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.

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


murdoch exhibition

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


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).

Book Review: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate


by Naomi Klein: Simon & Schuster, 2014

Review by Daphne Lawless (Fightback Auckland / Tāmaki Makarau)

It’s quite depressing to note how long the facts have been out there that capitalism is – literally and figuratively – eating up the only planet we have. Scientists were telling US President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 that the emissions of industrial civilisation could dangerously heat the planet, a “greenhouse effect” which NASA scientist James Hansen made a household word with his testimony to the US Congress in 1988.

But even at that stage, it became clear that the mega-corporates who were then beginning the process of neoliberal globalization did not see this as a priority. British comedian Ben Elton’s novel Stark, which came out in the previous year, envisaged the mega-rich building a spaceship to abandon a doomed planet. Almost 30 years later, all that has happened is that the question has become more urgent, as shown in the latest book by Canadian activist Naomi Klein.

Klein presents her book as an expose of:

“the power and ideological roadblocks that have so far prevented [technological solutions to climate problems] from taking hold on anything close to the scale required… a shift that challenges not only capitalism, but also the building blocks of materialism that preceded modern capitalism”.

The central argument of Klein’s book is not only that climate change is an existential crisis for human civilisation, but that it is also the key link for a new movement which can challenge the era of neoliberal globalized capitalism. She argues that, since the end of the slave trade, all subsequent social movements have been defused by granting legal and social demands for equality while increasing economic equality:

“These economic demands… represent nothing less than the unfinished business of the most powerful liberation movements of the past two centuries…Climate change does not need some shiny new movement… where others failed; climate change can be the force… that will bring together all of these still living movements”.

This review will argue that, in this latest book, Klein’s main contribution to the movement is to show clearly that the struggle for social justice and post-capitalist economics goes hand-in-glove with not only the “eco-socialist” programme for a post-extractive economics, but the defence of the traditional rights and resources of Indigenous people. She even touches on feminist issues, given Western culture’s history of using metaphors for technological process which suggest the forcible violation of “Mother Nature”.

Sacrifice zones

One of Klein’s strengths is in coining pithy phrases to encapsulate vital issues for the movement to grasp. Her previous books have given us phrases like “disaster capitalism” and “the shock doctrine”; this book gives us not only “extreme extraction”, but “sacrifice zones”. The latter are “places that, to their extractors, somehow don’t count and can therefore be poisoned, drained or otherwise destroyed” – landscapes sacrificed to big energy projects like hydro-dams or open-cast mines, for example.

Crucially, the lifeworlds of ethnic minorities or Indigenous people have also been considered “sacrifice zones” for big energy. We are not only talking about outright genocide and theft to grab Indigenous lands and fisheries, but slower processes of cultural genocide or even literal poisoning – such as the Aamjiwnaang people of southern Canada, who suffered a catastrophic drop in the number of boy babies after petrochemical plants opened on their ancestral land. Though Klein doesn’t go into it, you could argue that the same is true of all working-class communities under capitalism, whose lives are valued less. To give an example, the working-class suburb of Newton in Auckland was dug up almost entirely to build the Central Motorway Junction, its inhabitants exiled to the southern fringe of the urban area.

Klein effectively links “extractivism” – “a non-reciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth” – to the exploitation of not only natural resources, but the exploitation, oppression, enslavement and genocide of various kinds of human being. As she puts it in relation to the Chinese “economic miracle”:

“The same logic that is willing to work labourers to the bone for pennies a day will burn mountains of dirty coal while spending next to nothing on pollution controls… our own corporations… with full participation from China’s autocratic rulers, turned the Pearl River Delta into their carbon-spewing Special Economic Zone, with the goods going straight onto container ships headed for our superstores.”

She gives us the cautionary tale of Nauru, the Pacific island which almost literally ate itself to death. 90% of the island was dug up for its phosphate deposits, sold as fertilizer to rich countries. The country drove fast cars and ate imported food for decades. When the phosphate ran out, leaving a mostly uninhabitable island, an increasingly panicked government lost most of the resource profits in a real estate scam, set itself up as a tax haven for money laundering, and finally rented itself out as a prison camp for Australia’s barbaric refugee policy.

The main legacy of Nauru’s resource wealth is the highest rate of Type 2 diabetes in the world. As Klein notes, this is a timely warning for left-wing governments in South America such as Venezuela or Bolivia, which are still reliant on fossil fuels. Continuing these exploitative, extractive relationships will both engender corruption in the short term and leave these countries without a long-term future. It also shows the obsolescence of older “productivist” forms of socialist thought which also dreamed of Promethean dominance of nature and electricity too cheap to meter.

Klein also clearly exposes the fraudulent nature of the “emissions trading schemes”, which serve mainly as a means by which Western countries can “export” their emissions to China or India; enriching those countries’ ruling elites while turning the poorer areas into sacrifice zones. The crucial issue is that on these markets, emissions are counted where they are produced and not where the goods produced are consumed, and international transport emissions are not counted at all. This lets Western consumerism off the hook for both the products it buys from polluting industry in the developing countries, and for the coal and other fossil fuels it exports there.

The global economy is increasingly a unity, as is global ecology; pollution and resource exhaustion respect borders no more than capital does. Klein ruthlessly exposes “emissions trading” as a shell-game where responsibility for emissions is simply passed between different capitalist states, and which is rife with fraud; such as “carbon offsets” which means that emissions don’t go down at all, or oil companies in the Nigerian delta demanding carbon credits for not pointlessly burning natural gas.

Denial and dimming the sun

Klein goes into the belly of the beast, not only to show the impact of global climate change on ordinary people’s lives, but to show the extent that the ruling classes are engaged in deep-down denial of it. She explains:

“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism… The actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe… are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

In her first chapter, she braves a conference of the climate-denying Heartland Institute, where “talking points [are] tested [which] will jam the comment sections beneath every article and YouTube video”. In an echo of Cameron Slater’s “Dirty Politics”, Klein explains the climate deniers’ message not to just twist the argument, but to destroy discourse altogether:

“the goal was never just to spread doubt but to spread fear – to send a clear message that saying anything at all about climate change was a sure-fire way to find your inbox and comment threads jammed with a toxic strain of vitriol.”

The Heartlanders, Klein argues, “did not become engaged with climate issues because they found flaws in the scientific facts. Rather, they became alarmed about the economic and political implications of those facts and set out to disprove them.” Paradoxically, Klein argues, the Heartlanders are precisely right in their linking of climate disaster with capitalist freedom itself – whereas there the mainstream green movement, with its neither left-nor-right slogan, has been in denial.

Another form of denial is “magical thinking” – admitting that climate change is a real problem, but believing in technological fixes which will make everything okay without requiring any sacrifice from the privileged. A conference on “geoengineering” at Chicherly Hall in England has rich donors such as Bill Gates listening intently as excited scientists talk up their projects for “safe” nuclear power, simulated volcanic explosions or giant mirrors to literally block out the sun.

This may sound like a plot line from an old Simpsons episode – or, when they start talking about orbital colonies or Martian terraforming, the plotline of Elton’s Stark come to life. But it proves that fiction, if anything, underestimates the depravity of the global ruling class, and their irrational belief that “inconvenient truths” such as climate change can be simply ignored out of existence. As Klein puts it:

“It is always easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered, a fact that was as true of die-hard Stalinists at the time of the purges as it is of libertarian climate deniers today…For the fossil fuel companies and their paid champions, anything is preferable to regulating ExxonMobil, including attempting to regulate the sun.”

Klein points out again and again that it is the neoliberal free trade agenda – and even capitalism’s logic of endless growth itself, which predates the neoliberal/globalized era – which is simply incompatible with the kind of serious action which is now necessary. There is no argument against state intervention in the economy if it is a question of the very habitability of the planet, which runs counter to 40 years of neoliberal reforms. And so the corporate denialists, according to Klein, want:

“not action to prevent climate chaos but rather policies that would safeguard or even increase their profits no matter the weather… Their dominance-based worldview provides them with the intellectual tools to write off huge swathes of humanity, and indeed, to rationalise profiting from the meltdown.”

Even when individual billionaires are convinced by the case for climate action – such as Richard Branson, who made a big deal out of “Gaia Capitalism” – when they come up against the logic of the market and profit maximisation, these ideals are put aside as too difficult. Branson offered a $25 million prize to anyone who could develop sustainable sources of jet fuel; but he never considered for a moment that actually cutting back the expansion of Virgin Air’s services might be an option.

Big Green

It’s not just the big corporates in denial. Our habit of making black humour about impending signs of the apocalypse, Klein argues, is another “way of looking away”, as is a kind of defensive misanthropy:

“Somewhere within each of us dwells a belief in [neoliberalism]’s– that we are nothing but selfish, greedy, self-gratification machines… convinc[ing] us that we are not just incapable of self-preservation but fundamentally not worth saving.”

Another is the middle-class urban liberal lifestyle option:

“Meditate and shop at farmer’s markets and stop driving – but forget trying to actually change the systems that are making the crisis inevitable… many of these lifestyle changes are indeed part of the solution, but we still have one eye tightly shut.”

Klein is bitingly precise that “dropping out and planting vegetables is not an option for this generation. The fossil fuels runaway train is coming for us one way or another.”

Other reviewers have suggested that This Changes Everything is not going to win any new converts to the climate movement. Klein is upfront that she blames 30 years of inaction in large part on the mainstream of the climate movement itself, and its attempts to disguise the essential conflict between capitalist economics and climate science. Her real ideological battle is against what she calls “Big Green” – the kind of people who surrendered to the neoliberal ideological offensive, who argue that “market logic and ecological limits” can be reconciled, who wish to “coddle conservatives” by appealing to patriotism or big-ticket technological solutions. These people, she suggests, do not realise the

“direct and compelling relationship between the dominance of the values that are intimately tied to triumphant capitalism and … anti-environment views and behaviours”.

One biting section of her book discusses the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), one of the biggest milestones in the early neoliberal era. She points out that something like 80% of the US environmental movement of the time was won over to support this agreement, being fobbed off with toothless side-agreements. This may be one of the reasons why “Big Green” prefers not to draw attention to its complicity setting up the very neoliberal regime which allows big powers to sabotage one another’s renewable energy schemes by appealing to the various trade courts. Another may be that Al Gore, now among the biggest players in Big Green, was the US Vice-President who presided over NAFTA’s enactment.

Most shockingly, Big Green goes along with the logic of “sacrifice zones” (and thus lesser classes of human being) by supporting the alienation of Indigenous lands to create “carbon sinks” from which Indigenous people’s traditional activities are excluded. Klein describes these “green human rights abuses” as “a cost-benefit analysis that it’s easier to cordon off a forest inhabited by politically weak people in a poor country than to stop politically powerful corporate emitters in rich countries.” It’s no coincidence that the dimming-the-sun projects of the geo-engineers would probably cause massive droughts in Africa and southern India, to save the Global North’s climate.

Klein’s argument that “less consumption”, rather than simply “green consumption” – reversing the consumption boom of the 1980s provoked by the first wave of neoliberal globalisation – is simply necessary is, therefore, also completely counter to the logic of the market economy. The Values Party, New Zealand’s pioneering green party of the 1970s, called for Zero Economic Growth; but this would mean nothing but recession and misery for ordinary people under a capitalist economy. Klein shows that the only time that emissions have ever gone down under industrial capitalism is during severe recessions; even the massive collapse of the post-Stalinist economies only brought emissions down by 5%, less than the 8% which science suggests we need year on year even to slow global warming down.

But still our rulers appear to have learned nothing, with the US having made sure that even lip service to climate realities was taken out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). Klein convincingly makes the case that as long as market liberalism is the consensus of both Big Green and the globe’s power élites, the necessary action is simply inconceivable. As she herself points out: “when climate deniers argue that global warming is a plot to redistribute wealth, it’s not (only) because they are paranoid. It’s because they’ve been paying attention.”

Indigenous lead the way

Klein gives a great account of what must happen to protect a future for human civilisation – selective degrowth; reversing privatisation of electricity and water; an expansion of public, non-profit and caregiving economies; a shift from industrial agriculture to “agroecology” worldwide; and an end to “shitty jobs” made possible by a Universal Basic Income. But can we get there from here?

Part of her answer is found in the chapters she devotes to the pivotal role played by Indigenous peoples in climate struggle. She explains how – particularly in North and South America – Indigenous people have been spurred into combatting “extreme extraction” (open cast mining, fracking, new coal ports) by the imperatives of defending their traditional lands and fisheries. One example of this happening in Aotearoa/New Zealand has been the opposition by Northland Māori to the Norwegian state-owned oil company, Statoil, exploring the Cape Reinga basin.

This is made all the more vital by the fact that, once fossil fuels get a foothold in a particular area, they wreck the local lifeworld to the point where other ways of living become impossible. Areas based on fossil fuel economies, as Klein puts it, are “the ultimate in rootlessness” – Wild West-type situations, like the mining industry in Australia, where people only go to earn enough money to get out of there, and whose hyper-masculine culture encourages a massive sex-work industry.

Crucially, she also argues that globalization has meant that the entire planet has become a “sacrifice zone”. Fracking, for example, has spread to the rich countries of Western Europe. Significantly, when previously privileged communities find the lifeworlds threatened by extractivism, they too can rise in revolt, and even stand in solidarity with the oppressed. For example, when the Mi’kmaq people of eastern Canada first stood up for their historic fisheries 15 years ago, there was a huge racist backlash among white fishermen. But now, Mi’kmaq and white people stand together against Texan companies attempting to frack their water sources.

Similarly, when frackers came to the south of France, whose inhabitants prize themselves on their climate and the individuality and uniqueness of their local food products, the resulting outcry managed to have fracking banned in the entire country. And the privileged people of Auckland’s inner-eastern suburbs were able to stop the Eastern Motorway project of 2004 (and unseat right-wing mayor John Banks) where the people of Newton failed.

Klein has the essential insight that the climate struggle is a class struggle, as shown in her analysis of Heartland Institute propaganda:

“Even climate action at home looks suspiciously like socialism to them; all the calls for high-density affordable housing and brand-new public transit are obviously just ways to give backdoor subsidies to the undeserving poor.”

Unfortunately, she doesn’t expand on the question of how exactly the “undeserving poor” who don’t happen to be living on top of carbon bombs, or in picturesque places which might gain the sympathy of the privileged classes, can fight back.

Bad timing?

Klein argues that the climate movement suffered from “bad timing” – that it was unfortunate that climate change became an issue at the same time as the fall of the USSR and its satellite states. Klein argues that “right wing ideologues in Washington seized on this moment of global flux to crush all political competition”. Her argument seems to be that the struggle has to be an ideological one above all. She argues repeatedly for the decisive role of “right-wing think-tanks”, first in establishing the overwhelming neoliberal consensus of the 1990s, and since then in defending it against the urgent needs of the planet’s climate.

But neoliberalism – with its “Three Pillars” that Klein lists of privatisation, deregulation and low taxes – wasn’t simply a policy choice. It was a policy response to restore capitalist profits after the 1970s oil crisis. Crucially, the main reason the USSR fell (despite its even more extreme despoliation of the environment) was because the bureaucratic Stalinist system had no similar way to cut costs and increase consumption of its products. China, however, is proof that Stalinist bureaucratic authoritarianism works well with neoliberal, consumerist market economics.

Given that neoliberalism won because it was useful to the interests of the capitalist classes, the reason it still exists – and still strangles the climate movement – is that it continues to be useful to our rulers. Simply put, the right-wing think-tanks like the Heartland Institute which Klein identifies as the bogeypersons poisoning the “meme pool” are tools of class interest.

This ties in, interestingly, with the recent movement in Aotearoa/NZ to create a “left-wing think tank”. But an ideological struggle in isolation is doomed to failure; even a political one will be easily side-tracked. At the basis of ideological and political struggle has to be a basis in a new economic power – and where will that come from? The growing importance of the developing world might be part of this, particularly in the sense of challenging the stranglehold of various trade agreements, and demands for reparation for the “climate debt” of the Global North.

Klein is at her most convincing when she talks about the power of indigenous people protecting their treaty rights, as “many of the planet’s largest and most dangerous unexploded carbon bombs lie beneath lands and waters to which Indigenous peoples have legitimate legal claims”. She’s absolutely right that white radicals who encourage Indigenous people to resist the temptations of selling out their lands and fisheries to fossil-fuel corporates must suggest and even create feasible economic alternatives by which those peoples can improve their lot in life.

But what counter-power and alternative economy is available to the urban working masses? The last paragraph in her book promotes Greece’s SYRIZA party as a source of hope, after the disappointment of the Obama administration. But just like Obama, but when it gained power, SYRIZA quickly buckled under to the demands of finance capital, since there was no other alternative available within “the system”.


This Changes Everything makes it clear that the titans of the global economy are not only stunningly uninterested in the supposedly global issue of ecological sustainability, but are gambling that when the disaster hits, it won’t hit them: “Those involved feel free to engage in these high-stakes gambles because they believe that they and theirs will be protected from the ravages in question, at least for another generation or so.” Klein’s no-holds-barred exposé shows that Ben Elton’s vision of the mega-rich abandoning the planet (and the majority of its people) to its fate is all too plausible.

Her precise process for building an ideological, cultural and political movement which can overcome global capitalism and save the ecology can be critiqued as somewhat incomplete – concentrating on the Indigenous people and developing nations of the periphery, rather than the working masses of the urban core. But her clarity that climate change is not the only issue for the social issue, but the key issue which opens the door to all the other issues, is absolutely vital.

Particularly in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the need for the tauiwi social justice movements to take Māori struggles and Māori ways of knowing seriously is vitally urgent. Klein shows that there is no socialist or post-capitalist future which is not ecologically sustainable and which does not have indigenous struggle at its heart. The alternative is “climate-fuelled disaster capitalism”. We need to build a future which is not only resilient, but regenerative:

“Resilience – though certainly one of nature’s gifts, is a passive process, implying the ability to absorb blows and get back up. Regeneration, on the other hand, is active.”