Posted April 20, 2008
(The arduous pace of the school, and it’s work and social demands, means that I have not been able to keep up with my journal on a daily basis. Thus, I apologize for the partial summaries below; some of the fun, wacky, informal conversations are also left out, as I had to reconstruct some days from my notes. – John)
Wednesday April 2
Murray Smith, a Scottish comrade who works here at IIRE, gives a talk on migration. This obviously continues the theme addressed at the lecture before the school, and more generally links to our discussion of global economic shifts, recomposition of the working class, and nationality, ethnicity and religion.
Murray begins by pointing out that migration in capitalism is nothing new. Dispossessed workers who have nothing to exchange for survival but their labor are pushed and pulled by developments in the process and organizing of capitalist accumulation. The slave trade and import of labor for mining and plantation agriculture were obvious racializations of the exploitation of labor, with profound economic, social and political consequences that operate still today. In Europe, the post-war boom required migrants from the periphery to the capitalist center (North Africa to France, Turkey to Germany, etc.). With the onset of the economic crisis in the 70’s, the need for this labor diminishes, and strict immigration controls are established to help – alongside attacks on wages and work control, privatizations, cuts in pensions – capitalism restructure and increase the rate of profit. Also, the rise of the two-or-three wage ‘family’ and cut-back in social services, requires migrant workers – usually women from the South – to provide superexploited reproductive labor.
An interesting part of our discussion, particularly in the case of the Philippines, is the effect a ‘migrant-labor economy’ has on the home country where folks are migrating from. For example, 50% of the population in Surinam (former Dutch colony) now lives and works in the Netherlands. $12.7 billion in remittances went to the Philippines in 2006, which is 40% of its annual revenue. While some governments, like the Philippines count this revenue in their annual economic measures, they are not funds that go to expanding the productive economy of the home country. Rather, they support private/family consumption, often substituting itself for the provisions of goods and services (education) that should be provided publicly or by the state. Remittance economies have a profoundly deforming effect on the home countries. Other countries – e.g. Pakistan and India – experience a damaging ‘brain drain’ of intellectual and technical workers as part of the global ‘race to the bottom’ for cheap labor.
Thursday April 3
We had a bit of sun today, but it remained cloudy. Francis’ (Belgium) potatoes au gratin took forever to cook and lunch was cancelled, so we were all a little tired and short-nerved during the afternoon. Dinner, with said potatoes and Pakistani curry chicken, was worth the wait though.
Nadia (a comrade from Italy) presented on gender, and our discussion was lively. Women are especially oppressed by the extension capitalist relations of production and life, which uses the divisions set up by patriarchy. In the last few decades, the intensification of competition, restriction of rights and privatization of public services – an job sector employing many more women than others – and the destruction of local and natural resources have all preyed particularly on women. Women are drawn into the labor force, but into the worst jobs with less pay. Nadia argued that it is actual violence or the threat of it, that is the foundation for the oppression of women. Nadia concluded by saying that our political organizations have to recognize other kinds of contributive activity, beyond the often-masculine and alienating emphasis on talking, arguing and writing. But she also said that she does not thing men can be “feminists”, and came near subscribing to a biological or naturalist argument for gender divisions. We all the recognized the need for an autonomous women’s movement and the need to actively support women’s self-organization. I argued for the necessity for men to be feminists, in order to support autonomous spaces and self-organization for women and recognize their own responsibility and stake in destroying patriarchal social relations. Maybe its’ a question of terminology.
In small group discussion, comrades from the Pakistani comrades discussed the severely oppression of women in their countries. Young women are sold between families, ‘stoning’ is on the rise, etc. We discussed how the Islamization of Pakistani-society under the US-support Al-Haq regime in the 70’s coincided with a period of the general weakening of workers and social movements and the strengthening of reaction.
As tomorrow is a free day, we went out to a bar in the center. We quickly strolled through the red-light district – uhhh, kind of nauseating – and ended up at an anarchist squat bar. Comrades danced to Billy Idol and some European punk, and we played pool. We didn’t get back to the Institute, after a long and healthy walk, until past 4am.
Friday April 4
Our first free day. After sleeping off our late night, I head to the Jordaan neighborhood for a coffee and chance to get caught up on some reading
I share a beer with O., my roommate, at a nearby bar when I return. We talk about Morocco and the student group he’s organizing. I say it’d be great to get him to the US to meet students and young activists there. He’s excited at the prospect.
Saturday April 5
Today’s discussion was on ecology and the climate crisis, presented by Daniel Tanuro. Daniel expertly summarized climatology and the nature of the catastrophe we face. He argued for revolutionaries to commit to an ecosocialist perspective and work to build a global single-issue mass movement to prevent climate change. Importantly, he pointed out – rightly, I think – that this is an especially urgent responsibility for socialist, as this crisis threatens the survival of human civilizations and so clearly demonstrates the destructive, “unsustainable” character of capitalist accumulation. Capitalism is anti-nature in the following senses: it demands accumulation and expansion (Daniel said capitalism is like riding a bike – you’ll fall down if you stop pedaling forward); it is constantly increasing its base of production; it is based on profit (so is oriented towards producing things for their exchange value, not their use value); it is based on competition, not cooperation; is tied to the economic rent from the fossil-fuel energy system; and it produces structural inequalities that immiserate whole populations and areas of the world. All these things point to the obvious inability of capitalist “business as usual” solutions – no matter how “green” sounding – to deal with this crisis.
We also discussed how this issue presents an enormous opportunity to socialists to argue for socialism – for radical democracy, a “reconversion” of our current destructive modes of production, suppressing useless, wasteful economic sectors, ending imperialist exploitation of and ‘dumping’ in the periphery, and planning developments independent of their costs but according to the principle of the best rational exchange between humanity and nature.
Sunday April 6
My pancakes this morning were a great success. Not being a wizard in the kitchen, and working with more of a crepe kind of mix, I was nervous; but comrades are demanding I make them again next time our team is cooking.
Our old comrade, Peter D., who co-directed the IIRE for 13 years, is here for two days, and lecturing on LGBT communities and struggles in the dependent world. He highlighted the contradictory role capitalism plays in regards to gender and LGBT politics. Capitalist social relations relay on a sharp distinction between private life and family on the one hand, and the public sphere or market on the other. This family sphere is the arena for establishing heteronormative gender roles and generating (unpaid) social reproduction of labor. But capitalism also allows for the establishment of other identities and communities – such that the post-war boom provided the economic ground for LGBT and other identity struggles. The discussion then addressed the particular effects of the neoliberal assault on LGBT communities – for example, in the privatization or commodification of public spaces, and the new rise of sexual slavery and sex tourism (in the ex-Soviet eastern European countries and Southeast Asia). Peter concluded by calling for the Left to “dare to be first” in taking up LGBT struggles and spoke of the example of the former Mexican PRT, which in the mid-80’s was the first organization on the Mexican Left to promote LGBT struggles and feature a transgender speaker in its forums.
Monday April 7
“To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie WITH ALL ITS PREJUDICES [italics in original], without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.–to imagine all this is to REPUDIATE SOCIAL REVOLUTION. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.” Lenin
Peter opens our discussion on nationalism, communalism and “identity” politics with this quote from Lenin. Emancipation will compromise all movements of the oppressed – not just those under the banner of “workers” or in a purer conflict of ‘labor vs. capital’. “Whoever expects a ‘pure’ revolution, will never live to see it.” And Peter agrees with Lenin that it is the duty of revolutionaries to support all such movements. Marx’s Capital is an abstract – but nonetheless ‘concrete’ – model of the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production. Contrary to vulgar Marxist revisions and the apostles of neoliberal globalization (Thomas Friedman’s “world is flat” thesis), capitalism relies on state power and the uneven relationship of nations and identities in its process of accumulation – manipulating old tensions, erasing some and creating new lines of force. Current anti-capitalist struggles are often national or ‘identity’ struggles, like the Zapatistas. I was glad to hear Peter discuss the Peruvian socialist Mariategui and his thesis that the South American revolution will be fought around the pole of indigenous struggles for autonomy, specifically the traditional of Incan communism latent in the allyu communal system.
This session obvious connects with themes addressed throughout the school – on the recomposition of the working-class and struggles of resistance under neoliberal globalization, the earlier session on migration, European ‘integration’, and religion and fundamentalism. On the latter, Peter argued us to recognized that in imperialist countries religious identity can be adopted as a stance of national, communal resistance against racism, exploitation and xenophobia. In any event, all struggles of the oppressed, around whatever identity, within imperialist countries deserve our unwavering support.
Peter asked me to address our thoughts on Black nationalism. I said that Solidarity does not have a ‘line’ on the Black national question, with comrades taking a variety of positions in an ongoing discussion on the Black liberation struggle. My own view, I said, was that there is not a ‘Black nation’ according the CP’s earlier Black-belt thesis or Stalin’s abstract criteria. Nonetheless, the fundamental importance of chattel slavery and the struggles against it for the US empire and US history, the specific and legalized racial oppression under Jim Crow, and continued racial oppression and institutional racism have all created a common Black identity and struggle in the US, one that I believe bears many resemblances to national struggles and which is crucially strategic for all other liberation struggles in – and beyond – the US. Debates around Obama’s campaign and the expectations raised by a potential Black President, and the Katrina disaster (with Black Americans, even non-political ones, speaking of “what happened to our people) all indicate a common identity and struggle, qua being Black versus just another subsection of the US population.
The varying territory of political struggle and range of conditions represented by those at the school was very evident around this topic. This is one of the best things about the school. I discussed with a French comrade the LCR’s approach to the right’s campaign for a law banning the wearing of Muslim headscarfs in schools and public places. A position of “neither the veil, nor the law” – saying they’re opposed to the veil but just not by the bourgeois state. He explained the strong secular tradition in France. I said I disagreed with this position, that things like “citizenship” and religion are never even, flat territory, but cut across by various forms of exclusion and oppression. We should just say “we’re against the ban.” Period. But then, that’s just my view from afar.
Tuesday April 8
Stephanie, a leader in the French LCR, gives a talk on strategic debates in the global justice movement, around de-linking vs. an alternative globalization. Neoliberal globalization has created new forms of resistance – truly international campaigns and networks are established to conform global capitalism, while ostensibly local and partial struggles, for example around a factory closing, can link different issues and groups (women, indigenous, environmental, labor, etc.) The space of real reforms – that existed in the developed countries during the post-war boom – is closing, so that even these partial or sectoral struggles for reform can no extend to threaten capitalist priorities and pull people into a united struggle.
The discussion groups focused their discussions around the World Social Forum processes and role of NGO’s in the global justice movement. There is no way to draw a comprehensive summary or political position from these questions – in some places the Forums are totally the property of social liberals and NGOs, and are an obstacle to the creation of mass movements of resistance; in others, like the US, the process is just beginning and still an important area of work. Nonetheless, we do face a problem of how to move deepen or move beyond the ‘networking’ framework, to argue within the movements around issues of democracy, class independence, and unified, strategic struggle against capitalism.
Wednesday April 9
A great presentation by ‘Jaber’ on imperialism, US empire and war. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, liberal theories critiqued the economic or military inefficiencies of colonial empires, until Lenin demonstrated that imperialism is not an unfortunate, avoidable element of capitalism, but an essential stage of its development. The two world wars debilitated European economies and impelled the independence struggles in the colonies. Meanwhile, US economic and political power was growing, “leaping” significantly during the war years (US industry increases 50% during WWII). But the “unipolar moment” of US hegemony is increasing unstable. Severe trade deficits and economic imbalances have compelled the US bourgeoisie to increasing reliance on a strategy of military control over energy resources – to ward off Russia and China – and as the sole military protectorate of the global capitalist system. But the weakened economic position of the US should not mislead us. ‘Jaber’ described the “paradox of the big debtor”; in a situation where all partake of the same game – the US dollar retains suzerainty status as the global currency, crucially with regard to oil – the “big debtors” must still be lent to and supported by the smaller debtors, less these latter parties also fall.
The Achilles heel of the US empire is the US population. Occupations require actual soldiers, and the ability of the US to extricate itself from the Iraq quaqmire and retain it’s status as the police of the global capitalism depends on the military’s ability to maintain its ranks. As the occupation is everyday losing legitimacy, the US military is stretched to the breaking-point; the anti-war movement in the US is key to pushing it over the edge.
Thursday April 10
‘Jaber’ remains with us again, to help us discuss Marxism and religion, in particular the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. This issue obviously relates to others that have been a part of our conversation at the school, like national and other identity struggles.
‘Jaber’ critiqued traditional sociological (Weber) and Marxist (Engel’s on the Peasant Wars in Germany) explanations of religion. Weber had it totally upside down, arguing that Protestant ideology determined the ground for capitalist economic relations. Engels was more complicated, but characterized religion as no more than a “flag and mask” of substantive social content, an accidental form or superstructure assumed by economically determined class struggles. Rather, a refined Marxist analysis of religion must see it as a flexible “protean” ideology which can be shaped according to specific historical conjunctures, but which nonetheless possesses definable “elective affinities” with certain politics and forms of struggle (this is argued by Michael Lowy).
For example, there is a certain “elective affinity” between early Christianity and socialist movements. Both were persecuted enemies of the state, critiqued prevailing forms of family and private property, and were movements of the poor and outcast. Now, this is not to say that Christianity is essentially socialist at its core; note the Church’s subsequent imperial and oppressive history. But it does help explain movements like Thomas Munzer’s in peasant Germany and liberation theology in Latin America.
‘Jaber’ gave a great summary of the rise and context of Islamic fundamentalism: combined population growth and rural exodus (= unemployment) in most of the Muslim world; decline of handicraft production; increasing polarization of society; predominance of foreign control over trade and finance (and as settlers); and the weakness of a national-liberal bourgeoisie. These factors combined the failure of national populist regimes (Nassar) and the active support of the US and Saudi kingdom of reactionary fundamentalist movements to combat the influence of secular national or socialist politics. Also, globalization and anomie, or the disintegration of traditional social/cultural reference points, compel a retrenchment of re-asserted identities.
The outline of the development of Islamic fundamentalist movements in particular countries was detailed, too much to go into here. But the political conclusions for a Marxist approach to religious movements and Islamic fundamentalist movements are important to share.
Parts of the European left have cowered to Islamophobia, the “contemporary form of anti-immigrant racism in Europe”. Other Left groups (British SWP) have politically allied with Islamic fundamentalist organizations in a silly “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” politics. Both are terribly wrong.
Marxists must first distinguish between Islam and fundamentalism, to combat the conflation of the two by the racist Western bourgeoisie and the “war on terror”. Where Muslims are an oppressed people, we must support all of their democratic rights, including religious practices which might appear reactionary. (The hijab might be adopted, in a “judo maneuver”, as a subterfuge or act of resistance; for some Muslim women, it can serve’s a tool of self-defense against sexism and male violence.) Suppression of religion is both anti-democratic and, as Engel’s wrote, nothing guarantees the strength of religious ideas like their explicit suppression. It is also crucial for us to recognize that Islamic fundamentalism is not just “a flag and mask” adopted by oppressed populations, which will wear away in time (a la the SWP’s attitude). Fundamentalism determines the political program and content of struggle of those who adopt it. Revolutionary Marxists can temporarily ally with fundamentalist or religious movements in struggle against a common enemy, but never abandon our ideological – and sometimes physical (e.g. Iran) – struggle against them.
As we are all getting somewhat tired and ‘Jaber’ had to leave early for his flight, we decided to do without our afternoon language and large group meetings. I walked to a nearby park with S., a young comrade from the Labor Party of Pakistan. He got recruited to the LPP as a student activist. He told me about the extremely difficult circumstances for him and the Left in Pakistan these days. There are regular battles on the street with some fundamentalists; fundamentalists are recruiting many of the youth and control whole neighborhoods and economic sectors. He complains that he tries to explain his politics to his family, who just see him as somewhat crazy. We return at dusk, and I prepare some pork chops for us.
Friday April 11
Our second and last ‘free day’. Most of the other comrades were out late at a club last night; I decided to stay in and rest up.
This morning, we walked a few blocks to the International Institute of Social History (http://www.iisg.nl/), one of the worlds largest archives of documents and materials of social movements. The Institute began as a place to maintain archives from the socialist and worker’s movements threatened by Nazism in the 1930’s. Currently they are expanding their collections of material from Central and Southeast Asia.
After a short introductory video, we were taken on a tour of the archives – more than just books and newspapers, the IISG has an amazing amount of other artifacts, like buttons, banners and posters. Most of this material is in boxes, available to the public for research but out of view. However, a few display cases in the archive show some highlights of the collection – like the only surviving piece of an original draft of the Manifesto in Marx’s hand, a letter from Kautsky to Lenin, and a copy of a book of the Leveller’s manifesto from 1669 (!) and the English Civil War.
After lunch, I walk take a long walk to Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s ‘Central Park’ and the city center area. It’s been warming up here, and tourists are flooding in. The interesting nature of this city’s combined development is obvious to anybody who visits the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest church, originally Catholic and then – of course – radically Calvinist and Protestant. Much of the old church remains, including the stone slabs that create the floor, but the church is now in disrepair and surrounded on all sides by the Red Light district’s ‘window brothels’.