control over northern and eastern Syria and much of the country’s agricultural and oil resources (not unlike pre-2003 US policy around Iraqi Kurdistan).

All of which is to say: don’t reduce modern geopolitics and global capitalism to be solely the product of US imperial planners!  Such a narrow view covers up the complicated reality of a terrain of many actors of varying autonomy, and more importantly, fools us into believing that all it takes to defeat imperialism (as a tendency of nations or capital) is for there to be successful national liberation or socialist revolutions.  In reality, as Mohandesi points out, what is needed is whole-scale restructuring of the nation-state form itself, in conjunction with international revolutionary socialist struggle.


Amazon, the decimation of warehouse worker wages, and a warehouse inquiry

In the latest issue of Economist, there is an article with some pretty stunning analysis about the wages of warehouse workers in US counties where Amazon sets up shop — specifically on how they collapse.  The following two graphs speak for themselves.

What’s behind this?  According to the analysis cited by Economist, it appears to be a combination of Amazon workers being younger, more inexperienced, and more unskilled than in other warehouses, and generally not able to find alternative jobs due to there only being a few employers in the area.  Technology also plays a role here, with cutting-edge automation allowing the company to hire younger and less skilled workers in the first place, which is deeply related to the argument that automation doesn’t eliminate the need for work, but rather helps generate the need for less skilled work.

Amazon is growing fast, already worth more than all the major brick-and-mortar retail companies put together.  Its combination of retail, logistics, and tech is allowing it to devour large swathes of the US economy into itself.  Amazon and its low-wage, cyborg workforce is the future — and the present, for that matter.  Engaging in militant labor struggles in Amazon warehouses will only become more and more critical for all those interested in rebelling against the rule of capital.  Thus inquiries and workplace reports, like this one just released by Angry Workers of the World, are a valuable resource that worker militants should use and produce themselves, in order to pick apart the nature of the workplace and reveal the ambient level of worker unrest and struggle.  To quote from the conclusion of the first report:

This all sounds bad, but don’t believe that the workers just sat and took it like the good victims the newspapers like to write about every now and again. In the beginning a lot of people had high expectations of working with Amazon, but after a few weeks they started to realise what working for Amazon really meant. So after a few weeks you started to hear more and more angry and incensed discussions amongst workers around the aisles of the pick tower. Workers who in the beginning tried to run themselves into the ground trying to reach their targets, now having realised it didn’t make a difference in terms of getting a long term contract, stopped stressing about targets and deliberately worked slower than they could. In the beginning we were all worried about even going to the toilet because we might get a warning for “time off task” but after a few weeks when we started to realise we would all be fired soon anyway more and more people started to take “extra” breaks, spending time talking with colleagues, wandering around the warehouse, going to the canteen to grab a cup of coffee, playing a game of ping pong, and of course not giving a toss about ‘power hour’. The permanent staff already know that Amazon don’t care about the workers and the temps quickly learn it, and a lot of us start to do minor individual acts of resistance. That is all a good start, but if we want to change the way Amazon treats us we have to work and resist together!

Moving beyond Marx’s fetishization of science and technology

One of the starting points of my attempts at arguing the importance of analyzing and organizing techno-scientific workers has been a perceived shortcoming in existing Marxist theory on the matter.  McKenzie Wark, in the in introduction to General Intellects: Twenty-One Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century (2017) has some excellent comments on this shortcoming, starting from the arguments of Karl Marx himself.

Wark focuses on Marx’s Fragment on Machines, a set of notes that speculate that technological development is the transferring of skills and knowledge of workers into machines in a process mediated by and for the interests of capital.  However, there is a gap here in terms of the actual process of how this information is turned into machines in the first place.

For Marx, science will appear to the laborer as something alien to him.  Science appears in the form capital dictates.  Science is a productive force: “all the sciences have been pressed into the service of capital”.  But who makes science?  “Invention has become a business,” says Marx, but who does the inventing?…

…The problem is that as actual organized social activities, science and technology do not fit so neatly into the schema of labor and capital.  Hence in Marx they simply come from without as a reified thing called “science” which then becomes part of the machine system as fixed capital. (8-9)

In order to move past this fetishized understanding of science and technology, Wark offers analysis by both J.D. Bernal and himself.  In Bernal’s Science in History series, he argues that contemporary techno-scientific labor (as of the 1950s) was a fusion of high-skill technical labor and the bourgeoisie “gentlemanly culture” of leisurely philosophical-scientific inquiry.  Thus, the new scientific workers who make the science and do the inventing constitute a new class with hybrid origins.  Wark, in A Hacker Manifesto (2004), similarly argues that there is a new techno-scientific class of workers that he dubs “the hacker class”, who today mainly labor with information and are dealing directly with capital’s commodification and enclosing of information and knowledge.  (It would be interesting to compare the arguments of Bernal and Wark with those in “The Californian Ideology”, which seems to take a much more pessimistic view of the new techno-scientific classes).  All of this echoes other efforts at a class analysis of techno-scientific workers, such as analysis by student leftists in the US in the 1960s, debates among French Marxists in the 1970s, and of course recent writings on the new “Tech Left”.

Wark’s comments on this can be summed up in this paragraph that ties the above comments to the project of the book overall:

One task for general intellects might be to imagine a kind of common hacker class interest among those whose efforts end up being commodified as some sort of intellectual property: artists, scientists, engineers, even humanist and social science academics.  We could imagine all of them as belonging to the same class from the point of view of the commodification of information.  We all process information that is part of a complex natural-technical-social-cultural metabolism.  But nearly all of us get to see a ruling class of a rather unprecedented kind extract most of the value from the combined efforts of hackers and workers worldwide.  As general intellects, maybe we should stick our heads above our little cubicles, look around, and figure out how to cooperate with others who understand different parts of the labor process. (11)

Techno-pessimism in the early 1990s

There seems to have been something about the early 1990s that lent itself to intensely pessimistic ideas about the direction of an increasingly technological society.  At least that’s the impression I’m getting from reading two different and highly influential pieces of literature: a 1995 leftist polemic against Silicon Valley, “The Californian Ideology”, and a 1992 cyberpunk sci-fi novel, Snow Crash.

“The Californian Ideology” had a huge impact on discourse about Silicon Valley and its politics, enough to make the editor of Wired issue a very angry and snarky rebuttal.  It analyzed the way the ideology of Silicon Valley — a combination of techno-utopianism with a hostility to any kind of government regulation — is historically rooted in the merging of two previously antagonistic classes in the San Francisco Bay Area, counter-culture hippies and money-grubbing yuppies.  When the various social movements of the ’60s were defeated, a significant faction broke off to try to continue their project in developing new technologies and new ways to mediate social life free of states and corporations, but in the process accepted the boundaries of the free market and slowly mutated into the anti-regulation libertarians that define the stereotypical Silicon Valley techie.  The essay predicts a future of intense economic inequality, environmental collapse, and renewed forms of apartheid in the US.

Snow Crash seemingly builds its dystopian cyberpunk vision directly from the arguments of “The Californian Ideology”, despite being written three years earlier.  Its world is one where techno-libertarianism has been taken to absurd lengths: the government has completely collapsed and private corporations run the entirety of society while also competing with each other, the military has fragmented into rival security firms, the Central Intelligence Agency is now the Central Intelligence Corporation, the mafia has risen to the heights of political economy via innovations in the pizza business, some nations-turned-corporations use fully automated robotic security systems, the global biosphere has totally degraded, tends of millions of refugees from the Third World are fleeing to the First, while California suburbanites construct explicitly white supremacist and segregationist suburbs.  But perhaps the most stunning aspect of the world of Snow Crash is the vision of a labor market that has been fully fragmented via digital platforms, where each worker is a pure individual who must compete with other works to fulfill discrete tasks — indeed, the main characters are a freelance hacker (and ex-pizza delivery guy) and a delivery girl, both of whom work through automated digital platforms.  Somehow, despite being written in 1992, Stephenson predicted the rise of the gig economy and platform companies like Uber, Deliveroo, and Task Rabbit.

Off the top of my head, I’m not sure what about this time period would have produced this kind of techno-pessimism.  After all, the Soviet Union had just collapsed, all the “end of history” chumps were cheering loudly, and US politics was turning sharply toward the right with the Democratic Party going all-in with “Third Way” neoliberalism.  I guess you can chalk one up for left-wing media studies scholars and cyberpunk novelists.

Rise of the “Tech Left”

There was a pretty good piece recently published about a month ago in The Guardian about left-wing organizing and activism in the tech industry, titled “Coders of the world, unite: can Silicon Valley workers curb the power of Big Tech?”  The article touches on much of what I talked about here, and extends it to look at what is called the “Tech Left”, a movement within the tech industry that focuses on tech workers as a potentially radical agent of change:

Their insight is as compelling as it is counterintuitive: the best people to confront the power of the tech giants may be their own employees. First, they want to teach their colleagues to see that tech work is work, even though it doesn’t take place in a factory. Then, they want to organise them, so that rank-and-file workers can begin to bring political transparency and democratic accountability to the platforms they have worked to build. Call them the Tech Left…

…The Tech Left believes it must urgently transform the industry in order to stop it from serving nefarious ends. It is not focused on getting Democratic politicians elected. On the contrary, much of the Tech Left distrusts mainstream Democrats. It does not believe that more engagement with digital tools necessarily means more democracy, or that the tech industry will necessarily lead the way to social progress. It is sceptical that people who became billionaires under the current system will transform that system. Instead of venture capital, the Tech Left talks about worker power, believing that the best chance to reform these companies will come from people who work there.

The article looks at two organizations, the Tech Workers Coalition (TWC) and Tech Solidarity, both of which are organizing tech workers for left-wing and progressive ends.  The TWC is organizing to both raise class consciousness among engineers and programmers and other techies, and to unite these white-collar workers with their blue-collar counterparts who work in food and janitorial services in the same buildings and campuses.  Tech Solidarity is working along similar lines, to build labor-oriented networks among tech workers and empower them to resist a reactionary Trump administration.  Other organizations and networks are observed as well, such as the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and their Tech Action committee, and the Never Again pledge that was passed around among thousands of techies.

The article is long, and good.  Check it out.  Also related is a more recent op-ed, published last week, on basically the same topic, titled “Tech capitalists won’t fix the world’s problems – their unionized workforce might”.  The op-ed notes the TWC’s activities in the US, as well as parallel activities in India and Brazil among radicalizing tech workers.

Hopefully, this is all just the beginning of a wave of organizing and mobilizing in an industry that is the engine of contemporary capitalism.

The “triple selection” of Indian America

Caravan Magazine recently published an excellent review/essay of two books on the history of South Asian immigration to the United States: The Other One Percent: Indians in America (2016), and Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans (2016).  It seems that a key theme of both books is to examine and unpack differences with respect to the South Asian diaspora in the US, specifically around the issue of the “model minority” stereotype.  Indian Americans today appear to be the single most socio-economically successful ethnic group in the country.  Why?

The authors of The Other One Percent argue that Indian America is largely shaped by processes of a “triple selection”, that has created a population that “does not resemble any other population anywhere: not the Indian population in India, nor the native population in the United States, nor any other immigrant group from any other nation.”  This “triple selection” consists of 1) the caste system selecting upper-caste men for education, 2) limited access to higher education selecting for an elite strata within the first group, and 3) the post-1965 US immigration system, designed around importing skilled techno-scientific workers, selecting the cream of the second group.

What really caught my eye, however, was the commentary around the nature of education systems in post-Independence India, which echoes what I’ve been attempting to study and write about, about the relationship between Asian America, mid-century anti-imperialist politics, and the production of skilled technical workers:

The Indian government had invested heavily in English-medium public higher education in science and technology—in places such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, which were mostly fed by urban English-medium private schools—even while grossly neglecting public primary education. This system soon produced tens and later hundreds of thousands of engineers amid a sea of functionally illiterate people. This talent pool was composed almost wholly of men from elite castes and classes, who were only too eager to escape from a country that could not offer them enough opportunity to apply their skills. And so the demands of the US labour market were met with a ready supply.

This gets at the central irony of the efforts of postcolonial nation-states, that they attempted to modernize a supposedly free and independent country, but did so in a manner that was easily and rapidly recuperated by global capitalism.

So what then are today’s organizing opportunities in Indian America?  I still think there is a lot of potential in merging efforts around radical tech worker organizing with parallel efforts in India America, given the disproportionate number of Indian techno-scientific workers.  Between upholding and spreading radical philosophies and histories around science and technology, organizing against contemporary racial oppression, and merging these efforts into class struggles, there are good avenues to stoke rebelliousness among workers who may otherwise happily continue petite-bourgeoisie and yuppie lifestyles.

Notes on the revolutionary potential in housing campaigns

There are some real swell comrades in the area who are kicking off some serious work around housing, so its a good time for me to dive back into some of my earlier musings on revolutionary communism and housing struggles.  The following is a summary of the argument I was trying to make across three essays I wrote several years ago: Biopolitics, Dual Power, and the Revolutionary Characteristics of “Serve the People” ProgramsThe Political Economy of Revolutionary Struggle: Lessons From the Black Panthers, and Serve the People, Seize the Land: Prospects for Revolutionary Struggle Around Affordable Housing.

Revolutionary movements are all based on particular local conditions and histories, but they do have important similarities that can be universalized and applied generally.

  • Revolutionary movements deliver immediate and concrete benefits to people.  They are not based in abstract demands for a better world, or promises of societal improvements at some point in the future—they improve things now.  Hence why workplace action has often been at the center of Marxist praxis—it is an area where people can force immediate changes, and in the process, develop into revolutionary subjects.  The creation of concrete benefits makes it clear to people that participating in the revolutionary struggle will improve their lives, even if they may disagree ideologically, or don’t understand the more complex theoretical underpinnings of communism.  The Black Panther Party applied this practice in the US outside the traditional site of class struggle (the workplace), in the neighborhoods, with their service and protection programs.
  • Revolutionary movements develop autonomous institutions of the working class, outside of state and capital. This is a requirement for the revolutionary creation of material benefits to the masses; what makes these benefits revolutionary is that they are created and distributed by and for the masses.  This requires proper coordination, planning, and discipline, as well as the ability to scale up and out, and to continually reproduce itself—hence the term “institutions”.  They are also independent from capital and its fetters, outside the control of the state, wealthy donors, non-profit foundations, and so on.  Thus the establishment of popular institutions of the class, which govern and coordinate the creation and distribution of tangible goods and services, develops proletarian “dual power”.  The Black Panther Party developed such institutions to organize their diverse spectrum of survival programs such as breakfasts, clothing drives, etc., although they failed to ensure that these efforts were properly independent from state and capital.
  • The economic foundations of the revolutionary movement are key to its survival, and is heavily related to the way dual power institutions are structured. The Black Panther Party, while at its core was made up of dedicated volunteer cadres, also became dependent on donations from petite-bourgeoisie classes like local business owners and white professionals.  This worked while there was a material basis for an alliance (local business owners were locked in the ghetto due to segregation and thus subject to Panther governance; the children of white professionals faced the draft), but once the foundation of this alliance crumbled (desegregation, end of the war), the Panthers were split between a social-democratic tendency that chased after donations from an increasingly conservative base (thus steadily absorbed by liberal institutions) and an insurrectionary tendency attempting to be true to its revolutionary principles without any material base at all (thus easily crushed militarily).  For modern revolutionaries it is clear that we must take seriously the question of how we sustain and reproduce ourselves and our organizations financially.
  • Revolutionary movements tap into feedback loops. The creation of immediate concrete benefits isn’t just a way to attract new recruits and impress observers, it is to help break the biopolitical control of capital over our lives and free up time and energy to further engage in revolutionary organizing — thus allowing for even more benefits to be created, and so on, in a positive feedback loop.  Militant unionism increases wages and decreases workplace stress and working hours, thus increasing the amount of money, time, and energy available to organize, which should lead to even more wage increases and stress/workday reductions.  The Black Panther Party’s armed interventions against police brutality made the streets safer for people to walk around and organize, and also kept money in people’s pockets, making more available to help fund more survival programs.
  • Land struggles in particular have a lot of potential to generate revolutionary feedback loops. It is precisely for this reason why pretty much all modern revolutions have had at least some basis in land struggles, and why some of the most interesting movements today are based in land struggles (EZLN in Mexico, MST in Brazil, Maoist guerrillas in Asia).  The monopolization of land in agricultural societies presents a very obviously zero-sum game for the masses of landless peasants.  When even a small group of revolutionaries begin to upend this monopolization and start to seize control of and distribute land, it is obvious to all landless people that it would be most excellent if this revolutionary movement was to expand.  The more land gets expropriated and redistributed, the more stable and prosperous and popular the revolutionaries are, and the weaker the old landed class is, and the more land that can be expropriated and redistributed.  (Obviously things are more complicated than this, i.e. unresolved ethno-linguistic conflicts between landless people, less black-and-white statistics around land ownership and inequality, but in general the trend seems to emerges).
  • The situation of housing in the US today has many parallels to unequal feudal/agricultural societies. After 2008 the rates of property ownership for different income/class groups was completely upended in favor of the bourgeoisie and their institutions.  The number and proportion of tenants has skyrocketed, as has the amount and proportion of workers’ income going into the pockets of the landlords.  Pushing back against this trend and organizing to put money into people’s pockets is a simple, common-sense idea with broad popularity, but at the same time is a radical attack on capitalist property rights, even if it does not immediately turn into a campaign of expropriating and collectivizing housing (it won’t!).  Organizing around simple and straightforward demands (i.e. repairs/maintenance, freezes on rent increases) would be popular, and also pave the way for increasingly revolutionary actions, like rent strikes and outright expropriation.  But key to all this, as comrades on the ground in housing struggles have emphasized, is overcoming the incredibly high level of risk present in acting against your landlord — and by extension, the state’s security apparatus.  This is not just a question of tactics, but a question of overall revolutionary strategy, and one that should be the focus of investigation and experimentation for all of us interested in exploring the revolutionary potential in urban land struggles.