by Peter Hallward, Americas Program, 22 January 2010
Nine days after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, it's now clear that the initial phase of the U.S.-led relief operation has conformed to the three fundamental tendencies that have shaped the more general course of the island's recent history. It has adopted military priorities and strategies. It has sidelined Haiti's own leaders and government, and ignored the needs of the majority of its people. And it has proceeded in ways that reinforce the already harrowing gap between rich and poor.
All three tendencies aren't just connected, they are mutually reinforcing. These same tendencies will continue to govern the imminent reconstruction effort as well, unless determined political action is taken to counteract them.
Haiti is not only one of the poorest countries in the world, it is also one of the most polarized and unequal in its disparities in wealth and access to political power.1 A small clique of rich and well-connected families continues to dominate the country and its economy while more than half the population, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), survives on a household income of around 44 U.S. pennies per day.2
Mass destitution has grown far more severe in recent decades. Starting in the 1970s, internationally imposed neo-liberal "adjustments" and austerity measures finally succeeded in doing what no Haitian government had managed to do since winning independence in 1804: in order to set the country on the road toward "economic development," they have driven large numbers of small farmers off their land and into densely crowded urban slums. A small minority of these internal refugees may be lucky enough to find sweatshop jobs that pay the lowest wages in the region. These wages currently average $2 or $3 a day; in real terms they are worth less than a quarter of their 1980 value.
Haiti's tiny elite owes its privileges to exclusion, exploitation, and violence, and it is only violence that allows it to retain them. For much of the last century, Haiti's military and paramilitary forces (with substantial amounts of U.S. support) were able to preserve these privileges on their own. Over the course of the 1980s, however, it started to look as if local military repression might no longer be up to the job. A massive and courageous popular mobilization (known as Lavalas) culminated in 1990 with the landslide election of the liberation theologian Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president. Large numbers of ordinary people began to participate in the political system for the first time, and as political scientist Robert Fatton remembers, "Panic seized the dominant class. It dreaded living in close proximity to la populace and barricaded itself against Lavalas."3
Nine months later, the army dealt with this popular threat in the time-honored way—with a coup d'etat. Over the next three years, around 4,000 Aristide supporters were killed.
However, when the U.S. government eventually allowed Aristide to return in October 1994, he took a surprising and unprecedented step: he abolished the army that had deposed him. As human rights lawyer Brian Concannon (director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti) observed a few years later, "It is impossible to overestimate the impact of this accomplishment. It has been called the greatest human rights development in Haiti since emancipation, and is wildly popular."4 In 2000, the Haitian electorate gave Aristide a second overwhelming mandate when his party (Fanmi Lavalas) won more than 90% of the seats in parliament.
More than anything else, what has happened in Haiti since 1990 should be understood as the progressive clarification of this basic dichotomy—democracy or the army. Unadulterated democracy might one day allow the interests of the numerical majority to prevail, and thereby challenge the privileges of the elite. In 2000, such a challenge became a genuine possibility: the overwhelming victory of Fanmi Lavalas, at all levels of government, raised the prospect of genuine political change in a context in which there was no obvious extra-political mechanism―no army―to prevent it.
In order to avoid this outcome, the main strategy of Haiti's little ruling class has been to redefine political questions in terms of "stability" and "security," and in particular the security of property and investments. Mere numbers may well win an election or sustain a popular movement but as everyone knows, only an army is equipped to deal with insecurity. The well-armed "friend of Haiti" that is the United States knows this better than anyone.
As soon as Aristide was re-elected, a systematic international campaign to bankrupt and destabilize his second government set the stage for a paramilitary insurrection and another coup d'etat. In 2004, thousands of U.S. troops again invaded Haiti (as they first did back in 1915) to "restore stability and security" to their "troubled island neighbor." An expensive and long-term UN stabilization mission, staffed by 9,000 heavily armed troops, soon took over the job of helping to pacify the population and criminalize the resistance. By the end of 2006, thousands more Aristide supporters had been killed.
Over the course of 2009, a suitably stabilized Haitian government agreed to persevere with the privatization of the country's remaining public assets,5 veto a proposal to increase minimum wages to $5 a day, and bar Fanmi Lavalas (and several other political parties) from participating in the next round of legislative elections.
When it comes to providing stability, today's UN troops are clearly a big improvement over the old national forces. If things get so unstable that even the ground begins to shake, however, there's still nothing that can beat the world's leading provider of security—the U.S. Armed Forces.
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that struck on Jan. 12, 2010, it might have seemed hard to counter arguments in favor of allowing the U.S. military, with its "unrivalled logistical capability," to take de facto control of such a massive relief operation. Weary of bad press in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. commanders also seemed glad of this unexpected opportunity to rebrand their armed forces as angels of mercy.
That was before U.S. commanders actively began—the day after the earthquake struck—to divert aid away from the disaster zone.
As soon as the U.S. Air Force took control of Haitian airspace, on Wednesday, Jan. 13, it explicitly prioritized military over humanitarian flights. Although most reports from Port-au-Prince emphasized remarkable levels of patience and solidarity on the streets, U.S. commanders made fears of popular unrest and insecurity their number-one concern. Their first priority was to avoid what the U.S. Air Force Special Command Public Affairs spokesman (Ty Foster) called another "Somalia effort"6—presumably, a situation in which a humiliated U.S. Army might once again risk losing military control of a "humanitarian" mission.
As many observers predicted, the determination of U.S. commanders to forestall this risk by privileging guns and soldiers over doctors and food has actually provoked some outbreaks of the very unrest they set out to contain. To amass a large number of soldiers and military equipment "on the ground," the U.S. Air Force diverted plane after plane packed with emergency supplies away from Port-au-Prince. Among many others, World Food Program flights were turned away by U.S. commanders on Thursday and Friday, the New York Times reported, "so that the United States could land troops and equipment, and lift Americans and other foreigners to safety."7
Many other aid flights met a similar fate, right through to the end of the week. Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) alone has so far had to watch at least five planeloads of its medical supplies be turned away.8 On Saturday, Jan. 16, for instance, "Despite guarantees given by the United Nations and the U.S. Defense Department, an MSF cargo plane carrying an inflatable surgical hospital was blocked from landing in Port-au-Prince and re-routed to Samana, in Dominican Republic," delaying its arrival by an additional 24 hours.9 Late on Monday, Jan. 18, MSF complained that "One of its cargo planes carrying 12 tons of medical equipment had been turned away three times from Port-au-Prince airport since Sunday," despite receiving repeated assurances they could land. By that stage, one group of MSF doctors in Port-au-Prince had been "forced to buy a saw in the market to continue the amputations" upon which the lives of their patients depended.10
While U.S. commanders set about restoring security by assembling a force of some 14,000 Marines and soldiers, residents in some less secure parts of Port-au-Prince soon started to run out of food and water. On Jan. 20, people sleeping in one of the largest and most easily accessed of the many temporary refugee camps in central Port-au-Prince (in Champs Mars) told writer Tim Schwartz, author of the 2008 book Travesty in Haiti, that "no relief has arrived; it is all being delivered on other side of town, by the U.S. Embassy."11
Telesur reporter Reed Lindsay confirmed on Jan. 20—a full eight days after the quake—that the impoverished southwestern Port-au-Prince suburb closest to the earthquake's epicenter, Carrefour, still hadn't received any food, aid, or medical help.12
The BBC's Mark Doyle found the same thing in an eastern (and less badly affected) suburb. "Their houses are destroyed, they have no running water, food prices have doubled, and they haven't seen a single government official or foreign aid worker since the earthquake struck." Overall, Doyle observed, "The international response has been quite pathetic. Some of the aid agencies are working very hard, but there are two ways of reporting this kind of thing. One is to hang around with the aid agencies and hang around with the American spokespeople at the airport, and you'll hear all sorts of stories about what's happening. Another way is to drive almost at random with ordinary people and go and see what's happening in ordinary places. In virtually every area I've driven to, ordinary people say that I was the first foreigner that they'd met."13
It was only a full week after the earthquake that emergency food supplies began the slow journey from the heavily guarded airport to 14 "secure distribution points" in various parts of the city.14 By that stage, tens of thousands of Port-au-Prince residents had finally come to the conclusion that no aid would be forthcoming, and began to abandon the capital for villages in the countryside.
On Sunday Jan. 17, Al-Jazeera's correspondent summarized what many other journalists had been saying all week. "Most Haitians have seen little humanitarian aid so far. What they have seen is guns, and lots of them. Armored personnel carriers cruise the streets and inside the well-guarded perimeter [of the airport], the United States has taken control. It looks more like the Green Zone in Baghdad than a center for aid distribution."15
Later on the same day, the World Food Program's air logistics officer Jarry Emmanuel confirmed that most of the 200 flights going in and out of the airport each day were still being reserved for the U.S. military: "… their priorities are to secure the country. Ours are to feed."16 By Monday, Jan. 18, no matter how many U.S. Embassy or military spokesman insisted that "we are here to help" rather than invade, governments as diverse as those of France and Venezuela had begun to accuse the U.S. government of effectively "occupying" the country.17
The U.S. decision to privilege military over humanitarian traffic at the airport sealed the fate of many thousands of people abandoned in the rubble of lower Port-au-Prince and Léogane. In countries all over the world, search and rescue teams were ready to leave for Haiti within 12 hours of the disaster. Only a few were able to arrive without fatal delays, mainly teams—like those from Venezuela, Iceland, and China—that managed to land while Haitian staff still retained control of their airport. Some subsequent arrivals, including a team from the UK, were prevented from landing with their heavy lending equipment. Others, like Canada's several Heavy Urban Search Rescue Teams, were immediately readied but never sent; the teams were told to stand down, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon eventually explained, because "the government had opted to send Canadian Armed Forces instead."18
USAID announced on Jan. 19 that international search and rescue teams, over the course of the first week after the disaster, had managed to save a grand total of 70 people.19 The majority of these people were rescued in specific locations and circumstances. "Search-and-rescue operations," observed the Washington Post on Jan. 18, "have been intensely focused on buildings with international aid workers, such as the crushed UN headquarters, and on large hotels with international clientele."20
Tim Schwartz spent much of the first post-quake week as a translator with rescue workers, and was struck by the fact that most of their work was confined to certain places—the UN's Hotel Christophe, the Montana Hotel, the Caribe supermarket—that were not only frequented by foreigners but that could be snugly enclosed within "secure perimeters." Elsewhere, he observed, UN "peacekeepers" seemed intent on convincing rescue workers to treat onlooking crowds as a source of potential danger, rather than assistance.21
Until the residents of devastated places like Léogane and Carrefour are somehow able to reassure foreign troops that they can feel "secure" when visiting their neighborhoods, UN and U.S. commanders clearly prefer to let them die on their own.
Exactly the same logic has condemned yet more people to death in and around Port-au-Prince's hospitals. In one of the most illuminating reports yet filed from the city, on Jan. 20 Democracy Now's Amy Goodman spoke with Dr. Evan Lyon of Partners in Health/Zamni Lasante from the General Hospital—the most important medical center in the country.
Lyon acknowledged there was a need for "crowd control, so that the patients are not kept from having access," but insisted that "there's no insecurity [...]. I don't know if you guys were out late last night, but you can hear a pin drop in this city. It's a peaceful place. There is no war. There is no crisis except the suffering that's ongoing [...]. The first thing that [your] listeners need to understand is that there is no insecurity here. There has not been, and I expect there will not be."
On the contrary, Lyon explained, "This question of security and the rumors of security and the racism behind the idea of security has been our major block to getting aid in. The U.S. military has promised us for several days to bring in machinery, but they've been listening to this idea that things are insecure, and so we don't have supplies."
As of Jan. 20, the hospital still hadn't received the supplies and medicines needed to treat many hundreds of dying patients.
"In terms of aid relief the response has been incredibly slow. There are teams of surgeons that have been sent to places that were, quote, 'more secure,' that have 10 or 20 doctors and 10 patients. We have a thousand people on this campus who are triaged and ready for surgery, but we only have four working operating rooms, without anesthesia and without pain medications."22
In post-quake Haiti it seems that anyone or anything that cannot be enclosed in a "secure perimeter" isn't worth saving.
In their occasional forays outside such perimeters, meanwhile, some Western journalists seemed able to find plenty of reasons for retreating behind them. Lurid stories of looting and gangs soon began to lend "security experts" like the London-based Stuart Page23 an aura of apparent authority, when he explained to the BBC's gullible "security correspondent" Frank Gardner that "all the security gains made in Haiti in the last few years could now be reversed [...]. The criminal gangs, totaling some 3,000, are going to exploit the current humanitarian crisis, to the maximum degree."24
Another seasoned BBC correspondent, Matt Frei, had a similar story to tell on Jan. 18, when he found a few scavengers sifting through the remains of a central shopping district. "Looting is now the only industry here. Anything will do as a weapon. Everything is now run by rival armed groups of thugs." If Haiti is to avoid anarchy, Frei concluded, "What may be needed is a full scale military occupation."25
Not even former U.S. President (and former Haiti occupier) Bill Clinton was prepared to go that far. "Actually," Clinton told Frei, "when you think about people who have lost everything except what they're carrying on their backs, who not only haven't eaten but probably haven't slept in four days, and when the sun goes down it's totally dark and they spend all night long tripping over bodies living and dead, well, I think they've behaved quite well [...]. They are astonishing people. How can they be so calm in the face of such enormous loss of life and loved ones, and all the physical damage?"26
Reporters able to tell the difference between occasional and highly localized incidents of foraging, and a full-scale "descent into anarchy" made much the same point all week, as did dozens of indignant Haitian correspondents. On Jan. 17, for instance, Ciné Institute Director David Belle tried to counter international misrepresentation. "I have been told that much U.S. media coverage paints Haiti as a tinderbox ready to explode. I'm told that lead stories in major media are of looting, violence, and chaos. There could be nothing further from the truth. I have travelled the entire city daily since my arrival. The extent of the damage is absolutely staggering [but...] NOT ONCE have we witnessed a single act of aggression or violence [...]. A crippled city of two million awaits help, medicine, food, and water. Most haven't received any. Haiti can be proud of its survivors. Their dignity and decency in the face of this tragedy is itself staggering."27
But it seems that to some, dignity and decency are no substitute for security. No amount of weapons will ever suffice to reassure those "fortunate few," whose fortunes isolate them from the people they exploit. As far as the vast majority of people are concerned, "security is not the issue," explains Haiti Liberté's Kim Ives.
"We see throughout Haiti the population organizing themselves into popular committees to clean up, to pull out the bodies from the rubble, to build refugee camps, to set up their security for the refugee camps. This is a population that is self-sufficient, and it has been self-sufficient for many years."28
While the people who have lost what little they had have done their best to cope and regroup, the soldiers sent to "restore order" treat them as potential combatants. "It's just the same way they reacted after Katrina," concludes Ives. "The victims are what's scary. They're black people who, you know, had the only successful slave revolution in history. What could be more threatening?"
"According to everyone I spoke with in the center of the city," wrote Schwarz on Jan. 21, "the violence and gang stuff is pure BS."
The relentless obsession with security, agrees Andy Kershaw, is clear proof of the fact that most foreign soldiers and NGO workers "haven't a clue about the country and its people."29 True to form, within hours of the earthquake most of the panicked staff in the U.S. Embassy had already been evacuated, and at least one prominent foreign contractor in the garment sector (the Canadian firm Gildan Activewear) announced that it would be shifting production to alternative sewing facilities in neighboring countries.30
The price to be paid for such priorities will not be evenly distributed. Up in the higher, wealthier, and mostly undamaged parts of Pétionville everyone already knows that it's the local residents "who through their government connections, trading companies, and interconnected family businesses" will once again pocket the lion's share of international aid and reconstruction money.31
To help keep less well-connected families where they belong, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has taken "unprecedented" emergency measures to secure the homeland this past week. Operation "Vigilant Sentry" will make use of the large naval flotilla the U.S. government has assembled around Port-au-Prince.
"As well as providing emergency supplies and medical aid," notes The Daily Telegraph, "the USS Carl Vinson, along with a ring of other Navy and Coast Guard vessels, is acting as a deterrent to Haitians who might be driven to make the 681-mile sea crossing to Miami."
While Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade offered "voluntary repatriation to any Haitian that wants to return to [the land of] their origin," American officials confirmed that they would continue to apply their long-standing (and illegal) policy with respect to all Haitian refugees and asylum seekers—to intercept and repatriate them automatically, regardless of the circumstances.32
Ever since the quake struck, the U.S. Air Force has taken the additional precaution of flying a radio-transmitting cargo plane for five hours a day over large parts of the country, so as to broadcast a recorded message from Haiti's ambassador in Washington. "Don't rush on boats to leave the country," the message says. "If you think you will reach the United States and all the doors will be wide open to you, that's not at all the case. They will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from."
Not even life-threatening injuries are enough to entitle Haitians to a welcome in the United States. When the dean of medicine at the University of Miami arrived to help set up a field hospital by the airport in Port-au-Prince, he was outraged to find that most seriously injured people in the city were being denied visas to be transferred to Florida for surgery and treatment. As of Jan. 19, the State Department had authorized a total of 23 exceptions to its restrictive immigrant and refugee policies.
"It's beyond insane," O'Neill complained. "It's bureaucracy at its worst."33
This is the fourth time the United States has invaded Haiti since 1915. Although each invasion has taken a different form and responded to a different pretext, all four have been expressly designed to restore "stability" and "security" to the island. In the wake of the earthquake, thousands more foreign security personnel are already on their way, to guard the teams of foreign reconstruction and privatization consultants who in the coming months are likely to usurp what remains of Haitian sovereignty.
Perhaps some of these guards and consultants will help their elite clients achieve another long-cherished dream: the restoration of the Haitian Army. And perhaps then, for a short while at least, the inexhaustible source of "instability" in Haiti—the ever-nagging threat of popular political participation and empowerment—may be securely buried in the rubble of its history.
See Pål Sletten and Willy Egset, Poverty in Haiti (FAFO, 2004), 9.
IMF, Haiti: Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (November 2006), 7.
Robert Fatton, Haiti's Predatory Republic (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002), 86-87, 83.
Brian Concannon, "Lave Men, Siye Atè: Taking Human Rights Seriously," in Melinda Miles and Eugenia Charles, eds., Let Haiti LIVE: Unjust U.S. Policies Toward its Oldest Neighbor (Coconut Creek FL: Educa Vision, 2004), 92.
See for instance Jeb Sprague, "Haiti's Classquake," HaitiAnalysis, January 19, 2010, http://www.haitianalysis.com/2010/1/19/haiti-s-classquake.
BBC Radio 4 News, January 16, 2010, 22:00GMT.
Ginger Thompson and Damien Cave, "Officials Strain to Distribute Aid to Haiti as Violence Rises," New York Times, January 17, 2010.
"Médecins Sans Frontières says its Plane Turned Away from U.S.-run Airport," Daily Telegraph, January 19, 2010, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/centralamericaandthecaribbean/haiti/
"Doctors Without Borders Cargo Plane with Full Hospital and Staff Blocked from Landing in Port-au-Prince," January 18, 2010, http://doctorswithoutborders.org/press/release.cfm?id=4165&cat=press-release.
"America Sends Paratroopers to Haiti to Help Secure Aid Lines," The Times, January 20, 2010, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article6994523.ece.
Email from Tim Schwartz, January 20, 2010.
"No aid [in Carrefour]. In the morning at UN base they said they would distribute there, but it didn't happen" (Reed Lindsay, Honor and Respect Foundation Newsletter), January 20, 2010, http://www.hrfhaiti.org/earthquake/). Cf. Luis Felipe Lopez, "Town at Epicenter of Quake Stays in Isolation," The Miami Herald, January 17, 2010.
BBC Radio 4, News at Ten, January 18, 2010.
Ed Pilkington, "We're Not Here to Fight, U.S. Troops Insist," The Guardian, January 18, 2010.
"Disputes Emerge over Haiti Aid Control," Al Jazeera, January 17, 2010.
Ginger Thompson and Damien Cave, "Officials Strain to Distribute Aid to Haiti as Violence Rises," New York Times, January 17, 2010.
"Haiti Aid Agencies Warn: Chaotic and Confusing Relief Effort is Costing Lives," The Guardian, January 18, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/18/haiti-aid-distribution-confusion-warning.
Don Peat, "HUSAR Not up to Task, Feds Say: Search and Rescue Team Told to Stand Down," Toronto Sun, January 17, 2010, http://www.torontosun.com/news/haiti/2010/01/17/12504981.html.
USAID, http://www.usaid.gov/helphaiti/index.html, accessed on January 20, 2010.
William Booth, "Haiti's Elite Spared from Much of the Devastation," Washington Post, January 18, 2010.
Tim Schwarz, phone call with the author, January 18, 2010; cf. Tim Schwartz, "Is this Anarchy? Outsiders Believe this Island Nation is a Land of Bandits. Blame the NGOs for the 'Looting,'" NOW Toronto, January 21, 2010, http://www.nowtoronto.com/news/story.cfm?content=173333.
"With Foreign Aid Still at a Trickle, Devastated Port-au-Prince General Hospital Struggles to Meet Overwhelming Need," Democracy Now! January 20, 2010, http://www.democracynow.org/2010/1/20/devastated_port_au_prince_hospital_struggles.
Stuart Page is chairman of Page Group, http://www.pagegroupltd.com/aboutus.html.
Gardner then explained that, with the police weakened by the quake, "Thousands of escaped criminals have returned to areas they once terrorized, like the slum district of Cité Soleil [...]. Unless the armed criminals are re-arrested, Haiti's security problems risk being every bit as bad as they were in 2004" (BBC Radio 4, Six O'clock News, January 18, 2010). In fact, when some of these ex-prisoners tried to re-establish themselves in Cité Soleil in the week after the quake, local residents promptly chased them out of the district on their own (see Ed Pilkington and Tom Phillips, "Haiti Escaped Prisoners Chased out of Notorious Slum," The Guardian, January 20, 2010; Tom Leonard, "Scenes of Devastation Outside Port-au-Prince 'Even Worse,'" Daily Telegraph, January 21, 2010).
BBC television, Ten O'clock News, January 18, 2010.
BBC Radio 4, News at Ten, January 18, 2010. It sounds as if Clinton, in his role as UN special envoy to Haiti, may be learning a few things from his deputy—Zanmi Lasante's Dr. Paul Farmer.
David Belle, January 17, 2010.
"Journalist Kim Ives on How Western Domination Has Undermined Haiti's Ability to Recover from Natural Devastation," Democracy Now! January 21, 2010, http://www.democracynow.org/2010/1/20/journalist_kim_ives_on_how_decades. Ives illustrates the way such community organizations work with an example from the Delmas 33 neighborhood where he's staying. "A truckload of food came in in the middle of the night unannounced. It could have been a melee. The local popular organization was contacted. They immediately mobilized their members [...]. They lined up about 600 people who were staying on the soccer field behind the [Matthew 25] house, which is also a hospital, and they distributed the food in an orderly, equitable fashion. They were totally sufficient. They didn't need Marines. They didn't need the UN. [...] These are things that people can do for themselves and are doing for themselves." Kershaw makes the same point: "This self-imposed blockade by bureaucracy is a scandal but could be easily overcome. The NGOs and the military should recognize the hysteria over 'security' for what it is and make use of Haiti's best resource and its most efficient distribution network: the Haitians themselves. Stop treating them as children. Or worse. Hand over to them immediately what they need at the airport. They will find the means to collect it. Fill up their trucks and cars with free fuel. Any further restriction on, and control of, the supply of aid is not only patronizing but it is in that control and restriction where any 'security issues' will really lurk. And it is the Haitians who best know where the aid is needed" (Andy Kershaw, "Stop Treating these People Like Savages," The Independent, January 21, 2010).
Andy Kershaw, "Stop Treating these People Like Savages," The Independent, January 21, 2010.
Ross Marowits, "Gildan Shifting T-shirt Production Outside Haiti to Ensure Adequate Supply," The Canadian Press, January 13, 2010, http://www.canadianbusiness.com/markets/headline_news/article.jsp?content=b131693719.
William Booth, "Haiti's Elite Spared from Much of the Devastation," Washington Post, January 18, 2010.
Bruno Waterfield, "U.S. Ships Blockade Coast to Thwart Exodus to America," Daily Telegraph, January 19, 2010; "Senegal Offers Land to Haitians," BBC News January 17, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/8463921.stm.
James C. Mckinley Jr., "Homeless Haitians Told not to Flee to United States," New York Times, January 19, 2010.
Peter Hallward is a Canadian political philosopher. He is currently a professor of Modern European Philosophy at Middlesex University (http://www.web.mdx.ac.uk/crmep/STAFF/PeterHallward.htm). He is the author of Damning the Flood.. continue reading
Tuesday, 26 January 2010
by Peter Hallward, Americas Program, 22 January 2010
by Lawrence Liang, Lodi Gardens, Delhi, 5th February 2009, Kafila
Jacques Rancière (born Algiers, 1940) is Emeritus Professor, Philosophy, at the University of Paris (St. Denis). He came to prominence when he co-authored Reading Capital (1968), with Louis Althusser, the Marxist philosopher. He subsequently broke away from Althusser and wrote The Nights of Labour, a work that examined the philosophical and poetical writings of workers in 19th century France. Through an examination of the lives of these worker autodidacts, Rancière introduced a new way of thinking about the idea of the worker, and of the injunction that divides between those entitled to a life in thought and those born to do manual labour.
He went on to write The Philosopher and His Poor which looks at the figure of the poor artisan from classical philosophy down to Marx and Sartre. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, inspired by the experiences of a radical early 19th century teacher, Joseph Jacotot, Rancière sought to rethink the idea of pedagogy away from the idea of moving form the unknown to the known and from those who possess knowledge to those who don’t, to look at how all forms of ignorance are also conditions of knowledge.
He was in Delhi recently, on the occasion of the release of the Hindi language edition of The Nights of Labour.
Le us begin with a quote, which will help us draw people unfamiliar with your work, into the heart of The Nights of Labour. Why is a worker who composes verses more dangerous than the one who performs revolutionary songs?
I did not exactly say that the one is more dangerous than the other. You have to see it historically. The fact is that in France in the 1830s there were a lot of workers doing verse, doing literature, and I think the bourgeoisie felt that there was a danger when the worker entered the world of thought and of culture. When workers are only struggling, then they are supposed to be in their world and in their place. Workers were supposed to work and be dissatisfied with their wages, their working conditions and possibly still work again, struggle again and again. But when workers attempt to write verses and try to become writers, philosophers, it means a displacement from their identity as workers. The important thing is this dis-placement or dis-identification. What I was trying to show was that there was no real opposition. I don’t mean that all workers who are attempting to write verses had entered the revolution or anything, but it was a kind of a general movement of people getting out of their condition.
A common sentiment shared amongst those involved in emancipatory politics suggest that “Another world is possible”. And yet this suggestion is often premised on the idea of the material improvement of existing worlds. I read in Nights of Labour another suggestion, which is not as interested in the improvement of the material conditions of existing worlds, as much as in fleeing it. You suggest that these worker-writers were already participating in the impossible by redrawing the lines. How do you conceptualize the relationship between emancipation and the politics of impossibility?
It all depends on what you understand by the word impossibility. It was only not about looking for something which was absolutely impossible, I was looking at situations as the distribution of positions. It means what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought of as being possible. A situation determines a set of possibilities, and the impossible is the limit. I was looking at the idea of the emancipated worker, where the question is always of crossing the borders of the impossible. Because what was ironically possible was the improvement of the conditions of work and wages, but it was not enough. What they wanted was to become entirely human, with all the possibilities of a human being and not only having what is possible to do for workers. So that there is not necessarily an opposition between material improvement, and this attempt. I hope I did not give the impression that on the one hand there is concern with these material improvements and on the other hand the greatest impossible. The question of what is possible and impossible is really at stake in every situation, and I think the intellectual impossible and the material impossible are connected with one another.
What was impossible was really changing a form of existence, and that is why the book was called The Nights of the Proletariat, because what was most materially and intellectually impossible for a worker is precisely not to sleep at night. This was entirely material and entirely intellectual at the same time. That was what made it important for me
Your imagination of equality is radically different from liberal ideas of equality. Equality in your work is not an ends to arrive at, but the point of departure. Your work assumes that everyone leads an intellectual life, but recognizes that material and economic differences determine our ability to perform this intellectual life. How does this idea of equality differ from the general struggles for equality? And I think this is quite relevant in a context like India where we are on the one hand marked by very sharp social and economic inequality, but the only way in which one finally finds forms of addressing that is from a very unequal place. That’s why the pedantic and the pedagogic comes in – the struggle for finding terms of addressing what may be material inequality, but which actually take the quality of thought as a starting point.
We can locate this in the debate about education because in our countries, education is supposed to be the way to make people equal, starting from inequality. It is at the same time the logic of pedagogy and also the logic of progress, and a progressive thinking that of course people are not equal, and lower class people are not equal, and that precisely this derogation regenerates equality and we can get out of that condition etc etc. This is the normal pedagogic and progress of your thinking. When I encountered the works of Joseph Jacotot, I was very challenged. It is very difficult to categorise him. Was he a philosopher, a professor? His work led me to rethink the very idea of pedagogy, and what it means to teach. Similarly in the 1820s there was a lot of concern about how we can educate the people, slowly, progressively: but that was not the point, the idea of starting from inequality to reach quality; it’s impossible because in the very process, you ceaselessly recycle practices of inequality. You must not go towards equality, but must start from equality. Starting from equality does not presuppose that everyone in the world has equal opportunities to learn, to express their capacities. That’s not the point. The point is that you have to start from the minimum equality that is given. The normal pedagogic logic says that people are ignorant, they don’t know how to get out of ignorance to learn, so we have to make some kind of an itinerary to move from ignorance to knowledge, starting from the difference between the one who knows and the one who does not know.
The idea of Jacotot and the idea of intellectual emancipation was that there is always some point of equality. There is always something that is shared, for instance when the teacher is explaining something to the student, on the one hand it supposes that he has something to explain, that the student is unable to understand by himself or herself etc, so this is a relationship of inequality, but it can work only if the master supposes that that the students can simply understand the explanation, understand what the master is telling him.
So there is a kind of equality in the fact that they atleast share the same language. So the idea is not that we consider everybody as equal etc etc, rather it is about thinking about the process of learning, not as a process from ignorance to knowledge but as a process of going from what is already known or what is already possessed, to further knowledge or new possessions. I think it is a very important point so the idea is that the ignorant always knows something, always asks something and always has the capacity, and the problem is how to make the best of this capacity and start from equality. When I wrote The Ignorant Schoolmaster there was a big debate in France because there sociologists were saying that education is a lie, that education supposes that all the kids are equal and can understand the same thing, and that’s not true, so you have to adapt education to the background of the students, especially of the lower classes. At the same time there were the Republicans saying equality means that we have to consider everyone at the same level, which means that they are all ignorant but had to become learned. So that was the debate and I tried to subvert the debate, to state precisely that all those people are looking for the best path – from inequality to equality, but the only good part is to move from equality to equality.
How would you distinguish between the ignorant schoolmaster and something like the pedagogy of the oppressed?
When I wrote The Ignorant Schoolmaster, I was not very concerned with a pedagogy of the oppressed, mainly because it was not a part of the French debate. The pedagogy of the oppressed is also about linking general education with political education, so I think that if there is something common between intellectual emancipation and pedagogy of the oppressed, it is the idea that education first means enablement, that you first deal with the capacity possessed even by the oppressed, or by the lower class people. But at the same time, it is true that intellectual emancipation means that there is no specific pedagogy of the oppressed, that there is no specific education for poor people or oppressed people etc. If there is a specific pedagogy of the oppressed, then it must be thought of as a specific case in the general idea of intellectual emancipation, because basically the idea of emancipation is the same for rich people and for poor people.
Nights of Labour recasts the relationship between aesthetics and politics: At the heart of the book is an ‘aesthetic revolution’ which is fundamentally about the reordering of time (workers wresting away the ‘intellectual nights of the writer’ challenge the assumption that labour exhausts the labourer and hence is not able to participate in intellectual life). How would you revisit this thesis in the contemporary era of global capital? It is said that the contemporary reordering of time destroys ‘forms of life’ and subjects it to the tyranny of time.
Of course it is not the same situation and the Nights of Labour dealt with a period of history when there was no legislation about labour hours and things like that. But it was also a period when practices of auto-didactism were very important amongst the working-class. So both the questions of the partition of time and access to education and culture were quite different and certainly the power of intellectual emancipation was linked to a specific time. But at the same time, I would really question the idea that in contemporary capitalism all life is really framed within the capitalist organization of time and of life. In a way it is always the same. Of course, the possibilities of life are different and the organization of private and public life is quite different, as is the relationship between what is work and what is outside work. Everything has changed. What I think remains the same is that in each situation you have the choice between two positions. You could say that life is entirely subjected to the empire of domination, which means at that time during the whole day all the people were subjected to the law of the workshops, and they just had time for work and rest, and they had no time to waste, and they had to go to work the following day. But the workers said no, it is not true, it is possible to break the circle.
Now of course the circle is constructed differently. People say that people work less and that there are some forms of protection etc. But now their life is entirely dominated by the rhythms of labour on the one hand and on the other hand by all the apparatuses of consumption, or with the power of the media etc. So in a way it is always the same discourse that says that life is entirely subjugated with the idea that every change is a new form of subjugation. For instance many people, when they read Foucault, they got from Foucault the idea that all forms – of welfare state, social security etc – were forms of administration of government and of the life of people. I do not think this is true because you have the same debate on the same choice, but you can use it differently. And you can think of it quite differently. Now people say for instance that with television and the internet life is entirely subjugated. But we all know of examples with the internet, that it can be subjugated with the dominant ideology or you can create new forms of discussion and discourse etc. So my point is that there is this kind of lingering discourse that life is entirely subjugated or exhausted, and I think the idea of bio politics has something very harmful about it. Because there’s this idea that in bio-politics, life is entirely governed, and even inside us, even our blood and flesh is governed by power. But I don’t think so and I remember in the 70s and 80s, we tried precisely to take a distance from this view that was also becoming dominant in left wing thinking.
While reading Nights of Labour the one thing that had struck me, was the fact that what Gauny and his friends were fighting this idea that your life has been exhausted, your life has already been decided and that there is no other possibility. This is something that as intellectual labourer or cultural labourers in the late 20th and early 21st century, we recognize, we seem to be continuously fighting social theory and forms of discourse that keep reminding us that our selves are already exhausted, the possibilities of creative expression are exhausted through commodification etc, the possibility of forms of visioning life are exhausted because of bio politics which has taken over. So it seems like we are somehow actively possessed by Gauny, to keep ourselves alive. So in a sense, Nights of Labour is not about the past, but is written for the future, and for thinking about intellectual and cultural labour in the contemporary.
Yes, certainly what is interesting in the case of Gauny is the construction of a counter economy, which sounds rather paradoxical because he tries to reduce his consumption precisely to get free from the empire of necessity and in a certain way you could even say that he is a forerunner of the ecological movement and things like that. But the point is not whether he is a forerunner of ecology, rather he is the forerunner of the idea of emancipation, which means that you can always turn the conditions around.
Following from that, one could say that the common account of the revolution is an account where the revolution comes after time. But in the Nights of Labour, by breaking the distinction between the aesthetic and the political revolution, the revolution is one which is in time, and is happening – along with us. Could you elaborate on this distinction.
When I tried to think of the idea of intellectual emancipation, there is no distinction between the idea that – now we are struggling, now we are constructing and now we are preparing the future and the future will be wonderful. The art of emancipation is precisely to get out of this relationship between means and ends, which in the leftist tradition is based on the idea that now we create the conditions for a better future, we are preparing the weapons for the future, which means a certain phase in historical necessity. But what I think is at the heart of emancipation is precisely the idea that time is everyday. This does not mean that you have to be entirely swallowed in the everyday, but that the question of time is not to be thought of in terms of present and future, it has to be related to the partition between here and now, between time as a form of constraint and time as a possibility of freedom; and what is important in Nights of Labour was this idea of the subversion of time, and what happens in the here and now. My point is that this idea of the future, and the use of time as a form of prohibition, that you can have it in the future but you cannot have it in the present, an idea of deferred time, so the idea of historical necessity and historical process, is part of this repressive idea of time. Because the main point is whether you can or cannot and whether you use time to say yes we can, or no we can’t.
In many ways the Nights of Labour can be read as a poetics of curiosity (the figure of the auto didact), and yet curiosity itself seems to be under theorized in your own work.
I didn’t elaborate on the idea of curiosity and perhaps somebody can elaborate on this now, but at that time what was important for me in the idea of curiosity can be seen through the prism of looking: You look on the side, you look at places or questions that are not supposed to be your place or your questions. For instance in Gauny’s book there is this relationship of the day to work, but there is also a disjuncture at a particular moment – between the eye and the look – to go aside. To look through the window, to take an imaginary possession of the neighbourhood which is at the same time not a real possession but is something real, because it means that you are not only working or only a worker working with his hands, but also his eyes are looking at what his hands are doing. So curiosity for me is in this mode, I was interested in the idea of transgression. So you’re putting your feet or you’re looking in other places apart from the one that you are supposed to be in.
An underlying assumption of a number of movements is the idea of representation, and utility: But your own interest has been in the idea of the non-representative individual and in his relationship to non-utility and things which are useless. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Nights of Labour was not accepted in its time, because both these categories are crucial for the labour historian and the philosopher. But given the changes that have taken place in the last 30 years, are we now in a position to relook or think about how the figure of the non-representative individual and the idea of non-utility are now opening up possibilities today?
This is very difficult to answer, because what made it possible for me to write this book was the context of 1968 and the things that happened around ‘68. It was precisely because a lot of the things that were thought impossible had become possible, and one of the impulses when I began my research was the fact that in ‘68 there were meetings in factories between students and workers. I was surprised by the kind of questions that were put forward by the workers. They were not unionists, and in that sense they were not representative individuals. But it did show that they had a number of strange preoccupations and strange interests and concerns which were not the normal concerns of workers, or least their leaders.
So on the one hand there was an actuality of what I was dealing with in the book, but when the book came out 13 years later, the Socialist Party had already taken over power and the context had entirely changed. It was no more intelligible, and old categories were coming back. There was a certain kind of social science that had become dominant. There was very little concern with philosophy and everything had taken an empirical turn. There were two ways of thinking about the worker at that time: you were either a part of the indistinguishable mass of workers or you were the representative of workers, and you either represented this faction or the other. It was therefore impossible for them to grapple with this kind of material and with the range of non-representative individual that I was talking about in my book. What was impossible for them to think about was what symbolic rupture means. In ‘68 it was easier to think of what symbolic rupture meant – when people start talking about things that were not supposed to be their business – but it was no more intelligible in ‘81.
And now I think it is possible to understand it because in ‘81, when the book came out, the Socialist Party was taking more or less a straightforward Marxism. There was this idea of the class as the totality and a movement. And we know intellectually what came after that. It was the era of postmodernism and skepticism where there was a sentiment that the entire world was now headed towards a global petit bourgeoisie of mean people, and the idea was that there was no possibility of any subversion. So over a period of time people have begun to appreciate what I was saying. And our conditions changed with the so-called crisis. People are now again beginning to feel that perhaps the capitalist machine is not eternal. So what seems to have changed now is the possibility of understanding the idea of time in an anti-evolutionist manner, and the destiny of historical necessity. And at the same time, it is possible to understand that those individual destinies mean some form of strong symbolic break.
What would constitute the archives of new labour, where days and nights are exchanged, through labour. Nights are precisely when one engages in labour, and the day is when one sleeps?
What is different now of course is that the internet exists, so a lot of thoughts and writings that would have entirely disappeared in other contexts can now remain, be written, be exchanged. The archive that I worked with is of course a very little part of what the workers were writing. Now there are many more channels that people can write in and go through. So the question might be not about whether people can express themselves, but how the self-expression is related to the idea of dissent and subversion, and how is this related to official dissent or official subversion because the problem now is not self-expression any longer. All of this itself is now categorized, and it is now more difficult to think of this kind of an archive of dissent. So I’m not sure if I can answer, but probably for people who work through the night and sleep during the day, there is the same problem. Being able to spare a part of the day and to escape this kind of cycle and to find forms of practices and expression.
One of the lines that touched me the most form the book was “What if the truest sorrow lay not in being able to enjoy the false ones”. This line speaks to me about ways in which we can move from the pedantic and pedagogic impulses of many movements of solidarity which relates to marginalized subjects, not through subjectivity but through piety.
Finding pleasure in sorrow, finding pleasure in pain is indeed the very definition of a certain form of aesthetic pleasure. For instance, the very definition of classical tragedy is precisely a certain form of performance which deals with painful events, but which at the same time is destined to bring about pleasure for people. But it also means that in the classical order only people of privilege, or people of leisure and culture are able to enjoy such sorrows and to take pleasure in pain. What was important in the 1830s in the experience of the workers was the fact that they were living at a time of the great romantic poets and writers. These poets were for example writing about sorrow, the sorrow of being born, the sorrow of having nothing – no place in society, no place in the world. At the same time it was pleasure, the pleasure to write those lines or those verses about the sorrow of being born, the sorrow of having no place in society etc, and what was interesting for me was the way in which those workers could take up this paradoxical pleasure. Because, of course, they had a place in society, and what was difficult for them was to be in the other place, so it was important in a way for them to escape their place, and to play precisely the part of those who had no place, and to share the sorrow of those who had no place and nothing to do in society. What I also tried to say was, the very definition of proletarian – it is an old Latin word – which at the beginning had nothing to do with factory and work, and it only referred to people who had children, or people who are only able to reproduce life, or people who were really attached to what Agamben would call bare life. So it was quite important for them, I think, to rephrase the condition of people who were doomed to the mere production of life, and to rephrase each life as a kind romanticist sorrow – what a pity I was born in the world that had no place for me. The important thing is the possibility to exchange one sorrow for another, and in a sense the pleasure in literature and culture is the ability to exchange one sorrow for another sorrow. continue reading
Saturday, 09 January 2010
by Willie Baptist, Organizing Upgrade
Willie Baptist was interviewed by John Wessel-McCoy for Organizing Upgrade in June 2009
Any approach to social change, organizing and leadership development has to be based on your assessment of the situation and of the problem. If you have one assessment or one diagnosis, you’re going to have a particular prescription and a particular approach to the solution. Either we’re dealing with a teddy bear or we’re dealing with a grizzly bear, and either estimate will determine your set of tactics, your organizing approach. If you think you’re dealing with a teddy bear and in reality it’s a grizzly bear coming at you, you’re going to be in trouble. So this estimate of the situation is absolutely crucial to the process.
I’ve learned some important lessons in my experience of having, for example, helped organized among homeless people in the Detroit area where we established a local chapter of the National Union of the Homeless. In Detroit, many of the homeless people had been stable “middle class” autoworkers, but they had undergone such a dislocation as a result of the computerization and automation of auto production. What you find, throughout the entire economy, is this gigantic and unprecedented technological revolution that is shaping sources of income, places of work, but also communities. Communities are undergoing tremendous changes. So if you organize from prevailing influences of organizing that served the past, and you’ve had this tremendous change that has taken place, then your organizing approach and your tactics are not going to fit the new situation.
I don’t think you would have had certain social theories such as Marxism or industrial unionism if it they were not shaped by tremendous technological changes that were taking place back during the latter 18th century and in the 19th century. Before the Industrial Revolution, you had the feudal agricultural societies that dictated an approach towards organizing different from when the industrial revolutions took place. Changes in our times are analogous to those changes, but I think it’s on a scale more comprehensive and a rapidity much greater than ever before. Deindustrialization alongside of the growth of urban populations globally is historically unprecedented. I think we’re dealing with a grizzly bear, because there’re tremendous dislocations happening in communities today, and I think the current crisis punctuates this problem. Our organizing has to reflect that.
Pitfalls of large parts of the Left
You can see the continuing influences on large part of the Left of the 1930s trade union organizing and of the 1960s community organizing, which is heavily shaped by the influences of the Civil Rights Movement and world’s National Liberation Movements. There’s a saying that ‘most generals are always fighting the last war.’ That is what we’re finding in the Left. We’re dealing with a totally new situation. In this new day you must do things in a new way.
Last year, the food riots that took place in more than 30 countries globally had the immediacy that Watts had in the 1960s. Our approach today has to reflect these new elements, elements that didn’t exist in 1930s and 1960s. On the “Left,” there’s a tendency to categorize different issues, different fronts of struggle – put them in different silos – and approach them from the perspective of solely organizing among this ethnic community or organizing among that trade union, or among women as a separate group. Although organizing in the different fronts of struggle is very important, the perspective in approaching them has to change given the changed situation. The problems today are problems that revolve around the growing concentration of wealth on a global level on the one hand, and the spreading of poverty on a global level on the other. Our organizing strategy and tactics have to be based in a comprehensive and ongoing assessment of this fundamental polarization that defines our times. This is crucial because to limit your perspective as to the fundamental problem and solution is to ultimately make your effort aimed at leveraging pity, not power. At most, this results in sort of a “militant do-gooderism” or charity paraded as ”social justice” or “the end to extreme poverty.” It amounts to much corporate funding of efforts that only strike down the leaves and branches of the problem leaving it roots untouched, only for the leaves and branches to grow back in more devastating and fascist forms.
In history, different periods were defined by major social polarities. And the class forces or elements of class forces that were most dislocated or most affected by that problem had to be organized and placed at the forefront in order for that problem to be brought to a solution. The struggle against the British Crown in this country had to be led by the colonists, because they were the ones that were immediately affected. There was opposition to the British Crown coming from Spain, from France, even from within the United Kingdom. And these forces played a role in the struggle against the British Crown. But it was the colonists in that particular period that had to be at the forefront – that had to exhibit initiative – to actually galvanize and bring those other forces into play. The French support of that struggle was very important, but it was all predicated on the fight – and the military and political organization of the fight – by the American colonists themselves.
The overall struggle against slavery in this country had to be led by the struggle of those forces oppressed by the slavocracy, that is, the slaves of course but also the industrial classes of the North. These most adversely affected social forces had to find some organizational expressions and thereby place their needs and demands at the forefront in order for that struggle to be brought to a successful conclusion. Take the struggle for women’s suffrage. Can you imagine a struggle for women’s suffrage led by men? Those forces most affected by the problem have to be at the forefront. They know when their pain is relieved.
In organizing today around the issues of poverty and the issues of extreme wealth concentrated in a few hands, to resolve this problem, social hegemonic leadership must come from that segment of the population that is the most directly affected, that is, the poor and dispossessed sections in the struggle. Our organizing and developing leaders today must first focus on uniting this segment. This must be the only basis of developing and uniting revolutionary leaders.
Power and Organizing
Part of an accurate estimate of the social problems we face involves power relationships. In the National Union of the Homeless we coined the slogan, “Power grows from organization… Freedom is never given. It must be taken. And therefore you only get what you are organized to take!” All of history – US and world history – confirms this statement. Are you able to generate a critical mass of power to counter the existing power relationships to make change? We’ve got to be real about that. Otherwise we’re playing games. As Malcolm X once stated, “power only respects power… power never takes a step back except in the face of more power.”
A lot of the Left tends to avoid this question, but you can’t get away from it. One of the problems we’ve had in American history is that, although there have been a lot of social movements over time, they have been basically divided into two types of movements. One, dealing with power changes: shifting power relationships, a social-economic group or section of a class out of power taking power. Here I’m not talking about the regular electoral changes in government administrative and legislative offices. And the other type of movements that generates a tremendous amount of activity but ultimately results in the reinforcing the position of major social elements in existing power relationships by social reform. They allowed for a modification or an adjustment of existing power relations, not changing those power relations.
For example, the Anti-Slavery Movement, including the Civil War, resulted in power changes in terms of the slaveocracy being taken out of power and the Northern industrial classes being put into power. Or the American Revolution: the Tory elements within the colonies connected to the British Crown were in power. And what happened as a consequence of that struggle was that you had a change of places in terms of power relationships. But most of the other major struggles – the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the industrial movements of the 30s, the Civil Rights Movement – these movements were reform movements, but they didn’t result in power changes. We have to look at history and see what we can learn from movements for power as well as what we can learn from reform movements. The problem is that there has been very little study of US history with regard to these two types of social movement and social changes.
Today, again, we are confronted with the question: Are we dealing with a teddy bear or are we dealing with a grizzly bear? Are we dealing with a fundamentally a reform movement or are we dealing with a transformation movement? My experience and the experiences of others I’ve been involved with over the last forty years – in my study of American history and world history – suggest we’re dealing fundamentally with a problem of power. That raises a question of how you generate a critical mass that’s strong enough to take power.
The only thing that the oppressed classes have at their disposal is their numbers. They only enter in the scale of power struggle if those numbers are organized and are led by knowledge or an understanding of what they’re up against. The influences of industrial union organizing and of community organizing – Saul Alinsky and some of the Civil Rights organizing – have left us very ignorant on the problems of power. Power grows from organizing, but how you organize – your approach to organizing under different circumstances – is something that’s very critical.
Part of the problem of power in this country – a central aspect of the problem – is the relationship between color and class. The history of slavery, the slaughter of the Native Americans – these things have impacted American society all the way to today and have placed the color factor deeply in the thinking of the American people. You disregard this question at your own peril. But how you pose it is very important. The position of the poor and the dispossessed in the struggle to end poverty is very crucial, because what the poor shows in their social and economic position is that ultimately the color question is inseparably tied to the class question. And then not only is it tied to the class question, but that the color question ultimately is or revolves around the question of class, that is the problem of the concentration of wealth and power.
The tendency has been to separate these issues because the prevailing influence around the issue of race, for example, has been the kind of petit bourgeois, “middle-class” kind of conception that is closely allied with the upper classes. This conception says: “The economy? I have no problem with the economy. Even with the current crisis, I have no problems with the fundamentals of the capitalist economy.” Therefore, you can discuss the problems of race separate, as if it’s parallel to the problems of whether I eat or not, have a house or not, do I have the power necessary to at least have my basic necessities secured or not. From the standpoint of the economically exploited and excluded, I can’t discuss the questions of whether or not we’re going to be able to resolve the problems of color or resolve the inequities of gender and all of the other ills in society disconnected from the questions of class and power.
I think this is where Martin Luther King in the last years of his life offers a bridge in terms of getting people to understand the inseparableness of these things. He pointed at the inseparableness of the three major evils: of unjust foreign policy in terms of the global situation and how it is tied to race relations and how race relations are inseparably tied to the problem of economic exploitation and poverty. You can’t deal with one without dealing with the other. If we orient ourselves on the basis of those at the bottom, we’re going to tend to see the inseparableness of these questions in reality.
There’s this poster that I saw on one of my trips from Philadelphia to Atlanta to see my daughter. There’s this billboard put up by the furniture industry in South Carolina. And it references a very common slogan put out in our country that I think influences the Left, that I think influences the whole of society. It said: “Let the sons and daughters of the former slaveholders unite with the sons and daughters of the former slaves.” Now what’s critical about that formulation is that they leave out the fact that most whites in the South were not slaveholders. They were mostly poor and working-class whites.
Left out of most discussions of history is this formula of power that W.E.B. DuBois talked about that pitted the poor non-whites against the poor whites. Even today, when we are discussing the need of people of color to unite, it’s usually done in a way to leave out the strategic necessity of finding ways of uniting with poor whites to ensure real emancipation from poverty and all forms of human misery. As DuBois suggested and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr directly pointed out in his 1967-68 Poor People’s Campaign, this can and must be the starting point in building the necessary critical mass to move power relations in this country of 300 million. And historically that has been a stumbling block in terms of any kind of struggle for power in this country. When you consider the power relationships as expressed in the composition of the civil bureaucracy and government jobs on all levels — municipal, state, and federal — or you consider the military and police forces, you’re talking about mostly white folks. This also true of the key corporate jobs in the “commanding heights” of the economy, i.e., the auto industry, housing, steel, energy, etc. A growing number of these strategically positioned employees, their relatives and communities are beginning to have difficult times. Poverty is increasing among whites at a faster rate than among non-whites, especially resulting from the current crisis with the dismantling of the so called “middle class.” These are real pivotal problems of power. Aristotle once stated, and this has been more than corroborated by world history, that “Where the middle class is large, there are least likely to be factions and dissension.” Today we are confronted with greater opportunities and dangers with regard to problems of political influence and power relations than have rarely happened in American history. Yet we leave these opportunities for the fascists to win sections of the poor and working class whites.
W.E.B. DuBois pointed out this problem of power in his Black Reconstruction, where he talks about how the political situation of slavery in the South was different from slavery in the Caribbean and South America. There, the opposition among the slaves tended to have a much wider and more of a mass character. That even culminated in the Haitian Revolution, which is the only actual slave-led uprising to successfully take the slaveocracy out of power. You had this massive uprising in the Caribbean and South American slavery, but in America – in the Southern United States – you had smaller resistance in the forms of runaway slaves and preempted slave rebellions. DuBois pointed out very clearly, that at its height in the Southern United States, you had something like four million black slaves, but at the same time, right alongside the black slaves, you had something like five million poor whites. You didn’t have that kind of demographics in Haiti where enslaved blacks outnumbered whites by 12 to one.
The poor whites in southern United States were plentiful. They were the social base for the police forces, including the slave drivers and slave patrols. The ruling slaveholders were able to use these two sections of the bottom against each other. And with the accumulation of wealth from the brutal exploitation of black slaves, the powers that be controlled the poor whites, and they employed poor whites to control the poor blacks. This formula of plantation power politics is what we have been dealing with in the US all the way up to this day. For instance, we can see how this racial political formula is being effectively employed to control and oppress immigrant workers. For us to not completely appreciate power relationships of class rule is to our detriment and to the peril of the struggle.
You see this lack of appreciation in most discussions of gentrification and the growth of global cities today. The tendency is to limit the discussions as to the whole complexity of these processes by only seeing what is perceived as simply white folks coming in and displacing poor peoples of color. You don’t see the whole class question. You don’t see that the people coming in are not poor whites, because poor whites can’t afford to come in. Or you don’t see communities like poor multi-racial Kensington in Philadelphia, PA that are proliferating throughout the country, where you have an equality of poverty developing. I’ve gone to places within Kensington and the neighborhoods around it where we’d go into these homes, and you see homeless families – poor whites – who are stacked up in the housing; where you have the holes in the roof, holes in the ceilings, holes in the floor, living under horrible conditions. Certainly the blacks in the community of Mount Airy, for example, where the petit professionals live have better homes and far better living standards than these poor whites in Kensington and neighboring Fishtown. And the key political question is: Do poor blacks in Kensington have more in common with poor whites in Kensington, or do they have more in common with former Merrill Lynch CEO, multi-millionaire Stanley O’Neil or with Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice or other upper class blacks folks? No, they have absolutely nothing in common with these black folks and everything in common with poor whites.
In fact, I think that speaks to a dangerous kind of racist exceptionalism that says you can have class differentiation among whites but it doesn’t exist as a factor among people of color. And no the upper class blacks are not puppets or modern “Uncle Toms”. Despite their adroit use of racial colloquialisms and coquetries, they are quite class conscious of their integration into the ruling capitalist class and bent on intelligently and steadfastly defending their class interests like any other of their capitalist brothers and sisters. Of course, the questions of class factors in majorly in terms of how the political dynamics are played out – in terms of the prevailing and historically evolved formula of power in this country, that is, the cruel and shrewd manipulations of the color divisions within the bottom class. And I think this persistent aspect of power relationships in the US has to be taken in account if we’re going to have the tactics and the organizing approach that really brings about social change. Otherwise, it’s ultimately comes to pity for poor folks – especially poor nonwhite folks who are down and out and people should feel guilty about that. Well, people don’t feel guilty about that especially when they are beginning to hurt from increasing class exploitation and dislocations. Historically and politically, we have to have them understand how their oppression is tied to your oppression, how their exploitation is tied to your exploitation.
Your arm is cut off and my finger is cut off. A cut off finger is certainly less than a cut off arm, but it still hurts. If we don’t link your hurt with my hurt but keep comparing whose injury is worse, we’re not going to be able to unite the critical mass necessary to move the existing power relationships. Somehow we’ve got to solve this formula of power described by Dubois if we’re going to succeed.
The development of leaders with a proper grasp of social theory and political strategy allow for a deeper grasp of the big picture so we don’t become a pawn to a greater power game. You can see the Left – the so-called “Left” – falling into that trap where the tendency, because of the influence of the recent Civil Rights Movement and the National Liberation Movements is for the Left to gravitate and hover around the inner-cities and the people of color exclusively. Whereas the Right – the so-called “Right” – gravitate and hover around the poor whites. Therefore the bigger picture is that both the “Left” and the “Right” are manipulated by the powers that be. And they’re continuing to play out a game W.E.B. Dubois described as beginning with the origins of this country.
Lessons From MLK’s Last Years
One thing that’s very crucial in this period is the role of education and consciousness raising. What I’ve learned in my experiences in organizing is that building socio-political movement is about more than simply mobilizing bodies. It’s essentially about moving minds and hearts. And education is central, especially in an information age. The technological revolution I alluded to earlier has created this ability to impact on people’s worldviews that ultimately influence people’s political wills, which is what we’re trying to get at. Today, unlike any other period, these influences work like a 24/7 netwar against the poor as the first line of attack against all of us.
In looking at the way you fight today as opposed to how we fought yesterday, the question of the relationship of education to organizing is more intimate and integral. You’ve got to talk as you walk. You’ve got to teach as you fight. You’ve got to learn as you lead. These things are inseparable to the problem of organizing, and I think the Saul Alinsky influence and some of the trade union influence and even standard community organizing has separated those questions. These approaches tend to de-emphasize the importance of education and thus miss out on the opportunity of using the daily struggles as a school to elevate consciousness particularly in terms of leadership development.
Part of that education is a recognition of lessons from history. The powers-that-be have done a great disservice with regards to curriculum and the philosophy of education in this country. They’ve left out whole periods of history and obscured certain periods of history that have direct bearing on what we are trying to do today. The experience of Martin Luther King in the last period of his life is obscured. It is something that is pushed under the rug. Clearly up until a certain point in his development, he was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement that was focused on de jure racial apartheid in this country. But at a certain point towards the end of his life, he began to recognize that – even though they were able to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Right Act of 1965 passed - the black masses who were succumbing to economic exploitation couldn’t benefit from the results of the Civil Rights Movement. He pointed out: What good is it to be able to go into a restaurant now since they’ve taken down the “whites only” sign if you can’t afford a hamburger? Today you don’t have the “whites only” sign in the front window of restaurants. You have another sign. It’s the menu, and the menu has the different items and their costs. And if you can’t afford what’s on that menu, I don’t care what color you are; there’s no need for you to go in there.
This is a very significant development because it offers us the opportunity to move American thinking in a way that focuses on power shifts and social change. But we’ve got to grapple with this reality. Martin Luther King said “It didn’t take a penny to integrate lunch counters in this country” (that is, to defeat de jure segregation). But when we talk about ending poverty, to paraphrase him, you’re talking about a whole reconstruction of “economic and political power” relationships. He recognized that. And the powers-that-be saw that not only did he recognize that, but that he begin to utilize his great international prestige to take actions that were a real political threat to them and their domestic and foreign policies. That’s why he was killed; that was proven by the virtual media black-out of the 1999 MLK assassination trial in Memphis, Tennessee.
People should look at the transcripts of the testimonies of this historic trial where they proved that MLK’s proposals threatened the powers that be. The evidence showed that the much-publicized theory – that a lone fanatical white racist killed MLK – was false, that this was the big lie spread by the FBI because they knew public opinion would be prone to believe it at the time. Indeed his murder involved the complicity of elements from all levels of government and intelligent services. It says a lot in terms of lessons for us today. How do we resolve this fundamental problem of power? How do you unite the dispossessed – the bottom – in order to turn things upside down in terms of resolving the problems of homelessness, healthcare, and all of these problems that are manifestations of this basic problem: the polarity between the concentration of wealth on one hand and the spread of poverty on the other?
4 Cs: A Networked Core of Clear, Connected, Competent, and Committed Leaders
When we talk about really developing a successful movement, there has to be an advanced theoretical and intellectual development to the movement. It has to be an engaged intellectualism. This is something that is indispensable, and this is where the education and consciousness raising element is critical. Theory is basically the summary of historical experience. It’s a means to take the general lessons of history as a way to guide your analysis, so you don’t find yourself bumping your head against walls that other people before you have bumped their heads against. Yet we have in our culture and mindset an anti-theory, anti-intellectual approach especially when it comes to social struggle. Now, this anti-intellectualism is not coming from the poor and dispossessed. It’s coming from the intellectuals. In fact the whole anti-theory philosophy of pragmatism came out of Harvard. It came out of people thinking through a philosophy that would divert attention and be an apology for the economic and political status quo. And it still has influence today as expressed in its most recent variants such as “post-structuralism” and “post-modernism.” It has the effect of having people not see the importance of taking the lessons of history and the lessons of experience in terms of theory and using them to guide our analysis and actions. This is something that is a real disservice, because – even though there’s reference to theory on the Left – a large part of the anti-intellectualism comes from the Left. It doesn’t come from poor folks or people who are trying to figure out what in the hell is happening to them. They’re hungry for analysis of why it is that they are poor and who benefits from it and what their strategy is and how we counter their strategy with a strategy. These are the basic yearnings of those who are in a position of pain and suffering every day.
We need advanced theory that enables a kind of organizing that allows us to match our sophistication with the sophistication of the strategists, ideologists, and theologians of the present “powers and principalities.” You can’t meet sophistication just with sentimentalism. There has to be an engaged intellectualism – an engaged scholarship – to successfully guide our thinking and fighting. If we don’t outsmart the enemy, there’s no way we’re going to outfight them.
If we’re going to go forward, we’ve got to resolve this problem of education and theory. The important thing that I’ve learned in my political life was that the major defeats and mistakes were largely a result of a lack of a historical perspective that comes from theory, a lack of understanding of political economy that comes from theory, a lack of leadership development that comes from theoretical development.
And not having leaders – a core of leaders – who are connected to the struggles of the poor and dispossessed, who are committed, who are competent, and who are clear in terms of their analytical approach is problematic in terms of your ability to sustain an effort, to stick and stay the course, to go up against the sophistication of the forces we’re dealing with. What I’ve learned most is that the first stage in any kind of organizing is how do you identify and develop those leaders that emerge in those struggles, how you use those struggles to identify leaders and concentrate them into a guiding intellectual force that can then organize the movement. They have to have the sophistication that matches the sophistication of the powers-that-be.
I don’t think that we understand what we’re up against. The forces we’re up against, on the one hand, don’t give a damn about us. They go around the world and subject people to the most excruciating horrors. You think they’re not prepared to do that with us? Certainly the history of people of color suggests that they are prepared to do dirty to anybody for dominance and the dollar. Still among broad sections, people cannot think that the people we’re up against are people who are very fascistic and who are prepared to sweep us under the rug, throw us off the cliff and have us to live out the most horrible existence. These people don’t give a damn about us. You’ve got to understand that. That’s what you’re up against.
At the same time, we must respect them, which means to study to know and keep up with them in their strategic thinking and moves. They are the powers-that-be, and they are the most organized. They have the chambers of commerce and the different trade associations and most importantly, they have very sophisticated “think-tanks:” the Rand Corporation, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the Carnegie Endowment, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and other such groupings. The Carnegie formation is now organized as the first global think-tank. These major think-tanks study the daily developments around the world; they study a problem before it becomes an issue. This is a tremendous opposition that we face. We’ve got to know our enemy and strive to know what they know. For if we only know ABC and they know A to Z then we stand to be outmaneuvered and manipulated. Our organizing strategy and tactics must be and can be developed directly in opposition to theirs.
But a lot of organizing makes general references to capitalism and the oppression of people of color at the hands of white folks or something like that, and not an examination of what and who we are really dealing with. Leadership development and the theoretical development that undergirds that leadership development has to take those kinds of things into account if we’re going to proceed effectively, if we are going to organize an independent mass socio-political movement that can move the issues that affect us today. continue reading