Book review: Europe’s New Strongman

Reuters/Laszlo Balogh

Book title: Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman
Author: Paul Lendvai
Released: 2019
Review by: Byron Clark

While there has hardly been a shortage of strongman leaders for the right to admire in recent years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stood out. Last year Vox referred to him as “The American right’s favourite strongman”1 and British far-right figurehead Tommy Robinson described him as the “defender of Europe” when appearing on Hungarian television.

In New Zealand Orbán has been praised by the far-right YouTube personality Lee Williams (who has favourably compared the New Conservative party to Orbán’s Fidesz party) and in Australia his support comes not just from the fringes but from mainstream politicians; in 2019 former Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave a speech in Hungary claiming migrants are “swarming across the borders in Europe”.2 Orbán was also praised by then US president Donald Trump in 2019 for doing a “tremendous job”.3

The biography “Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman” is the first book published in English on the topic of the Orbán regime. Paul Lendavi was born in Hungary and is now based in Austria. For this book he has drawn on work from Hungarian journalists and political scientists, making the book in-depth despite its short length. It is written for an international audience and doesn’t require extensive prior knowledge of Hungarian history or politics.

Orbán’s rise to power followed scandals in the centre-left Socialist Party, including financial corruption. While Orbán’s Fidesz regime has been far more corrupt, with Orbán enriching himself using the power he wields as prime minister, the Socialist Party is judged more harshly by voters for the sheer hypocrisy of their corruption; with Orbán’s Fidesz Party it has been expected.

Orbán has used anti-immigrant populism to gain support in one of Europe’s most ethnically homogeneous countries. At a march in Paris following the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, he announced “Zero tolerance against immigrants…As long as I am Prime Minister, and as long as this government is in power, we will not allow Hungary to become the destination of immigrants steered from Brussels.”

His government has erected billboards with messages to refugees – that if they want to come to Hungary they must integrate with Hungarian society, and must not take jobs from Hungarians. These billboards are however written in Hungarian, and are unlikely to be read by any Syrian or Iraqi refugees entering the country- a number which is very small, in part due to the fences erected on the country’s border with Croatia. The billboards are not really there for refugees to read; they are there to implant the idea in the minds of Hungarians that immigrants will steal jobs and refuse to integrate.

The regime has been effective at spreading this xenophobia. Polling cited in the book notes that fear of a terrorist attack from refugees (a statistically unlikely probability) is higher in Hungary than any other European country. More recent polls conducted since the book’s publication show sixty percent of Hungarians have a negative or very negative opinion of immigrants while a similar number (fifty four percent) hold negative or very negative opinions of Muslims.4

“Orbán makes no secret of his satisfaction at the misery of the refugees” writes Lendvai in reference to one of the prime minister’s speeches in 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis, where Orbán claimed “The crisis offers the opportunity for the national Christian ideology to reign supreme, not only in Hungary but in all of Europe”.

Orbán has also made a bogeyman of George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist who is a common figure in far-right conspiracy theories. Orbán, echoing those same theories, claims that Soros is promoting mass migration of Muslims into Europe. While Orbán claims that Muslim migrants will spread anti-Semitism, his rhetoric about Soros (a Jew and Holocaust survivor) comes with a heavy anti-Semitic subtext. Paraphrasing the liberal Hungarian weekly Magyar Narancs, who have compared the Soros conspiracy theory to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Lendvai writes “The world Jew has not been mentioned in the Soros context as there is no need – everybody understands the reference”. Polls cited by Lendvai show almost a third of Hungarians holding anti-Semitic views. Ironically, it was philanthropic work by Soros’ Open Society Foundation, promoting human rights and liberal democracy in Europe after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, that funded much of Orbán’s education.

The Fidesz regime in Hungary is likely to remain in power for years to come – in part because of constitutional changes made with the party’s unprecedented two thirds majority in parliament, and extensive gerrymandering – and will serve as inspiration for far-right groups in Europe and even further afield. This book will give readers the broad overview of contemporary Hungary that will help us recognise when politicians in our own countries attempt to come to power on a similar platform of xenophobia and bigotry.

1 https://www.vox.com/2020/5/21/21256324/viktor-Orbán-hungary-american-conservatives

2 https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/why-australia-s-conservatives-are-finding-friends-in-hungary-20190924-p52uim.html

3 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/13/trump-latest-viktor-Orbán-hungary-prime-minister-white-house

4 https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/europeanstateofhate-polling/

Book review: Culture Warlords

Image of Talia Levin via Shondaland.

Book title: Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy
Author: Talia Lavin
Released: 2020
Review by: Will Howard

Culture Warlords functions as a look at some hard truths of the world. It’s not very fun to be immersed in white supremacy, so I shy away from it. I let them have their corners, and fight them when they come near my spaces, but there’s only so much time to be sad and angry in life, so I don’t want to constantly give them my attention.

Talia Lavin makes a good case for why we MUST give them our attention, why we need to look at what they’re doing, and why antifascist activism must include monitoring and shining a light on the activities of white supremacists and those who unwittingly support them.

Several things surprised me about this book, that I should have already known but somehow had missed:

I had managed to not realise that white supremacy depended so much on anti-Semitism as a stalking horse for all of the world’s problems. Maybe this shows my sheer naivety, the same way that I felt stripped of innocence the first time I truly understood the level of threat my female friends go through on a daily basis, that our society bakes in with ever present sexualisation, and therefore ever-present danger scanning for sexual assault/

White supremacy depends for a chunk of its power on being unacknowledged. Simply naming these people, showing what they are doing and how they are organising, robs them of essential power (as it makes them less terrifying), but it also makes them less likely to recruit.

Lavin encourages us to be aware of the radicalisation of people via social media such as YouTube, and the seduction of found communities that embrace despair. People who long for imagined golden ages are prime targets for far-right recruitment. Anti-Semitism is used as a glue to hold together a bunch of theories that make no sense if you look at them closely.

People who may have correctly identified capital as the enemy are instead encouraged to hate “The Jews,” who are portrayed by the far-right as insidious elites in control of global capitalism.

Reading the book will give you a familiarity with terms associated with the alt-right such as “the Boogaloo” a meme about a second civil war in the United States, and “incels” or involuntary celibates, a deeply misogynistic community which overlaps with the alt-right, particularly in their online spaces where hatred of women is intertwined with racism. Lavin also examines the role the spectre of “Antifa” plays in the psyche of the alt-right, and why we hear so much about them.

Culture Warlords is a wild ride through a lot of seriously unfun stuff. But I came away from reading it mostly hopeful that the nightmares I’d just read about can be resolved.

Essentially, this is a great book to have around if you want a primer on the alt-right and white supremacy to show to others. It doesn’t pull punches on describing exactly what’s going on in the darker parts of the Internet. At the same time, it shows that these people want horrifying things, and hatred is sadly not something we have left in the past.

It’s a great book for getting angry, and for inspiring you to do something with that anger. And for showing that your anger CAN make a difference. That the nebulous forces of modern-day fascism, racism, and chauvinistic anti-feminism can be countered, and while they’re great at making noise, they’re not as big as they try to make themselves appear. Lavin describes many of the things we can do to fight:

Catalogue those who take part in white supremacy. People still in general know it’s wrong, it is rare for someone to be willing to back up their statements of intent, and people know there are consequences when they are named as part of these kinds of hateful groups.

Interrupt their planning/infiltrate their spaces. While I would leave this particular tactic to people with more energy than me, it’s recounted in the book, and definitely works.

Find ways to shut down their “dark-web” sections. As an IT professional, I feel that calling the places reported on here the “dark-web” is mystifying them, as in most cases these are websites and messaging applications anyone can go to. The more we can deplatform racism, the harder it is for white supremacists to connect openly and plan.

Support the efforts of any who humanise the other. Do your part to know other cultures, don’t accept racist jokes, make people think about the things they say, and help each other. Find a way to de-escalate people who have started falling into this stuff.

Point out that it’s capital that’s the enemy, not “the Jews.” Fight coded messages about bankers and rich families. Don’t let racist assholes derail the very real villainy that’s contained in the wealthy by mislabelling it as a Jewish conspiracy.

Come up with alternative communities to slide the disaffected into. So that they are not preyed upon by the far-right.

Talia hints at most of the above, though this book is intended as a guide, not a manual for disassembling the structures of power that white supremacy and anti-feminism are living on. Her words are heartfelt, and her descriptions poignant. This book catalogues what kind of hate is out there in the world, and gives a lens to view it. It calls for action, because inaction is to surrender. We should hear that call and unite to fight for a world worth living in.

All in all, I’d say it’s an excellent book for either stoking your rage, targeting your rage against the kinds of assholes who want to watch the world burn, or perhaps to give to friends or family members to provoke discussion. I’m not sure it will give you easy discussions, or that it will definitely sway anyone who’s already bought into white supremacy. But I think it might be the wakeup call that some people need to recognise the ills of our modern world.

These Nazis aren’t going to deplatform themselves, let’s get to it.

Book review: Troll Hunting – “she deserved it”

Image by Carl Wiens.

Book title: Troll Hunting: Inside the world of online hate and its human fallout
Author: Ginger Gorman
Released: 2019
Review by: Karen Effie

I like Ginger Gorman a lot. She would make a good, thoughtful friend. She’s open about her life and the difficulties she had with the book: the shaky boundaries between her and the trolls she researched, her gradual desensitization to the worst of trolling language, and her occasional changes of mind and heart as she got deeper into this world of misogyny, far rightism and mental chaos. I’m an older woman and an observer. My reactions may be similar to hers on a personal level, except I am much less internet savvy. I’m a good audience for her.

The book was also published in 2019 and talks about events that took place as long ago as 2010. 2019 seems like about a hundred years ago online. Gorman naturally omits much of what went down from about 2018 onwards, such as the Christchurch shooting and the scattering and hardening of important far right groups since Charlottesville. But politics is not her forte. She is interested in trolls as people, the effects of trolling on individuals, and in measures that could be taken to curtail predatory trolling (her term).

She begins with her own experience. As a liberal journalist she wrote up the story of two gay men who adopted a child, and her story portrayed them in a positive light. Later she discovered they had in fact kidnapped the child and were part of a paedophile ring. Gorman became the target of right-wing trolls who linked LGBTQ to paedophilia. She and her family were easily doxed and had to take measures to protect themselves. From there, she began to communicate with trolls, investigating their motivations and their lives. She also investigated the problems with legislation and the lack of political will that leaves targets of trolls with shattered lives and no official recourse.

The trolls themselves came from different ideological starting points. One man specialized in targeting left wing public figures he felt were not left wing enough. This particular man gave up trolling, seemingly maturing out of it. A larger number of trolls were avowedly on the right, including weev (real name Andrew Auernheimer) whom she interviewed by Skype while in hiding. In this interview, weev described himself as a professional racist who had always held Nazi views. For many trolls, however, ideology took a back seat to the lulz. Trolling was fun, brilliant, cruel, meaningless, sarcastic, pointed, transgressive, uniting, witty, elegant, powerful, self-deprecating, self-aggrandizing, chaotic, vicious. Targets were chosen because they were seen as hypocritical or annoying.

Within that mess of obscure motivations and plausible deniability (it’s just a joke!), two organizing features stood out.

The first was misogyny, either nascent or open. Women are shallow, they said. Women can’t hack or troll. Women don’t want us. Women are cancer. None of the trolls Gorman interviewed took an openly incel position but they weren’t far off it. Misogyny was more baked into the trollish worldview than racism. Apparently targets always deserved to be trolled, sometimes for reasons obscure even to the trolls. Women targets almost automatically deserved it. Being a woman online was enough. As for ‘she deserved it’, the book has a chapter on trolling and partner violence.

The second was the absolute drive for free speech. These guys pursued free speech in a manner entirely devoid of irony, given their efforts to shut down anyone who pissed them off. The free speech argument was complete, axiomatic, and a position to fall back on when pressured.

Ginger Gorman’s book explores these larger issues but comes to no particular conclusions. She unpacked the diffident stance taken by the police and other authorities. She also managed to get some useful information out of the Facebook representative for Australia and New Zealand (she is Australian). She called for stronger legislation and a more positive police response, and for social media giants to take responsibility. Much of this has been overtaken by events with recent bans by social media of Donald Trump and some far-right figures anyway.

She’s better on the micro issues, the terrible effects of trolling on the lives of targets including public figures, and has some discussion about the blurring of public and private life online, and how much of our work makes an online life necessary so we can’t just “not look at the internet”’ if we are being trolled. She also comes to the idea that lack of parenting has led to disaffected young men to take to trolling, a view based partly on what the trolls themselves told her. She doesn’t go into the history of trolling or the broader concern of how a socio-political environment arose that enabled trolling to flourish.

I enjoyed reading the book and I would like to have a coffee with Gorman. But being amiable and empathetic is not enough for me. The problem is liberalism: the same general wistful confusion about how the hell we came to this that I experience when I consider such complex issues. Why can’t we live and let live? Why can’t we accept each other’s differences? Why are we shouting and cancelling each other all the time? Why are we all so damaged? What happened to human decency? I am a natural liberal. I am of the generation that argued for free speech as part of a Left leaning agenda. I want a nuanced response to difference that values us all. I want to listen to the experiences of real people and only judge them once I know them, if at all. I could have written this book.

Since the Christchurch shooting, I have read what I can about the far right, and I have some disturbing experience of it from people in my life. I am perpetually perplexed and worried about it, but I don’t think the answer lies in better parenting (whatever that is) or legislating social media, which would probably hurt the Left more in the long run. I don’t think the overarching values of Left liberalism are anywhere near capable of dealing with the problem of trolling or any other feature of the far right.

Because, capitalism.

It is too late for all that. Trying to claw back good sense and decency and so on is not just an inadequate response to the sheer extremity of the multitudinous reactions to our truly dire socio-political and environmental situation. Cynicism, transgressivism, nihilism, atavism and accelerationism seem to me to be relatively meaningful reactions, and you don’t get them just on the far right.

Also, this. The various far right projects, online and in vivo, serve to block attempts at dismantling capitalism, and even to get to those attempts we need to get through the far right because they are a genuine and more immediate threat. Unless we do, we risk being inveigled into working alongside them because some of them want to dismantle the system too, and they are way pragmatic, and gleefully transgressive, and armed for bear. And yet it is the totality of the terminal stage capitalism we experience which makes clear thinking difficult and genuine organizing exhausting and piecemeal. Troll Hunting is not about the far right as such, but it is about bad faith abuse of power differentials, and all the qualities of moral damage in which the far right abounds. Taking all this on, at ‘real people’ levels, rather than expecting authorities or media corporations to rescue us, seems to be a better solution.

Book review: How to Lose the Information War

Image from iStock.

Book title: How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict
Editors: Nina Jankowicz
Released: 2020
Review by: Daphne Lawless

The authoritarian Russian state under Vladimir Putin is unquestionably an enemy of freedom and the working peoples of the world. It is hard not to cringe, though, when some American liberals try to blame Putin’s Russia alone for the Trump cult and the rise of authoritarian racism in the USA. This whitewashes the United States’ domestic history of white supremacy and social exclusion, and decades of liberal unwillingness to confront it.

But to deny altogether the impact of Russian information warfare on US politics is not only to deny the evidence ably collected by Robert Mueller and others; it is to deny equally strong evidence from several Eastern and Central European countries. It’s a feature of the globalised system that whatever is happening on the periphery will eventually make its way back to the “metropolitan” states. In the same way that the occupied Palestinian territories have become laboratories for new ways of suppressing protests and inconvenient populations later taken up worldwide, the tactics of Russian disinformation and “troll farming” were perfected in countries like Ukraine, Estonia and Poland – and no-one in the West paid attention, until they helped tip the balance in the US Presidential election. As the deputy defence minister of Georgia complains:

I remember the arguments of the Russian threat that we were telling [Western officials] in 2006, 2007, 2008 … We were considered to be crazed in Brussels and NATO headquarters, and now everybody [says] the same thing after eight years or nine years as if it’s something new. (Kindle location 1086)

Nina Jankowicz, a scholar of “the intersection of democracy and technology” was in Ukraine advising that country’s government on defence against Russian information warfare, when it suddenly became a live issue for the US in November 2016. Jankowicz’s book has the great virtue of avoiding both the “denial” and “scapegoating” approaches to the topic. Yes, she emphasises, Russian information warfare is real, it poisons the discourse and promotes reactionary politics and social conflict the world over. But it would have no purchase without taking advantage of pre-existing, real, social resentments and exclusions in every country. “The most convincing Russian narratives, and indeed, the most successful, in both Central and Eastern Europe and the United States, are narratives grounded in truth that exploit the divisions in societies.” (166)

In the United States, the biggest social division is along the lines of race and migration status. In Estonia, it was the Russian-speaking minority who had become more or less second-class citizens since independence from the Soviet Union. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, the biggest open wound in our society is of course the dispossession of Māori. Anyone who has seen a rally by the conspiracy theorist Billy Te Kahika will have seen the number of flags of Māori self-determination flying. This is a dangerous warning of the failure of the socialist Left to make its message more attractive to the most oppressed than Te Kahika’s COVID denial and fascistic mutterings about “elite globalists”.

Jankowicz brings up another problem which Fightback has repeatedly warned about – that Russian tactics of disinformation and heightening social tensions are not confined to promoting xenophobic or fascist ideas, but also promote Left-wing complaints about social inequality. In fact, contemporary Russian information warfare does not aim to promote any political ideology in particular, but only to heighten social divisions and tensions:

Despite the preferred imagery of most major news outlets that cover Russia—hammer and sickles, red and black color palettes, and misappropriations of the colorful onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral as ‘the Kremlin’—Russia’s modern information war is distinct from the one its Soviet predecessor waged. Unlike Soviet propaganda, which sought to promote a specific, communist-centric worldview, the Kremlin divides and deceives populations around the world with one goal in mind: the destruction of Western democracy as we know it. (Kindle locations 118-121)

It is for this reason that Russian interference in the 2016 election not only boosted the Trump campaign, but also the campaign of social democrat Bernie Sanders, and even the “Black Lives Matter” movement:

They argued for Texas secession, spread anti-immigrant vitriol, pitted Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter activists against one another, and even distributed “buff Bernie Sanders” coloring books. They were “fake” not because their content was falsified—although they included plenty of false or misleading information—but because they misrepresented their provenance… [The Russian troll farm] IRA employees had been instructed to instigate “political intensity” by “supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situations and oppositional social movements. (159, 362)

In line with her title, Jankowicz travelled to several Eastern and Central European countries to discuss the various ways in which they failed to stop Russian campaigns exploiting divisions within their societies. In some cases, it was because the local governments were complicit in the same thing. Poland’s governing party, the reactionary and homophobic Law and Justice Party, cannot successfully combat Russian forces spreading conspiracy theories, as long as they use precisely the same tactics against LGBT communities. Unsurprisingly, “some of the staunchest purveyors of this new wave of homophobic disinformation had connections to Russia” (1791).

Russian tactics thus make it perfectly possible to play both sides at once, not only for divisions within countries but between them, as they exploit mistrust and mutual ignorance between Western and Eastern Europe. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, leading to a continuing partial occupation, received no serious blowback from NATO, partly because Russian media successfully flooded Western media with the narrative that they were protecting minorities from Georgian “genocide”. (1184) Similarly, Russia intervened in a referendum in the Netherlands on European Union relations with Ukraine, successfully smearing Ukraine as a hotbed of corruption and fascism. At the same time, Russian media and Russia-aligned local media in Eastern European countries continually sound the warning that Western influence leads to homosexuality, paedophilia, obscenity, and attacks on traditional faiths (1374).

Jankowicz brings up the problem that I referred to in a previous article that disinformation and propaganda are “laundered” through Left-wing or Left-sounding voices. She quotes Georgian analysts who refer to this as the “deflective source model”: “disinformation is presented in a seemingly legitimate local source, and the original source of the information is obscured to make it seem more trustworthy.” (1365) She gives an extended account of a US anti-Trump protest in 2017 which was massively boosted – unbeknownst to its organisers – by the very same Russian networks who provide content for far-right outlets like Breitbart (1358). Similarly, one of the biggest supporters of Russian propaganda against Ukraine in the Netherlands was Dutch Socialist Party leader and Eurosceptic Harry van Bommel – not because he cared a great deal about Ukraine, but because any narrative which bashed the EU was useful for his party. Van Bommel’s statement that “People blamed me personally for being in the same boat as fascists … but, you know, sometimes people for the wrong reasons come to the right conclusions” (2129) is chilling for anyone who understands the threat posed by Red-Brown politics which blur the distinction between socialism and fascism.

Meanwhile, Ukraine attempted to salvage its image in the Dutch referendum with a campaign promoting a “positive narrative” about their country, which failed to have any impact. Jankowicz takes to task those strategists and politicians who believe that

if the West could only tell a more compelling, more strategic, more coordinated story, we could grapple with state-sponsored disinformation like the content that Russia produces. But this ignores realities of human nature and psychology. A press release, no matter how well written, cannot fully correct a salacious story. A fact-check, even if verified beyond a shadow of a doubt, will not convince a conspiracy theorist to give up his fervent speculations. (2439)

Only the Czech Republic, says Jankowicz, has put up any defence to Russian information warfare tactics – and even this has been derailed, partly because the unit responsible has its own problems with demonisation of Muslims and migrants, but also because many prominent politicians, including the country’s President, see it as a threat to free speech (2939).

Some socialist readers of this review might say: so what? Isn’t this just “blowback” from influence campaigns run by the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies? Harry van Bommel, for example, dismisses the question of Russian involvement in the Dutch referendum with reference to the fabricated intelligence about “Weapons of Mass Destruction” the United States used to justify the Iraq War. Jankowicz comments:

I can’t disagree, and really, it’s the perfect encapsulation of how Russian disinformation works: take something that people are already mad about, pollute the information ecosystem, and get them so frustrated they start to distrust institutions and disengage. (2390)

I’ve personally seen socialists suggest that this exacerbation of social divisions and distrust in the media (“the enemy of the people”, as Trump used to put it) is a good thing for our side. This seems to assume that when people lose faith in mainstream politics and information, they may as well turn to a socialist view of the world as to conspiracy theory and fascism. This is simply not true – in none of the examples in the book, nor those I am familiar with, does the turn away from mainstream “consensus reality” lead in the direction of equality and democracy. The only “Left-wing” ideas which benefit from online disinformation are actually reactionary ones – “tankie” politics cheerleading authoritarian states, science denial which threatens lives in the era of COVID-19, or sheer bigotry couched in “Left” language against migrants or trans people.

In contrast, Fightback stands in the Marxian tradition of bringing “workers and science” together. Where we reject mainstream narratives and ideology, it is at the point where they contradict facts and logic, where they justify exploitation and oppression with irrational beliefs. This is directly contrary to the world which Russian information warfare seeks to create – a nihilist world of “alternative facts” bubbles, where democracy becomes impossible for lack of a shared reality, and only an authoritarianism that tells enough people what they want to hear can restore order. “When we can’t agree on the truth within our own borders, we will not be able to dispute the lies coming from outside of them” (3268) – or anywhere else, for that matter.

Jankowicz is an American liberal and her solutions to the problem of information warfare – investment in journalism, improved education in civics and media literacy, and better funding for public libraries – rely on her belief that “what the West has, however imperfect, is worth fighting for” (250) She states in particular that “in this book, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have escaped serious inspection because the case studies outlined in these pages focus on government responses to disinformation”. (3047) This leaves something of a gap in the book, since evidence shows that the best response to information warfare (and to fascism) is deplatforming – as shown by the effectiveness of banning ex-President Trump from Twitter – and that, conversely, these Big Tech giants actually profit from the social division and “outrage clicks” generated by disinformation.

Certainly, we must defend the very limited rights of freedom of speech, organization, and political participation which are allowed under neoliberal capitalism. But the social divisions created by that very society make it possible for not only the Russian state, but corporate, state and reactionary propagandists of all sorts, to effectively shit in the meme pool, and repress consciousness to the point that the masses reject even these meagre democratic rights in favour of the pleasures of chauvinism and bigotry. “Fake news” and disinformation are part of life under capitalism, and only an end to social inequality can put a final end to them.

Aunties Book Review: An essential collection

It was satisfying to receive a Big Red Book in the mail.

Book title: Aunties
Editors: Kassie Hartendorp, Ella Grace, M.Newton, Nadia Abu-Shanab
Released: 2020
Review by: Ani White

The Aunties collection was crowdfunded in 2018, a collection of articles bringing together the perspectives of women, transgender, non-binary, and intersex people involved in political organising across Aotearoa. This was an initiative of editors Ella Grace, M. Newton, Kassie Hartendorp and Nadia Abu-Shanab (although they assert on the website that “we’re not editors, we’re organisers”, the collection is well-edited).

Crowdfunding from the community has allowed this collection to be accountable to the community, rather than to NGOs or even corporate funders who tend to downplay anti-systemic perspectives. For example, the decision to include a prison abolitionist perspective from People Against Prisons (PAPA) organiser Emily Rākete goes beyond what prison reform NGOs would allow.

Although the collection took three years to produce after the crowdfunding campaign, this is reflected in the breadth of the collection, with 25 articles spanning 100 pages. Many articles are brief, but rich. The collection is beautifully produced, with excellent design by Natasha Mead, Natalie Thomson and Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho – and many lovely illustrations and photographs throughout.

The cover is Simply Red, and it was satisfying to receive a Big Red Book in the mail. Although digital media has transformed communication in important ways, and can’t be ignored, there’s something to be said for a print collection in bringing together diverse articles in one lasting place, rather than isolated articles or fleeting 240-character hot takes. That said, for those who can’t afford the collection, there is a free pdf online until the end of the year – a good decision in terms of accessibility, in contrast to the academic approach which locks away important knowledge in subscription journals. The printed collection is also available to purchase for $30, and if you can afford that, it’s worth supporting the work and expense involved in drawing the collection together (international orders are also included).

The introduction accurately captures the conjuncture this collection intervenes in:

We face a number of challenges to our collective survival. We share an awareness of these challenges. Sometimes it makes us feel heavy and lost as we struggle to find our place.

We came together to make this magazine because you’re not alone. You shouldn’t feel like you have to face these things by yourself. You can’t and shouldn’t.

This emphasis on collective self-determination, as a solution to various interlocked crises, runs throughout the collection. Articles include a brief interview with Ihumātao organiser Pania Newton (for international readers: Ihumātao is a struggle for Māori land against property developers), an interview on organisation with beneficiary rights stalwart Sue Bradford (who calls for a “large scale party to the left of Labour and the Greens”), and an interview with veteran indigenous activist Hilda Harawira, among many others.

The collection takes in the perspective of both leading activists, and other contributors who may be erased even in activist politics. Related to the inclusion of these often-erased perspectives, Ihumātao ‘leader’ Pania Newton questions the very concept of ‘leadership’ in movements, as she has in her public speeches.

Although drawing clear political lines in the sand, the collection reflects the complexity and nuance of the various liberation struggles women and gender minorities are engaged in across Aotearoa. In part this stems from the emphasis on lived experience. The collection is also intergenerational, as suggested by the title Aunties.

Given the feminist decision to include only articles by women and gender minorities, often indigenous and women of colour, some may mutter about ‘identity politics.’ This is a bugbear of both the right and, unfortunately, much of the Conservative Left. However, a simple flick through the contents reveals that this collection transcends the tired identity vs class argument, with pieces by union organisers alongside wider community organisers and writers. Working-class self-organisation is not mutually exclusive with challenging multiplied forms of oppression, such as colonisation and sexism, and this collection reflects that fact. As union organiser Tali Williams outlines at the inception of her article:

A lot of the problems women experience stem from what happens at work. That’s why for centuries women have united and organised to confront the boss.

And as union organiser Shanna Olsen-Reeder points out in her article, the abuse she experienced from a boss “was a symptom of the system in which we operate: capitalism.”

All three union organiser contributors offer practical, useful and inspiring accounts of workplace organising, with Tali Williams writing on organising at a major NZ clothing brand, Shanna Olson-Reeder on organising at JB Hi-Fi, and Jacky Maaka interviewed on her work in the health sector respectively. This practicality of the approach to class is also reflected in the decision to include a WINZ Rights Info Sheet. 

That said, there is one weakness in the collection’s class politics: the articles on workplace organising are written by paid representatives, although at least one of them was first recruited from the shopfloor, and another is an elected paid delegate. In part this limitation is simply a reflection of wider conditions: no large-scale rank-and-file movement exists, so leftists tend to orientate towards left officials. Another underlying issue here is that even organised workers run the risk of facing (often illegal) disciplinary action if they speak up publicly, but a strong rank-and-file union movement should be able to back up workers who speak out publicly – perhaps anonymity is another option. I understand there was an intention to include more rank-and-file union perspectives, but this can be difficult to achieve in contemporary conditions  (as Fightback editors can attest).

The point here isn’t to moralistically condemn paid organisers, many of whom are good comrades. However, although organisers place an emphasis on workers’ self-organisation (Shanna Olsen-Reeder asserts that workplace organisers “didn’t rely on a union organiser to come in to our workplace” and Tali Williams asserts that there are “no experts here!”), we only hear the perspectives of paid representatives. This reflects the complex question raised by Pania Newton about the nature of ‘leadership’ in movements. Across the pond in Australia, I’ve been involved in a rank-and-file struggle against the collaborationist approach of the National Tertiary Education (NTEU) leadership, an approach sadly shared by the leadership of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) in Aotearoa – although more militant unions do not necessarily share that approach, the collaborationism during the COVID crisis has not been challenged the way it has in Australia. Bringing in more rank-and-file union perspectives would have strengthened a generally excellent collection, which does tend to otherwise emphasise self-organisation of oppressed and exploited communities.

Another thing which would strengthen the collection is a consideration of how struggles in Aotearoa are interlocked with international struggles, for example the role of labour migration to Australia (recently politicised with the COVD-era backlash against returning New Zealanders, many of whom have lost work in Australia). The question of refugee rights, such as the recent growth of refugees from Syria, also indicates how local issues are interlocked with international ones. That said, even with 100 pages of brief articles, there’s only so much space to include Everything That Matters. Also, work by Pasefika activists and writers, such as Leilani Visesio’s article, does bring an Oceanic perspective to the collection.

Overall, this is an essential collection for anyone looking to learn about liberation movements across Aotearoa, or to strengthen their organising work – perhaps the underlying message of the collection is kia kaha, be strong. We need more work like this, collecting together the experiences and lessons of various connected struggles.

Preserving Aotearoa/NZ’s revolutionary literature

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Radical Aotearoa Digital Archive (or RADAR) is a project to preserve the publications and media of the radical left in New Zealand. This archive is intended to serve as the central hub for efforts to digitise the many print publications of the radical left in New Zealand produced over the years – from the major newspapers & magazines, to individual pamphlets or leaflets, and eventually perhaps even rare books. Daphne Lawless, member of the Fightback editorial group and former editor of Socialist Worker Monthly Review and UNITY (2005-2011), was invited to give a talk to the launch of RADAR in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 2 February – the following message was read out.

Revolutionary greetings to comrades and friends at the launch of RADAR. I would have liked to be there, but travel expenses with a wife and toddler in tow were prohibitive.

For my sins, one of the many tasks with which I have burdened myself is cataloguing and sorting the Red Kiwi Library – the books and periodicals collection of the Communist Party of New Zealand and its successor, Socialist Worker, of which I was a leading member. To some extent, for me this has been similar to sorting through the effects of a deceased relative. Nostalgia, combined with occasional delight of discovery, and sadness for what might have been.

I caught myself wondering on several occasions – is this what nearly 100 years of revolutionary socialist activism in Aotearoa/New Zealand amounts to? A hundred or so boxes of paper, much of it nothing but trash, most of the rest only of interest to sad obsessives like… well, like the people who’ve made it here today?

“Publishing the revolutionary paper” has been a nostrum of Lenin’s school of revolutionary politics since its beginning. The idea was not only the question of getting The Truth (or, in the Russian, pravda) into the working class’s hands, but that writing, producing, distributing and financing the paper were the “scaffolding” around which a revolutionary party might be built that would seize state power.

Far too often, though, The Paper (and revolutionary publishing in general) became not a tool for building the party; rather, the party becomes a mechanism for keeping The Paper alive, and thus giving a few committed socialist writers/editors something to do with their spare time. You’ve got to wonder: what is the point of a “revolutionary paper” which is funded by the revolutionaries themselves, rather than by the audience they hope to reach? The financial question is a political one.

I was part of the last major attempt at a mass socialist paper in this country, Workers’ Charter. I personally believe it was an excellent broad-left paper. But the working masses who read it clearly did not think it was vital enough to support it financially – and we quickly ran out of our own resources.

Clearly basing our activity around a paper publication would be woefully insufficient in the Internet era. (Workers’ Charter didn’t even have a website!) Gone are the days when we could sneer at social media and websites as “petty bourgeois”, the kind of thing that REAL WORKERS don’t waste their time with. Workers under 30 are digital natives. And workers over 30 are increasingly having to catch up with them. (One interesting tangent is how the online growth of conspiracy theory can be traced to people who grew up pre-Internet getting online late in life – without having developed the ability to recognize trolling, scamming and disinformation.)

To be frank, these days a Facebook post will probably reach as many workers as standing on a street corner selling a newspaper – and it takes less time, effort and expense. So is revolutionary publishing dead? Well, as I see it, it’s a lot like the music industry, and not just because it seems to rely in practice on exploiting the labour of the young and enthusiastic. No, it’s because it requires alternative revenue streams to function. Crowdfunding, Patreon and similar online initiatives are one possible solution to this. But there’s also the issue that it’s hard to get people to pay money for a non-physical good. So, the link between support for the content and handing over some capitalist currency so it can keep being produced needs to be re-established.

I would also say that one advantage that paper has over electrons is permanence. Electronic publications can be reproduced infinitely at no cost. But storage and bandwidth do cost, and are impermanent. On my office desk now are CPNZ publications going back to 1934. They sat in various offices for 85 years, gathering dust but otherwise intact. Can we be sure that the YouTube videos and podcasts which are now the cutting edge of leftist media outreach will even be still available in 10 years, let alone 85? The impermanence of the online medium is actually considered a benefit for people who don’t want to have their teenage Xena: Warrior Princess fan-fiction following them around as adults. But that’s the opposite of what socialist publishing needs.

Because there is another major problem in the actually existing socialist movement, and that is the lack of continuity. Over the last 10 years in New Zealand politics, all but one of the major revolutionary socialist groups collapsed. To make a broad summary: the “baby boom” generation who’d been carrying these organisations on their backs for 50 years were not able to continue, and the “Millennial” generation weren’t interested in carrying on in the old ways. (And there weren’t nearly enough of the in-between sort, like myself.)

New organisations and media projects have arisen. But there’s no organisational continuity. The “tacit knowledge” that literature on education in organisations talks about hasn’t been passed down. And most of the “explicit knowledge” contained in publications isn’t read by the younger generation. They don’t think they need it. It’s almost like 1969 again – “never trust anyone over 30” (and also, all the people who were anarchist hippies yesterday seem to be turning into Marxist-Leninists!) We seem to be re-inventing the wheel in some cases.

Which is where RADAR comes in, by at least providing some kind of permanence to electronic revolutionary publications in Aotearoa/New Zealand over the last 25 years. I hope that there will be synergy between this project and my own of making the “Red Kiwi Library” available to the movements once again. There’s a hell of a lot of dusty old polemics sitting in my office that could use scanning. Since the revolutionary groups have either collapsed or ossified, it seems to be left to us (amateur) historians and archivists to keep the ideas of the past alive.

A website of ancient blog posts, or a bunch of dusty old boxes of books, might not be a great legacy, but they are what we have. And you know what they say about people who forget the past.

The struggle continues.

Fahrenheit 11/9 review: “There are many Americas”

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By Ani White.

Why is there a water crisis in Michigan? “We don’t have the power. We don’t run the factories.”

I was worried that Michigan local Michael Moore might affirm the dominant ‘white working class’ narrative with this film. The above line, spoken by a black working class Michigan woman, abolishes that bullshit in one shot.

Moore is utterly clear that Trump was never the working class candidate. 75% of the USA didn’t vote for him, and the remaining 25% is the wealthiest slice of the electorate.

The film wisely doesn’t focus too heavily on Trump’s various daily inanities, implicitly assuming we already understand he’s evil and ridiculous. Rather, Moore asks what it is about the USA that allowed Trump to gain power. The answers: firstly a sensationalist media that Trump played like a harp from hell, secondly the electoral college, thirdly the demobilisation of the Democrat base, and fundamentally the perennial: racialised, gendered capitalism in advanced senility.

I’m not always a Moore fan – Bowling for Columbine was hilarious at age 13, Roger and Me was an important history lesson, but Fahrenheit 9/11 and Capitalism: A Love Story were politically messy and narcissistic. This film is getting bad box office, and I saw it essentially by accident, initially meaning to see Suspiria which was sold out. However, Fahrenheit 11/9 is a return to form.

Moore employs his traditional populist montage-heavy method for variously better and worse, it’s eclectic and too damn long, but overall it’s bang on target. My red heart swelled at shots of striking teachers set to marching drums. Moore’s familiarity with his home state delivers many cogent and powerful moments.

Couple of political criticisms: Moore sort of dog-whistles at 9/11 trutherism, and just to state an unpopular opinion on the left, he is too soft on the Sanders wave. Vote Democrat out of sheer desperation if you like, but it seems to me that turning the party left-wing is a fool’s errand.

That said, he conveys the deep disappointment generated by every prior Democratic president, constructing a convincing narrative of a party split. For all my many criticisms, I feel the excitement of a youthful socialist counterpublic forming, and understand the need for optimism.

Why do we need optimism? Because a racist misogynist failed businessman leads the ‘free world’, and the fascists are back.
Merry Fucking Christmas.

 

Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe (Book Review)

 

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Pataka gallery exhibition by Murdoch Stephens.

By Giovanni Tiso.

The successful campaign to double the New Zealand refugee quota began with an exhibition. It opened at the Pataka gallery in Porirua, in 2013, and consisted of a collection of photographs of Afghan nationals that Murdoch Stephens had recovered at an abandoned refugee detention centre in Iran. Placed within a larger exhibition on migration, the display of black and white photographs without names or any other identifying information attached was a powerful signifier of the loss of personal and collective history that the displacement of people almost always entails.

Having become the temporary custodian of this archive – which is now housed with the Afghan Centre at Kabul University – was one of the sparks that motivated Stephens to launch his campaign and articulate the demand (‘double the quota’) which became synonymous with it. It was by no means a radical demand: it didn’t ask of the country to fundamentally alter its existing approach to refugees, but merely to expand a commitment to resettlement that was very low by international standards and had not been increased in decades. However, at a time of hardening of the borders, even such apparently modest demands can be radical in outlook and force us to look critically at our place in the world.

I thought about the collage of nameless photographs I saw at Pataka as I read Lights in the Distance, Daniel Trilling’s new book on the European response to what most of us are liable to calling ‘the refugee crisis’. Trilling suggests it might better be described as a border crisis and proceeds to illustrate a system whose principal aim is to defend Europe’s borders as opposed to protecting people’s lives. Crucially, the book delves into the extraordinarily opaque and convoluted workings of this system not by means of policy analysis and journalistic reporting but rather through the first-person accounts of actual migrants.

This approach has two distinct virtues: firstly, it makes the subject matter knowable at all, since any attempt to forensically dissect the permanent and temporary measures enacted piecemeal by European nations over the last decade would defy any writer and deter all readers; secondly, and I think more importantly, it restores the personhood of the people targeted by those measures. This has an explicitly political intent. As Trilling writes, ‘the starting point should be the migrants themselves, [whose] experiences are often treated as secondary to the question of what to do with them.’

Jamal, who fled Sudan as a teenager; Zainab, who left Iraq with her three children; Ousmane, who was born in Guinea, studied in Senegal and tried to find work in Mauritania; Caesar, who hails from southern Mali; Fatima from Syria, the Ahmeds from Afghanistan and several others meet on the pages of this book because of a thing they all have in common: having attempted to make a new life in Europe. But there are just as many things that set them apart. They all have distinct motivations, aspirations, social resources and networks of support. They all speak in a different voice. Trilling met them over the course of the years he spent covering the issue and travelling to its hot spots: the port town of Calais, Sicily, Greece, Bulgaria, Ukraine.

Often we encounter the same people in different countries and at different stages of their journey. Some of the stories end well. Others, not so well. Some others are still nowhere near a resolution of any kind. But it’s important to take note of the things they have in common.

The first one is the constant state of existential danger. People fleeing extreme poverty, war or persecution wishing to reach Europe are met first of all with the perils of the journey itself, be it as they attempt to cross the Sahara to get within sight of it, or as they sit in smugglers’ boats which are not worthy of the name – leading to thousands of drownings every year along the route from Libya to Southern Italy alone. Almost every path is potentially deadly. A visit to the migrants’ graveyard in Sidiro, Greece, bears testimony to the hundreds of people from Asia and Africa who failed to cross the Evro river to safety: some of them drowned, others froze to death during the winter months.

The danger doesn’t cease once the migrant sets foot in Europe. Trilling visits the Afghan community gravitating around Saint Panteleimon Square, in Athens, during the campaign of violence carried out by Golden Dawn. The attacks followed a chilling script:

At night, when crossing the square in small groups or alone, Afghans would be approached by a child. The child would ask them where they were from. If they said, ‘Afghanistan,’ a group of adults standing nearby would come over and assault them. Sometimes it would be kicks and punches, other times it would be a plank of wood or a broken bottle.

People without rights, without the protection of the law – often exposed, in fact, to the random brutality of the police – must constantly work to maintain a level of basic safety that the rest of us take for granted. And this is the second thing the migrants in the book have in common: save for the occasional period of confinement in a facility, camp or actual prison, they all have to spend an enormous amount of labour in order to continue to survive, to keep moving and to retain some control over their lives, whether it is by foraging for food inside of skips, re-selling state-supplied phone cards for loose change, begging, or trying to hitch a ride on the underside of a truck. This last form of work – requiring constant vigil and the ability to evade a number of protective measures – exemplifies the utter lack of both security (in a social sense) and safety (in a physical but also psychological sense) to which irregular migrants in Europe are subjected to. It takes Jamal four years to succeed in stowing himself under a truck and then onto a ferry from Patras to Venice. Having reached Calais, after months of failed attempts he finally gives up on his plan of ever reaching Britain. It takes the time of a ferry ride, if you are legally entitled.

This leads us to the third and most important shared experience of the characters in Lights in the Distance: the almost ritual erasure of identity.

The migrant who wishes to enter Europe must become undocumented in order to maximise his or her chances. If a false passport was secured, it will have to be jettisoned after use. If a temporary document was assigned, it will be destroyed before crossing into the next country, as will the SIM card in the migrant’s phone. For the policing of the borders is also a policing of identities.

The Eurodac police database allows European countries to enforce the Dublin Regulation dictating that asylum must be sought in the country where one first entered the EU. Often, however, these are also the border countries that take the longest to process applications and offer the least welfare in the interim. Thus, the migrant who plays by that particular rule and lets their point of entry be recorded on the database may be forced into homelessness while they wait indefinitely for their ‘turn’ to have their application heard. In one of the most dramatic episodes recounted in the book, one of Trilling’s interviewees tells him of how fellow Sudanese migrants camped outside Calais would attempt to burn off their prints by pressing their fingertips onto a red-hot iron – all to prevent detection by Eurodac.

Such literal acts of mutilation are the mirror of the demand placed on migrants to forget who they are, so we may forget that they exist. In what is perhaps the cruellest consequence of this demand, those who cross the border without documents expose themselves to the risk of having their death rendered anonymous and go unreported among their loved ones back home. As Trilling notes, the graves in the cemetery at Sidiro are all nameless, like the photographs in the archive found by Murdoch Stephens.

There is immense political value in allowing migrants to tell their own stories and restoring the full and often staggering complexity of their experience. Think of the prohibition for the media and NGOs to speak to the prisoners at Nauru or Manus Island, and how concealing their humanity contributes to erasing their rights. And think of the effect that a single photo had, when the lifeless body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi shook the collective conscience of Western nations more than the mass drownings that preceded it.

The historical comparisons have political value, too. Lights in the Distance ends in the past tense, with the story of the author’s grandmother – a Jewish refugee who had first her Russian, then her German citizenship revoked between the two wars, thus was made twice stateless, undocumented by two different acts of government before finding fortuitous asylum in London on the eve of global disaster. It is a grim but instructive parallel, and a fitting conclusion for this important book.

Book review: The Impossible Revolution – Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy

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Demonstration outside Syrian embassy in London – art by Hamid Sulaiman (source).

By Ani White.

As sectarianism and the far-right rear their heads internationally, it’s easy to forget the optimism of 2011. Those seeking to understand this trajectory must read Syrian revolutionary Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s essay collection The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.

A foreword by Robin Yassin-Kassab, who co-wrote the excellent work Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, explains why this work is so essential:

 ” ‘They simply do not see us’, [Yassin al-Haj Saleh] laments. If we don’t see Syrian revolutionaries, if we don’t hear their voices when they talk of their experience, their motivations and hopes, then all we are left with are (inevitably orientalist) assumptions, constraining ideologies, and pre-existent grand narratives. These big stories, or totalising explanations, include a supposedly inevitable and ancient sectarian conflict underpinning events, and a jihadist-secularist binary, as well as the idea, running counter to all evidence, that Syria is a re-run of Iraq, a Western-led regime change plot. No need to attend to detail, runs the implication, nor to Syrian oppositional voices, for we already know what needs to be known.”

For many ‘anti-imperialists’, this disengagement is a matter of maintaining a clear ideology. Given the focus on the USA as the Great Satan, a situation where the USA’s role is marginal, where a supposedly ‘anti-imperialist’ regime perpetrates mass slaughter with the support of the Russian and Iranian regimes, is ideologically inconvenient. The retreat into conspiracy theory (depicting revolutionaries as foreign agents) serves to warp reality so it stays consistent with ideology.

Although this ideology claims the mantle of anti-imperialism, its proponents see people exactly as empires do; pawns on a global chessboard. To regain our revolutionary conscience, ‘anti-imperialists’ must learn from the ground up, through an allegiance with people rather than states. As a Syrian communist partisan of the revolution, Saleh’s work is crucial in this rethinking of the world.

Having spent 16 years in prison for his political activities, Saleh is an implacable opponent of the regime – yet as the so-called ‘conscience of the revolution’, he is also a thoughtful opponent, raising challenging questions for all who read. Most of the essays in this collection were written during 2011, capturing the spirit of the moment. Yet right from the start, Saleh also delves deeper into historical and structural questions to explain driving factors in the revolution. Later essays, from 2012-2015, provide perhaps the most significant sustained analysis of the revolution’s tragic collapse available in English.

Saleh’s analysis is both educational on the Syrian situation specifically, and a master-class in structural analysis generally.  An early essay outlines the class composition of Syrian society. Saleh identifies a ‘new bourgeoisie’ that is the base of the Assads’ dictatorship; the loyal intellectuals of the ‘Syrian Arab Republic’, who offer superficial opposition without questioning the fundamentals of Assad’s rule; an urban middle class, and a poor rural majority, who together formed the base of the revolution. Saleh suggests that the middle class and poor were united by an experience of work, in contrast to those who prosper without working. This gulf widened during the early 2000s, with the introduction of neoliberal reforms.

To explain how the Assads have maintained power, Saleh often returns to Assad Sr’s development of a brutal security apparatus, and an ideological apparatus centring on Assad himself. This fiefdom was inherited by his son. Saleh argues that this is a fascist state apparatus, a characterisation that is worth thinking through given the international rise of the far right, many in fact exploiting the Syrian refugee crisis.

It is commonly asserted that the Syrian revolution is discredited by sectarianism. In particular, the Sunni majority is often depicted as too sectarian to govern. Although it is a dangerous simplification, this view has a ring of truth as confusing sectarian warfare fills the nightly news: as Saleh grimly notes in his final essay, Syria’s war “promises to be an ideal specimen for the study of sectarianism.” In this disquieting spirit, the later essays consider the problem in detail.

Saleh famously distinguishes between the ‘neck-tie fascists’ of the regime and the ‘long-beard fascists’ of political Islam, indicating the way Syrians are caught between a rock and a hard place. However, he avoids the common simplification that ‘both sides/all sides are equally bad.’ He centrally contends that sectarianism is a political tool, not a matter of ancient identity. More specifically, sectarianism is deeply rooted in the Assadist regime itself.

Saleh’s final essay, the longest in the collection, roots modern sectarianism in the Assadist ‘neo-Sultanic state.’ This state opportunistically fosters sectarianism in various ways, all preserving a dictatorial power structure. Firstly, the ‘neo-Sultanic state’ fosters sectarianism with the elevation of Alawites, an Islamic sect of which the ‘Sultans’ (Assads) are members. Secondly, while the repressive apparatus (or ‘inner state’) is sectarian, the ideological apparatus (or ‘outer state’) maintains a kind of hollow secularism that represses discussion of sectarianism. Thirdly, the development of a corrupt ‘clientelism’ (bribes, favours for friends, and other forms of cronyism) that favours some sects over others.

Saleh argues that sectarianism is ultimately about class, providing cultural justifications for material hierarchies. In Syria specifically, the Sunni majority is dispossessed, and their poverty is blamed on their cultural ignorance.

In this repressive context, devoid of a common civil society, it is remarkable that the 2011 revolution saw such a flowering of non-sectarian sentiment. Slogans such as ‘Sunnis and Alawis are One’ defied the Balkanisation of communities fostered under the Assad regime.

To undercut the legitimacy of the uprising, Assad’s regime set out to stoke sectarianism. The regime carried out massacres targeting Sunnis well before the revolutionaries armed themselves, and infamously released many Salafists from jail.

Saleh refers to the growth of political Islam in this context as a kind of ‘militant nihilism’ – seeing the whole world as corrupted, withdrawing into an abstracted mental space that justifies all manner of cleansing violence. Nonetheless, Saleh maintains that this is only a defensive posture given the besieged and isolated position of the Sunni majority (note that this analysis does not apply to ISIS, who are essentially an occupying power not borne of the revolution).

With the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, many observers have returned to the confirmation bias which says Sunni Arabs are too backwards to govern, too easily forgetting what 2011 illuminated. While discussing the many sectarian ‘fiefdoms’ developing by 2013, Saleh clarifies: “The fall of the regime would not mean an end to the process of ‘feudalization’ – but there is no hope of stopping this feudalization without overthrowing the regime.”

Saleh promotes a democratic Syrian nationalism, as an alternative to both Assad’s Syria and an Islamic state.

This progressive nationalism is worth considering critically. Saleh suggests that only the revolutionaries truly adhere to the ideal of ‘Syria’, often implying their enemies are not truly Syrian (whether by citizenship or philosophy).  Assad’s regime is regularly compared to a colonial regime, and Islamists are depicted as fundamentally more international than local. These are compelling points, and everyone can probably agree that tensions internal to Syria have been exploited by various international actors. At one point Saleh suggests in passing that the ‘central bourgeoisie’ could also be considered an ‘external bourgeoisie’ due to its international trade. However, identifying the revolution with ‘Syria’ and counter-revolutionary enemies with ‘foreignness’ seems surprisingly Manichean for such a sophisticated thinker (and an ironic inversion of the Assadist propaganda that all rebels are foreign agents). Even if international forces exploit divisions in Syrian society, that doesn’t mean that all enemies come from outside Syrian society. Some may also question Saleh’s position on the Kurdish national question, apparently believing that a liberated Syria should include Kurdish territory under a single nation (though recognising linguistic and cultural rights), in contrast to the secessionist position held by the Kurdish leadership.

Conversely, Saleh’s nationalism is far from an unthinking adherence; rejecting the stifling culture of the Assad regime, he calls for the development of a pluralist Republican intellectual culture. Saleh’s nationalism is more Gramscian then jingoistic, seeking the development of a new civil society, and his ‘Syria’ is aspirational. For Saleh and other Syrian revolutionaries, ‘Free Syria’ holds the promise of a unity based on common citizenship rather than Balkanised sects. This vision stands in stark contrast to the Assadist form of ‘Modernization’, which treats the Sunni majority as children to be managed for their own good, rather than democratic subjects.

The Impossible Revolution is essential reading for anyone considering social transformation in the 21st Century. It should be read along with Burning Country (reviewed here).

Prince and Politics in Reagan’s America

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Originally published by redwedgemagazine.

Jordy Cummings is a critic, labor activist and PhD candidate at York University in Toronto.

In the face of profound social, political and economic tragedy, it has often been the case that popular musicians, out of a sense of solidarity, put out a song to capture the moment and inspire the movement. It is often the case, by virtue of historic specificity, that these songs don’t date well, their universality caught in the particularity of a given moment. There are a few songs, however, that have outlasted their origins and continue to resonate. Neil Young’s “Ohio,” Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” and, most recently, in the face of the spate of police murder of Black youth, and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, Prince’s “Baltimore.”

Reminiscent of mid-period Prince and the Revolution, it combines a funkish shuffle in a minor key with vaguely country/western sounding acoustic and electric guitars. The lyrics, while angry, are more sad and resigned than anything else: “Nobody got in nobody’s way… So I guess you could say it was a good day… At least a little better than the day in Baltimore… If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace.” Never an explicitly political artist, except perhaps in what he signified and his charmingly naïve “Ronnie Talk to Russia,” urging the new US president to end the Cold War, Prince nevertheless was compelled by circumstances to write a song for the moment, and it will remain relevant, even if the battle is ever won.

And it was in many ways his swan song.

The Reaper has been busy in 2016, Prince is dead at 57 years old and only recently on the road doing a well-received solo piano tour. Looking back at nearly four decades of hybridizing rock, funk and dance music, there can be no doubt that the man was a pioneer, sonically, aesthetically and as an artist who stood up and fought back against a music industry that alienated his labour. It’s damned-near impossible to think of an artist like Prince on any of these levels, as he is likely one of the last artists coming out of the guitar/bass/drums pre-1980 world to have virtually invented a new form of music. Starting out playing in funk bands, he became part of a vibrant Minneapolis music scene in the late seventies, a time in which an audience existed for both Black artists like Prince and Morris Day and white punk bands like the Replacements and Husker Du. Like Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott in Ireland, Prince never was seen as a “Black guy doing white music”, he was simply a musician in a red-hot and innovative music scene unaffected by coastal snobbery or Southern reaction.

In 1982 he put out his most ambitious record, the double vinyl 1999. Like Stevie Wonder’s 70s period, Prince played every instrument on the album. Pushing over 70 minutes, 1999 never drags at all, combining some of the great pop singles of all time with even deeper funk, harder rock and a synth sound as overworldly as anything coming from the growing synth-pop scene across the pond in the UK. With 1999 Prince took the sonic template he’d set with his first three records and set a musical and aesthetic template that would touch artists as varied as Beck, Ween, Daft Punk and Kool Keith. Like American punk rock vocalists trying to affect a British accent, a hell of a lot of rock and R&B since Prince has had vocalists affecting a Minnesota accent, the sibiliant “ts” and “s”, the extended vowels (fast, coming out as “fa-yast”). Listen to Beck’s vocal intonations, even Michael Jackson on his post-1983 work or most recently, Drake’s half-sung choruses – this is Prince-style phrasing.

Prince was now a rock star in the height of Reagan’s America, a time of renewed conformism and neoliberalized expectations about collective political projects. The dominant themes at that time, in film and in music were taking the public’s false optimism and problematizing by showing its limits. Dated as they are, films like Footloose andFlashdance were essentially about the alienation of the body by social conservatism, the first attempt at “Making America great again”, an era captured well on the FX series The Americans. Prince took some of the great songs from his live set, notably his showstopper “Purple Rain,” and with some screenwriters, developed one of the greatest music films of all time, with that title. A sort of homage to The Harder they Come with a background more of a dysfunctional lower-middle class family and Ziggy Stardust-style dreams of escape for a character known merely as “the Kid”, Purple Rain was nearly blocked by the studios, but was released and was a huge hit. The accompanying album, a soundtrack but also a fully-realized record in its own right, was shorter than 1999, and this time more band driven and guitar heavy.  It was not without subtle sonic innovations, like the eerie “When Doves Cry,” which contains no bass-instruments and uses negative space in a fashion reminiscent of the Velvet Underground.

Prince spent the rest of the 80s touring through sonic textures and making them his own, evoking the Beatles onPaisley Park with its classic singalong choruses, notably “Raspberry Beret”; adding deep funk back into the mix onParade, the best Beck album that Beck never made.  Following this was another sprawling double album’, Sign O’ the Times, in which the aforementioned political bent came to the fore once again, along with a return to a pronounced sexual ambiguity, with a number of songs sung from the point of view of a female protagonist. The references to AIDS, still spoken about in hushed tones in early 1987 accompanied angry denunciations of Reagan’s Star Wars programme and the brand-new drug, crack cocaine. Like 1999, Sign… is a long album, even longer than 1999, but it doesn’t drag and while it isn’t the most “fun’ record Prince put out, it likely stands as crowning achievement.

Prince’s followup to Sign…, The Black Album (so named as its fall 1987 release was supposed to be in a plain Black album cover/CD booklet with no credits, names or even song-listings). While there are many stories as to why it was pulled, and many more wrong-headed accounts of it as Prince’s “failed attempt to reach a black audience,” the consensus among those close to Prince is that it was recorded and written during Prince’s discovery of MDMA (Ecstasy). Prince later had a sort of “bad trip” and decided to pull the album, likely knowing it would be widely bootlegged and with the legend around it, it was “officially” released in 1994. A dark druggie/sexy record, it goes above the status of being a mere curiosity in its signification of the end of Prince’s “classic period”. The album he put out instead, LoveSexy, had some great singles, but it marked the beginning of Prince seemingly realizing he needed to grope towards a new sound. This was hinted at with his shimmering, House-influenced score for Tim Burton’sBatman reboot.

One thing that can be said about Prince in the 80s that leads us back to his song last year for Black Lives Matter. This was his sense of humility, as an artist, in particular around his main theme, that of love and sex, and the divergences and intersections between the two, the combination of intensity with matter-of-fact. As a male artist, he was certainly far from perfect, but one would be hard pressed to find celebrations of rape culture or traditional “womanizing” in his lyrics. His career of crafting mega jams about getting down while being respectful and not paternalistic and highly sexual while not being proprietary stands in stark contrast to most other performers.* Likewise, in making political statements, Prince is expository and empathic, not posing as more militant-than-thou. Nuclear war, crack, AIDS, the murder of Black youth by the pigs, these all made Prince sad.

It is sad that he died at 57, but not as sad as the world might have been had he not made it somewhat more interesting, fun, danceable and contemplative. Nothing compared 2 him.

*I owe this insight to Bryan Doherty