Four Things the Left Should Learn from Kobane

The Kurdish town of Kobanê has recently become the centre of a geopolitical conflagration that may well change the course of Middle Eastern politics. After months of silence over the threat faced by Kurds from ISIS, the world is now finally watching, even if the ‘international community’ remains conspicuously quiet. However, many Western responses, be it from scholars, journos or activists, have somewhat predictably retracted into recycled critiques of US and UK imperialism, often at the expense of missing what is truly exceptional and noteworthy in recent developments. So, in the style of contemporary leftist listicles, here are four things we can and should learn from events in and around Kobanê.

1. It’s Time to Question the West’s Fixation on ISIS

If Barack Obama, David Cameron and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are to be believed, the ‘savagery’ of ‘fundamentalism’ is the primary focus of NATO involvement in Syria. Notably, many left critics have reproduced this very same fixation on ISIS when discussing Western interests. However, for an almighty imperialist organisation supposedly hell bent on stopping ‘Islamic extremism’, NATO have been curiously ineffective. In fact, the US has been indirectly responsible for arming ISIS and altogether incompetent and/or reluctant in arming the decidedly secular Kurdish resistance. US and UK air strikes have been fleeting, and at best symbolic, making little impact on the advance of ISIS. Moreover, Turkey has repeatedly turned a blind eye to ISIS’s use of its territories and borders for training activities and supply lines, respectively. More recently, as Kobanê teetered on the edge of conquest, Turkey insisted any military assistance was dependent on the Kurdish PYD abandoning self-determination and self-governing cantons, and agreeing to Turkish buffer zone in Kurdish controlled areas in Northern Syria (which amounts to little more than a colonial land grab). Now, considering the US and UK were keen to intervene long before ISIS was seen as a threat, and considering Turkey long-standing hostility to the PKK/PYD, we should be more demanding of any analysis of intervention that begins and ends with ISIS. In short, it is becoming increasingly clear that ISIS is little more than a pretext for NATO to pursue other geopolitical aims – namely removing Assad and destroying Kurdish autonomy.

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Activism, Academia and Black Community Struggles

A little while ago Adam Elliot Cooper from Ceasefire Magazine interviewed Stafford Scott, along with myself, on Black community struggles, activism and academia in Britain. Stafford Scott was a co-founder of the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign in 1985, and is now a consultant on racial equality and community engagement as well as co-ordinator of Tottenham Rights. The interview revolved around a one day workshop run by Dr Joy de Gruy in Tottenham last October, funded by Tottenham Rights and the Centre for Public Engagement, Queen Mary University of London.


Adam: Black community struggle has been an integral part of the way in which we understand the politics of race, class and empire in Britain today. Black communities and activists have led this struggle. But academics have played a role too. Stafford, in October 2013 you brought Dr Joy de Gruy over from the US to Tottenham to run a one day workshop on Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Why Dr Joy, and why Tottenham?

ScreenHunter_18 Apr. 17 19.50Stafford: It’s relatively simple to be quite honest. Why Tottenham? Because in 2011 parts of Tottenham burned as a result of the shooting of a young black male called Mark Duggan. It hit the headlines. As a result of some of us going to the police station rioting broke out and then spread across the country. We saw the media and the government’s reactions to those riots and it really was to dismiss the youths as feral criminals looking to make money out of someone’s death. It was dismissed as an opportunity for people’s materialistic natures to come out. What I wanted to do was put a total different perspective to it – a historical perspective. So I wanted to look at why rioting broke out. I was there, and I don’t believe that it was simply about Mark Duggan’s killing and the way in which his family was treated. I believe that there was a history – a context – to it, that some people chose not to examine. Duggan’s killing was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

We had different events in 2013. One was about the uprising that took place on Broadwater Farm and the killing of Cynthia Jarrett, the killing of Joy GardnerRoger Sylvester and Mark Duggan – four people who died in Tottenham, with involvement of the police. So this was to help the community come to terms with recent traumatic events. We brought Dr Joy over to look at historic events that have caused us great trauma.

ScreenHunter_17 Apr. 17 19.50Adam: Dr Joy, a professor of social work, is famous for developing an analytical framework called Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome and for developing practical programmes that address the challenges of Black communities in the United States. So Dr Joy’s work is not only based on scholarship in the traditional sense but also research that has come out of participating in the struggles that Black communities face in the United States. Robbie, do you see similar work happening in Britain?

Robbie: I think historically there certainly was, you could see that kind of thing happening. Today I think it’s far less the case and that’s to do with a number of significant transformations in British society and in academia. Continue reading

Ah, Ça Ira, Ça Ira! Iconographies of the French Revolution

Last month, Stanford University and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France jointly released a vast online collection of documents and images from the French Revolution via the French Revolution Digital Archive. With around 14,000 high-resolution images, it is an overwhelmingly large collection but the website is thankfully very user-friendly with content tagged in multiple ways and organised according to various themes. This is undoubtedly a fantastic resource for not only historians but also a wider audience interested in the tumultuous events of the late eighteenth century considered by many to mark the start of political modernity.

Drawn into the archive, I spent quite some time trawling through it with a particular eye for caricatures, satirical illustrations, and other allegorical depictions of the revolution. I have compiled here a selection of those images I found most striking or noteworthy along with translations and contextual information where necessary. Hopefully these will be of some interest to readers of this blog. As I have no academic specialism in this period of history, I am very much approaching the material as a layman. I therefore more than welcome any corrections or additions to my readings of these images that I’ll gladly include in updates.

Chasse patriotique à la grosse bête (1789)

Patriotic Hunt of the Great Beast (1789) [link]

“Posterity will tell us that in 1789 on the 12th July around four o’clock in the evening, several people claimed to have seen in the vicinity of Paris, on the road to Versailles, a Beast of an enormous size and a shape so extraordinary as to have never before seen the like. The news spread universal alarm in the city and put its people in a state of violent agitation. Cries of “to arms, to arms” were heard everywhere without any being found; it seemed that the Beast had swallowed them all along with their munitions. New weapons as extraordinary as the animal that had to be combated were immediately forged. On the 13th, people continued to agitate themselves, arming themselves and running after the Beast without being able to encounter it. On the the following day of the 14th, forever memorable for the France that suffers, a hundred thousand individuals ran to the Hotel des Invalides from which they carried away canons and sixty thousand rifles, such that there were two hundred thousand armed men who tracked down the Beast everywhere. Suspecting that it had retreated to the Bastille, the people flew to it with heroic courage and this lair of Despotism, despite its hundred bronze mouths vomiting fire, was taken by assault in two hours. With this victory appeared the monster with a hundred heads; its hideous form revealed that it was of an aristocratic kind; suddenly our bravest hunters seized upon her from all sides and it was to whom would cut the most heads. This monster that dragged behind it desolation, famine and death disappeared instantly under a hundred different forms and fled languidly abroad, taking with it the despair and shame of its defeat.”

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The Pay Strike And Its Discontents

Breaking Bad Pay Teachers More Money

The ballots are out, the wheels are in motion. Union members have until Thursday 10 October to vote on strike action over the latest derisory pay offer of 1% (if you haven’t received a ballot, go here). The justness of the cause seems clear enough. Since 2009, every pay award has been several percentage points below inflation, leading to a consistent real terms drop in pay. And some of those paltry increases were only attained after negotiations. Yet, despite the protests from above (and excepting a brief dip in student numbers), British higher education is in fine financial health. The overall wage bill is decreasing at the same time that surpluses are growing. And for “growing” read “more than doubling”, from £488 million in 2007/8 to £1.1 billion in 2011/2012. Managers are reaping their rewards accordingly, and a significant portion of Vice-Chancellors are seeing their pay go up by 10-20%. At Sussex, for example, Michael Farthing is now paid £280,000 (including pensions contributions), as compared to £178,000 in 2007 (that’ll be a 57% increase then).

And yet there is a foreboding. Fear is a factor, nondescript anxiety another. Perhaps an awkward sense that any level of action is somehow at odds with the academic code.

Articulated objections come in two stripes. First, the we-haven’t-got-it-so-bad defence. Beyond the usual ‘all in it together’ austerity ideology, there are pay increments (which most permanent academic staff get automatically). Real wages aren’t declining so hard if you move up a pay step each year. This is on its own a pretty restricted ambition, since it amounts to a kind of career “progression” that leaves you standing still. It is also, for all the talk of solidarity with lower-paid workers, a selfish analysis.

In the last 5 years, the pay for new lecturers and tutors has dropped 13% in real terms. Following the USS pension saga, they (we) have each had tens of thousands of pounds taken from them over the course of their careers, while staff that retained their old rights are paying more every month into a scheme that was, let us recall, nowhere near crisis. There are fewer scholarships and research grants than before, and an increase in teaching-heavy posts. Consumer-driven logics are set to make that worse. On the horizon, just over there, is a US-style expansion based on precarity, a prestige elite, and debt bubbles. Some at the top are already breaking from the national pay spine, inaugurating a two-tier system. Consider this trend alongside the state of university finances. What is it to look at this and say things aren’t so bad? I put it to you that such a position is detached, complacent, and irresponsible.

Second, there is the strikes-change-nothing complaint. This has better justification. Local actions over the last years have not reversed policies. Pensions were stripped down anyway. And there is something peculiar, isn’t there, about the idea of day-long walkouts and picket lines in a sector so based on relatively scattered student-teacher interactions. There is no machinery to fall silent, no buzzing shop floors to stand empty. Just a day of saved wages for management and probably a whole stack of reorganised lectures, academics not really being the types to withhold knowledge (or, rather, unwilling to see knowledge as labour). There is a sense that the old tactics are dead, and should be left in their graves.

On the one hand, this is an argument for more radical action. If employers can handle strike days, we need more. Or, alternatively, forms of action that do not fetishise the picket line. Something that will make VCs pay attention, like a marking boycott or withholding final grades. In a customer-orientated culture this is the pressure point, especially if action begins to alter the results of the National Student Survey, that Big Other of the academic scene (what do students really want?). The complaint goes up that the national union lacks the imagination to instigate these actions, and that we should therefore turn to more vibrant kinds of opposition. But new forms of resistance nevertheless confront established modes of punishment. When full pay is withheld day on day, when even partial performance leads to the forfeit of full wages, how quickly will we really buckle? We know something has to break the pattern, but we’re not sure we’re capable of it, or that the sacrifice is worth it. In other words, we find ourselves a little too close to text-book academic bitching: something more fundamental needs doing, but we’re not likely to be the ones to do it.

On the other hand, the fear and the paralysis can be found closer to home. Complaints about the union form do not produce their alternative ex nihilo. There are possible replacements, but no actually-existing ones. Nor does the appetite for creating one seem to exist. And for good reason. The paradoxical character of academic subjectivity is both to consider ourselves in a position of real epistemic and social privilege and to be so despondent about our influence on things as to merely absorb the changes thrust upon us (working conditions, impact agendas, research restrictions). The legal protections of strike action have no parallel, truncated as they are. Creative alternatives have raised energy, and served as political classrooms in their own right, but they haven’t actually stymied ‘reforms’ (whether on fees, outsourcing or investment portfolios). And, strange as it may sound, universities are probably happier taking draconian action against their workers than their students. A faculty occupation, if we could even imagine such a thing, would not end well.

None of that is to say that we (there’s that intangible collective again) should walk zombie-like to the picket. Fersure, let the rejuvenation of academic democracy proceed apace. In the meantime, we have to ask ourselves seriously what the consequence is of another pliant year. There are murmurings that a failure to win this ballot will endanger collective bargaining itself. If we cannot muster the resolve to deliver a strong yes on action short of a strike, and a strong yes on strike – if we cannot even deliver a serious turnout – that’s probably as much as we deserve.

The Queer Art of Whistle Blowing

What should we make of the fact that Bradley Manning has become Chelsea, that Glenn Greenwald is gay, that David Miranda loves a man enough to submit to the harassment incurred by his partner’s work, that Greenwald’s detractors sought to tarnish him by association with—of all things—a porn company? Possibly nothing generalisable, except that gender is doing work here.

There has been no shortage of voices denying a straightforward connection between sexual orientation, gender identity, and patriotism. (Part of the reason I feel compelled to write about this is that there isn’t one.) San Francisco Pride Board notoriously repudiated Manning’s election as a Grand Marshall in the 2013 Pride in that city, declaring: ‘even the hint of support for actions which placed in harms [sic] way the lives of our men and women in uniform—and countless others, military and civilian alike—will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride.’ That statement has not been retracted, notwithstanding its now patent inaccuracy in light of the prosecution’s inability to cite any evidence that Manning’s leaks led to any deaths and the court’s decision finding her not guilty of the charge of ‘aiding the enemy’. Kristin (formerly Chris) Beck, ex-US Navy Seal who recently announced her gender transition, has been harsher in her condemnation of Manning: ‘For this person, whether male or female to use gender identity to act “BADLY” is a slap in the face to me and everyone who does not fit the “Binary Gender Norm.” It is not an excuse for anything illegal or unjust.’ Pablo K is right to point out the dangers of the temptation, for those who see a link between sex/gender and truth-telling, to make the reverse move—’to relegate Beck to a minority report, and so to re-inscribe the hierarchy of authenticity, this time with Manning as the actual face of resistance, and Beck the mere puppet of militarism’—while pointing out, also, that the gap between these contrasting appropriations is constitutive of the space of contemporary politics. So let’s talk politics.

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Call for Papers: Subjects and Practices of Resistance

french-resistance-1944

For two inter-linked, consecutive workshops under the theme of Subjects and Practices of Resistance to be held 9-11 September 2013 at University of Sussex.

The first workshop (9-10 Sept) is on Discipline(s), Dissent and Dispossession and the second on Counter-Conduct in Global Politics (10-11 Sept).  The workshop convenors encourage attendance at both workshops.  However, paper proposals should specify the intended workshop and which days participants would be able to attend.

The workshops are generously sponsored and supported by the BISA Poststructuralist Politics Working Group (PPWG) and the Centre for Advanced International Theory (CAIT) at the University of Sussex  Continue reading

To Yahya

The fourth in our mini-forum on critical methodology and narrative (the full series is here). This entry is authored by A—, a student and activist who shall remain nameless, the political realities and personal dangers of our world being as they are.


To Yahya,

I remember your eyes, your fearful and tired eyes. Your shaking voice is in my ear, repeatedly asking “do you think they want to kill me?” And my desperate answer “no they won’t; we will not allow them”. I am sorry Yahya. When I came to Canada there was no information about you, they had removed you from the…. And took you to an unknown place. We had tried so hard to find you but we could not. I am sorry. I know you thought I forgot you, but I did not. After I heard you were executed I was devastated. Your and other political prisoners’ (who we were trying to help) death embedded in me an incredible pain and weakness. I lost everything that I had believed before, my power, my self-esteem. Everything seemed hollow and reasonless. I lost my faith in humanity, International Law, NGO’s, the UN, Human Rights, the media… and all the places I wrote to and never got any response or any practical help. I see my weakness and I understand that beyond that hollow propagandas nothing actually exists that can do something. After that, I hated all of them, I hated the government and I hated the world for not seeing your pain, for not hearing your voice. Yahya, I hated myself as well. You were such a young and bright man that I could not tell you the truth: that we could do nothing to stop them. That our effort is useless, a waste of time, a waste of life and it does not come from power it only came from the fact that we wanted to make the world see what is happening here. “So what?” you might ask and I do not have any answer for you except to say I am so sorry, I am so terribly sorry.

When I came to Canada, I deliberately tried to keep you and the memory of other prisoners in the distance to avoid the pain. However, your face, your eyes, your fear, your anxiety, are embedded in my mind and will not leave me alone. It creates such a guilt that even If I feel that I am happy for a second, I feel terrible afterward. You come to my mind and I nag myself “shame on you!” and then I think: ‘how afraid were you when they were taking you to hang? Did you scream? Did you cry? How did you feel, Yahya? Because I feel an unimaginable pain in my chest when I think about it. Then everything goes black again and nothing remains to make me happy. Afterward, I feel good about myself, “you had better grieve, A–” I tell myself, “you did not do anything, you deserve to grieve”. Yahya, do you hate me? Do you hate me that I am still alive and you are dead? Do you hate me that you were being tortured but I have not?

When I talk to my fellow students about political prisoners in Iran I try to be so mature and rational to not make them think I am wounded or emotional. However, I wonder if you guys would hear me in that moment and think that I lost my emotions about you. Sometimes I curl up in a corner of the room and start to create creepy voices as if I am dying, pretend to be dead, just to see if I understand you and others’ feelings when you were being hanged and could not breathe. I am not saying these things to you in self- pity. I am just saying them to make you understand that I did not forget you, I won’t. Your voice is here, all over my head, and I do not want it to disappear, I want to yell and cry out your words, but they stick in my throat and only tears come out.

I am writing this letter to let you know that I am so sorry, that I am in pain as well, that I want you to stay and have a voice. I left my loved ones, Yahya. I know it is not comparable with your pain. But I was punished as well. I forced to be alienated from all that is familiar to me and isolated from all the kindness of my loved ones. I remained breathless like you did Yahya, but my breathlessness was only emotional while yours was both physical and emotional. I was punished like you, for seeking my rights, for helping you, and for having a voice. How odd it is for the people here, you know? How odd it is for an eighteen-year-old boy here to do what you have done. To sacrifice his life for a political purpose. When I see a young boy in my school I remember you. Then, I feel terrible for so many beauties in the world that you did not see, for all your ambitions that you could not achieve, and for all your dreams and lost opportunities. How cruel was the cord that took your breath away and how cruel is the world to not care about that action.

I want to shout, Yayha, that you are always remembered, that you are always part of this world and that you are always part of a beautiful chapter of my narrative. I could not save you but I can save your voice. At least I promise you this time…

—–

I sit on my coach, lean back with a pen and paper on my hand, staring at my white piano that I have not touched for few months. “Where should I start?” I think. I am repeatedly asking this question of myself but every time I try to write I find myself overwhelmed with a painful ache in my heart and tears in my eyes. “Let’s try looking through some pictures,” I think, they could inspire me. I take my phone from the table, and I start looking at my pictures. “I did not take very many pictures in Canada,” I wonder why; maybe I do not have enough time. Suddenly, I stop by the picture of Sahand (a mountain in the northwest of Iran, near the city that I used to live). I took the picture from the airplane while I was coming to Canada, it is the picture of its highest peak surrounded by clouds. My eyes get wet again. When you are being forced to leave a place that you were born and raised, everything about that city or region gets a sacred place in your heart. When you understand that you might not see them again you start missing them so much. Sahand is the highest mountain in the province where I lived (East Azerbaycan) and it is called ‘the beautiful mountain’ because it is full of shaghayegh (Anemone Coronaria) in spring. Shaghayegh is the symbol of dead people in Iran. People in my region take a full fist of the soil of the graves of their dead and spread it on the Sahand to turn their loved ones to flowers, so they can be born again all over the Sahand’s body. My tears start to drop again. Yes, I missed Sahand, but it is something more. Something is digging at me from inside. A sense of being useless, or being guilty. My purpose here is to narrate my own past activism to free political prisoners who were sentenced to death, but something is preventing me. Guilt, this is the emotion, I could not let go. Will I be able to finally forgive myself? To stop punishing myself and to truly justify my deeds? Maybe I am starting from the wrong side, maybe I should justify myself to you, may be I should beg forgiveness from you. Then I could rest, then I could forgive myself…