What should the radical left do about Syria?

First, we need to recognize that this is a bad question.  We need to back up a bit, and recognize that the radical left (specifically, in the US) is in no position to do anything about Syria.  We’re weak, divided, confused, and largely isolated from the American masses.  We have depressingly little influence on domestic policy, let alone on how US imperialism functions abroad.  Most of our debates are academic and abstract.  Our protests — especially our anti-war protests — are reactive, and utterly disconnected to any kind of larger, coherent strategy around fighting imperialism and building a revolutionary movement.

With this in mind, the next step is to consider what would constitute an effective program around Syria.

The core plank of an effective program would be establishing and deepening concrete ties with people in Syria.  I’m not talking about re-Tweeting activists in Aleppo or helping “raise awareness” through interviews or whatever — I’m talking about actual coordination, planning, and resource transfer with organizations on the ground in and around Syria.  From this perspective, the most effective programs thus far have been 1) solidarity efforts with Rojava, such as fundraising for supplies and volunteering to fight, and 2) solidarity efforts with refugees, which have been particularly impressive in southern European countries like Greece.

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Historical attempts at workers’ inquiry

Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi wrote a lengthy and in-depth introduction to Viewpoint Magazine’s Issue 3 on Workers’ Inquiry.  It is worth reading in full in order to get an understanding of various attempts at the project that have taken place in the West.  Workers’ inquiry started off as an idea by Karl Marx himself to combine the perspectives and experiences of workers with an anti-capitalist communist program.

This practice of workers’ inquiry, then, implied a certain connection between proletarian knowledge and proletarian politics. Socialists would begin by learning from the working class about its own material conditions. Only then would they be able to articulate strategies, compose theories, and draft programs. Inquiry would therefore be the necessary first step in articulating a historically appropriate socialist project.

The analysis looks at the efforts of three groups: the Johnson-Forest Tendency in the USA in the early ’50s, Socialisme ou Barbarie in France in the ’50s, and Operaismo (workerism) in Italy in the early ’60s.  Here are some of the characteristics and insights of each group:

  • Johnson-Forest Tendency: Split off from Trotskyism; saw workers’ inquiry as a way to engage in agitation and raise class consciousness by rooting political analysis in the day-to-day experiences of people; largely divided society into four groups — workers, blacks, women, and youth; their work veered more into the realm of historical fiction than empirical analysis, as it seems that they weren’t very embedded among common people
  • Socialisme ou Barbarie: Closely linked with the Johnson-Forest Tendency and communicated with them quite a bit; connected with several groups of industrial factory workers over time; advanced the idea of workers’ inquiry to be much more of a fusion between intellectuals and workers researching and analyzing day-to-day proletarian experience (seems similar to the Maoist concept of the mass line); over-determined the importance of male factory workers and didn’t pay much attention to the experiences of race and gender (unlike the Johnson-Forest Tendency); some internal splits over the importance of the workers’ paper and how to balance out intellectual analysis and “raw” and “unfiltered” writings from workers
  • Operaismo: Well-connected with workers in various factories; the role of technology in the workplace was a noteworthy focus of analysis and inquiry; as opposed to the other two groups, which seemed to look at the alienating conditions of the workplace as the key contradiction of capitalism, the Italians used their inquiries to look at the larger systemic tendencies of capitalism, and thus built toward the theory of class composition and the role of working-class struggle in being the driving force of capitalist development and restructuring; like the French, they over-determined the role of male factory workers, but this was strongly pushed back by later work by Italian Marxist feminists of the same currents

These seem to be the main groups that took up the most formal kind of workers’ inquiry.  But if we expand the idea of inquiry to be more general, to refer to any kind of serious on-the-ground investigation and analysis of people’s lives and problems and relationships with capital and state, there are a couple of other examples that come to mind, that are actually more rooted in a strategy that embeds research/investigation with an actual revolutionary organization.

  • Abdullah Ocalan and the other founders of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) spent at least a year traveling through Kurdish areas of south-eastern Turkey to talk to people, survey their grievances, analyze terrain and geography, and map out the presence of the state, prior to their launching of a more open organizing campaign and the armed actions in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
  • Amilcar Cabral, the founder of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), rooted his political organizing in the surveys and inquiries he made of tribes and other communities in Guinea-Bissau during his time as an agricultural researcher, which took him all around the country and allowed him the opportunity to talk to various social and political leaders.  This enabled him to analyze and synthesize the experiences of many different groups, and ground the revolutionary anti-imperialist struggle against the Portuguese Empire with the nuances of local context.

Regardless of whether we’re talking about a formal kind of workers’ inquiry that is used to generate Marxist theory, or the more general kind of research that is used to arm revolutionary organizations with local knowledge and networks, inquiry is definitely something that radical leftists of all stripes need to take seriously.  Too many radical left groups are yelling into the wind, attempting to engage with an amorphous and abstract “public” through vague denunciations of capitalism — instead of trying to meet people where they are at, make a genuine effort to understand how other people are working, living, surviving, and resisting under capitalism, and understand that abstract texts from 50 or 100 years ago aren’t sufficient for crafting a revolutionary strategy today.

Radical left critiques of liberal identity politics

The last few years — and particularly the 2016 election season and its aftermath — were packed with a variety of contentious perspectives on race, and how to best go about fighting racism and white supremacy.  In particular, there has been lots of development around radical left critiques of mainstream liberal identity politics.  Here is an incomplete selection of some essays that I find compelling.

Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-option is a lengthy essay from a group of radicals in Occupy Oakland that analyzes and critiques a variety of issues associated with mainstream conceptions of race and identity.  The piece touches on the nature of non-profits, the way elites of color can and do participate in white supremacy (and thus, the inadequacy of making elite institutions “more diverse”), the role of capitalism in producing/reproducing racial stratification, the way liberal analysis tends to essentialize/reduce/boxe-in people to their respective “identities”, the way liberal analysis tends to infantalize and remove agency from people deemed “oppressed”, the way identity politics can be cynically used to erase people of color from allegedly “white” spaces, and more.

Dear #BlackLivesMatter: We Don’t Need Black Leadership by R.L Stephens II of Orchestrated Pulse is a critique of observed tendencies for “identity politicians” to exploit the people and the communities they claim to speak for in order to increase their own individual power, and looks to the historical examples of the ’60s-era Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and mass politics during the Reconstruction era as political models to emulate today.

Fighting racism and the limits of “ally-ship” by Khury Petersen-Smith and Brian Bean in Socialist Worker is a critique of the concept of “allyship”, specifically in the way it over-emphasizes individual inter-personal relations at the expense of mass struggle.  

From charity to solidarity: a critique of ally politics by Cindy Milstein in ROAR Magazine is a critique of the concept of “allyship”, specifically on the way it depends on a narrow and superficial understanding of race, the way it reinforces unhealthy tendencies of guilt and self-righteousness, and how it pushes people away from being autonomous political actors.

The Safety Pin and the Swastika by Shuja Haider of Viewpoint Magazine analyzes the way many parts of liberal identity politics is being appropriated by the far-right as a way to create an unironic form of “white identity politics” that is used to uphold white supremacy and white nationalism, and the need to return to substantive multiracial organizing and grounding anti-racism with anti-capitalism.

White Purity by Asad Haider of Viewpoint Magazine is a critique of privilege theory, arguing that we need to see white supremacy as detrimental to white people as well as non-white people, as argued by old-school communists like W.E.B. du Bois.

A letter from students and workers “of color” in the Takeover of Humanities 2 is a communique from a group of leftists at University of California, Santa Cruz, countering critiques from liberal campus activists about the alleged “whiteness” of an occupation, and raises larger points about multiracial organizing and the tendency of certain kinds of “identity politicians” to side with institutions of power.

Black Panther Party and the Young Patriots Organization, Chicago 1969

The shiny gloss of liberal tolerance, coating a violently racist global system

Nike recently announced a new line of athletic hijabs, making them the first multinational fashion/clothing company to do so.  How progressive!  And yes, they do have their “swoosh” corporate logo on the side.

Liberals will likely laud this move, and conservatives will likely get irritated, but I’d prefer to get away from America’s culture wars and ponder what the supply chain for manufacturing these hijbas will look like.  As of 2014, most of Nike’s clothing was manufactured in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Malaysia.  Any guesses as to what conditions might be like for the Muslim women working in the Indonesian, Pakistani, and Malaysian sweatshops that will be making Nike’s hijabs?  I’m a bit surprised that Bangladesh isn’t on that list, but looks like Nike has slowly backed out of the country since the series of garment factory collapses in 2013, most notably the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,000 workers.

Point being, mainstream culture wars in the West around race, religion, etc. tend to completely ignore the way discrimination functions in global capitalism — especially when the focus of discussion is on the aesthetic nature of commodities, and are driven by the public-relations strategies of powerful multinational corporations.  And it isn’t like people don’t understand the inherently superficial nature of corporate liberalism (after all, “college diversity brochure” is a constant punchline all by itself), but it still feels like this kind of cringey pandering is the dominant trend of anti-racist theory and practice in the US.

The juxtaposition between mainstream corporate liberalism against the racialized and violent nature of global capitalism is captured beautifully in the introduction of this recent essay on race and the 2016 election:

Back in the day, two knucklehead members of my old union local at a Union Carbide plant in New Jersey fashioned KKK hoods out of chemical filtration paper and paraded through the lunchroom on Halloween. The corporate HR executive sent to investigate summarily terminated both workers within hours of arriving at the plant. She loudly proclaimed the company’s “zero tolerance” to racial harassment.

Now this was very interesting considering that her employer was the prime suspect in the unpunished industrial murder of 764 mostly African American workers on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in the 1930’s and its current corporate chairman, Warren Anderson, was a fugitive from justice wanted by the Indian government in connection with the 1984 criminal manslaughter of at least 15,000 Indians in Bhopal. Over the next 15 years, the same HR exec who showed Phil and John the door was the point person in the shutdown of all three unionized Union Carbide plants in New Jersey, leaving behind a series of toxic waste sites contaminating communities throughout the state and 2,000 black, white and Hispanic workers, many suffering from uncompensated industrial diseases.

This episode comes to mind while contemplating the detritus of the Republican and Democratic conventions and the growing trope that the rage of the white (male) working class has propelled both the Trump campaign and the critique of the Clinton campaign from the left. The politics of race and gender often obscure much more than they reveal. It is true that individual white workers can be horribly racist and misogynist. But it is also true that the worship of “diversity” often serves as a cover for gross hypocrisy and ruthless class rule.

Obviously, the take-away here should not be that individual acts of racism, bigotry, prejudice, etc. should be tolerated.  On the contrary, these people should (and do) get their ass kicked.  But casting individual prejudice as 100% the source of racism and bigotry, as many mainstream liberal commentators seem to argue, ignores the larger systematic ways in which racialization is an inherent tendency of an unequal and hierarchical capitalist world, and in fact can often be manipulated to justify the power and privilege of the ruling class.  Nike hijabs will do very little to either fight Islamophobia in the US or raise the status of working-class Muslim women globally.  But expropriating and collectivizing Nike’s Asian factories, on the other hand…

Afghanistan and UAE finance capital

A little while back I made a note on the importance of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the ongoing war in Afghanistan.  I took a closer look and found some interesting reports about the cozy economic relationship between Afghan and UAE elites, which gives insight on the financial/economic dimensions of imperial governance.

The 2010 Cablegate leaks of the US State Department communications revealed the way powerful Afghan elites used the UAE as a nexus for money laundering and graft, with hundreds of millions of dollars passing to and fro Emirati banks on a monthly basis.  The Vice-President was in one case observed to have flown into Dubai with $52 million in cash, and the disgraced ex-chairman of Kabul Bank at the center of the 2010 banking crisis, who helped steal nearly $1 billion, holds numerous pieces of lucrative real-estate in the UAE.  The property market in Dubai generally seems to be a favored vehicle for investing ill-gotten gains by warlords, drug traffickers, and corrupt political officials (none of which tend to be mutually exclusive categories).

As this Financial Times article points out, the flow of money is a result of a deep connection between Afghan businessmen and UAE banks.  Many elites fled to Dubai after the Taliban took over in the ’90s, infusing their capital into local conglomerates and business ventures.  Indeed, the famous Palm Jumeirah development apparently took in a large amount of Afghan capital.

Brought to you by Afghan oligarchs! (And South Asian indentured labor)

The current flow of capital out of Afghanistan is even higher than it was prior to the Kabul Bank crisis:

…the Afghan business council estimates about $10bn flows between Dubai and Afghanistan every year. Analysts and Afghans say most of it leaves the country and some of it is derived from corruption and shady business deals. “The closest functioning banking system is here, so a lot of the money coming in could be legitimate but a lot of it is not. It’s drug money, graft money, extortion money,” says Theodore Karasik, a director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma).

And it is worth reminding ourselves of the deep connection between the Afghan political economy and US/NATO/UN military presence.  As I noted from Ahmed Rashid’s 2013 book on the Af-Pak region, an overwhelming majority of Afghanistan’s economy — 97% as estimated by the World Bank in 2011 — was linked with foreign military spending.  Individual programs, like the USA’s “Commanders Emergency Response Program” had bigger budgets than the Afghan government itself.  Much of this unaccountable military spending is done in coordination with pro-US Afghan elites, who of course tend to be the same people who have deep connections with the UAE.  In other words, a substantial portion of the billions of dollars spent on Afghanistan has likely been recuperated back into the currents of international finance capital — and little, if any, has reached the Afghan people.

On “Activismists”

Sometimes I think I’m the only one around here who can’t stand the cheerful media-oriented hippie protest theater that defines so many rallies and demonstrations and marches.  Luckily this isn’t true at all, as this excellent essay published a few days ago on nonsite demonstrates.  Titled “Ritual Protest and the Theater of Dissent”, it describes from an insiders’ perspective the superficial, incoherent, and elitist nature of the non-profit-industrial complex that is at the center of many modern protest movements.

The descriptions and analysis of certain tactics hit home to anybody who follows any kind of media-oriented social movement: the singing of the same old protest songs, the vague appeals to “send a message” to decision-makers on moral terms, planning events in the middle of the day when average people (not professional activists/organizers) are working, using token representatives of marginalized groups for photo-ops, the exaggerated theater of “arrests” that were planned and initiated ahead of time by organizers and police, and in general the utterly boring, controlled, and sterilized nature of it all.  The author looks to this old essay discussing a similar dynamic in the anti-war movement during the Bush administration, to label these sorts of organizers as “Activismists”.

The young troublemakers of today do have an ideology and it is as deeply felt and intellectually totalizing as any of the great belief systems of yore. The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drum, who lead the “trainings” and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed. They are Activismists.

That’s right, Activismists. This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hyper-mediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth century temperance crusade. In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists. And the one who acts is righteous.

The author is unsure of what the solutions are, but for that we could look to this essay by Ray Valentine from Orchestrated Pulse which advances an explicitly socialist critique of these kinds of professionalized media-oriented tactics (on which I’ve commented on here), specifically by attacking the “theory of momentum” advanced by Mark and Paul Engler.  In opposition to the liberal and idealistic tactics of Activismism, Valentine argues that real mass movements emerge from people winning concrete material victories by and for themselves through collective action, such as through workplace organizing and rank-and-file unionism.  Action that restricts itself to the symbolic and performative level is insufficient, if not utterly ineffective, at generating socio-political change.

America’s internal colonialism

I just came across an excellent article on race in America in Vanity Fair, written by an MSNBC host to plug his upcoming book.  A surprising source for an analysis that revives, at least figuratively, the idea that black communities in the US are part of a process of internal colonization.  It’s an odd mixture of Marxian anti-imperialist and liberal discourse.  Here is the thesis:

Nixon was, of course, correct that black Americans “don’t want to be a colony in a nation.” And yet that is what he helped bring about. Over the half-century since Nixon delivered those words, we have created precisely that, and not just for black Americans but for brown Amer­icans and others: a colony in a nation. A territory that isn’t actually free. A place controlled from outside rather than from within. A place where the law is a tool of control, rather than a foundation for prosperity. We have created a political regime—and, in its day-to-day applications, a regime of criminal justice—like the one our Founders inherited and rejected, a political order they spilled their blood to defeat.

And here is an observation on how colonialism, both historic and present, relies on complicity by elite layers of the colonized people:

From India to Vietnam to the Caribbean, colonial systems have always integrated the colonized into government power, while still keeping the colonial subjects in their place.

Half the cops charged in the death of Freddie Gray were black; half were white. The Baltimore police chief is black, as is the mayor. And Freddie Gray, the figure upon whom this authority was wielded?

Well, to those in the neighborhood, there was never any question what race he would be.

This is what distinguishes our era of racial hierarchy, the era of Black Lives Matter and the First Black President. Black political power has never been more fully realized, but blackness feels for so many black people just as dangerous as ever. Black people can live and even prosper in the Nation, but they can never be truly citizens. The threat of the nightstick always lingers, even for, say, a famous and distinguished Harvard professor of African and African-American studies who suddenly found himself in handcuffs on his own stately porch in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just because someone thought he was a burglar.

And a passage comparing and contrasting the rule of law in Nation and Colony:

In the Colony, violence looms and failure to comply can be fatal. Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who died in a Texas prison cell, was pulled over because she didn’t signal a lane change. Walter Scott, the 50-year-old black man shot in the back as he fled a North Charleston police officer, was pulled over because one of the three brake lights on his car was out. Freddie Gray simply made eye contact with a police officer and started to move swiftly in the other direction.

If you live in the Nation, the criminal-justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus: it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal.

And a rare observation that while the US security apparatus disproportionately targets black people, it is also part of a wider system of repression against the working class in general:

The Colony is overwhelmingly black and brown, but in the wake of financial catastrophe, de-industrialization, and sustained wage stagnation, the tendencies and systems of control developed in the Colony have been deployed over wider and wider swaths of working-class white America. If you released every African-American and Latino prisoner in America’s prisons, the United States would still be one of the most incarcerated societies on earth. And the makeup of those white prisoners is dramatically skewed toward the poor and uneducated. As of 2008, nearly 15 percent of white high-school dropouts aged 20 to 34 were in prison. For white college grads the rate was under 1 percent.

All of this echoes the points I tried to make in an essay I wrote 2 years ago on police violence, about how in numerous working-class communities across the US the police are more or less an exploitative and lawless occupying force.  And there has been much, much more hard evidence on this that has come out since then, ironically in no small part due to the various Department of Justice investigations into the police forces of many major cities like Chicago and Baltimore.  Thanks Obama!?