Archive for Academics

Marxism and ethnicity

I am trying to work out some thoughts on Marxism and ethnicity, with respect to Donald Horowitz’s reading of ethnicity. For some part, and this is a massive book, I think Horowitz proceeds properly. He sees ethnicity as something that is neither set in stone nor putty, it is malleable, within limits — to paraphrase Horowtiz (66). Ethnicity is a myth of common ancestry, or common descent (52). It isn’t “natural,” in the sense that it doesn’t proceed logically that, from differences of race, language, kinship groups, etc., there will be differentiated groups. Rather, differentiation of groups picks up on — or even constructs, that is, intensifies or gives new meaning to — language, race, etc. As he puts it, it’s not the attribute that makes the group or group difference, it’s group difference that makes the attribute (50). Culture provides the content, it is not the prerequisite to ethnic differentiation (69). If ethnicity, in and of itself, isn’t “modern” — i.e., identitarian differences existed long before “modernization” (incorporation of the Third World into the world capitalist system) — it certainly has been modulated, moulded, shaped by this incorporation of societies into modernity. Particularly, he notes how colonization gave rise to the significance of identity by incorporating diffuse groups, that is, previously politically diffuse groups, into a singular polity (76). All of a sudden, you have a different dynamic to deal with. He does mention somewhere about how colonialism reinforced ethnic identities, but he doesn’t focus on this too much (as, for instance, Benedict Anderson does in Chapter 10 of Imagined Communities, or how Leroy Vail approaches the question in The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa).

Horowitz distinguishes between “ranked” and “unranked” ethnic groups. Ranked is where, for instance, ethnicity maps on, more or less, to class. So slavery, or colonialism, is a clear example of how ethnicity (race) is ranked. The question of a caste system, to the extent that a caste can be seen as an ethnicity, is also a ranked system. (However, here we have to be considerate of the fact that castes exist within ethnic identities. Horowitz doesn’t seem to theorize this.) However, an unranked system is more complicated, in the sense that within an ethnic group you will have different classes (or castes, is it is). The question then is why is ethnic conflict — or ethnicity, at any rate — so salient in these unranked systems?

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Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities

I had to do an assignment on Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. I tried to pull together some of my thoughts here. Besides, it’s been over six months since I last updated this blog. So what better way to update now than to indulge in this.

When I first read Anderson’s book I quite liked it. Sure, some parts of it left me unsettled, but I couldn’t quite grasp why. It focused largely on culture and consciousness, but its basis was entirely “material” — so to speak — that the developments of capitalism facilitated national consciousness. Ah, historical materialism, I thought. And to a considerable degree, Anderson’s work is a pretty good example of a work that seeks to relate changes in consciousness to changes in material conditions (in a sense), and not doing so in a vulgar way, despite certain pronouncements in his book. But then pulling my thoughts together her helped me realize why I didn’t like it, his historical materialism isn’t properly historical nor properly material. For Anderson, history is not driven by the struggle of peoples — class struggle, in a word.

But I am putting the cart before the horse. Let us first examine Anderson’s argument step by step, so that we may better engage in critique.

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A book and a birthday

This is a random story. I really like books. You know Walter Benjamin, in one of his essays he writes on unpacking his library. The essay is about not his book collection as such, but about the very process and meaning behind collecting books, and he goes on and on about it. At first, I reacted to it as bourgeois sentimentality, and, soon enough, I realized I was emulating it. Okay, we can all have our vices. The problem is that almost always, whenever I walk into a used bookstore, I can’t walk out without having purchased something; and if it is older, the better. Now this isn’t anything as fancy as what Benjamin’s going after (or, more aptly, anything like what Benjamin’s going after) but I can give you a bit of an idea of what my kind of sentimentality involves.

Over the winter, I was writing a paper on states — that is, the state, what it is, why it is, etc. (and, of course, from a Marxist perspective). I figure the paper would’ve been a really good and sound basis for further studies in political science but that the paper was actually a paper about writing a paper about the state — a “bibliographic essay.” One of the books that was very important in writing this paper was The State and Political Theory, by Martin Carnoy. It was published in 1984 and synthesized many of the Marxist debates on the state up until then (and, in fact, since then the debate has perhaps not gone very far, in many ways). I had to sign it out from one of the college libraries at the University of Toronto because, I think, the Robarts copy is missing (or stolen, it’s worth stealing).

In Markham not too far from where I live, there is a used bookstore. The problem with this one, unlike BMV or any of the other used bookstores downtown, is that stock turnover is really low, and new (old) things take a long time to arrive and be put on display. And, since I spend so many Fridays there, this is one of those rare used bookstores from which I can often walk out without having purchased anything.

But, one Friday, I stumbled upon Carnoy’s book in fine paperback. With the exception of a little bit of hard-to-notice highlighting in the front, the book was spotless. Now, what’s interesting is that what seems to be the original receipt was still in the book. It is a receipt for two texts, actually — one cost $5.95, the other $13.30. I can’t imagine this book costing $5.95, even back in the 1980s (although, the used price was $6.00), so probably it was purchased for $13.30. If, indeed, it is in fact the original receipt. But I’d like to think that it is because the date on the top says “02-12-85”. This, of course, can mean one of two things: February 12, 1985, or December 2, 1985.

For no reason other than sheer sentimentality, which is where we began, I’d like to think it’s the latter — because that’s my birthday.

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ONDP and Israeli apartheid

I abandoned social democracy a few years ago, but I often find myself wishing that social democrats could at least be proper social democrats. That means focusing more or less on issues that affect the working class, pushing for anti-neoliberal policies (rather than embracing them), fighting racism and the criminalization of the poor, and so on. It might also involve some kind of capacity for enlightened foreign policy engagement (insofar as that goes, for any Western capitalist state — although the examples of Scandinavian social democracies are not particularly heinous). So here I’m going to try and sort out some of my thought on the NDP and its particular (and peculiar) brand of social democracy, and see what folks have to say. I’ll start with the most recent incident, concerning the Ontario NDP.

On Israeli apartheid and the ONDP

When some of us call for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions we are accused of being violators of the sacred principle of academic freedom. Yet, when the legislature of Ontario passes a motion condemning the use of the term apartheid when referring to Israel — and clearly, this is an attack on Israeli Apartheid Week that occurs on campuses around the world — there is little discussion on it. The motivation of the motion itself is remarkable in attempting to circumvent debate, if only by suggesting that debate does not lend itself to debate, and therefore is not conducive to the debate that one should be having about what the correct thing to debate is, and we should not have certain debates lest we debate the improper debates and lose sight of the debate.

University presidents have already smugly released their statements about the necessity of tolerating controversial discussions in advance of IAW, and so on, and so will in all likelihood not respond directly to this absurd motion — unlike when they responded directly to the question of academic boycott of Israeli institutions. Will university presidents in Ontario respond by issuing strong statements that they are not lackeys and stooges of Ontario governments and will not stand for the censoring of Israeli Apartheid Week?

It’s not like one would expect better, but the NDP is another story.

News reports suggested that the motion was endorsed by all parties — i.e., unanimously. Featured quite prominently was NDP MPP Cheri Di Novo. Only 30 members (out of a 107-member legislature) were present and voting, but due to Di Novo’s comments, the ONDP is stuck with this vile attempt at circumventing debate.

But wait, all is well. Don’t lose your faith in the ONDP. For Andrea Horwath, the leader of the ONDP, has released an open letter in which she notes quite forcefully that “[s]ingling out activists or shutting down debate, on this or any other matter, is not constructive and is entirely unhelpful.”

I would provide a source, except that I cannot find a direct source. It’s not on the ONDP web site. It’s not on Andrea Horwath’s web site. As of this writing, it’s nowhere on the Internet except buried somewhere on Rabble and a couple of blogs.

I don’t think this is enough. It’s one thing to have a prominent MPP spout some inane invective in legislature, that gets recorded in Hansard, that gets reported in the media, and it’s quite another to release a letter to activists or to those who e-mail Horwath saying “naw we didn’t mean it.” There appears to me to be something quite opportunistic about it — being everything to everyone. Who, except those who trawl this one left-wing web site and are on some listservs (note, I didn’t get the e-mail from any of the listservs I am on) would even know that the ONDP is against this idiotic motion?

It has real repercussions for activists at Ontario universities.

What’s more, it appears that the federal parliament is getting ready to entertain a similar motion. It’s unlikely that the federal NDP will let a similar debacle unfold, but there are plenty of other debacles it’s fine with — more on which, perhaps, later.

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Is another world possible?

In 1989, with the decline and imminent collapse of state socialism in the Soviet Union and China, as well as the turning of so many states that had once been authoritarian and/or had intervened actively in the economy to a model of liberal democracy and free markets, the American intellectual and State Department employee Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history.” By this, he meant that there were no more grand ideas on the reorganization of society—liberal democracy and free markets had come to be the ideal to which all states aspired. As the Soviet Union’s state socialism disintegrated by late 1991, it seemed that Fukuyama’s prediction had come true. There was, it seemed, no alternative to this form of globalization.

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Writing on Mozambique, pt. 7: Forming an argument

I think, after over a year, and having read widely (to say the least) on Mozambique, I think I’ve arrived at a point where I can write a paper that answers the question that was posed by Saul — though perhaps not according to his framework:

Assess the nature of the chief liberation movement (Frelimo) in [Mozambique], trace that movement’s development in the post-colonial period (including an assessment of any meaningful opposition it has faced), and assess the prospects that that movement has offered and now offers for realizing the meaningful development of the people for whom it professes to speak.

I want to address the question of the relationship between the economic and the political in Mozambique, in the terms of bourgeois scholarship. A good way to get into this is Peter Lewis’s article on the paradox of “growth without prosperity” in Africa. Lewis takes, as his starting point, the notions that a) economic liberalization (market economy) and political liberalization (liberal democracy) share an “elective affinity” because they both rely on openness, transparency, and such, b) that economic liberalization should lead to economic growth, c) that political liberalization should lead to redistributive measures. The paradox is that, despite economic and political liberalization, sub-Saharan Africa as a whole might have seen economic growth (in Mozambique, one of the highest sustained rates of GDP growth in all of sub-Saharan Africa), but human development indicators has not matched up (in fact, is awful) and inequality is high as poverty persists massively.

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Fanon and Nkrumah on négritude and African socialism

As early as 1961, Fanon critiqued in general the movements and leaders of newly independent African states, whose main concern seemed to have been staying in power and aggrandizing themselves or the elites (the underdeveloped “bourgeoisie of civil servants”) on whose support they relied. Fanon also critiqued the concept of négritude as espoused by Senghor — in particular the idea of returning to a pristine past. “We should not … be content to delve into the people’s past to find concrete examples to counter colonialism’s endeavours to distort and depreciate.” Similarly, Nkrumah repudiated the term “African socialism” in 1966, noting that

the realities of the diverse and irreconcilable social, political, and economic policies being pursued by African states today have made the term ‘African socialism’ meaningless and irrelevant. It appears to be much more closely associated with anthropology than with political economy.

Like Fanon, Nkrumah rejected the call for a return to a pristine pre-colonial Africa, noting that no such pristine, classless or non-hierarchical Africa ever existed in the first place. Fanon and Nkrumah were both asserting that there was nothing unique about Africa that immunized its societies from class conflict. Reaching a proper, socialist Pan-African culture was a matter of political practice, not retreat into an imagined culture. Fanon notes that

The problem is knowing what role [African politicians] have in store for their people, the type of social relations they will establish and their idea of the future of humanity. That is what matters. All else is hot air and mystification.

Nkrumah called for a turn toward socialism focusing on the particular conditions facing particular countries, recognizing that “there is only one nature, subject in all its manifestations to natural laws and that human society is, in this sense, part of nature and subject to its own laws of development” — scientific socialism. Fanon called for the creation of a new national culture based on a collective consciousness reached through the mobilization of the masses (particularly the lumpenproletariat and the peasantry), led by a revolutionary party, to stamp out the “useless and harmful bourgeoisie” — class struggle. In other words: revolutionary theory and practice.


Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2004.

Nkrumah, Kwame. “African Socialism Revisited.” In The Africa Reader: Independent Africa, edited by Wilfred G. Cartey and Martin Kilson, 200-208. New York: Random House, 1970.

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Marxism, socialism and the Third World

Note: This is kind of stream of consciousness, and I am probably not being as accurate and precise as I could or should be. It’s also, obviously, not comprehensive — the Third World is too large, to write a comprehensive overview is too large a project, and the gaps in my knowledge are even larger. If you’re actually going to bother reading through this, bear with me. I’m writing this so that I can glean from it and turn parts of it into a more comprehensible paper..

The recent collapse of the global financial system has brought renewed interest to Marx, Marxism and socialism in mainstream literature. It’s probable that a lot of this will translate into academic “I-told-you-so” literature as well. The question of Marx here is one of a prescient and penetrating critic of the systemic operation of capitalism. Globalization typically refers to the proliferation of neoliberal ideology, policies and practice throughout the world starting in the 1970s, reaching a high point in the late 1980s as all and sundry adopted neoliberal capitalism as the way to go, and a surfeit of academic and activist analysis of globalization as globalization with the anti-globalization movements of the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, in the Communist Manifesto — published in 1848 — Marx and Engels wrote of capitalist production and ideology spreading throughout the world, remaking it in its own image. They also pointed out that the systemic operation of capitalism led to recurring crises — crises through which capitalism could reinvent itself or which oppositional forces could exploit (so to speak) to bring about a more just and equitable state of affairs.

One might think Marx and Engels to be prophets, but that the capitalism they were describing was the capitalism of the 19th century. Indeed, capitalism has changed since then — through several crises capitalism has been reinvented, reshaped, compromised and reestablished. But in many ways it remains the same, for at its essence is the appropriation by a few of the wealth produced by the many. While there is a form of exploitation intrinsic to capitalism (that of capitalists appropriating the wealth of workers) as a mode of production, there is more to it than just that. For capitalism had to begin somewhere, and the mode of exploitation of workers inherent to it was not always the way it worked. There first had to be a massive accumulation of capital outside the system — what Marx called primitive accumulation. Where did this mass accumulation come from? Locally, in England, it came from the enclosure of the commons (lands peasants would use in common), and the appropriation thereof by landed gentry, kicking peasants off the land and thereby establishing roving bands of unemployed and shitpoor people who had nothing to lose. These migrated to towns and cities to work in factories in shitpoor conditions. Yet there was also the massive pillaging of the Americas, India and parts of Africa, not to mention Ireland, among others. What Marx and Engels saw in their time, even as early as 1848, was the expansion of capitalism to many corners of the world.

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From each according to their patience to each according to the length of their rope

Perhaps the most interesting question in relation to petty corruption is: how do underpaid public employees manage not to practise corruption? (544)

Corruption has provided a source of much sarcastic humour within the Mozambique press. Much of this humour revolves around the representation of corruption as goat-like behaviour, that is, the propensity to ‘eat’ rather than work. While the UK was beset by the ‘mad cow’ crisis, satirist and writer Mia Couto argued that Mozambique was suffering from ‘mad goat’s disease’. The Chinese new year of the Tiger was compared with the Mozambican new year of the Goat. Mediafax published a Cabricionario on 27 May 1996 (cabricionario being a conflation of the Mozambican words for goat and dictionary), providing a subversive lexicon of anti-corruption language. A wonderfully revealing new word suggested within the dictionary was:

CABRITALISMO [conflation of cabrito (goat) and capitalismo (capitalism)] Definition: socio-economic system characterised by the use of state resources for private profit. Distribution policy is made according to the principle ‘from each according to their patience to each according to the length of their rope’.

This quotation reveals the popular perception-in many ways correct-that corruption is part of economic liberalisation. It also satirises Marx’s famous dictum (from each according to his means, to each according to his needs) to highlight how Frelimo’s bureaucratic order (symbolised here by the queue) has been replaced by a time when individuals each look out for themselves, and the more political power one has, the better one can do this. The phrase ‘each according to the length of their rope’ evokes an image of goats, each with a circle of bare ground around them: larger goats have longer ropes and therefore larger circles of ground to eat from… (547-8)

Graham Harrison, “Corruption as ‘Boundary Politics’: The State, Democratisation, and Mozambique’s Unstable Liberalisation,” Third World Quarterly 20, no. 3 (June 1999): 537-550.

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Diabolical and hysterical materialism

The growing complaint was that the resulting programs did not facilitate the student’s gaining any more enlightened comprehension of Mozambican realities and therefore did not provide an adequate guide to action. Reiteration of the so-called laws of the dialectic and other such dubious formulations tended to take pride of place over developing an analysis of Mozambican realities in Marxist-Leninist terms. The result? In the formal school system it was more the political demobilization of the students than it was the reverse. Before long most of the programs in the schools had actually disappeared, although subject to ongoing efforts to revive them. At the university students took to calling the Department of Dialectical and Historical Materialism, charged with providing political-cum-social science courses to all faculties, the “Department of Diabolical and Hysterical Materialism.”* (143)

John S. Saul, ed. A Difficult Road: The Transition to Socialism in Mozambique. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1985.

* Following E.P. Thompson, I guess.

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