Sunday, 02 November 2008

Damning the Flood

Mute Magazine, October 2008

By supporting NGOs instead of popular movements, is the left suppressing a radical politics in Haiti and elsewhere? And is it possible to defend a popular movement without deifying its leader? Richard Pithouse reviews Peter Hallward's new book on the containment of popular politics in Haiti.

The inequality of class, first universalised into a global Manicheanism in The Communist Manifesto, is not just complicated by gender, race and sexuality. There is also the fact that the globalisation of capital has always been accompanied by the violent division of the world into different kinds of spaces meant to be inhabited by different kinds of people. The unequal allocation of rights and resources across these spaces has always been held to match unequal capacities for thought, speech and action. Attempts at building solidarity across these divisions have often been insufficiently attentive to their objective material differences or too willing to treat claims about subjective difference as objective.

In the contemporary world the failure to attend to the objective difference of particular situations often results in the assumption that all struggles should aspire to the form that the anti-globalization movement has taken in the metropole. Amongst other problems this immediately renders the (usually) white Northern activist an automatic and universal expert on what a popular radicalism should really look like. A failure to attend to the subjective choices with which people confront particular situations often results in a reifying culturalism that sees struggle as a natural expression of cultural difference. It is inevitably complicit with some form of racism and often risks an inability to discern domination within a nation or movement.

Peter Hallward is a philosopher who has thought about the question of solidarity across the divisions that structure domination with a rare combination of subtlety and militancy. The themes that link his work on contemporary post-colonial theory, French philosophy and Haitian politics include a consistent stress on the fact that every one thinks and that thought is the subjective confrontation with specific objective situations. Hallward affirms the specificity of particular situations and affirms the subjectivity with which they are confronted and thereby “maintains the relation between subjective and objective (and between subjects) as a relation in the strict sense”.

He is committed to a prescriptive politics. He argues that genuinely political actions must elaborate universal principles (principles that hold for everyone), that for these principles to be meaningful they must be adhered to directly and immediately, that adhering to them is necessarily divisive and requires collective unity and a willingness to confront domination. In other words he proposes a politics of popular self-emancipation organised around popular intellectual work and consensual disciplined commitment. From the beginning his work has taken the view that, following Paulo Freire, “true generosity consists in fighting to destroy the causes which lead to false charity.”

Damming the Flood is a richly detailed account of the popular Haitian movement Lavalas (‘the flood’) in and out of power. There is a focus on how the movement was vilified and its president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, removed from office by the American military with considerable support from global civil society.

Hallward’s basic argument is that as Lavalas developed into a formidable force in the late 1980s it began to constitute a serious threat to the US-backed Haitian elite. They responded to the election of Aristide to the Presidency in December 1990 with an attempted coup in January 1991 and then a successful military coup in September 1991. It left 5 000 dead. Aristide returned to office in November 2000 with 92% of the vote and disbanded the army at which point the Haitian elite, with strong support from elites in Canada, the US and France, began to wage an elaborate propaganda and destabilisation campaign against the Lavalas government. This was supported by many NGOs, including those on the left, and was followed by a military attack after which Aristide was removed from the country by the US military in February 2004. Lavalas supporters were then subject to sustained repression by occupying United Nations forces at a cost of several thousand more lives. Nevertheless resistance has continued.

Hallward takes the view that the objective constraints imposed on Aristide’s administrations by imperial power were severe and that there was no prospect for fundamental transformation. Nevertheless there were important innovations by way of a higher minimum wage, a literacy programme, a school building project, health care and so on. Even IMF statistics confirm clear progress in these areas. But Hallward’s analysis breaks with the economism of much leftism and he also takes symbolic and political movement as significant. For instance he takes seriously the political ramifications of Aristide’s choice to open up the swimming pool in the presidential palace to children from poor families. But the primary thrust of his assessment stresses that popular support for Aristide was never passive and was rooted in a network of grassroots organisations through which people could work for their own empowerment. It is also noticeable that the practical action taken by Aristide’s governments in support of the poor often found ways to combine material support with support for popular democratisation. For instance housing was not reduced to the provision of houses but included the development of town squares in shack settlements.

Hallward deals frankly with the problem of opportunism, a problem that every movement has to confront when it reaches the point of winning some access to or control over state resources. He also deals directly with the reality that any movement operating in a repressive environment in which its membership is generally criminalised is going to have to take on some of the judicial and security functions usually reserved for states with inevitable risks and inevitable condemnation. Nevertheless he concludes that “Over the last twenty years, Lavalas has developed as an experiment at the outer limits of contemporary political possibility. Its history sheds light on some of the ways that political mobilisation can proceed under the pressure of exceptional powerful constraints.”

Hallward’s claims about a campaign of demonization against Lavalals are persuasive. It is instructive to set aside Hallward’s arguments about this and apply Chomsky’s propaganda model to the recent history of Haiti by excluding highly disputed events and examining only those on which there is some agreement as to the basic facts, and comparing only those that can be as closely matched with others as is possible. It quickly becomes evident that, for instance, violence attributed to Lavalas has been systematically treated in a very different way in the elite media and civil society to that of other actors such as the Duvalier’s paramilitaries, the Haitian Military, the US Military, the anti-Aristide paramilitary groups, the United Nations and so on.

The fetishisation of leaders of popular movements has a sorry history and it is worrying that some of the solidarity work with Haiti seems to be more interested in deifying Aristide rather than supporting ongoing popular struggles in Haiti. Hallward describes his book “as an exercise in anti-demonization, not deification.” This seems fair – especially given that he is clear that Lavalas emerged from discussions amongst ordinary people in the shack settlements of Port-au-Prince and that its continued strength after Aristide’s kidnapping is rooted in the ongoing practice of similar discussions and the modes of grassroots militancy that they have engendered.

Aristide is an interesting theorist in his own right and his own thought provides as good a measure as any for measuring the value of moblisation. His political thought is rooted in liberation theology. For Aristide, who says that when we say God “We mean the source of love; we mean the source of justice”, liberation theology is “the Christian impulse that does not separate belief from action, that exasperates conservatives, and annoys so many people on the left who dream of realizing the happiness of others...without the others.” He is clear that the political movement that twice bought him to power begins from and is sustained in the ‘little church’, or what liberation theology in Latin America calls ‘base communities’. They are small groups that meet in their own neighbourhoods to discuss, on their own time and in their own language, their ideas about politics and society. The fundamental principle in the little church is that “All persons are human beings, and to be cherished.” The fundamental political task is to “fan the fire of hope and to turn it into a tool for the people.” This theological politics is not unwilling to take a side. Aristide has long been clear that the preferential option for the poor should be “total, unrepentant, intransigent” and that “If they [elites] do not wish to share fraternally...They must accept that it is they, not I and my colleagues, who are advocating war.” He’s also made it very clear that as people assume political agency “Liberation theology then gives way to a liberation of theology, which can also include a liberation from theology.” This is a politics of popular self-emancipation. It recommends, as Lavalas seems to have achieved, a form of organisation closer to that of a series of linked congregations rather than a party and rooted in the self-organisation of the poor.

Hallward argues that although “NGO administrators and left-leaning academics are often uneasy with what they see as a merely populist deviation” this popular power is necessary for any kind of meaningful challenge to domination. He has a point. As C.L.R. James noted in his history of the Haitian Revolution “It is force that counts, and chiefly the organised force of the masses…It is what they think that matters”.

Lavalas took state power under extremely hostile circumstances and sought to subordinate the state to society by demobilising the military while continuing to mobilise society. When Aristide was first elected President in 1990 he declared that “I will not be president of the government, I am going to be president of the opposition, of the people, even if this means confronting the very government I am creating.” He held to this position and ten years later wrote that people should “not confuse democracy with the holding of elections.”

The often hysterical demonization of Lavalas can easily be understood and slotted into a familiar pattern of imperial attempts to contain oppositional movement that includes the fate of Lumumba and Allende, the war against the Sandinistas and the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002. William Robinson provides a useful lens for this kind of analysis in the years after the Cold War. He argues that the US and its allies moved away from supporting dictators and that this shift was rooted in a recognition that support for dictators like Botha in South Africa, Marcos in the Philippines and the Duvaliers in Haiti had produced oppositional movements that were not only demanding the removal of dictators but also the popular democratisation of society. This recognition led to a shift in policy that saw the creation of liberal democracies as a more effective way of containing popular aspirations. There had been, Robinson argued, “a reconceptualization of the principal target in intervened countries, from political to civil society, as the site of social control.” Robinson quoted Bill Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot as observing that “Even after our [military] exit [from Haiti] in February 1996 we will remain in charge by means of USAID and the private sector.” In South Africa and the Philippines this worked well enough as the new regimes were enthusiastic about demobilizing the movements that had brought them to power. But in Haiti the Lavalas project was to subordinate the state to society via ongoing popular democratisation. This was unacceptable. The result was a return to political society as a key target of political control – a return to regime change.

But there is another aspect to the demonization of Lavalas which may be more discomforting for some on the left. Hallward elaborates a consistent critique of NGOs. His criticism of racist ideas about enlightened white charity, the role of NGOs in promoting the agendas of foreign governments and his critique of the limits of the human rights project all cover familiar ground. But his criticism extends to the explicitly anti-neoliberal NGOs that position themselves on the left. He is completely sceptical of their political effectiveness in opposing domination arguing that:

"Rather than organize with and among the people, rather than work in the places and on the terms where the people themselves are strong...[they]... organize trivial made-for-media demonstrations against things like the uncontroversial evils of neo-liberalism or the high cost of living. Such protests are usually attended by tiny groups of 30 or 40 people – which is to say, by nobody outside the organizers’ tiny circles."

However Hallward sees their support for regime change as a very significant in offering an appearance of some kind of legitimacy for the coup. His explanation of why the left NGOs would oppose a movement with tremendous popular support centres around an interview with a women’s rights activist who explains the NGO hostility to Lavalas in terms of class rivalry. “Foreign observers underestimate, she explains, the massive gap between elite (wealthy, French-speaking, internationally orientated) NGO professionals and grassroots (poor, Kreyol-speaking, neighbourhood-orientated activists. Aristide makes a similar point arguing that:

"Everything comes back, in the end, to the simple principle that tout moun se moun – every person is indeed a person, every person is capable of thinking things through for themselves. Those who don’t accept this, when they look at the nègres of Haiti – and consciously or unconsciously, that’s what they see – they see people who are too poor, too crude, too uneducated, to think for themselves. They see people who need others to make their decisions for them. It’s a colonial mentality, in fact, and still very widespread among our political class. It’s also a projection: they project onto the people a sense of their own inadequacy, their own inequality in the eyes of the master."

There is a fundamental difference between forms of left politics that propose alternative policy arrangements or ways of being without developing any capacity to force the realisation of their goals and those that actively develop popular power and alternative modes of community and are willing and able to confront domination collectively and directly. The former can be called the expert left and the latter can be called the popular left. The expert left tends to operate in the languages of imperial power, to be dependent on state or donor funding, to require certification from bourgeois institutions as a condition of entry, to be located on the side of the razor wire where the police offer protection and to organise via international travel and the internet.

It is not unusual for the expert left to be entirely unaware of the existence of a popular left even when it is a literal stone’s throw away. Discourse in the wrong language, in the wrong place, in the wrong philosophical matrix and, most of all, in the mouths of the wrong people is often just invisible to the expert left. This lamentable fact is never innocent of class and can be deeply racialised.

If the popular left reaches the point of being able to stage some sort of major interruption into bourgeois space it is not unusual for the elite left to be entirely unable to comprehend the rationality of that revolt. This is often predicated on an inability to comprehend the existence of grassroots intellectuals or grassroots political militants.

When the expert left is confronted with the concrete reality of the popular left via a direct demand for recognition and respect it is not unusual for the response to take the form of denial, paranoia, criminalisation and recourse to conspiracy theory in which the speech of grassroots militants can only be understood as manipulation by a rival elite.

In his essay on the Paris Commune Alain Badiou defines the left as “the set of parliamentary political personnel that proclaim that they are the only ones equipped to bear the general consequences of a singular political movement. Or, in more contemporary terms, that they are the only ones able to provide 'social movements' with a 'political perspective'.” He concludes that the decision of the communards to take public affairs into their own hands was a decision to break with the left and that a political rupture, a rupture with the logic of representation, “is always a rupture with the left.”

Badiou also agues that after Lenin concluded that the slaughter of the communards necessitated the development of a centralised, disciplined project aimed at seizing state power the party has been the mode by which the left has sought to organise popular politics. But Badiou does not address the new form that the official left has taken in most of the world – the NGO. The party is not dead. On the contrary it retains considerable power in places like India and in South Africa. And there are countries, such as Haiti or Brazil, where the church is also a contender for influence over popular struggles. But while there is a large critical literature on vanguardism and clericalism the critical literature on NGOs generally criticises NGOs that work for directly imperial agendas - such as the NGOs that work with the World Bank, USAID and so on - while valorising the left NGOs that operate in spaces like the World Social Forum. But in most of the world it is precisely the left NGOs that assume the right to give direction to social movements and to monopolise the resources that can mediate the development of international solidarity. Most of the left texts that seek to offer a global picture of the contemporary moment are based on the experience and thinking of these NGOs rather than the experience and thinking of popular movements. Most attempts at international solidarity are organised through these NGOs. Hallward’s book breaks decisively with this consensus and seeks direct engagement with popular politics.

Damming the Flood is rich with empirical detail and nuanced insight. Its author has paid close attention to the realities of the situation confronted by grassroots militancy in Haiti as well as to the key choices made within that militancy. One of the clearest contributions of the book is the concrete development of Hallward’s early theoretical work on the question of solidarity. An aspect of this that is developed with particular force can be formulated in terms of a choice confronting anyone wanting to develop solidarity across the brutal divisions of human existence: will that solidarity be with the expert left or the popular left?


i Peter Hallward Absolutely Post-Colonial: Writing Between the Singular and the Specific, Manchester: Manchester University Press,, 2001, p. 330.

ii Hallward Absolutely Post-Colonial, p. 335.

iii Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment London: Verso, 2007, Damming the Flood, p.314.

iv Hallward, Damming the Flood, p.Xxxv.

v Jean-Bertrand Aristide Eyes of the Heart Monroe: Common Courage Press, 2000, p.63.

vi Jean Bertrand Aristide Dignity, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996, p. 103.

vii Jean-Bertrand Aristide, In the Parish of the Poor: Writings from Haiti, New York: Orbis, 1990, p. 57.

viii Aristide, Dignity, p.49.

ix Aristide, In the Parish of the Poor, p.18.

x Aristide In the Parish of the Poor: Writings from Haiti, p.17.

xi Hallward Damming the Flood Haiti, p.318.

xii Hallward, Damming the Flood, p.137.

xiii C.L.R. James The Black Jacobins, New York: Vintage, 1989, p. 286.

xiv William Robinson Polyarchy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 291

xv Aristide, Eyes of the Heart, p.36.

xvi Robinson, Polyarchy, p. 68.

xvii Robinson, Polyarchy, p. 311.

xviii Hallward, Damming the Flood, p. 181-182.

xix Hallward, Damming the Flood, p.184

xx Cited in Hallward, Damming the Flood, p.342. This kind of situation is not at all unique to Haiti. See, for instance, the comments on NGOs from The National Convention Against Displacement & SEZs held at Bhubaneswa in India in 2007 at In South Africa there has been an extraordinarily hysterical, vicious and entirely dishonest set of responses from within the NGO left to the polite rejection of their authority by the popular left. The paranoia and ruthlessness of the NGO left in the face of autonomous popular mobilisation has rivalled that of the state. For an early comment on this see the statement by the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign at

xxi Consider, for example, the inability of the letter campaigns in support of Amina Lawal in 2003 to comprehend that there was a project to defend Lawal within Nigeria and within Islam. See the statement against the letter campaigns at[157]=x-157-18546

xxii Emilio Quadrelli developed an excellent analysis of this in an essay on the 2005 revolt in the Paris banlieaus. Quadrelli’s intervention simply contrasted interviews with grassroots militants with the pronouncements of the elite left who could see nothing but an inarticulate cry for help by the ‘socially excluded’. See ‘Grassroots Political Militants: Banlieusards and Politics’ Mute, 30 May 2007

xxiii This is typical of all of the various forms of discourse by which a faction of the academic and NGO left in South Africa have tried to render explicit and constant rejection of their authority from popular movements as speech that does not count.

xxiv Alain Badiou ‘The Paris Commune: A political declaration on politics’ in Polemics, London: Verso, 2006, p. 272.

xxv Badiou, The Paris Commune, p. 289.

xxvi This is not to suggest that NGOs and academics are necessarily separate from and opposed to popular mobilisation. On the contrary these relations are a matter of choice and it is in principle perfectly possible for the NGO and the academic to work to support the popular left from within its practices, spaces, languages and structures. But when this is achieved the resulting project remains an instance of the popular rather than the expert left. Similarly an NGO that secures a constituency (or the appearance thereof) for its projects via some form of patronage and clientalism remains an instance of the expert left.
continue reading