Stapled to the Front Door: Neoliberal Extractivism In Canada

This article discusses several aspects of the reliance in the Canadian economy on the natural resource extraction (NRE) industries. The NRE sector illustrates the dual nature of Canadian capital in a global context. The intensification of resource extraction is associated with an increase in inequality along several vectors. These increases in inequality, however, cannot be decoupled from the institutionalization of neoliberal policies at both the federal and provincial levels over the last 30 years.

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Trumped up and buried under the ashes of neoliberalism

Introduction

At the time of preparing this talk, January 2017, Donald Trump had just been elected the 45th president of the United States of America.    This talk is not really about the United States under the tutelage of the newly elected American President Donald Trump.  Rather this talk is more about how we arrived here: about the legacy of neoliberal policies that forged the trump card for the explosion of right wing populist movements and their victories across the advanced capitalist zone including in the United States.  As the vivid title of this talk makes clear, I am not arguing that we have moved to a post neoliberal order as of yet–although there are signs we may be in a bad transition out of the neoliberal epoch.  Alternatively, I will argue that we are living with the consequences of neoliberal institutions and policies: suffocating under the ashes of neoliberalism with Donald trump as the brightest burning coal at the top of the ash heap.

As most people know, to play the “trump card” in any game—political, economic or otherwise—confers a decisive advantage to the person who plays it given the right circumstances and timing.  The idiomatic expression “trumped up” refers to situation that has been manufactured to produce one set of outcomes while falsely claiming to produce another.  A trumped up criminal case is promulgated on phony evidence where the wrongly accused faces a criminal sanction while the broader public is misled to believe justice is being done.  There is close analogue here to the phrase gaslighting.  Much of neoliberalism, indeed an important explanation for its ideological spread was the initial promise of employment and renewed economic growth, i.e., what we might call the remedy to economic shame[i].  There is a sense in which neoliberalism is and was a scam and a manipulation of public morale: the difference today is most, including significant sections of the ruling classes admit this. They simply do not care because its all just a contemporary communications game.

If you are on the left it is easy, in this context, to simply be against Donald Trump and the sundry list of right wing populist movements and leaders. Who reading this post is for racism, sexism, xenophobia and soft and hard bigotries of all stripes?

Rather the problem for the putative left, particularly but not solely, its formal parliamentary forms; the Democratic Party in the United States, the New Labour Party in Britain and Australia, the Socialist party in France, the New Democratic Party in Canada, and the Sozialdemokratische Partei in Germany, for example, is to come to terms with what is now 40 years of their own internal drift to the right and their own hand in building the very neoliberal institutions which  created the conditions in which right wing populism and inequality flourish and left wing politics languishes.[ii]

In the above regard, it is my suspicion that it will be much harder for the institutionalized left to come to grips with the folly of neoliberalism than the right.  This is particularly so in the upper echelons of the progressive social structure (intellectuals, academics, politicians and the quasi woke citizenry).

Here is why.  For the right, neoliberalism was an internally motivated project, which sought to roll back, dismantle, and or fundamentally restructure the post World War II social order.   Neoliberalism was never about jobs, productivity, or economic growth for conservative elites: it was about a redistribution of power upwards.  In this regard, the adoption of neoliberalism did not require a conversion of ideological convictions as it did for the left. It was broad and important segments of the left which made the conversion:  It is the Clinton democrats, Tony Blair’s ‘new labour’, Gerhard Schröder’s ‘third’ way, and the legions of intellectuals and academics which made their own accommodations, and indeed in many cases who crafted neoliberal innovations that will have to do the hard work of soul searching, shame letting, and back tracking.

I am not very sanguine about the prospects of the aforementioned coming to pass for three reasons.  For one thing, most left accommodations to neoliberalism were made within the reality of a very constrained political economy characterized by high unemployment,fears of high inflation, and low economic growth and a concomitant ideological restructuring to the right.  For example, Tony Blair inherited Margaret Thatcher’s new United Kingdom, and Bill Clinton inherited Ronald Reagan’s “New Day in America.”  It would be impish to maintain that these were not real reconfigurations to the possibilities facing policy makers—left or right.

The second reason I am not optimistic about the chances of a volte-face on the part of the neoliberal left is quite simply that we are now almost two generations into the neoliberal epoch and easily one generation into its hegemony.  Educational attainment, political identities and careers have been formed and built within a neoliberal cognitive and material framework.  None of which is particularly easy (and in some cases possible) to walk away from.

Third, the left remains fractured between insiders and outsiders.  Because the political insiders on the left will not admit to the paucity of neoliberalism and the role they played in constructing the neoliberal order, the most vigorous and energized elements of the left remain largely outside formal political institutions and the broader public policy processes.  Indeed many insiders on the political left are still gaslighting the outsiders.  And if they are not merely sociopaths, its fairly hard for serial abusers to admit they have a problem…lotta shame needs to be overcome.

Moreover, it is by now blatantly apparent in American politics that the political process is over-determined by campaign and party financing—with the democrats still requiring that some professional politicians and administrators be the front for the donors and with Trump era republicans increasingly disposing of the political ‘middle men’ (sic) and opting instead to just put the donors in power. That is, within American politics it is increasingly the case that the Democrats and Republican parties do not merely represent different fractions within the haute bourgeoisie–they are the haute bourgeoisie.  There is, therefore, a toxic stasis on the European and North American left facing a dynamic, well funded, and popularly organized right.

Afterword to the introduction

It has been almost a year since I gave this talk and there is reason today to feel a bit more sanguine than one may have felt in the morning after Trump was inaugurated.   The British labour party had a major coup d’état with the victory of Corbyn. Equally positive has been the increasing traction of non normie style democrats.  Moreover, and I think more importantly, there are some positive signs that that the non parliamentary left is finally working through some of its major dysfunctions of which I will just touch on two below.

First, there are strong signs that the non parliamentary left intelligentsia is moving beyond the internecine, unproductive and self defeating debates of the naughties and teenies.  I think Trump’s election was a brutal wake-up call signalling that the prosaic and bitter debates of grad school educated lefties had become a waste of real resources.  Do not get me wrong, I think those debates had to be had, but they went beyond their best before date and ossified  into petty silos.  It was as if by sitting in grad school seminars and by standing giving grad lectures we were going to change something all on our own, as if the logical consistency of our interior ontological righteousness could alone change the world:  to be sure a much more meaningful exercise than Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models, but often not much (there is a future post in this analogue, someone remind me of it).

Second, while we were busy, people like Jane McAlevey and countless others were actually being a part of helping communities organize.  Her title gets right at the problem, there are no shortcuts to the real work of organizing: there is no one big existential idea, no coupling of mobilizing and online communication hubs (often falsely called communities) for living in, and being a part of, organizing ourselves in the broader (as in not self selected) communities we live in.  Life has an unavoidable spatial context and real social complexity.  Organizing involves dealing with both.  I think the non parliamentary left is finally getting this.

[i]   See Arlie Russel Hochschild, “Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”, (2016), The new press.
[ii]  It remains to be seen if Jeremy Corbyn marks a shift in English politics.

A little perspective on GDP growth or does policy matter?

These are odd times.  Not one policy seems to get floated these days which does not include in the tag line that it will be good for economic growth.  And it is not just tax cuts for the rich or corporations which get rationalized as such: everything from eating organic to getting a post secondary education are all said to be good for economic growth.  What all these claims have in common is that they are patently false if real GDP per capita growth rates is anything to go by(1).  What is more, in almost every advanced capitalist country the obligatory policy meme has been that policy X will be good for GDP growth.  The reality is that since the 1960s it would appear nothing has been particularly good for GDP growth from financial liberalization to the increasing consumption of soy “milk”*.  The hard facts are illustrated in this (below) graph of real GDP growth per capita:

I do not know about you but does anything strike you as patently obvious about the trend rate of growth for these advanced capitalist countries?  Anything, anything at all.  Well in case you missed what they all share in common, with perhaps the exception of the UK, is that it has been a toboggan run since the 60s. Sure the Netherlands gets a bump and then reverts to mean; and sure the UK runs horizontal for a time; and sure Japan descends from mount Fujimori making Whistler look like a bunny hill but the overall undeniable fact is that things have been going down hill since the 60s.  That is, despite all the fan fare behind deregulation, privatisation, free trade, corporate income tax cuts, bicycle helmets, tofu, gay liberation and the Prius; in terms of real GDP per capita growth things have been going down hill.

Look at Canada.  For all the bluster and loud pronouncements about which policy and what size of government was going to tank or reinvigorate the economy the reality is that the last five decades have been characterized by ever lower real GDP growth rates regardless of who was in power and what policies were pursued.  Does this mean policy does not matter?  Of course not.  Policy matters tremendously.  Good policies alleviate poverty which is good for public health and the quality of life of the poor; a strong system of unemployment insurance provides a bridging loan and helps match workers to jobs for which they are qualified(2); a good education, like a garden, improves the quality of life and the autonomy of citizens; exercise helps us keep our form and tax public health care less.

All true.  But do any of those things necessarily boost GDP growth per capita?  And if they don’t maybe we need to stop trying to justify them on those terms and justify them on their merits. If policies such as privatisation, free trade, tax cuts for the rich and corporation cannot be proven to increase GDP per capita growth, which they can’t, then let their boosters provide an alternate rationale.  I am all ears.

*Bean juice from a cow?

1. Of course if we make the right assumptions we can claim that in absence of all of these things GDP growth would have been worse.

2.Skill mismatching is rarely considered by those advocating shortening search times.

Policies that make you

I went to a party last night and I realized the remnants of Canadian social democracy brought up a generation of refugee children who came here throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and who are from the Horn of Africa and who are A M A Z I N G, sassy, strategic, progressive, funny and insightful. Now that our little H of A community has come of age I especially want to say “All praises to the young Idil. Toronto, you did all right”.

Straddling the gap between charity and social justice, lost lives, and a changing immigration system bent on penalizing social citizenship and rewarding cold hard cash, last night’s party also reminded me that remnants of Canadian social democracy also gave us Baby Blue Sound Crew (Sean Paul and Lil X) plus Kardinal Offishall and Jully Black.

“Beyond their shared talents, what these names have in common is a little-known initiative of Ontario’s NDP government: a program called Fresh Arts. Fresh Arts was developed under the umbrella of JobsOntario Youth, part of the larger JobsOntario training and employment program the NDP government introduced to address the labour market fallout of the early ’90s recession.

Fresh Arts attracted young people of colour from areas the city now designates as “priority neighbourhoods.” Then, like today, these neighbourhoods were characterized by large immigrant populations, racialized poverty and high unemployment — most strikingly, youth unemployment.

[…]Yet, like other efforts to address systemic racism […](such as the Anti-Racism Secretariat), Fresh Arts fell victim to Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution. Harris ended JobsOntario Youth, and with it, Fresh Arts.”

http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/930187–remixing-urban-education

Institutions make and break us. But sometimes the remnants of once ambitious institutions can make us, long after the real thing has departed the scene.

But all the same let us banish all talk of gravy trains and a common sense revolution. There is sense in the commons, but to know it means we have got to get down with the commons, not atomize it into a million seemingly fragmented pieces.

Personhood, Romantic Love and the 3rd world.

By Elleni Centime Zeleke,

My interlocutors seem angry and defensive about my claim that romantic love in north America is sinister. Let me respond to their anger with a few more points.

So, we think of ourselves in the West as having unique attributes, and we define ourselves through the exercise of our individual free will upon those unique attributes.

Indeed our idea of what it means to be free is to be a person who can exercise her free will so as to produce whatever outcome she desires. As a result, we think of alienation as the separation of our will from our creativity such that we cannot recognize ourselves in the things that we make.

But one of the things that I have been arguing is that this notion of the self has been historically produced, which is to say that what we imagine to be an individual is not common to all times and spaces.

On the other hand, the doubly free subject of capitalist social relations is a good way to conceptualize the newly formed modern subject that has free will. This is a subject that is free from social obligations and free to move about and sell their labour where ever they please. But in this sense then the doubly free subject has no corporate identity, instead he or she must rely entirely on his or her own wit and will power in order to survive.

But what we also know is that the doubly free subject is created by economic and social processes. Thus, through the process of establishing capitalist social relations you get new forms of freedom and new ways of being a person. But there is nothing inevitable or foreseen in the social processes that led to the establishment of capitalism in England, Western Europe and North America.

Thus one of the things that I have been arguing is that even as you have capitalism developing in the 3rd world at the same time as it develops in Europe, the creation of the doubly free subject was never complete in the 3rd world.

Indeed, typical of the 3rd world economy is that you have people labouring under a number of different social arrangements in order to make goods for the capitalist market but who have not been transformed by capitalism as such.

On the other-hand the transformation into modern individuals in NA is utterly complete. Thus in NA life is organized around the nuclear family, and the nuclear family assumes that two people out of their own free will can choose each other and so form a family. But the nuclear family is “the gendered family par excellence” (Oyewumi, Oyeronke 2002). It consists of husband and wife who are defined by their gender and sexuality rather than a corporate identity derived from the community. But as such the nuclear family operationalizes and takes for granted the idea of being double free– it assumes a certain historically specific institution related to modernity as its base and its ideal.

On the other hand in the 3rd world people make a living in the informal economy, or through combinations of wage labouring with farming that over laps with remittances and migration. The point is that as capitalism travelled around the world it needed a much smaller labour force when it expanded industrialization (Bernstein, Henry 2004). Thus capitalism promotes a world proletariat but cannot accommodate a generalized living wage (Bernstein, Henry 2004). Reproduction happens under insecure and oppressive conditions, and most often in the informal sector. Here kinship structures, and lineage systems become modernized and adapted to urban spaces and even trans-national spaces as a means to survival (Cooper, Fredrick 2001).

Now, as we have been saying westernized folks tend to take the nuclear family for granted and they define freedom as being doubly free. This produces a number of conceptual problems: 1) It assumes the individual is the bases for organizing society, 2) even when western feminists produce critiques of the family it is based on the fact that in the context of the nuclear family women are subordinated, 3)produces a universal feminist project based on the fact that the nuclear family is universally oppressive, therefore all women must be oppressed, 4)advocates a liberated form of romantic love where the doubly free subject is granted freedom such that he or she can have the kind of the free choice that is exercised between two doubly free subjects.

But what we know is that in real life the nuclear family was never really instituted outside of western Europe and NA. And as I have been arguing a lot of this has to do with the fact that well paid, regular, and routinized wage labour was never commonly available outside of the West and still is not.

On the other hand, what we also know is that under these oppressive economic and historical conditions 3rd world nationalism often calls upon supposedly primordial identities as a way to construct feelings of belonging. Race is often used in this way but ideas of what it means to be a woman is also mobilized in this regard. Indeed, one of the things that is common to the formerly colonized countries is how the modern nation-state mobilizes “invented tradition” as a way to give people a sense of identity and belonging, for example, Tutsi vs Hutu, etc. But in many ways Tutsi and Hutu are entirely modern identities even if formally they are based on a pre-colonial past. This is because the fixing of customary law and ethnic affiliations are actually based on the invented colonial law that was administered through native authorities and native courts (Mamdani, Mahmood 1996).

So one of the things we need to be vigilant about is how so called traditional identities get used to foster a contemporary sense of identity, i.e. a sense of what it means to be African or Indian or whatever, and yet these traditions really have no historical base.

That said we also need to be cognizant of the multiple ways that colonialism and nationalism coupled with the more general transition to capitalist property relations in the colonies has not only transformed the nature of the family, kinship ties and lineage systems, it has also entrenched patriarchal rule.

Here we see that gender does not simply shape a person’s life; rather gender itself is produced and reworked through changes to the governing structures of social and economic conditions. But more importantly, gender is a concept that is increasingly fought over and contested as a means through which people can both shape their own lives but also satisfy certain interests.

For example, the West gazes upon the colonial subject and then claims that the way the colonized subject loves or the way he treats women is backward (and it is always a he that is being addressed in that gaze, after all “the women” are too veiled or too passive and cannot be addressed). But what follows from this is that the West makes policies to reform the backward subject, and as such codifies tradition on the one hand but also introduces new ways of being a man or a woman. Then the colonial subject internalize those ideas of what it means to be both traditional, as well as a modern man or a woman, but since these modes of being can never match up to European expectations, precisely because social relations are organized differently than under fully formed capitalist social relations in the West, the colonial subject still gets called barbaric and backward. But now the colonial subject holds on to the new definition of manhood inherited from the codification of tradition, and says no, look, I am not backwards, but he does this at the expense of making himself more static and more fixed.

How to solve this conundrum? Well, here, the question of hope or liberty clearly is not about individualizing the subject in the vein of fortifying a miniature homo economicus. Rather, the question is how can we take on our already existing collective projects at the level of the nation and also at the level of the transnational. Now, of course the future cannot be predicted, but at least we can say that in this scenario love is established through becoming companions in struggle and supporting the other in the freedom to find a form for that struggle. But here, what we also witness is that love is a sediment that arises from knowing that history and our collective formations are the condition from which to reach out to someone.

This kind of companionship is exactly the opposite of what is encouraged by the doubly free subject. After all romantic coupledom as it is practised in the West is the expression of a doubly free subject, but that expression is the privilege of the richest group of people in the international division of labour. It simply is not available to most people.

On other hand, my interlocutors seem to think that romantic love might give them hope for what ultimately is a dissatisfied existence in the advanced capitalist countries, but as Walter Benjamin has warned, “hope is for the hopeless”. In the end romantic love in North America is about disavowal and retreat from the world, because people are privileged enough to do just that. It is the longing for ahistorical stasis, and a frozen image of reality. Marx also called this animality.

Back in 1844 Marx also knew that freedom as it is expressed by the doubly free subject was the ultimate form of alienation. In opposition to the modern subject he wrote “suffering humanely conceived is the enjoyment of self for man.” I urge my friends that are so firmly committed to romantic love to enter the circle of suffering with their fellow human-beings. My interlocutors might find that they will finally enjoy being in the world so much more.

The right of the community to know and love one another

Guest Post By Elleni Centime Zeleke

Hot on the the heels of my last post on romance and because I am still high from celebrating international women’s day I want to add a few more discussion points to the topic of love and capitalism.
I will start by restating some basic premises and then posing a question.

So, in the context of advanced capitalist societies self-interest is the only form of subjectivity that we are allowed to have access to. We believe that we can overcome the experience of being self-interested humans within the context of a romantic love relationship, but in fact the structure of our society is such that we can really never reconcile self-interest with the reproduction of longer-term cycles of community and collective life.

If we are rich or middle class enough,sometimes we survive as a couple and suffer the illusion that the needs of the individual have been reconciled with the needs of the collective (society). After all money can buy you love, houses, and comforts that keep the couple together and so it reconciles the couples desires with the needs of a consumer based society to reproduce itself.

So, to be sure in order to eat decent food coupling might in fact be a necessary institutional requirement of our time. But that is the point, it is a very historically specific institution, and as a social practice it is more akin to visiting the toilet than any real creative ambition.

Now, to be sure humans are also animals and so we make pragmatic choices in order to survive. It is better to piss in a toilet than to piss randomly and wherever the wind takes you.

But in this sense romance turns us into animals driven by instinct rather than self-critical thought.

Interestingly, we like to gaze at backward women in other countries and feel sorry for them because we see them as passive victims of patriarchy. But romantic coupling is a social arrangement produced in the context where we are all passive victims to narrowly defined goals that are motivated by self-interest rather than self-critical and collectively defined activity. And yet, as we have been saying, to act as a self-interested human being is not natural, it is a political project that we all accept in the advanced capitalist countries as nature and so we fashion our love and our behaviour accordingly.
In my previous post I told the story of the prisoner because he offered a different way of being in the world. His confidence in loving me came from the fact that he did not doubt for a moment that we shared the same world. As a loving man he insisted that the collective be the front and centre of any decision making, even if his body suffered to some degree because of that. His act of love was a sign of maturity that moves us beyond the animality that most romantic partners indulge in for the entirety of their lives.

Marx asked us to rethink whether it was possible to reconcile the right of poor people to survive with a regime of private property rights. I do think that a corollary to that question is whether it is possible to reconcile romantic love with the right of the community to know and love the world that we all have already made and need to remake together?

The Problem with Africans and Arabs

April update. This blog post was turned into a full article. Published here: http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/71735

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The way the term Arab is being thrown around these days is enough to give a person reason to pause while celebrating the victories of the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. After all, in the present revolutionary context in North Africa there has been a deliberate effort to erase the fact that Libya, Tunisia and Egypt are all continental African countries. Moreover, to call one’s self Black or African or Arab is to use identity markers that are not indigenous to Africans or even the vast majority of people we now call Arab. The question then is who uses these identities and when? No doubt, mobilizing these identities can be useful for making certain kinds of political claims that advance the needs of African and Arab peoples (pan-Africanism, the Arab league etc). But still, we need to always ask for whom is this mobilization happening.

Cutting off the historical ties between so called Arabs and so called Africans (by which we mean black people, as if those kinds of people are easily identifiable) is a trick of Orientalist historiography (in the way Edward Said uses the term). And investigating the problem of Orientalist methodology is not just about raising the bogeyman of identity politics, rather what ends up happening is that Orientalist methods are often blindly adopted to conceal the multiple historical, political, and economic ties that connect so called black people to browner looking people. For example, Yemenie ancient and contemporary history has deep connections with Somalis, Eritreans and Ethiopians across the Red Sea (20 km),  but the way the story gets told you would think Yemen was closer to Libya, and that the West Side of the Red Sea could be skipped in any story about Arabs. I would venture to say this is ridiculous. And I really don’t think we should accept Orientalist methods when thinking about what is an Arab or an African.

In fact niether Arab identity or black identity is self-evident. Instead, the parameters of identity are negotiated and connected to multiple political and economic processes. We need to be vigilant about how identity is produced as a sediment of various political, economic and social processes and not simply assert it as something given. That can only sound defensive and silly. The fact of the matter is that Egypt as a modern nation-state is deeply connected to the developmental ambitions and contradictions set in play by Mohammed Ali and his off spring, who were the first non-western leaders who really tried to catch up with the industrialised West. But because his project was intimately tied to Sudan, chattel slavery, and cotton production, one cannot separate the developmental trajectories of Egypt from its larger continental African connection and questions of race. After all, from the late 19th century until the mid-1950’s Sudan and Egypt were run as one country. It was Nasser’s revolution that really brought an end to Anglo-Egyptian rule in Sudan. In fact Nasser’s regime was an attempt to resolve the contradiction of the developmental trajectories set in place by Mohammed Ali, Ali’s off spring and their Anglo-Egyptian condominium; the promise of nationalism, of course being that you could democratize development on behalf of the nation’s people. But as such, Egyptian independence was always tied to a very ambivalent relationship to Sudan and vice-versa. On the other hand, Sadat and Mubarak are failed attempts at speaking to these very same developmental patterns that have historical roots. So, we need to be cognizant of how those developmental trajectories map onto notions of race, and regionalism, because it tells us much about how social and political contradictions are resolved. Egypt’s African developmental trajectories also need to be seriously thought through if this present revolution is not going to simply sink back into neo-liberal hell. After all the revolution in present day Egypt signals the failure of post-colonial arrangements, but it also signals the failure of a 3rd world project that Nasser articulated in tandem with the Nkrumah(s), and the Tito(s), etc. Partly this project failed because it was elitist, but more importantly that elitism failed to interrogate national developmental trajectories and to build a truly inclusive popular nationalism (as our friend Franz Fanon might say).

In the case of Libya, then, we should be aware that Ghadaffi was a major player in African politics. So much so that he nearly convinced the African Union to move the seat of the organization to Libya. But again his involvement in politics was not just symbolic, Ghadaffi’s money and weapons are involved in nearly every major conflict on the continent from Sierre-Leone (whose rebels were known to consult the Green book) to the conflicts in Chad and Sudan. The political-economy of Libya is also such that it relies on the importation of large amounts of migrant labourers from the African continent as well as South Asia. Historically, of course, Tripoli was also an important destination in the trans-saharan trade routes (whose starting point lie in the forest regions of “darkest” Africa) bringing important trading goods to Libya that were then exported to the Mediterranean world and beyond. These historical ties are what Ghadaffi himself has mobilized in justification for why the AU should be based in Libya. In contrast to this we have been led to believe that there is a yawning gap between “black” mercenaries and the rest of civilized Libya. But, the claim about the use of black African mercenaries should be viewed with caution. After all, the constitution of Libya outside of an African context is an orientalist fallacy (and fantasy) that obscures the real histories of these places and can only play to a violently racist hand.

A few nights ago someone suggested to me that what tied Arabs together was a shared language and culture.  But spoken Arabic is not always intelligible to other Arabic speakers. In Oman, Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia other linguistic practices exist which help form the locally spoken Arabic, but also remind us of other kinds of historical and cultural connections that make up these places (too diverse and complicated to get into now). I also remember being schooled by an Egyptian in Cairo, about why Egyptians are not Arabs. So again, I would venture to say things are complicated and this is not just a matter of identity politics. Instead, it seems that the afro-centrics speak a kernel of truth when they state that present historical methods tend to elide the myriad Afro-Arab connections. However, because the Afro-centrics refuse to periodize their claims, and because they make sweeping statements they end up projecting American history on to the rest of the world. Can we really accept the claim that so-called Arabs are inherently racist towards Black people? Yet, just because such a claim seems implausible it should not make it easy for us to dismiss the point that we need to pay attention to the way race has been operationalized in the framing of the present North African revolutions.

Indeed, because I don’t want to go afro-centric, I think it is better if we do some better dialectical thinking. So, while I would suggest that we need to not rewrite the history of the world as a footnote to America’s cultural wars, at the same time, we need to see that the rest of the world has increasingly come to see itself in highly racialised terms. This too needs to be explained (and only political-economy can explain it). But for now we also need to take seriously the kernel of protest and truth that the afro-centric folks speak about and build on it. Race does lie at the heart of many of these so called Arab revolutions in very complicated ways. Let’s not sweep this under the carpet in the name of self-righteous indignation or else we will add one more substantive reason for why these revolutions might come to nought.

Elleni Centime Zeleke
Adjunct Lecturer
African Studies
York University