Archive for Politics and Society

Using leftist language and imagery for big business purposes

I wanted to put up a quick note to bring together something that I have been noticing for a while on subways, bus shelters, and most recently on the television.

First, if you needed any more reasons to buy the HTC phone, here’s a solid one: you are now a revolutionary. An HTC phone revolutionary. Join the revolution.

Join the revolution

Second, if you needed any more reasons to listen to hit music radio, here’s a solid one: there is a movement. The Virgin radio movement. Join the movement.

Join the movement.

Third, if you needed any more reasons to get the flu shot, here’s three solid ones: resist missing midterms and finals, resist missing res parties, and resist missing hanging out with friends. Resist the flu. Join the resistance.

Join the resistance.

It’s that easy.

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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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World war against children

A couple years back, I attended an event launching a two-disc DVD about the life and work of Ernest Mandel, a Marxist activist and theoretician. One of the scenes from a film features Mandel in a debate, saying with force and clarity:

According to the statistics of UNICEF, every year 16 million children die from hunger or curable diseases in the third world. This means that every four years there is an equal number of deaths of children as all the deaths of World War II, Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the Bengal famine combined. Every four years a world war against children. There you have the world reality of imperialism and capitalism in a nutshell.

The figure is now, according to UNICEF, about 9.2 million children who every year die “largely preventable deaths.” But that’s only children under the age of five. It’s difficult to find statistics that deal with everyone above the age of five. Every seven years a world war against children.

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This murder…

یہ قتل قتل کسی ایک آدمی کا نہیں
یہ قتل حق کا مساوات کا شرافت کا
یہ قتل عِلم کا حِکمت کا آدمیت کا
یہ قتل حِلم و مُروّت کا خاکساری کا
یہ قتل ظلم رسیدوں کی غم گساری کا
یہ قتل ایک کا دو کا نہیں، ہزار کا ہے
خدا کا قتل ہے قدرت کے شاہ کار کا قتل
یہ شام شامِ غریباں، ہے صبح صبح حُنین
یہ قتل قتلِ مسیحا یہ قتل قتلِ حُسین

مخدوم محی الدین

yeh qatl qatl kisi ek aadmi ka nahiN
yeh qatl haq ka musaawaat ka sharaafat ka
yeh qatl ilm ka hikmat ka aadmiyat ka
yeh qatl hilm-o murawwat ka Khaaksaari ka
yeh qatl zulm raseedoN ki gham gusaari ka
yeh qatl ek ka do ka nahiN, hazaar ka hai
Khuda ka qatl hai qudrat ke shaahkaar ka qatl
yeh shaam shaam-e GhareebaaN hai subh subh-e hunayn
yeh qatl qatl-e maseeha yeh qatl qatl-e husayn

This murder is not the murder of any one person
This is the murder of truth, of equality, of decency
This is the murder of knowledge, of wisdom, of humanity
This is the murder of tolerance and kindness, of humility
This is the murder of sympathy with the most oppressed
This is the murder of not one or two, but that of a thousand
This is the murder of God, the murder of the masterpiece of providence
This evening is the evening of desolation, this morning the morning of Hunayn
This murder is the murder of Christ, this murder is the murder of Husayn

Makhdoom Mohiuddin

(My translation)

Update: This poem was translated into Persian by Eskandar. Makhdoom wrote this poem upon the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr (in 1968). It is the first of three parts, but I’ll leave the other two for later.

Shaam-e-Ghareeban is literally, “evening of the poor,” but I learned from Eskandar’s translation that this refers to the commemoration of the martyrdom of Husayn (see below) on the 10th of Muharram (Ashura), and so, following Eskandar, “evening of desolation” it is.

The Battle of Hunayn was fought between the Muslims and certain tribes after the conquest of Makkah. In the opening part of the battle, the Muslims were ambushed and in disarray despite their strong numbers, which resulted in the slaughter of many of them. The battle was later turned around for Muslim victory, but apparently after great loss.

Husayn ibn Ali was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin. He was killed (martyred) by Yazid’s forces — many considered Yazid to be a usurper of the caliphate — at the Battle of Karbala.

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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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The War in Sri Lanka and the Left in Toronto

I wrote this with Fathima.

The recent burst of mass mobilizations by sections of the Canadian-Tamil community in Toronto has brought to the fore several contradictions concerning the conflict in Sri Lanka and its presence in and connection to Canada. Mainstream media’s responses to the protests have been overwhelmingly racialist, exposing many of the limits of Canadian multiculturalism. In order for Canadian multiculturalism to accept any given group of people as a cultural community, it must define that group by differentiating it from a supposedly mainstream Canadian identity. This focalising Canadian identity — in effect a non-identity — is white and middle-class. Thus, when the Toronto Star publishes an editorial entitled “Protesters vs. the public” [1] it effectively notes that the protesters are not part of the public by pitting (Tamil) protesters against the (Canadian) public. Rather than focusing on the war, media outlets have focused on the inconvenience posed to commuters, thereby shifting attention away from deaths in Sri Lanka to traffic regulations in Canada. Consequently, responses to the protests have largely demonstrated pernicious xenophobia. For instance, in the Toronto Sun, Peter Worthington argues that not using excessive force (e.g., water cannons) against Tamil protesters who block streets is tantamount to “reverse racism” against white Canadians. [2]

But if the coverage of the protests has made certain contradictions about the performance of cultural politics in public spaces in Canada apparent, other contradictions about the negotiation of those politics within cultural communities have also been rendered largely invisible. The impetus comes, once again, from a multiculturalism that defines ethnic, immigrant identities against a supposedly mainstream, local one. The act of defining a cultural community necessarily ignores the cultural, economic, and political differences that exist within that community. When these differences are ignored, political representation to mainstream political actors (i.e. those in the government, political parties, and state apparatuses) is mediated by non-elected, self-appointed community “leaders” who may not, and often do not, capture all cultural and political differences. In fact, the very articulation of those differences is precluded: a-cultural white English-speaking Canadians may lean left or right as individuals, or as voting blocs based on class and region, but the articulation of such political differences is absent in the representations of the politics of minority communities. The responses of politicians, activists, journalists, police and vocal sections of the public to the rallies protesting the war provide key examples of this.

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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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