DAY 224: Bank holiday

August 31st, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

Those of you who are forty years old or more will remember (if you haven’t been forcibly reminded of it) that someone called Princess Diana and her friend Dodi al-Fayed died 20 years ago in suspicious circumstances in Paris. From my memory – it seems likely – it was a Bank Holiday weekend, I was off in Wales which Diana used to be the Princess of. Discounting obvious theories (e.g.


they were assassinated by the British Royal Family), I’d like to more modestly suggest the following which I call the ‘Entertainment theory of History’. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the First Gulf War, and the long and bloody civil war in former Yugoslavia, the people who run the world felt things had suddenly got boring with the 1995 Dayton Agreement, and some spectacular event was needed to keep up the masses’ interest. It took a bit of searching around, but the death of Diana, whoever thought it up, was a stroke of genius – it’s an ‘everyone remembers where they were and there was nothing on the TV’ event, Elton John wrote the music, and surely Osama bin Laden was watching and making notes.

Which leads naturally (did you think I’d forgotten the refugees?) to the way God threw our first parents out adameveof Iraq (I think) six thousand years earlier for having broken the rules about fruit or nakedness or sex or perhaps all three. And installed the equivalent of razor-wire to keep them out, so that in Milton’s formulation:

“They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand, the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”

In other words, the role of refugee and wanderer is natural to humans; to have a Heimat is an artificial construction. It was much later that God came up with the idea that nations should be separate and have passports and languages and stuff (the Tower of Babel and the Flood being two of his disastrous stages in what we can only see as a rake’s progress). And then, worse still, chose one people, and kept telling them – as Netanyahu has learned so well – to kill off the occupants of their land. Who then was the refugee? Did Joshua have a passport when he fit the battle of Jericho? But I digress, as so often. When Adam delved and Eve span, as John Ball asked, who was the gentleman? What, as Engels asked, is the origin of the family, private property and the State (including its borders), and can we just get rid of them all in one moment of carnival? As Lacan said (I think, anyway he’s always good for a quote), what do the signifiers ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ point to? Back to bank holiday.

At the Movies

In the absence of a cappella sopranos, who seem all to have taken off to Snape Maltings or somewhere, I’m continuing to watch unusual offerings from third world directors: of which perhaps the most unexpected is Larissa Sansour’s 2013 film ‘In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain‘; a completely strange and beautiful Palestinian short (30 minutes) which disrupts your expectations of the genre by showing no checkpoints, soldiers, fedayin, or even olive trees. But then it’s science fiction, of a very unusual kind: which has been recently attacked (surprise!) as antisemitic for showing the ‘invention of a past’. I wonder why. I really urge you to find the Vimeo link and watch it, twice if possible. I cite Julia Johnson’s review (when it was first seen in Liverpool, as part of an installation, which I unfortunately missed) – it’s as good a way as any of filling up my word allowance.

‘What do we really know about the past? For most of us, our understanding of history comes from a mix of school memories and TV documentaries. In these contexts, we are required to buy into a particular historical narrative – the one that gets us the marks in the exam. And why question it?  British history, with its focus on monarchy and wars, is rooted in dates and events which seem unquestionable. And unlike in contemporary political debate, voices which disagree with the accepted version of events are often killed off or written out.

Or are they?

Disrupting accepted narratives is exactly what Larissa Sansour’s In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain seeks to achieve.

The exhibition is based around and named after a 30-minute film. It’s a sci-fi film, set in an inhospitable world. A world filled with intimidating, insect-like spaceships, which look far more at home here than the human figures. A world of grief, with the loss of a sister a recurring motif, and of conflict, where bombs fall from a foreboding sky.

Sansour’s ideas and intentions are explained through the conversation which narrates the film.  Porcelain is a symbol, intended to change this world’s historical narrative. Porcelain is non-native to this desolate wilderness so by burying an imported, luxury material, future archaeologists may reconsider the lives and means of the people who lived here. They may begin to think that their lives were better than they’d previously considered. Sansour’s protagonistIntheFuture2_Larissa_Sansour_reduced_MED couldn’t be accused of being selfish – accepting her own fate, she is working for a future justice and dignity.

As in all good sci-fi there is no reference to real nations, however it’s clear throughout the exhibition that this work is about the Israeli-Paletinian disputes. This becomes a fact in the documentary photographs on display in the Cloister. Sansour is herself Palestinian, and has made the film’s vision of burying fragments of an imagined past a reality. Scattering them across Israel is no doubt controversial, but such a suitable way of approaching the debate The Holy Land’s places and objects confirm the beliefs of millions across the world – if these small fragments even did disrupt their story, the effect would be felt universally.

Across the rest of the exhibition, the film’s visuals are expanded into objects for the present.

We see the plates on their production line, their ordinariness striking when you know their potentially world-changing purpose. The co-ordinates for the locations of the buried porcelain are in bomb-shaped cases, appropriate considering their incendiary content.

Bluecoat is also debuting a new addition to the installation, And They Covered the Sky Until It Was Black. The effect of the hundreds of black spaceships which have swarmed the Gallery is unnerving. It’s visually and physically oppressive – they’re wherever you look and step. Like the Biblical locust plague they represent, they’re a powerful symbol of the forces which may work against us, seeking to destroy.’

In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain was created in 2013. But in how Sansour powerfully stands up for the rights of her people – and all people – to be recognised with dignity and justice, it feels incredibly timely.’


DAY 223:

August 25th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

I can’t put it better than my friend Sam Salih from Mitilini, who is obviously like me annoyed at the number of volunteers who are giving themselves praise for their amazing actions and showing photos of themselves beaming as they distribute stuff to the refugees as they (the refugees, not the volunteers) emerge from their hiding places.

‘If you helped someone (he says), you don’t need to post hundreds of posts, picture’s to get benefits of him from people around, keep going and stay quiet, and let your actions on the ground and reality speak not your fake media actions ! Thousands of people need help so do not injure human dignity and convert into profit and business .

اذا ساعدت احد ما ، فلا يحُتاج نشر مئات من الصور والمنشورات الإعلامية لأستغلال الموقف، ابقى استمر وحافظ على هدؤك، بالأفعال تُحكم وتُبرهن الخير على الأرض وفي الواقع ، وليسَ الإعلام المزيف التي يستغلها البعض ، ..
الآلاف يحتاجون المساعدة، فلا يمكن جرح كرامة ذلك الإنسان على اساس مساعدة انسانية وتحويلها إلى ربح وتجارة Furthermore, if like me you’re a correspondent of Muslimaid, you’ll have been getting countless messages about how you needed to give £46 or £92 on the 1st of Dhu’l Hijja to get lots of merit, with no pictures and no Facebook thanks. I didn’t have the money spare, so as so often I’ll have to do without the merit.

Not that they didn’t need help in France, of course. As Care4Calais says:

‘We always need dedicated volunteers to:

  • Look for those who need our help who are sleeping under bridges and in ditches and in small, muddy camps in the cold.
  • Help in the Dunkirk camp with cooking and the
  • Calaispic(OK, it’s a glamorous volunteer picture. Sorry.)
  • women and children’s centre.
  • Go to Paris where the situation is desperate and refugees are freezing on the streets.
  • Visit CAOs where our friends from Calais are lonely, isolated and not getting the help they need.
  • Visit those in detention who are scared and alone.
  • Sort and organise our warehouse that makes everything else possible.
  • Co-ordinate all the work that is needed now all across France.

I wouldn’t dream of suggesting this is the only worthwhile thing you can do – you might be researching a cure for arthritic knees, for example, or organising against the cuts in care for the elderly (two causes which are naturally close to my heart). But it’s worth considering if you’ve time to spare.

At the Movies

You’ve probably missed ‘Strike a Rock’, Aliki Saragas’ brilliant film about women survivors of the Marikana miners’ massacre in South Africa. War on Want brought it over for a few memorable showings with two of the leading women, Primrose Sonti and Thumeka Magwangqana present and speaking about the struggle. I can’t find a link to the film (though it’s easy to find the trailer). But coincidentally, I’ve written  a review which you may read if you’re a subscriber to the popular mag RS21. In case you aren’t, here it is:

On August 16th 2012, 34 striking miners were shot dead by the South African security forces, in what has become knpwn as the ‘Marikana massacre’. There has been no apology; no one has been found guilty. The confrontation has become a defining moment in the developing story of post-apartheid South Africa. It’s a story of exploited mineworkers in violent conflict with the bosses, the police, the ruling ANC (still fresh from its victory over apartheid), and the ‘company union’, the National Union of Mineworkers; and it has been told in two films so far. The powerful 2015 documentary, Miners Shot Down by Rehad Desai, which won top honours at that year’s Emmy awards, tells the contested story of the massacre drawing on footage which Desai shot in the weeks leading up to it.

Aliki Saragas’ new Strike a Rock (circulated by War on Want as part of a campaign against neocolonialism) is again a documentary, but a very different one; it focuses on the life of the survivors. In a finely ironic opening scene the CEO of Lonmin congratulates the people that the ‘difficult times’ have been overcome; the union, the company and the ANC government are seen to be in a profitable alliance. Cut to the impoverished streets of Marikana where the shot miners’ widows, grandmothers Primrose Sonti and Thumeka Magwangqana are trying to survive and to win justice. Their organization, Sikhala Sonke (‘we are crying together’) must lead the women to take on the complex task of building unity in daily confrontation against  the many levels of a ruthless power structure.

The film, as the story of this organization, is rooted in the daily life of women, demanding justice at the same time as they cope with survival in the bleak,constantly flooded houses of Marikana. It relentlessly returns to Lonmin’s 2006 promise to build 5,500 houses, constantly shelved; and contrasts the dishonesty of the company and its allies to the fierce desperation and commitment of the women. (Saragas’ company, Elafos Productions, is explicitly feminist and implicitly socialist.) Strike a Rock combines a variety of beauties, strongly and physically presented (the landscape, the women in their daily life and friendships, closeness, laughter, song) and their surrounding horrors – the dirt and misery of the shantytown, the original massacre, and the men who still justify and profit from it. Primrose ‘wins’ the adoption of the opposition EFF to become an MP; but in present-day South Africa under the one-party rule of the ANC, this is almost valueless.

At a turning point, Primrose the battling MP and Thumeka who carries on the fight at home become estranged. This breach in the crucial relationship is – because of the role that the relationship plays – a particularly painful moment; and the straightforward process of confrontational dialogue which leads to resolution is a healing, recalling the complex, not always accepted role of ‘reconciliation’ in South Africa.

Inevitably to me, Strike a Rock recalled to me a much earlier underground classic of miners’ struggle, the 1954 Salt of the Earth which, with blacklisted Hollywood director Herbert Biberman and a mainly amateur cast of Mexican immigrants, told the story of miners on strike in a New Mexico zinc mine against the company; and, in an unforgettable plot twist, centred the resistance on the community’s women who must take the men’s place when they are banned from picketing. At a distance of sixty years, a great deal separates the two films. They share an emphasis on the place of a group of women as the human core of a mining community. Aliki Saragas is a young graduate of the Cape Town Centre for Film and Media Studies, so that where we may assume Biberman had Eisenstein, John Ford and Fritz Lang at the back of his mind, Saragas’ camera is underpinned by fifty years’ more recent history of radical and feminist films from Chris Marker to Chantal Akerman to Five Broken Cameras. The impressive achievement of Strike a Rock fixes the camera eye on the life of the township and its women where resistance, constantly visible, grows naturally out of those harsh conditions (the rain, the puddles, the struggle for food and fuel) which nurture solidarity; with occasional reminders of the places where the profits end up.

Strike a Rock never loses sight of the politics, and closes with Sikhala Sonke’s reasonable, (but ‘impossible’?) demands: a full apology for the massacre, punishment for the guilty, the immediate implementation of the promised building of affordable housing, a living wage. Can South Africa, still dominated by its neocolonial relation to the mining industry, achieve the second revolution which that would entail?


Clearly my promotion of the Hermes’ Experiment’s exciting experimental work has struck a chord (geddit?) and I’ve been inundated with requests for more of their stuff from those who can’t make it over to Dalston or Snape Maltings to hear them live, and who find the rival Petrol Girls a bit too exciting. So, as a taster, here’s ‘Improvisation‘.

DAY 222: The charities are forced to give up

August 17th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

We must recognise the danger. ‘Europe’ is turning increasingly nasty; and is recruiting states such as Turkey and, worse, Libya, to act as its nasty policemen. Given which, we shall have to make an even greater effort to unite the forces of humanity – surely they are still there. As I quoted earlier; the Times was of the opinion that ‘for the sake of Europe and the developing world a much harder line must be drawn in the sand between them’. Steps are now being taken to achieve this.

The task of rescuing refugees, in flimsy boats and at risk of drowning, from the sea has been left to a handful of soft-hearted charities  notably Doctors without Borders/MSF and Save the Children – neither of them an extreme left organisation. And while the European leaders argue about how they are supposed to deal with refugees, the actual day-to-day responsibility for search and rescue of drowning people, which is a legal obligation, has been left to MSF and the like – just as the French government washed its hands of the camp at Calais, leaving it to Care4Calais and others to look after the inhabitants.

And now in a new twist this possibility is now being taken away from them, leaving no provision at all, with threats on one side from the Libyan authorities and on the other hand insistence from the Italian state that charities should sign a ‘code of conduct’.“For us, the most controversial point … was the commitment to help the Italian police with their investigations and possibly take armed police officers on board,” [charity] Jugend Rettet coordinator Titus Molkenbur said. “That is antithetical to the humanitarian principles of neutrality that we adhere to, and we cannot be seen as being part of the conflict.”

Médecins Sans Frontiers said in a statement: “MSF strongly denounces the threats on NGOs operating in the Search and Rescue zone.

″[These threats are] an additional attack on NGOs conducting lifesaving search and rescue operations and could subsequently CHILD-REFUGEE-1_NEWcause additional deaths and suffering in the Mediterranean Sea.”

Over 90,000 migrants have been brought to Italy this year on top of the half a million brought over the three previous years.

Around 2,230 people, most of them fleeing poverty, violence and forced military conscription, died in the first seven months of 2017
trying to make the sea crossing.

The actual number of dead is likely to be far higher as many boats leaving the Libyan shore simply disappear and are not seen again.

Ships operated by aid charities have noted a marked reduction in the number of rescues required in recent weeks gericaultwhich coincides with the newly-launched Italian naval mission.

The numbers making the journey had been slowing over recent months but dropped sharply during the first weekend of the operation as 1,124 people were intercepted, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

But aid groups suggest the apparent stemming of one problem is exacerbating another far bigger issue.

Marcella Kraay, MSF-OCA Project Coordinator currently aboard the Aquarius, told HuffPost UK: “This may sound like a solution of the problem [of people-trafficking] but actually it’s more a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

“What this actually means is people are being returned to Libya which is not a safe place.”

That is – if you read anything on conditions in Libya, in general and for refugees, a huge understatement. If you can bear to, static1.squarespaceread the report of Refugees International on the conditions in Libya (no central authority to control; the prevalence of rape, imprisonment, torture for all).


To quote a friend: ‘All of this is leading to the abandonment of the most vulnerable people on this planet. Their little rubber boats aren’t capable of making the 70 miles, packed with 140-160 people. They’ve only been getting so far before the conditions rip their flimsy dinghies apart, leaving the rescues to happen in a SAR zone that is between 12 and 24 miles off the Libyan Coast. And the Libyan Coast Guard has shown already that it is not currently capable of rescuing all of the people.

With so many NGOs pulling out, who will be left to do the rescues that are so needed? And who will report the tragedy that is about to ensue? Can we expect the Libyans to testify how many people have drowned as a result of their threats?’

Here’s Halo Gharib playing the violin – which some Kurds are still able to do. Baris Yazgi, like many others, was not so lucky: the 22-year-old Kurdish violinist had disappeared for two days after telling relatives of his dream to study music in Belgium, and his mother couldn’t get through to his phone.

It was not until the Turkish coastguard found the body of a young man clutching a violin that the news they feared was confirmed.

“With pictures we recognised him,” said Baris’s brother, Cengiz Yazgi. “He loved his violin so much that he didn’t let it go when he drowned.


DAY 221: Turn of the screw

August 10th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

To stop worrying about how well I’m writing…

It was only a matter of time, I suppose, before the ‘respectable’ media adopted the same language about refugees as that used every day by a) e.g. the Daily Mail, b) the many people who post remarks about refugees, Muslims, for that matter women, gays, minorities in posts on Facebook which make your flesh creep.

Now Clare Foges in the Times (always supposed to be the voice of the ruling class) has come out with an open call: migrants should be left to drown in the Mediterranean or be tortured to deathdeath in Libya, for the sake of Europe.  To quote:

‘The migrant crisis of the past few years has been a lesson in the dangers of allowing heart to overrule head.

 Turning back the boats might not be a palatable proposal short-term but until and unless the central Mediterranean is viewed as a route of no hope, the numbers will increase, along with the profits of the people traffickers. ‘For the sake of Europe and the developing world a much harder line must be drawn in the sand between them?

The second great pull factor is the UN’s woefully out-of-date Refugee Convention.

Its definition of an asylum-seeker as anyone with a “well-founded fear of persecution in their own country” is elastic enough, with a little imagination, to cover many millions of people.’

There is so much dreadful, poisonous rhetoric (and it goes on) in this piece that I can only hope that some decent person on the Times (lol) intervenes to stop its spread. Let’s remember when the Refugee Convention was drafted – in the aftermath of a catastrophic war which left millions starving, with their homes destroyed, often their families killed, and having a reasonable fear of persecution – from Nazis or Stalinists or some other ruthless authority. The word ‘persecution’ was not put in the Convention by bleeding heart liberals who were allowing heart to overrule head as they always do; it was put there because Europe was full of people were being persecuted, and some idea of justice prevailed. And the persecution goes on.. Does Clare think that when Yazidis claim to be persecuted by Daesh (say) or Eritreans claim to be living under a dictatorship, they are spinning a tall story to appeal to  gullible soft hearts? Is that why they cross the sea in leaky boats? Did she watch – for example – the video of the girl who left Kobane in such a boat?

If the Convention is out of date, it is because the west has continued to find ways of circumventing it – the Dublin Regulations come to mind. Which parts of the Convention, I wonder, are to be amended or scrapped? Foges suggests that the definition of a refugee as  ‘someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion’ is woefully outdated  and elastic; and yet rights groups in this country will testify that it’s extraordinarily difficult to establish a claim, at an interview where the Home Office inquisitor has been trained to disbelieve. The Convention further says that if you are such a frightened person a) you should not be penalised if you’ve entered the country illegally and b) you shouldn’t be subject to refoulement or being sent back. (Remind me how many Syrians have so far been taken into the U.K., as opposed to Jordan? and what the respective GDP’s of those two countries are.) The U.K. accepts all the provisions of the ‘woefully outdated’ Convention;but it’s almost impossible to gain the status of a refugee here. Notably, to become a ‘Convention refugee’ you have first to be in the U.K., and (since we’re a fortified island) it’s  almost impossible to get in – a friend of mine, after bribing smugglers, spent a terrifying 24 hours shut in a container on a ship from Belgium to Newcastle. Once you’re foolin, for the moment you’ll possibly be accepted as a refugee if you’re Syrian, although not if you come from a different war zone. In order to be accepted you have to go through the gruelling interview process, and we should spend some time on that, although it’s less traumatic than being thrown into the sea. A caseworker for the Home Office – describing the other side of the process – wrote about the changing standards of this work in the Guardian recently:

‘Our asylum system is nowhere near adequately staffed and resourced. I worry how my former colleagues are coping after years of cuts, and changes to immigration rules which have been accompanied by very little staff training on how to implement them properly.

The work was hard, sometimes harrowing, but often rewarding. Like many areas of public service, there is no typical day for an asylum caseworker. Cases are radically different and so is the trauma suffered by the people you interview. One day you might be dealing with female genital mutilation, the next someone who has lost a family member to the Taliban.

New recruits routinely deal with claims involving murder and torture, with little or no emotional training, preparation or support. Decision makers are now less prepared for this type of work than they were a decade ago because the initial training is about half as long as it should be.

It would be stupid to pretend that everyone who works in the Home Office is motivated by the same public service ethos that drove me and the vast majority of my colleagues. There were undoubtedly some who would all too often trivialise and belittle the experiences of the people who came to us for help. But by far the most pernicious factor was the politics of it. Regardless of how idealistic you are, you learn quickly what is expected. A great deal of my initial training was about establishing “credibility” – largely, how to explain that you disbelieve someone’s story. We would use example claims as case studies and practise writing refusal letters.

Managers back then were reasonable about allowing time to decide cases, but ultimately we have always been moulded from day one to be sceptical. This has its merits in the job, but isn’t entirely healthy.

And the danger of that scepticism was brought more sharply into focus as time went on. A restructuring in 2013 resulted in several hundred years of collective experience walking out of the door. We had been told the job was being downgraded and, in essence, their days were numbered. Some who left got other Home Office jobs; many did not.

After that, targets increased to the point that almost everything became subservient to the end-decision. We were set a target of 220 “units” a year. Only an interview or a decision would count as a unit – any casework would not.

If I had to call social services because I was concerned about a child, it didn’t count towards this target. It might be an afternoon’s work to do all the right referrals, but ultimately this wouldn’t be credited. That sort of work was disincentivised.

If you wanted to do the right thing, you would have to take the productivity hit and risk performance management procedures, ultimately with the threat of dismissal.’

Have we let our hearts rule our heads, and are we letting too many asylum seekers in? What would be the cost of financing a massive change in the culture of this country which gave the migrant or refugee a positive profile? Of countering the hateful propaganda emanating from the likes of Foges, or from the Daily Mail? We throw away vast amounts of money on pointless weapon systems, and can’t find the pennies to make blocks of flats safe,brokenhouse to prevent the incineration of masses of poor people – because otherwise, we’d be allowing our hearts to rule our heads. This has always been the logic of the ruling class; it’s just becoming more so.

Recently, I’ve found a new occupation on a slightly different front of the war against what we used to call the repressive state apparatus; working with those who are in the unhappy position of being ‘NRPF’ or no recourse to public funding. The point being that if you’ve succeeded in forcing the hard faced minions of the Home Office to allow you what’s called ‘Leave to Remain’ (for example because you have a British passport and it would be difficult for them to keep you out) they make it (the remaining) conditional on your never asking the state for any of the money e.g. benefits they’d give the free born Englishman. As time goes on, you marry, have children, your spouse leaves you and refuses to contribute  as spouses do; so you become destitute. Because it’s against the European Charter of Human Rights or some such bleeding heart liberal instrument that your children should be thrown on the streets and starve, you are allowed to appeal to the Home Secretary (lol again) to lift the NRPF condition. As you can imagine, this involves lawyers, petitions, sheaves of documents proving how destitute and deserving you are. I’m volunteering with a delightful bunch of people in a hall down Upper Street one day a week, fighting these battles; taking statements or editing petitions or cooking a wholesome vegetarian lunch or minding the children. It’s all essential work (else the families would be on the streets; and it takes the busy Home Secretary three months or more to make up her mind; and if she decides you’re an undeserving case you have to go for an appeal. So we’re back withhamlet Hamlet, didn’t I quote him the other day?

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?

I refer you to Thomas F. Hargis’ seminal article ‘The Law’s Delay’ in The North American Review Vol. 140, No. 341 (Apr., 1885), pp. 309-315 (it’s on JStor but you can find a way to work around that). As for the pangs of despised love, the Times thankfully hadn’t got round to finding a way to legislate for them.

DAY 220: Change gear

August 3rd, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

As I’ve been complaining, and if i’d had any readers they would too, the standard of this blog – content and type – has fallen off disastrously in the past two years (as Facebook keeps annoyingly reminding me, with repeats of the much more interesting and creative posts of one or, better, two years ago). It is, then, time for a massive reappraisal or rethink, a new mission statement perhaps. With so much going on in the world, it’s too easy to  get distracted by trivia like the killing of countless civilians in Mosul; [Or the fact that I’ve lost two pairs of glasses and my passport in the space of, I think, three weeks. How is this possible? You’d need to see the state of the flat.] or the enforced cessation of the humanitarian work of NGOs on the Greek mapchiosislands; or the endless refusal of the Calais authorities to do as the law tells them and stop harassing refugees; or the shortage of water and indeed everything else in Gaza. I have been feeling that I should encourage a more positive mood by any means I could in the first place by obvious means – playing classic Abba tracks like ‘Dancing Queen‘, which points out that there are other things in life than those which seem to preoccupy me all the time – particularly Friday night when the lights are low. Or, in a different mood,juice juice vocal ensemble whose arresting songs are a good contrast to Abba. And I haven’t even got on to Alsarah and the Nubatones, who I had the pleasure of hearing last week.

As you see, there are more than one way of approaching the present conjuncture. Are you part of the solution, as Eldridge Cleaver used to say, or part of the problem? Or are you not sure which?

In some distress, looking for a solution – or indeed for a problem, sometimes they can be useful too, I stumbled upon a review (recommended by a ftiend) of Holly Lewis’ recent ‘The Politics of Everybody’ in the popular lightweight mag RS21, while trying to get a bit of sleep. Since to my regret I spend too little of my time on revolutionary Marxist, feminist and queer politics – any of them, I mean – it was all new stuff to me, which isn’t to say it kept me awake. But surely, reader! we have to keep in touch with what these intelligent people are saying, or we’ll end up turning out the same mindless crap and dancing to the same Abba tunes with no hope of a fundamental shift in the relations of production.

review by Bill Crane

‘One of the most promising trends on the intellectual left in recent years is the emergence of a strong and sophisticated Marxist-feminist current of academics and activists. The identification of the social reproduction of the working class as the root of women’s oppression under capitalism has become increasingly accepted. (Editor’s note: you can read an introduction to social reproduction by Tithi Bhattacharrya here.) Social reproduction is beginning to develop a coherent and compelling framework for  analysing developments as far apart as the increase in violence against women in the global North and the outsourcing of reproduction to an army of ‘disposable’ domestic workers, to the double or triple burdens on women workers in countries such as India and China.

While the current of Marxist engagement with queer theory has not been as strong as with feminism, the relative dearth of Marxist analysis of queer oppression has been noted and is beginning to be remedied, with the appearance of work by authors such as Sherry Wolf, Peter Drucker, David Camfield and Colin Wilson.

In this field, Holly Lewis strikes me as the immediate standout. Her 2016 book, The Politics of Everybody, is every bit as audacious as its title suggests. It is a landmark work of engaged revolutionary politics striving for a left in which ‘Marxist-feminism’ or ‘queer Marxism’ is redundant because it is self-evident, while sharpening the razor of criticism our tradition has provided us going back to Lenin and Marx. It demands to be closely read by everyone dedicated to revolutionary Marxist, feminist and queer politics alike.

Social reproduction feminism has its origins in the domestic labour debates of the 1970s. Its most comprehensive statement came in 1983 with Lise Vogel’s book Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Towards a Unitary Theory, a text that was forgotten for some years until republished as part of the Historical Materialism Book Series in 2013.

Vogel’s book attempted to overcome two barriers in Marxist-feminist politics: (1) the relative silence of the classical Marxist tradition on the sources of women’s oppression under capitalism and (2) the preponderance of ‘dual systems theory’ that had come to dominate the debates on domestic labour, with many Marxist-feminists proposing that the home was a centre of a transhistorical patriarchal mode of production operating alongside the other surplus-extracting modes of production such as slavery, feudalism and capitalism.

[I interrupt this fascinating discussion of modes of production with the news that I now have a total of FOUR unpaid jobs in the ‘voluntary’ sector:

1. Safe Passage – easily the most prestigious, but they only seem to require that I should let them know when I’m going to be available in the next fortnight;

2. Refugee Rights Data Project – me and other proles like Salma who I met at a cafe in Turnpike Lane the other day make a list of ‘resources’ i.e. URLs of articles relating to refugees with a bit of commentary which someone will pull together somewhere along the road and hopefully produce a terrific report;

3. European Database of Asylum Law – I summarise a recent asylum case, picking out the startling and novel features and send it (the summary) off to a lady in Belgium, who approves it (hopefully) and publishes it in that prestigious forum;

4. My recent favourite, Unity Project; some people in Upper Street whose mission seems to be to help destitute Islingtonians with NRPF (no recourse to public funding – how bad is that?) Volunteers like me and a bunch of students talk to the clients and take notes and every now and then a lawyer drops by and sets us straight on what we’re doing. And we have a great lunch!

What a full life. And I’ve got away from answering the phone, which I was never any good at, at least in the opinion of my supervisors. But to return to the mode of production:]

Marxism and the Oppression of Women takes as its point of departure some suggestive remarks in volume one of Marx’s Capital relating to how the labour-power of each worker must be reproduced anew before each shift by means of the subsistence wage. The working day is thus divided into a part in which the worker reproduces their own labour-power, for which they earn a wage, and a surplus part spent for the profit of their employer. This applies to all members of the working class, regardless of what body parts they have.

But the ruling class takes advantage of the sexual reproduction of human beings. Those with body parts coded as female are set apart by their presumed ability to bear children. During the period of pregnancy and afterwards, the amount which they work (and hence produce surplus-value for the boss) must be limited. These biological facts of reproduction, while they may not interfere with production in pre-capitalist kinship and tributary societies, are not readily compatible with capitalist production because of the need to maximise surplus-value. On this basis arises sex discrimination in employment and a gendered division of labour.

This basic contradiction within capitalism, Vogel writes, results in ‘a class struggle’ resulting in ‘a variety of forms of reproduction of labour.’ While the generational reproduction of the working class by its female-bodied members has come to be the norm under developed capitalism, other methods have been seen throughout history. In the eighteenth-century Caribbean, it was commonplace to work slaves to death and replace them with new ones imported from Africa, and today in many parts of East Asia capitalism relies on a ‘dormitory labour regime’ in which women workers reside and work for set periods under extreme conditions, returning periodically to their home villages to reproduce their own and the next generation’s labour-power. At the same time, social reproduction of the working class in the North is increasingly dependenton guest-workers from the South.

It was the class struggle in England, the US and other parts of the developed capitalist world during the late nineteenth century that resulted the nuclear family as the standard form for the social reproduction of the working class. On the one hand, workers’ struggles resulted in a larger family wage in which (some) adult males as ‘heads of their households’ could afford to keep their whole family, but on the other, the ruling class succeeded in the imposition of Victorian cant-sit-downmorality and the acceptance of women’s ‘natural role’ being in the home, working to reproduce current and the future generations of labour-power.

Yet the same process of the Industrial Revolution, by concentrating workers of all backgrounds together away from their families and village norms, gave play to freer expressions of same-sex attraction. Thus, at around the same time early homosexual identity was in formation, capitalism was coming to depend on a form of reproduction which was, in the fullest sense, heteronormative. In The Politics of Everybody, Holly Lewis writes:

Economics is the origin of the ‘normativity’ in heteronormativity: not intolerance of difference or the other, not a pure desire for power or an abstract need to control, not a lack of sexual creativity or dullness, not a Eurocentric racial spirit. It is the fact that the generational replacement of the labour force requires sexually active people with certain body parts to go through extended periods of non-activity. The capitalist class benefits from this generational replacement, but it does not want to make any concessions to the people who make it happen. Social gender and the management of sexuality under capitalism are shaped according to the struggle over who pays for what is necessary to socially reproduce the working class (pp. 182-3).

There are many ways in which the boundaries of social gender are violated under capitalism. Some (cisgendered, heterosexual) women refuse to marry or have children, and work on their own account. Some (cisgendered men and women) openly express their same-sex attraction in relationships that cannot contribute to the biological reproduction of the next generation of workers. Trans women, from the capitalist point of view, shirk their obligations of working and providing for a family by openly expressing their identity as women, while trans men reject their assignment as women, and of their supposed role as carers and nurturers.

Lewis thus explains the root of queer oppression as violations of gender boundaries deeply enmeshed with the reproduction of the labour force. This abstract treatment, as with Vogel’s account of women’s oppression, only points to the possibility of queer oppression as we know it under a heteronormative system of capitalist social reproduction. The form that oppression of women and queers takes in any given capitalist social formation must be related to contingent historical circumstances, especially the class struggle cited by Vogel over exploitation and reproduction. And then there are struggles based around what Lewis refers to as ‘schematic politics where… oppression is detached from theories of exploitation’—identity politics (p. 190).

Lewis’ treatment of identity politics is what is likely to prove most controversial among radical intellectuals and the broader activist left. Yet, for my money, it is not only the most provocative, but one of the most theoretically astute of such engagements thus far. Leftists of any ideological background will find that even if they disagree vehemently with her arguments, they must raise their theoretical game in response.

Her arguments against intersectionality theory are a case in point. Since its popularisation by Black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s, [I should say in passing how amazed I am that, all that way back in 1989 when I had no idea of how you wrote for a law journal, Kimberlé who was a good ten years younger than me, was coining the word of whose significance I’ve only vaguely now become aware] terms of intersecting oppressions have been subject to a vast range of uses and abuses. On the one hand, when most refer to Flavia Dzodan’s dictum, ‘my feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit,’ they mean, as Lewis acknowledges, to call to task those feminisms which have represented the experience of the white, Western, middle-class woman as the universal and rightful representative of all women.  In and of itself, intersectionality has proven a valuable contribution to feminist and queer struggles.

But on the other hand, it has become clear just how far the terms of intersectionality can be stretched. Last year during the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton in response to the Sanders campaign’s forceful attacks on poverty and economic inequality and Clinton’s own record in enforcing a massive wealth transfer from poor to rich in the nineties, said ‘We face a complex set of economic, social, and political challenges. They are intersectional, they are reinforcing, and we have got to take them all on.’ Later, she took to Twitter to announce ‘It’s not enough to talk only about economics. We have to tackle racial, economic, & environmental justice—together.’

Neither Kimberlé Crenshaw, nor the Black lesbian feminists of thecombahee Combahee River Collective who early in the 1970s articulated the concept we call intersectionality today, should bear any blame for the Clinton campaign’s ghoulish misuse of the term to deflect criticisms of her neoliberal record. However, in The Politics of Everybody, Lewis finds that even Marxist incorporation and defence of intersectionality (for example, that of Sharon Smith) is fundamentally lacking.

Hillary Clinton stretches the terms of intersectionality, claiming to support gay rights and other ‘intersectional’ struggles but hiding her own record in enforcing a massive wealth transfer from poor to rich in the nineties, including from poor LGBTQ-identified people.

Why? Lewis conceives of identity politics as theory that sets different kinds of oppression apart from exploitation—the process of extraction of surplus value which undergirds every human society. And if one specific process of oppression—for instance, the history of anti-Black racism in the US from seventeenth-century slave ships to twenty-first-century police cruisers—is understood as having a dynamic that is separable from the mode of surplus extraction (though proponents of intersectionality do not usually insist they are historically separate), it makes sense that different ‘modes of oppression’ can each be understood as a separate dynamic understandable in reference to itself, even where they jostle and scrape against each other in history. Therefore, as she writes, in the intersectional model, ‘each oppression is a vector with a nebulous origin intersecting with the individual subject: race, gender, class, sexuality, appearance, ability and so on cut through at various angles,’ which cross at the body of each individual subject (p. 273).

Lewis notes two flaws which make the metaphor of intersection weak and confusing. The first, as I have hinted, is that oppression is neither theoretically nor historically separable from exploitation. Racism, sexism and other forms of oppression do not collide with the body out of the blue. They emerge and are perpetuated within a material matrix. To paraphrase Barbara Jeanne Fields, racism did not pre-exist American slavery. The ideological construction known today as race emerged out of the need to justify the expanding and immensely profitable system of plantation slavery in a country claiming legitimacy based on radical and egalitarian democracy.

We should not be content to consider ways where exploitation and different kinds of oppression coincide, which intersectionality at its best allows us to do. We must deal in terms of concrete historical processes in which the specific process of the extraction of economic surplus holds the key to all forms of the production and reproduction of life that grow out of this basic relationship.

Lewis’ call to replace the ‘vector model of oppression’ with ‘a unitary, relational model’ therefore strikes me as compelling. ‘Class,’ she argues, ‘is primary—not in the sense of more important, but in the sense of being the limit, the foundation, the point where profit is extracted and the point where it can be challenged. The centrality of class is tactical, not moral’ (pp. 274-5).

Class-based critique of the intersectional model is frequently ridiculed as an attempt by white cishet men to evade responsibility for the inequalities they perpetuate in maintenance of their privilege. Conceived this way, the argument that class rises above oppression erases other kinds of oppression. But Marxists of any worth do not say class is more important than race, sexuality, gender identity, or ability. We say merely that it sets the rules of the game within which they play out as moments in a mediated but differentiated historical totality.

Both myself and Holly Lewis  argue in favour of unitary class analysis over the unmoored, reified oppressions of the vector model. And yet, arguing will  not always entail the ability to persuade. Lewis’ clear and frequently dazzling arguments will, I am sure, enable many who are already on their way from identity politics to class politics to hasten their progress. But to those who are deeply committed to the various frameworks, whether that is Afro-pessimism, trans11trans-exclusive radical feminism, queer nihilism or something else entirely, neither what she says nor my own substandard interpretation of her words will very likely count for much.

Some wonder whether the division between class politics and identity politics need be so sharp. Peter Drucker, in his review of the book, believes that her sharp critiques of queer theory seem overly offensive, and that a more conciliatory approach would allow Marxists like Lewis to achieve a higher level of nuance and greater power of persuasion. But where the rubber hits the road, as I am sure Lewis would agree, is at the point of putting ideas into practice.

Take her discussion of homonormativity. Lisa Duggan coined this term in 2002 as a label for those practices in queer life which do not ‘contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but uphold and sustain them.’ The debate in queer communities over gay marriage in the US is a case in point, with many radicals arguing against pursuing marriage equality as a goal because it assimilates queer relationships into the heteronormative standard of marriage and the bourgeois property relations that it makes official.

Lewis explores various faults in the concept of homonormativity through the Christopher Street Pier controversy in Greenwich Village, a neighbourhood on the Lower West Side of Manhattan that has been an historic centre of LGBTQ culture. In the early 00s, a group of older, white, wealthy gays who owned businesses and rented homes in the area campaigned for the expulsion of poor, working-class and homeless, mostly Black and Latinx queer youth who congregated at night around the Christopher Street Pier. They went as far as to establish a community patrol named after a product for delousing.

Should we see this as a gay elite policing queer identity to uphold and sustain heteronormative institutions? Lewis argues that this conceals a fundamentally mistaken assumption—that business- and home-owners on the one hand and working-class, poor and surplus people on the other ever were, or could ever be, part of a single community in the first place:

I find it difficult to imagine that these upper-class gays and the gay city officials who support them would be less likely to push Black youth off their property if their presentation confirmed to gender norms. I see no evidence that this is a case of a gay elite patrolling queer identity. Instead, I see business owners expelling non-customers. I see landlords concerned with property values. I see the racist assumption that Black youth are dangerous (p. 228).

Conversely, from the perspective of class politics, ‘it would have been clear from the beginning that a cabal of property owners worried about the bottom line would conspire against the poor regardless of gender presentation.’ To be intelligible to a queer nationalist logic, ‘class dynamics are rewritten as a problem of affect, resulting in community betrayal.’

Rewriting class as a problem of affect bears a direct practical consequence: it confuses politics with presentation. Thus, radical queer communities which vote by consensus, eat vegan, practice free love and share music are coded as radical-oppositional, while monogamous gay partners and families are coded as bourgeois-normative, in both cases regardless of the actual position they have within the capitalist system or the politics they express. The child of a banker who lives in a commune and performs spoken-word poetry becomes in every instance more radical than the working-class lesbian mother who shops at Lidl.

Drucker objects to this formulation on the basis that ‘Marxists understand… no subject position guarantees revolutionary consciousness,’ and that ‘We need to support anti-capitalist struggles, whoever wages them, in all their complexity.’

No subject position guarantees revolutionary consciousness. Precisely. As Gregory Myerson writes, ‘good theories of racism are not equivalent by definition to what its primary victims think.’ Good theories of queer oppression, also, are not reducible to what people defining themselves as radical queers think.

Lewis’ answer to the dilemma Drucker sets up cuts as fine as a razor: ‘Being queer/trans is neither reactionary nor radical.’ What follows is worth quoting at length:

The argument that capitalism thrives off normativity ignores the fact that it also thrives off diversity, pluralism, fashion and market segments. While the heteronormative family is productive for capital, queer urban individualists and drop-out counter-culturalists are also productive for capital—the former as ‘creatives’ in the labor market, the latter as a surplus population (or, in the US, low-cost service industry labor). Queers without children are also not entirely outside the family matrix in that unmarried and childless family members are often taxed with eldercare. It is romantic to think that you can change the world through diverse sexuality, creative self-expression, and communal bonding. But you can’t…

Thus, those who are gender non-conforming are not necessarily poor; those who are gay and lesbian are not necessarily middle class. Opposing normativity is a politically empty gesture. Queer culture is not anti-capitalist. And neither is queering culture (pp. 275-6).

How effective Lewis’ forceful, indeed combative, restatement of class politics is against the politics of queer identity will depend on the reader. However, I came away from The Politics of Everybody fully persuaded that the problem is the real gulf between the perspectives of class politics and identity politics, not that she has called attention to it. By clearing the deck in such a forceful way, she has done us a great service no matter what side of her arguments readers fall on.”

So why don’t we round off this already lengthy (if mostly stolen) post with Lee Mokobe’s What it Feels like to be Transgender:

The first time I uttered a prayer was in a glass-stained cathedral.
I was kneeling long after the congregation was on its feet,
dip both hands into holy water,
trace the trinity across my chest,
my tiny body drooping like a question mark
all over the wooden pew.
I asked Jesus to fix me,
and when he did not answer
I befriended silence in the hopes that my sin would burn
and salve my mouth would dissolve like sugar on tongue,
but shame lingered as an aftertaste.
And in an attempt to reintroduce me to sanctity,
my mother told me of the miracle I was,
said I could grow up to be anything I want.
I decided to be a boy.
It was cute.
I had snapback, toothless grin,
used skinned knees as street cred,
played hide and seek with what was left of my goal.
I was it.
The winner to a game the other kids couldn’t play,
I was the mystery of an anatomy,
a question asked but not answered,
tightroping between awkward boy and apologetic girl,
and when I turned 12, the boy phase wasn’t deemed cute anymore.
It was met with nostalgic aunts who missed seeing my knees in the shadow of skirts,
who reminded me that my kind of attitude would never bring a husband home,
that I exist for heterosexual marriage and child-bearing.
And I swallowed their insults along with their slurs.
Naturally, I did not come out of the closet.
The kids at my school opened it without my permission.
Called me by a name I did not recognize,
said “lesbian,”
but I was more boy than girl, more Ken than Barbie.
It had nothing to do with hating my body,
I just love it enough to let it go,
I treat it like a house,
and when your house is falling apart,
you do not evacuate,
you make it comfortable enough to house all your insides,
you make it pretty enough to invite guests over,
you make the floorboards strong enough to stand on.
My mother fears I have named myself after fading things.
As she counts the echoes left behind by Mya Hall, Leelah Alcorn, Blake Brockington.
She fears that I’ll die without a whisper,
that I’ll turn into “what a shame” conversations at the bus stop.
She claims I have turned myself into a mausoleum,
that I am a walking casket,
news headlines have turned my identity into a spectacle,
Bruce Jenner on everyone’s lips while the brutality of living in this body
becomes an asterisk at the bottom of equality pages.
No one ever thinks of us as human
because we are more ghost than flesh,
because people fear that my gender expression is a trick,
that it exists to be perverse,
that it ensnares them without their consent,
that my body is a feast for their eyes and hands
and once they have fed off my queer,
they’ll regurgitate all the parts they did not like.
They’ll put me back into the closet, hang me with all the other skeletons.
I will be the best attraction.
Can you see how easy it is to talk people into coffins,
to misspell their names on gravestones.
And people still wonder why there are boys rotting,
they go away in high school hallways
they are afraid of becoming another hashtag in a second
afraid of classroom discussions becoming like judgment day
and now oncoming traffic is embracing more transgender children than parents.
I wonder how long it will be
before the trans suicide notes start to feel redundant,
before we realize that our bodies become lessons about sin
way before we learn how to love them.
Like God didn’t save all this breath and mercy,
like my blood is not the wine that washed over Jesus’ feet.
My prayers are now getting stuck in my throat.
Maybe I am finally fixed,
maybe I just don’t care,
maybe God finally listened to my prayers.



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