Category Archives: Revolution

Understanding what’s happening in the Middle East

Are you having trouble understanding what’s happening in Syria and the Middle East? You’re not alone – it’s complicated. I found a good analysis in an interview Ashley Smith of the Internationalist Socialist Review, did with Gilbert Achcar, a professor at the University of London (published in the Review’s Winter 2016-17 issue). Achcar is the author of numerous books including The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder (2006); The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013); and, most recently, Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016). Smith asked him about the left’s understanding of, and approach to, Islamic fundamentalism.

Smith: One of the key developments in the Middle East over the last three decades has been the rise of what commentators variously call political Islam, Islamism, and Islamic fundamentalism. Why do you argue that this political current is better called Islamic fundamentalism?

Achcar: The term one uses is related, of course, to assessment and political judgment, each term having different implications. People use the term “Islamism” to refer to political movements that regard Islam as their fundamental ideology and program. But the term has also been used in the past to refer to Islam itself, so it gets mixed up with Islam as a religion in the minds of most people who hear it. And because “Islamism” has become almost synonymous with terrorism, it leads people to confuse terrorism and Islam per se, feeding already widespread Islamophobic bigotry.

The term “Islamic fundamentalism,” has two advantages. The most important is that there is fundamentalism in all religions. The second is that the notion of fundamentalism helps in fine-tuning the distinction between different currents and groups that give Islam a central place in their ideological identity. While the goal of an “Islamic state” based on sharia is, to various degrees, common to all the groups in the category of Islamic fundamentalism, these groups pursue different strategies and tactics. Thus, there are moderate fundamentalists who have a gradualist strategy of achieving their program within society first, and in the state thereafter, while others, like ISIS, resort to terrorism or state implementation by force. They’re all dogmatic and reactionary.

S: What are the roots of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East? How and why did it arise as a political force?

A: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, born in the 1920s, was the first modern political organization based on an Islamic fundamentalist agenda. That was also the time when the theorization of the Islamic state, the core Islamic fundamentalist doctrine, took its modern shape, also in Egypt. There were, of course, earlier brands of fundamentalism and various sorts of puritan sects in the history of Islam like in other monotheistic religions, but the Brotherhood pioneered a brand of Islamic fundamentalism that was adapted to contemporary society in the form of a political movement.

The Brotherhood emerged at the conjunction of a number of events. The first was the proclamation of a secular Turkish republic and the abolition of the caliphate after the end of World War I. This came as a shock for those who rejected the separation of Islam and government. It was also contemporaneous with the foundation of the Saudi kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula, a state based on an Islamic fundamentalist premise, albeit one of an archaic tribal character.

Egypt at that time was ripe for revolution with an accumulation of social problems, terrible poverty in the countryside, a rotten monarchy, leaders despised or hated by the people, and British domination. The Egyptian left was weak, and the workers’ movement had come under repression in the 1920s. So you had a conjunction of factors, which enabled the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism as a political movement capitalizing on popular discontent.

From a historical materialist perspective, Islamic fundamentalism is a striking illustration of what Marx and Engels identified in their Communist Manifesto as one of the ideological orientations among the traditional middle classes. A fraction of the traditional petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen, and the small and middle peasantry suffer from the crushing effects of capitalism, which develops at their expense turning a big section of them into proletariat, compelling them to shift from a status of small producers or merchants into one of wage earners obliged to sell their labor power in order to make their living. A fraction of these petty propertied classes oppose capitalist development by wanting to “turn back the wheel of history.” Modern Islamic fundamentalism stems from a revolt against the consequences of capitalist development fostered by foreign domination, wanting to go back to a mythical Islamic golden age.

S: What’s the relationship of Islamic fundamentalism to imperialism? Is it in opposition to it or in collusion with it?

A: Both, I would say. The troops of Islamic fundamentalism are people reacting in a reactionary manner to the consequences of capitalism as well as to imperialist domination and imperialist wars. Faced with capitalism and imperialism, they could opt for a progressive struggle, aiming at replacing unregulated capitalism with a socially just egalitarian society. [That’s considered Western, however, and many, at least in Egypt and Syria, think it was tried – and failed – with the Middle Eastern “socialism” of Nasser and Baathism. Both of those efforts centered around dictatorships, however.]

Since it is a reactionary response, Islamic fundamentalism ended up being used by all sorts of reactionary forces, including imperialism itself. From the time it was founded, the Muslim Brotherhood built a close connection with what was and still is the most reactionary, antidemocratic and anti-women state on earth, the Saudi kingdom. They established this link because of the affinity between their own perspective and what’s usually called Wahhabism, the ideology of the tribal force that founded the Saudi kingdom.

The Muslim Brotherhood worked in close alliance with the Saudi kingdom from its foundation until 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait leading to the first US war on Iraq. Till then, the Brotherhood was a major ally of the Saudi kingdom and of the United States, the kingdom’s overlord. Both used them in the fight against left-wing nationalism, particularly against Nasser in Egypt (1952–70), but also against the Communist movement and the Soviet Union’s influence in Muslim-majority countries. This unholy alliance of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Islamic fundamentalist movements was reactionary through and through.

The Saudis broke with the Muslim Brotherhood because the latter didn’t follow the kingdom in supporting the 1991 US onslaught on Iraq. That was because they found it difficult ideologically to condone a Western intervention against a Muslim country from the territory where Islam’s holy places are located. They also had to take into consideration the fact that their constituencies were very much opposed to that aggression, as was the overwhelming majority of public opinion in Arab countries. So, most regional branches of the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the US onslaught, leading the Saudi kingdom to break with them. They therefore sought out and found another sponsor: the emirate of Qatar, which has been their chief supporter ever since. Qatar, of course, is another close ally of the United States in the region, hosting the forward headquarters of the US military Central Command (CENTCOM), the most important platform for US air wars from Syria to Afghanistan.

When the Muslim Brotherhood held power in Egypt during the presidency of their member Mohamed Morsi, they earned the praise of Washington. Other more “radical” brands of Islamic fundamentalism have also collaborated in the past with the United States. Al-Qaeda, for example, originated in joining the US-Saudi-Pakistani-backed guerillas against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan before turning into violent foes of the United States and the Saudi royal family after 1990, for a reason similar to that which led to the Brotherhood’s break with the kingdom.

S: Has the class character of Islamic fundamentalism changed with the development of these state sponsors? Is it still the case that it’s an expression of the petty bourgeoisie or has it become “bourgeoisified?”

A: First of all, Islamic fundamentalism is not restricted to one movement. It’s a broad spectrum of forces and groups, as I emphasized, from the Muslim Brotherhood to jihadists to totalitarian fanatics like ISIS. Even the Muslim Brotherhood is a regional and global organization whose strategies and tactics vary from place to place. If we focus solely on Egypt, however, there has indeed been “bourgeoisification.” After Nasser repressed them, many of their members and leaders ended up in exile in the Saudi kingdom. Several of them became businessmen there and profited from the oil boom of the 1970s. The connection with the Saudi state and Gulf capital played an important role in developing a layer of “devout bourgeoisie” in Egypt – a section playing an increasingly important role inside the Brotherhood.

While this capitalist fraction grew considerably in importance within the Brotherhood, the bulk of its rank and file, its troops, remain among the petty bourgeoisie and poorer layers of society. The Brotherhood was never anti-capitalist anyway, beyond the general calling for social equity that you hear from even the most conservative parties. The Brotherhood talks about caring for the poor, in order to say that Islam provides the solution and that Islamic charity will alleviate poverty. All of this fits neatly with a neoliberal perspective that supports privatization of social care and its delegation to private charities. Unsurprisingly, when the Brotherhood came to power recently in Tunisia and Egypt, they continued the economic policies of the previous regimes. They adhered to IMF stipulations and did everything they could to please the capitalist class, including the old regime’s crony capitalists in both countries.

S: Why did Islamic fundamentalism become such a strong political trend in the Middle East? This is surprising given the rich history of secular nationalism and Communist organization in the region.

A: This is a very important issue. An impressionistic view prevails today, as a result of the media’s continuous reports on various strains of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, that religion, in general, and Islamic fundamentalism, in particular, has always dominated politics in the region. But that isn’t true. Except for Egypt, left-leaning secular nationalists and Communists were prevalent in the Middle East during the 1940s, and things began to change in Egypt with the Nasser’s 1952 coup. His regime passed land reform, nationalized foreign properties, including the Suez Canal in 1956, and Egyptian private assets. The leftwing radicalization of these nationalists – with the towering figure of Nasser central to the process – made them tremendously popular, not only in Egypt but in the whole region and in all the Third World. That was because of their social reforms and their opposition to imperialism and Zionism, which echoed the aspirations of the masses. Early on, after a brief period of cooperation, they clashed with the Muslim Brotherhood and repressed them. From then on, the Brothers became the bitterest enemies of the nationalists, and the Saudis and Washington used them as a weapon against Nasser. They’d lost their appeal, however, having no solutions to offer to the real social problems of the masses, whereas the nationalists addressed these issues in part.

The turnaround came with Israel’s 1967 victory over Nasserist Egypt and Baathist Syria. Like Egypt, Syria had undergone a leftwing nationalist radicalization led by a group that Hafez al-Assad, president of Syria from 1970 to 2000, would topple soon after. With the 1967 defeat, followed in 1970 by the crushing of the Palestinian guerillas in Jordan, Nasser’s death, and the overthrow of the leftwing faction of the Baath, radical Arab nationalism suffered a massive setback, which opened a space for the Muslim Brotherhood’s comeback.

Nasser’s successor, Sadat, reversed all the progressive policies of the Nasser era – agrarian, industrial, anti-imperialist, and anti-Zionist. He released the Muslim Brotherhood from jail and opened the door for its members in exile to return, needing them as allies in his reactionary enterprise. They happily played that role, becoming the shock troops of an anti-left backlash. Sadat allowed them to rebuild their organization into a mass movement, provided they didn’t challenge his rule, and they maintained this relationship with his successor, Mubarak. In the context of a weak organized left, whose most visible section was involved in a similarly ambiguous relation with the regime, the Brotherhood filled a vacuum, attracting disgruntled sections of the population. With funds brought by the new capitalists in their ranks and provided by their Saudi sponsor, the Brotherhood managed grew spectacularly. With their newfound power came ambitions of playing more of a political role than the regime would allow, leading at times to periods of temporary repression.

History shows that when there is a progressive current with some credibility, it can counter fundamentalism. In the Middle East, the left faces Islamic fundamentalism as one of two main poles of reactionary politics, the regimes constituting the other. The progressive forces expressing the aspirations of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising soon tumbled against the regimes, on the one hand, and the Islamic fundamentalist oppositions to the regimes on the other hand, both equally opposed to the aspirations of the revolutionary wave and, in some countries of the region, directly collaborating in thwarting its radicalization.

S: How should the left position itself in relation to Islamic fundamentalist forces fighting imperialism or Zionism? For example, how should the left approach Hamas and Hezbollah?

A: The left has developed a rich tradition that we should draw on in approaching this question. This consists in supporting just struggles against colonialism and imperialism, regardless of who is waging them, without turning this into uncritical support of those waging the struggles. For instance, when fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it made complete sense for any anti-imperialist to oppose the invasion, even though Ethiopia was ruled by the extremely reactionary regime of Haile Selassie, who wasn’t supported uncritically. The same approach should be followed today. Hamas and Hezbollah have been engaged in struggles against Israeli occupation and aggression, and we support them in this. But Hamas isn’t the only group fighting Israel; there are other groups on the Palestinian scene, and we need to determine within that range of anti-Zionist groups which are closer to our political perspective. The same goes for Lebanon.

Hamas grew at the expense of the Palestinian left. At the time of the first Palestinian intifada in 1988, the left was the leading force in the 1967-occupied territories. But its groups ended up directly or indirectly condoning Yasser Arafat’s capitulation to the US and Israel, opening the door to Hamas. Hamas was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Palestine, which until then had been actually favored by the Israeli occupation as an antidote to the PLO.

Hezbollah emerged after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but it was the Communist Party and leftwing nationalist forces that initiated the resistance to the invasion, drawing on a tradition of struggle against repeated Israeli invasions. Hezbollah built itself at the expense of these forces, especially the Communist Party. The latter had a strong influence in Shia-majority regions in Lebanon and was therefore seen as a major competitor by Hezbollah, which went so far as to assassinate prominent Shia figures in the Party. Although it became the dominant force in a just fight – the struggle against the Israeli occupation – it isn’t progressive force. It achieved its status while repressing and squeezing out progressive forces waging that same struggle. It’s dependent on Iran, and has gone along with the neoliberal reconstruction of Lebanon.

Similarly, if the US or Israel launched an attack on Iran, we wouldn’t hesitate in supporting that country, even though its ruling regime is reactionary, repressive, and capitalist – an enemy of the social cause for which we fight. This is important to grasp because, in recent years, Iran and Hezbollah have come to the rescue of the counterrevolutionary regime in Syria, supplying it with key shock troops that have joined its onslaught on the popular democratic movement.

In the Middle East in general, tragically, we’ve seen progressive forces align themselves with Islamic fundamentalists against the regimes – as happened in the first stages of the uprising in many countries, and is still happening in the Syria – while other sections of the left lined up with the regimes against the Islamic fundamentalists. It’s crucial for progressives to assert a third revolutionary pole, equally opposed to both counterrevolutionary poles now dominating the scene, if they are, at some point, to embody again the aspirations that inspired the Arab Spring in 2011. Short of that, we’ll see more of the ongoing disaster with the region overwhelmed by the clash between the two counterrevolutionary poles. The best scenario in the short term is a coalition between the two reactionary poles, as happened in Tunisia where the local equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood entered into a governmental coalition with the old regime forces, or in Morocco where the king coopted the local equivalent into government. Washington and its European allies are very much pushing for this scenario almost everywhere in the region. Such reconciliation would be beneficial from a progressive perspective, because it would compel progressive forces to oppose both counterrevolutionary poles and facilitate their emergence as the alternative to both of them. The future of the left in the Middle East hangs on getting this orientation right.

 

 

Where women stand now

Just as the 1-21-17 Women’s March on Washington started me wondering where women stand now, Rebecca Solnit’s 2015 book Men Explain Things to Me came into my hands to provide the answer. Solnit starts her book by relating an experience in which a man talked over her on a subject in which she was an expert and he wasn’t. Reflecting on the incident, she realized that this common experience is one end of the misogyny spectrum, with rape and murder at the other…The tendency of some men to dominate conversations and undervalue/question women’s contributions, Solnit says, “crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. Credibility is a basic survival tool. For example, getting a restraining order requires the credibility to convince the court that someone is a menace and then getting the cops to enforce it. Violence is one way to silence people, to deny their voice and their credibility, to assert control over their right to exist…At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible. I believe women acquired the status of human beings when these kinds of acts started to be taken seriously, from the mid-1970s on…I think we’d understand misogyny and violence against women better if we looked at the abuse of power as a whole rather than treating domestic violence separately from rape, murder, harassment, and intimidation – online, at home, in the workplace and in the streets; seen together, the pattern is clear. Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.

There is a reported rape in the United States every 6.2 minutes [the total number of rapes may be five times that number – one a minute], and one in five women will be raped in her lifetime. There’s a pattern of violence against women that’s broad, deep, horrific – and incessantly overlooked. Occasionally, a case involving a celebrity or with lurid details gets attention in the media, but such cases are treated as anomalies, while the abundance of incidental news items about violence against women in this country, in other countries, and on every continent including Antarctica, constitute a kind of background wallpaper for the news.

So many men murder their partners and former partners that we have well over a thousand homicides of that kind a year, meaning that every three years the death toll tops 9/11’s casualties, though no one declares a war on this particular kind of terror.

It’s not that I want to pick on men. I just think that if we noticed that women are, on the whole, radically less violent, we might be able to see where violence comes from and think about we can do about it a lot more productively. Clearly, the ready availability of guns is a huge problem for the United States, but despite their availability to everyone, murder is still a crime committed by men 90% of the time.

Here’s a single incident that happened in my city while I was researching the subject in January 2013, one of many local incidents that made the local papers that month in which men assaulted women: “A woman was stabbed after she rebuffed a man’s sexual advances while she walked in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood late Monday night, a police spokesman said today. The 33-year-old victim was walking down the street when a stranger approached her and propositioned her. When she rejected him, the man slashed the victim in the face and stabbed her in the arm.” The man, in other words, framed the situation as one in which his chosen victim had no rights or liberties, while he had the right to control and punish her. This should remind us that violence is first of all authoritarian. It begins with this premise: I have the right to control you. Murder is the extreme version of that authoritarianism, where the murderer asserts he has the right to decide whether you live or die, the ultimate means of controlling someone. This may be true even if you are obedient, because the desire to control comes out of a rage that obedience can’t assuage. Whatever fears, whatever sense of vulnerability may underlie such behavior, it also comes out of entitlement, the entitlement to inflict suffering and even death on other people. It’s a system of control,” acted out by men of all nationalities, races, and social classes.

“A woman is beaten every nine seconds in this country. It’s the number-one cause of injury to American women; of the two million injured annually, more than half a million of those injuries require medical attention while about 145,000 require overnight hospitalizations, according to the Center for Disease Control. Spouses are also the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the United States. ‘Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war, and traffic accidents combined,’ writes Nicholas Kristof, one of the few prominent figures to address the issue regularly.

Rape and other acts of violence, up to and including murder, as well as threats of violence, constitute the barrage some men lay down as they attempt to control some women, and fear of that violence limits most women in ways they’ve gotten so used to they hardly notice – and we hardly address. The usual guidelines in such situations put the full burden of prevention on potential victims, treating the violence as a given. There’s no good reason (and many bad reasons) colleges spend more time telling women how to survive predators than telling the other half of their students not to be predators.

There’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed. There are lovely and wonderful men out there, and one of the things that’s encouraging in this round of the war against women is how many men I’ve seen who get it, who think it’s their issue too, who stand up for us and with us in everyday life, online, and in marches. Kindness and gentleness never had a gender, and neither did empathy. Domestic violence statistics are down significantly from earlier decades (even though they’re still shockingly high), and a lot of men are at work crafting new ideas and ideals about masculinity and power. Women’s liberation has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some dismal zero-sum game only one gender at a time could be free and powerful. But we are free or enslaved together. Surely the mindset of those who think they need to win, to dominate, to punish, and to reign supreme is far from free.”

Solnit goes on to point out the connection between misogyny and other forms of oppression, using the example of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, “the extraordinarily powerful head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a global organization that’s created mass poverty and economic injustice, sexually assaulting Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel maid and immigrant from Africa, in a hotel’s luxury suite in New York City…Her name was Africa, his was IMF. He set her up to be pillaged, to go without health care, to starve. He laid waste to her to enrich his friends. Her name was Global South. His name was Washington Consensus. But his winning streak was running out, and her star was rising…The IMF’s assault on the poor is part of the great class war of our era, in which the rich and their proxies in government have endeavored to aggrandize their holdings at the expense of the rest of us. Poor countries in the developing world paid first, but the rest of us are paying now, as those policies and the suffering they impose come home to roost via right-wing economics that savages unions, education systems, the environment, and programs for the poor, disabled, and elderly in the name of privatization, free markets, and tax cuts…His name was privilege, but hers was possibility. His was the same old story, but hers was a new one about the possibility of changing a story that remains unfinished, that includes all of us, that matters so much, that we will watch but also make and tell in the weeks, months, years, decades to come.”

Next Solnit theorizes that the real reason many conservatives oppose gay marriage is that it represents marriage equality. “The phrase ‘marriage equality’ is ordinarily employed to mean that same-sex couples will have the rights different-sexed couples do. But it could also mean that marriage is between equals – not what traditional,” patriarchal marriage has been. “A marriage between two people of the same gender is inherently egalitarian – one partner may happen to have more power in any number of ways, but for the most part it’s a relationship between people who have equal standing and are free to define their roles themselves.”

Solnit devotes a chapter of her book to the ways women have been made to “disappear.” Taking their husbands’ names and wearing veils are the first two examples of this. “Veils go a long way back. They existed in Assyria more than 3,000 years ago, when there were two kinds of women: respectable wives and widows who had to wear veils, and prostitutes and slave girls who were forbidden to do so. The veil was the marker of a woman for one man, a portable architecture of confinement.

In Argentina during the ‘dirty war’ from 1976 to 1983, the military junta ‘disappeared’ dissidents, activists, left-wingers, and Jews, men and women. The first voices against this disappearance, the first who overcame their fear and became visible, were those of mothers of the disappeared. Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo began appearing in front of the presidential mansion at the Plaza de Mayo in the capital, Buenos Aires, and, having appeared, they refused to go away. Forbidden to sit, they walked. Though they were attacked, arrested, interrogated, and forced out of this most public of public places, they returned again and again to testify openly to their grief, and to demand that their children and grandchildren be returned. They wore white kerchiefs embroidered with the names of their children and the date of their disappearances. Motherhood was an emotional and biological tie that the generals in charge of the country couldn’t portray as leftwing or criminal. It was a cover for a new kind of politics, as it had been for the US group Women Strike for Peace, founded in the shadow of the Cold War in 1961, when dissent was still portrayed as communist. Motherhood and respectability became the armor, the costume, in which these women assaulted in one case the generals and in the other a nuclear weapons program and war itself.

When I was young, women were raped on the campus of a great university and the authorities responded by telling women students not to go out alone after dark. Some pranksters put up a poster announcing another remedy: that men be excluded from campus after dark. It was an equally logical solution, but men were shocked at being asked to disappear, to lose their freedom to move and participate, because of the violence of one man.

Every woman who appears wrestles with forces that would have her disappear, that would tell her story for her or write her out of the story. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.”

Solnit’s next chapter, on the liberatory thinking, both political and artistic, of Virginia Woolf, has much to say about the uncertain times we’re living in.

“‘The future is dark [obscure], which is the best thing the future can be, I think,’ Woolf wrote in her journal in 1915 as the First World War began to turn into catastrophic slaughter on an unprecedented scale.” In 1938 Woolf discussed war and its roots in Three Guineas. She began the book by answering the question “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” with the statement, “As a woman I have no country,” a stand much like that of the international communist movement, urging loyalty among workers of all nations in times of nationalist wars.

Solnit includes the thinking of writer, filmmaker, and political activist Susan Sontag in this discussion. Sontag wrote that people who haven’t experienced war can’t understand the reality of it, and may be numbed by reading about it or looking at war photographs. Like Woolf, Solnit says, Sontag called on us “to embrace the darkness, the unknown, the unknowability. She doesn’t imagine the contradictions can be ironed out; she grants us permission to keep looking at the photographs; she grants their subjects the right to have the unknowability of their experience acknowledged. And she acknowledges that even if we can’t completely comprehend, we might care.”

When Solnit visited Sontag, the latter “made the case that we should resist on principle, even though it might be futile. I had just begun trying to make the case for hope in writing, and I argued that you don’t know if your actions are futile. The effects of your actions may unfold in ways you can’t foresee or even imagine, perhaps long after your death. Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting.”

Next, Solnit addresses “the massacre of students in Isla Vista, California, by one of their peers.” There have been so many mass shootings in recent years that I had to go to Wikipedia to recall this one. I found this: “On May 23, 2014, in Isla Vista, California, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara, before taking his own life. The attack began when Rodger stabbed three men to death in his apartment. Afterwards, he drove to a sorority house and shot three female students outside, killing two. He drove to a nearby deli and shot a male student to death inside. He then began to speed through Isla Vista, shooting and wounding several pedestrians and striking several others with his car. The rampage ended when his car crashed into a parked vehicle and came to a stop. Police found him dead in the car with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Before driving to the sorority house, Rodger uploaded a video to YouTube in which he explained that he wanted to punish women for rejecting him and to punish sexually active men for living a more enjoyable life than his.” In an email to friends and family, he also described “his frustration over not being able to find a girlfriend, his hatred of women, his contempt for racial minorities and interracial couples, and his plans for what he described as ‘retribution.’”

Solnit thinks the subsequent discussion of this event on Twitter was significant. Apparently, some men were saying they “weren’t the problem.” Solnit recalls that “an exasperated woman remarked to me, ‘What do they want – a cookie for not hitting, raping, or threatening women?’ Women are afraid of being raped and murdered all the time and sometimes that’s more important to talk about than protecting male comfort levels. Or as another woman tweeted, ‘Sure #NotAllMen are misogynists and rapists. That’s not the point. The point is that #YesAllWomen live in fear of the ones that are.’” A bit more from Twitter: “#YesAllWomen because I’ve seen more men angry at the hashtag rather than angry at the things happening to women. #YesAllWomen because if you’re too nice to them you’re ‘leading them on’ & if you’re too rude you risk violence. Either way you’re a bitch.”

Solnit declares: “Language is power. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it. If you lack words for a phenomenon, an emotion, a situation, you can’t talk about it, which means that you can’t come together to address it. Vernacular phrases – ‘Catch-22,’ ‘monkeywrenching,’ ‘cyberbullying,’ ‘the 99 percent and the 1 percent’ – have helped us to describe and reshape our world. This may be particularly true of feminism, a movement focused on giving voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. One of the compelling new phrases of our time is ‘rape culture.’ The term came into widespread circulation in late 2012 when sexual assaults in New Delhi, India and Steubenville, Ohio, became major news stories. As one definition put it: ‘Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety. Rape culture affects every woman. Most women and girls limit their behavior because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls live in fear of rape. Rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape.’

The term ‘sexual entitlement’ was also used in 2012 in reference to sexual assaults by Boston University’s hockey team, though you can find earlier uses of the phrase. I first heard it in 2013 in a BBC report on a study of rape in Asia. The study concluded that in many cases the motive for rape was the idea that a man has the right to have sex with a woman regardless of her desires. In other words, his rights trump hers, or she has none. This sense of being owed sex is everywhere. Many women are told, as was I in my youth, that something we did or said or wore or just the way we looked or the fact that we were female had excited desires we were thereby contractually obliged to satisfy. Male fury at not having emotional and sexual needs met is far too common, as is the idea that you can rape or punish one woman to get even for what other women have done or not done. After the killings in Isla Vista, the term ‘sexual entitlement’ was suddenly everywhere, and blogs and commentary and conversations began to address it with brilliance and fury. On that Friday in Isla Vista, our equilibrium was disrupted, and like an earthquake releasing tension between tectonic plates, the realms of gender shifted a little. They shifted not because of the massacre, but because millions came together in a vast conversational network to share experiences, revisit meanings and definitions, and arrive at new understandings.”

Solnit acknowledges that progress in the fight against misogyny can be uneven, but concludes, “There’s no going back. You can abolish the reproductive rights women gained in 1973 with Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion, or rather ruled that women had a right to privacy over their own bodies that precluded the banning of abortion. But you can’t so easily abolish the idea that women have certain inalienable rights…Revolutions are made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states, but you can’t convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their own bodies…

Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task. Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out, or that if there is you don’t need to or can’t go down it. You can. We have. We have so much further to go, but looking back at how far we’ve come can be encouraging. Domestic violence was mostly invisible and unpunished until a heroic effort by feminists to out it and crack down on it a few decades ago. Though it still generates a significant percentage of calls to police and enforcement has been crummy in most places, the ideas that a husband has the right to beat his wife and that it’s a private matter aren’t going to return.

Feminism and women continue achieving advances that threaten and infuriate some people. Rape and death threats are the blunt response; the decorous version is all those articles telling women who we are and what we may and may not aspire to. Casual sexism is always there to rein us in, too. ‘Careerism,’ for example – the pathological need to have paid employment – is an affliction that only affects women, apparently. Then there are all the tabloids patrolling the bodies and private lives of celebrity women and finding constant fault with them. Get back in the box, famous ladies. Conservatives are now largely fighting rearguard actions, however. Thanks to demographics, their regressive conservative push isn’t going to work – the United States isn’t going to be a mostly white country again. Neither are queer people going back in the closet or women about to surrender.

Feminism sought and seeks to change the whole human world; many men are on board with the project, but how it benefits men, and in what ways the status quo damages men as well, could bear far more thought. As could an inquiry into the men perpetrating most of the violence, the threats, and the hatred and the culture that encourages them. Perhaps this inquiry has begun. A nationwide movement organized by mostly female college students, many of them survivors of campus sexual assault, has sprung up, to force change in the way universities deal with such assaults – as has a movement to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the military that’s succeeded in forcing real policy changes and prosecutions.

There’s more that we need to be liberated from – like a system that prizes competition, ruthlessness, short-term thinking, and rugged individualism, that serves environmental destruction and limitless consumption – the arrangement we call capitalism. It embodies the worst of machismo while it destroys what’s best on Earth. Men fit into it better, but it doesn’t really serve any of us. Look to movements, such as the Zapatista revolution, which has a broad ideology that includes feminist as well as environmental, economic, indigenous, and other perspectives. This may be the present and future of feminism that isn’t feminism alone. The Zapatistas rose up in 1994 and are still going, as are myriad other projects to reimagine who we are, what we want, and how we might live.

 

 

The case for anarchism

Anarchists imagine and are attempting to create a society based on three principles: freedom, equality, and solidarity. They believe that freedom in a society based on voluntary association rather than coercion is essential for the full flowering of human intelligence, creativity, and dignity.

If freedom is essential for the fullest development of individuality, equality is necessary for genuine freedom to exist. There can be no real freedom in a class-stratified, hierarchical society riddled with gross inequalities of power, wealth, and privilege. In such a society, only a few – those at the top of the hierarchy – are relatively free; the rest are semi-slaves. “Equality of opportunity” under capitalism is meaningless, since there can be no real equality of opportunity for the children of a millionaire and those of a minimum-wage worker.

The final essential is solidarity, which for anarchists means mutual aid: working voluntarily and cooperatively with others who share the same goals and interests. Solidarity and cooperation means treating each other as equals, refusing to treat others as means to an end, and creating relationships that support freedom for all. To practice solidarity means that we recognize, as in the slogan of the Industrial Workers of the World, that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” We sink or swim together, and by standing together, we can increase our strength and attain our goals.

For anarchists, freedom is individuals pursuing their own good in their own way, making decisions for and about themselves and their lives, and being responsible for those decisions. As Rudolf Rocker wrote, freedom doesn’t exist because of something “granted” or “set down on a piece of paper, but only when it’s become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair it will meet with the violent resistance of the populace.” Anarchists support the tactic of “direct action,” for, as Emma Goldman argued, we have “as much liberty as we are willing to take.”

An anarchist society will be non-coercive – violence or the threat of violence won’t be used to “convince” individuals to do anything. It will be non-hierarchical. And it will be self-governed by confederations of decentralized, grassroots organizations operated by direct democracy rather than the delegation of power to “representatives.”

Contrary to popular belief, anarchists aren’t opposed to structure or organization; they simply want to abolish hierarchical structure and avoid situations in which “leaders” or “representatives” have more power than others. Anarchist organizations build in accountability, diffusion of power among the maximum number of persons, task rotation, skill-sharing, the spread of accurate information and the sharing of resources. For most of human existence, people have engaged in self-directed organization – cooperative forms of economic activity involving mutual aid, free access to productive resources, and a sharing of the products of communal labor according to need. Anarchists don’t advocate going “back to the Stone Age;” they just note that since the hierarchical-authoritarian mode of organization is a relatively recent development in the course of human social evolution, there’s no reason to suppose that it’s somehow fated to be permanent. Similarly, anarchists don’t think human beings are genetically programmed for authoritarian, competitive, and aggressive behavior. On the contrary, such behavior is socially conditioned, or learned, and as such, can be unlearned.

Anarchist organization is based on direct democracy (self-management) and federalism (confederation). These forms of organization ensure that decisions flow from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down. We can start to create an anarchist society by the way we act here and now, building alternative institutions and relationships. When there’s a need to put someone in charge of a project, the group can tell him or her how they want it done, so that nothings gets done without everyone’s decision. Delegates acting against their mandate or starting to make policy decisions on their own would be instantly recalled. Thus, in a confederation of communities, the community assemblies’ decisions would determine policy at local, regional, national, and international conferences. Any compromises made by a delegate during negotiations would go back to his or her general assembly for ratification. Assemblies would also be able to call confederal conferences to discuss new developments and inform action committees about changing wishes and instructions. Finally, the basic community assemblies could overturn any decisions reached by the conferences and withdraw from any confederation.

Only this form of organization can replace government (the initiative and empowerment of the few) with anarchy (leaderlessness: the initiative and empowerment of all). Free agreement, confederation and the power of recall, fixed mandates, and limited tenure are mechanisms by which power is removed from the hands of governments and placed in the hands of those directly affected by decisions taken. That this kind of organization can work was demonstrated during the 1930s by the Spanish anarchist movement.

A true anarchist society would be based on free experimentation, with different individuals and groups picking the way of life that best suits them. Those who seek less technological ways of living will be free to do so as will those who want to apply the benefits of technologies they see as appropriate. Similarly, those who want to live in a money-less society in which resources are shared according to need can do so, while those who want to exchange goods market-style can live that way. (Truly free markets don’t exist under the government-supported system of capitalism.)

Our current governments support nation-states and wars, failing completely to include citizens in most life-and-death decision-making and forbidding them from coming together to create needed global policies.

On the question of violence, most anarchists support it only in defense of life and freedom. Although the violent acts of individuals and terrorist groups receive the most publicity, states and governments are by far the major perpetrators of mass terrorism and violence.

For more, see “Anarchism” under the Possibilities heading.

(Note: Some of the above was taken from the infoshop.org website.)

 

 

 

How to (possibly) avert disaster

Analyzing what’s happened and what’s happening as close to correctly as possible has always been essential to creating effective political strategies. Now, with our country teetering at the threshold of authoritarian fascism, it’s even more important than ever.

We can’t afford to waste our time and energy on propagandistic wild goose chases like the charge that Russia hacked the 2016 election. Donald Trump won the presidency and the Republicans gained control of Congress for many reasons, including an undemocratic political and electoral system that offers no good alternatives, profit-driven mainstream media that fails to keep the public informed, and voters who either stay home or vote for wild cards out of desperation. But one of the reasons for Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton was that she was the wrong candidate for the occasion. People wanted change, not more of the same, and the Democratic Party’s current strategy of blaming the Russians rather than acknowledging their mistake leads us down a false trail.

Back Bernie Sanders’ efforts in Congress and elsewhere if you want to stay in the mainstream. Read my recent posts on how to improve the system, if you want to go further.

It’s critical that we do this work now, while we’re still at the crossroads. When supposedly democratic political systems fail to address the people’s needs, they have two main options: populist authoritarianism or populist revolution, with many permutations in each category. Juan Peron of Argentina, Adolf Hitler of Germany, and Benito Mussolini of Italy are various “flavors” in the first category. In the revolutionary category, change can be sought violently or non-violently, with the non-violent option tending to be more democratic in outcome, since the means are the way. Cuban leader Fidel Castro led a violent revolution with democratic goals, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam started on the peaceful path and ended up having to use violence and dictatorial methods. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was a democratic populist who was also a typical Latin American “strongman” and at times a demagogue. The lines between all these “flavors” can be subtle, but the key questions to ask at every step are: Are people at the grassroots level well-represented? And does change come from the bottom up for the benefit of all equally?

Donald Trump fits the prototype of an authoritarian fascist leader. He’s a liar; a sexist; a racist, or at least a person willing to collude with racists; a nationalist at a time in our planet’s history when national borders should be obsolete, and at the same time a global businessman willing to put corporate interests above those of the nation. He’s a demagogue who threatens groups and individuals who disagree with or oppose him, and will soon have the power to use the greatest military, police, and judicial power on earth. He will also have the power, since the Democratic Party failed to oppose the Republicans’ illegal failure to approve an Obama-nominated Supreme Court Justice, to bring the third branch of government under his control.

This is a dangerous time, and we need to think clearly, outside the box, using reliable sources of information to create strategies to meet it.

You know what your values are. Hopefully, they’re similar to mine: preserving the vibrant life of Earth and all its life forms and protecting the right of every human man, woman, and child to clean air and water; basic nutrition, education, and health care; physical and emotional safety; and a say in every decision affecting their lives. The supposedly liberal Democratic regimes now behind us didn’t create or adequately safeguard these things, and the new Republican regime of Donald Trump actively threatens all of them. Act accordingly, without the need to respect the rule of unjust laws. But, most of all, base your actions on well-thought-out and researched analysis and strategy. I’ve given you some good sources in past blog posts, and there are book notes and other resources on my website www.wegotthenumbers.org. Start there, or forge your own path. Connect with others. Don’t waste time on false propaganda or too many feel-good actions that accomplish little else.

We may not be able to avert (further) disaster. But we can certainly give it our best shot.

The death of Fidel Castro

Castro outlived his vigorous, effective years, and was at the center of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but these aren’t reasons to forget his positive contributions to social justice. No world leader is perfect, and Fidel admittedly imprisoned thousands, executed hundreds, and kept Cuba under a tight rein, but this is what it took to counter the evils of capitalism in a capitalist-dominated world and US-dominated hemisphere. Overthrowing the US-supported, Mafia-infested Batista dictatorship was inspired by a desire to benefit the Cuban majority and took tremendous courage. Ditto for opposing US persecution for so many years. Though he ruled longer than any other world leader except Queen Elizabeth II, I don’t think personal power was Fidel’s main objective; preserving the social and economic equality of the revolution was. Little by little, capitalism is creeping back in Cuba, but that doesn’t mean the goals of the revolution were wrong, or that they can’t be achieved — hopefully less violently and more democratically — in more places in the future.

My personal connection to all this, apart from my being a confirmed socialist, is twofold. I first became aware of the Cuban revolution, which took place in 1959, a year after the fact when I asked a friend at the girls’ boarding school I attended what the words “26 julio” inscribed on her pencil case meant. She explained that it was the name of the revolutionary movement that had overthrown Batista. This wasn’t the only thing that made Buella different, and a year later she committed suicide. Bucking the tide isn’t easy.

Second, I was 18 years old, a freshman in college, in October 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. I believe that events that occur in one’s young adulthood can affect your thinking for the rest of your life. The Great Depression marked my parents, who always “saved for a rainy day,” and the Cuban Missile Crisis turned me into the opposite: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may be dead.” All that hiding under desks in preparation for possible Soviet bombers may have inspired these feelings, too, but the fear was more focused and intense in ’62. My parents were also strongly affected by World War II, as I was by the Vietnam War, which taught me to completely mistrust my own government — a lesson I’ve never unlearned.

Some of the news stories today seem to blame Castro for the Cuban Missile Crisis. No. He accepted the Russian missiles because of the threat the US posed to Cuba (the Bay of Pigs, over 600 attempts on his life, and a ridiculously long economic blockade). The US government can never allow a socialist government to succeed, especially in its own backyard. It also backed death squads in El Salvador and crushed the Nicaraguan revolution via economic blockade and the contras, who bombed newly built schools and hospitals and killed civilians right and left. And Vietnam…

To me, on balance, Castro and Ho Chi Minh are heroes. Viva la Revolución!