Archive for May, 2009

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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