Monday, July 21, 2014
In this post, I want to address a certain subset of people who have progressive politics of one sort or another, and I want to make one fairly narrow point about the police and affiliated institutions and challenge you to think about what implications it might have.
Before I make that point, I want to stress that I am not making it with reference to any one context or incident. Certainly I have encountered various contexts, local and not, to which this might be relevant, plus endless articles, posts, and analyses found online, and more than a few conversations in a wide range of settings. If you think what I have to say is relevant to some specific context, by all means take it up, apply it to that context, and see if it's useful. But that's not what I'm doing here. Also, I'm specifically addressing progressives, but that's not at all to deny that there's also lots critical that could be said about different ways that (privileged) people with more radical visions for change relate to policing, but that generally plays out a bit differently and I want to stay focused on one key point.
And the point is this: The subset of progressive folks I'm talking to are the many of you who, in your daily lives, experience the police as an institution you mostly don't think about at all, or one that you think about only when something ranging from unfortunate to awful has happened and you want or need their intervention, at which point you feel reasonably confident that they will do things to address whatever your need is. As a middle-class, cis, white guy, this is the experience that I grew up with too. A lot of people, though, don't share that experience of police, courts, and so on. For a lot of people, their experience of police is as a source of potential or actual violence.
I'm raising this because in writing and talking about the world, and in orienting, planning, and executing political interventions in the world, the subset of people with progressive politics whom I'm addressing in this post often treat the former sort of experience in the paragraph above as the only one that exists or perhaps the only one that matters, and erase or ignore the latter sort of experience. I want to challenge that subset of progressive folks to stop erasing and ignoring that reality -- the reality that the police are in large part experienced as a source of violence by a lot of people -- and really start to think about what that has to mean for how you think society should respond to various issues, for how people should organize events and actions, and for how people should envision efforts to create social change.
And, really, the rest of this post is just caveats and provisos.
Denying that this point is true is not an acceptable response. Educate yourself. There is endless writing, from first-hand accounts to journalism to scholarly work, that you can use to do this. And if you stick to the "this isn't a real thing" response, you are taking a stand that the experiences of lots of marginalized people really do deserve to be erased and ignored.
Claiming it is because of "a few bad apples" on the police side does not make the issue go away. Certainly, different officers do their work in different ways, and nothing in this post is meant as a comment on the virtues or vices of any individual police officer. As well, there is some variation in organizational culture across different police organizations. But it goes back to "educate yourself" -- this is too widespread and systemic to be dismissed as a few incidents of bad behaviour by a few bad individuals that have been blown out of proportion.
Claiming that to the extent that such violence does happen, it is a result of problems in the communities that are thus marginalized and not anything wrong with the social organization of policing, is taking an awful, victim-blaming stance that should exclude you summarily from any legitimacy in talking about things like "social justice."
Saying, "Well I have this friend X who is part of group Y and s/he has never had any problems with the police" does not make this go away either. Experiences vary, ways of navigating them vary, and that's fine, but it is not reasonable to hold up one person's testimony to dismiss massive evidence of a systemic problem.
And of course exactly how this plays out varies with time and place. For instance, I think it was Bonita Lawrence's book 'Real' Indians and Others that drove home for me that indigenous experiences of racialization in Canada, including experiences of systemic violence from police and the so-called 'justice' system, vary a great deal in different parts of the country. And I don't know as much about it as I should, but it is my sense that struggles by Black communities and allies in Toronto in the '80s and '90s won some reforms that made at least certain kinds of improvements, though not nearly enough, and I believe that at least some of those were wiped out by subsequent governments. And I know that the experience of, say, middle-class white cis gay men with police is, on average, vastly different today than 30 or 40 years ago. So, yes, there is variation, and struggle can accomplish a great deal, but using that to segue into a superficial acknowledgement of the problem followed by "we're working on it" is not an adequate answer either -- diverse indigenous and Black and Latino/a communities across North America, people experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness, and sex workers, among others, have been engaged in related struggles for centuries, and progressive people who do not have this experience of police have been expressing shock and concern and a hope it will all be better soon for just as long, yet it persists. Struggle on these issues is crucial, but it is something that is deeply enough rooted that failure to see it as a fundamental feature of policing is just another form of erasure.
And in presenting this challenge, I'm not saying there is only one answer, and I'm not saying that it's not complicated. Any useful conversation about how exactly to respond to this reality has to be grounded in a real context and has to foreground the voices of those most affected. And it must be a conversation, because people who experience the police to a significant degree as a source of violence have a range of different ways of navigating that at the individual level, and have had a range of different approaches to challenging it collectively. I have my own thoughts on the different impacts that different approaches might make, and in the right contexts I don't shy away from expressing those thoughts, but I also recognize that it's not my place to try and pre-empt on-the-ground decision-making about it or to act like I know more than I do.
And so: Systemic violence from police is a fact of life for many people across North America. It has been for centuries, and it continues to be so today. Yet in lots of progressive contexts, police are treated as mostly or entirely positive -- as an institution that may sometimes be somewhat offputting, but that is a way to address certain kinds of problems and meet certain kinds of needs. Police are physically invited into lots of progressive spaces, and are invited to partner in various sorts of progressive initiatives. Conversations that might touch on policing, either directly or indirectly, are often organized such that there is simply no room for people to share experiences of or analysis based on this reality of ongoing systemic police violence -- or that go beyond "no room" to being actively unsafe. Sometimes, there is a certain recognition of why some people might have misgivings about the police, but that is often kept carefully separate from consideration of the implications of various progressive policy positions and their relationship to policing and broader forms of state violence, of who gets invited into what spaces (and who is thereby excluded), of how organizing happens, and of how conversations about various issues are organized (and, again, what and who is thereby excluded).
I'm not saying never engage with police if it seems like a way to make people's lives more liveable. I'm not saying such choices are obvious or easy or straightforward. But very often, the practices in the paragraph just above end up excluding and silencing. They often reinforce marginalization and even violence. Even if they are (or seem to be) doing good things in other ways.
So at the very least -- and there is lots more to say about what kinds of responses might actually be adequate -- people who are privileged enough in our everyday lives not to relate to the police as being a significant source of violence need to start doing the work to figure out what it really means that lots of people do experience the police that way. Listen carefully. Find things to read and educate ourselves. Be willing to question our existing political assumptions. (For me, things written by radical indigenous women and women of colour who work to hold state violence as central while figuring out how to organize around various other issues as well has been very important to thinking through these things, though I can't lay any claim to how much of that I've really absorbed or how effectively I've translated it into everyday or collective political practices, so you should go directly to the sources and wrestle with what they have to say.)
What should it all mean for movements and organizations, both progressive and radical? What would it mean to refuse to be complicit in reproducing that marginalization, silencing, erasure, and -- yes -- violence?
It's only once we've admitted and begun to internalize its implications that we can start to ask deeper questions that go far beyond this post -- not only dealing with the fact that another core police function is (in some circumstances) using coercion and violence to respond to struggles for social justice, but also things like thinking through the ways in which our everyday experience not only avoids systemic violence from police, courts, and other elements of the Canadian state, but actually depends on others (and Others) being targeted by exactly that violence. But those are topics for another day.
Posted by Scott Neigh at 8:15 PM
Saturday, July 12, 2014
I am ashamed to admit it, but I am about to subject any readers who dare to a post that contains the words "Rob" and "Ford" in close proximity. My apologies. I am doing this less out of interest in talking about him, though, than because I think the shape of the reaction to his most recent antics provides a window into some larger issues that are quite disturbing.
I'm not going to rehearse all of his backstory, as that would be tedious both for me and for you, but the key element of his behaviour that I'm concerned with here is his longstanding tendency to say and do very blatantly oppressive things -- racist things, homophobic things, misogynist things, and so on. Earlier this week, Desmond Cole published a very sharp piece talking about Ford's bigotry, including some well-deserved derision of the mayor's ridiculous attempts to excuse all of his past oppressive behaviour by blaming it on his addictions, as in this CBC interview.
The ever-obliging Ford decided this week -- post rehab -- to add to his impressive anti-queer credentials. On one day, he refused to join the rest of city council in giving a standing ovation to the organizers of World Pride in Toronto. Another day, he cast the lone vote against doing a feasibility study of allocating a quarter of existing beds in a youth homeless shelter to queer and trans youth, who make up a huge proportion of homeless youth but who are not at all adequately served by the shelter system in Toronto. And not only was he the only "no" vote to doing this study, but instead of just letting this fairly ordinary bit of administrative approval go ahead by default as it normally would have, he put what's called a 'hold' on it specifically so it would have to be raised in council and voted on, so he could have his 'no' publically recorded.
In watching people react to this in various corners of the internet -- both people I know, and people whose opinions the tides and currents of social media have brought to my attention; both queer folks and hetero folks -- it has been fascinating and kind of disturbing to see how people frame the exasperation, disapproval, and disgust they have with this situation. In some ways, what interests me is related to the point that Cole makes in his piece about too much attention going to the bigot and his motivations and not enough to the impacts on the victims of said bigotry, but I want to explore it in a bit of a different way.
So. "Homophobia" in general is a word that has the potential to be pretty limiting. As other writers have explored much more knowledgeably than I, it emerged at a particular moment as a way of taking the dominant image of queers at that time as "sick" and "deviant" and torquing it, insisting that intense anti-queer hositility from hetero people was the deep-seated psychological flaw we should really be concerned about. But as a way to recognize that the violence, harm, and exclusion experienced by people who engage in sexual and/or romantic relations with people of the same gender is about much more than individual hostility, activists and writers came up with other words to name what was going on, like Adrienne Rich and "compulsory heterosexuality" and Charlotte Bunch (and others, I think) with "heterosexism." That is, words that were explicitly social in how they explained things, not purely individual. But the meanings of words change over time, and the way that "homophobia" sometimes gets used to name obviously social (and not personal, psychological) phenomena today is not, I think, an error, but a shift in usage, and that's fine -- it may not always on its own be adequate to really get at the substance of what's happening in a given situation, to the what and the how of things, but no single word ever is.
All of which is to say that in thinking about people reacting to Ford's behaviour this week and the very frequent use of the word "homophobia" in those reactions, I'm not making a pedantic, etymological point that refuses to recognize that words shift in how they get used. Rather, it seemed very clear from what I was reading and hearing that people really were associating the emotional vehemence they were feeling in this situation with something individual in or about Ford. Whatever larger forces or structures or social relations might be involved, this particular moment was horrifying, it seems, because of one powerful bigot going out of his way, for his own individual reasons, to do anti-queer things. And that interested me. It got me to wondering what that fixation on an inner flaw in one person was doing in this situation.
Of course there is lots going on in this situation that is in and about Ford. He has addictions, which must be a tremendously difficult thing for him and his family. And he is also, above and beyond his addictions, a bigot and a bully who shouldn't hold an executive-at-large position in the local Lion's Club let alone be the mayor of a city of 3 million people. And for reasons intertwined both with the fact that he is a man who is sick and the fact that he is a man who is quite simply bad, he makes a lot of really dubious decisions, many of them in very public ways.
But why, in this week's situation and in the Rob Ford saga more generally, is this what so much of our attention gets attached to?
I think the answer to that has to do with the fact that what we pay attention to and how we react emotionally are not purely individual phenomena, but rather happen in a socially organized landscape of attention and affect. Moreover, this landscape changes. When people who experience a particular form of marginalization struggle against it and succeed in winning a relatively rapid shift for the better, part of what they succeed in doing is changing that mainstream landscape. But a key point in how that has tended to happen in liberal-democratic, capitalist societies is that when struggles, even quite radical struggles, have had an impact on dominant ways of talking about whatever form of marginalization is their focus, and on the related socially organized landscape of attention and affect, that impact has usually been taken up in the mainstream in an almost exclusively liberal mode.
I think you could trace a similar shift in mainstream discourse about a number of kinds of struggles that have happened over the years, but it is the case of mainstream discourse about LGBTQ rights that is of relevance here. In the case of queer struggles, you can trace a shift in mainstream discourse from conflict over whether such marginalization should be considered wrong at all, to a general acceptance that it is wrong and it needs to be changed, to a sense that it is wrong but we're changing it, and it all ultimately points towards an endpoint of "it was wrong and now we've changed it".
This may sound like a pretty decent trajectory. Certainly this shift in mainstream discourse is associated with lots of material improvements in people's everyday lives, though I think it is the on-the-ground organizing that should properly be seen as the cause of those improvements. That said, though, this shift in mainstream ways of talking about the issue has a normative aspect to it -- a kind of social pressure to adhere to the mainstream story -- and that certainly plays a role in opening certain kinds of space and mobilizing certain kinds of sentiment for change once the whole process has reached a certain critical mass. But there are features to it that are pretty concerning, too. For one thing, because the mainstream story takes up these struggles in a liberal mode, it creates this normative discursive environment about and for a limited liberal understanding of what marginalization is about and what equality means. It also tends to be pretty disconnected from, uninterested in, and uninformed by the actual everyday lives of marginalized people. And that, combined with the normative force of this mainstream story, means that when you reach the later stages of this liberal trajectory in mainstream discourse (as we have in Canada around LGB, though not yet T, struggles), this discursive notion that a liberal version of equality has been or soon will be achieved tends to push out any possibility for recognition that the benefits of change are vastly unequally distributed and that landscapes of everyday harm and violence continue to pervade the lives of many people. (It also makes it hard for straight folks to grasp that there's a lot of awesomeness in queerness, too, but that's a separate topic.) When instances of harm and violence along that axis do become publically visible, they are most often framed as a deviation from the new, equal norm. Such deviations are to be deplored and opposed, but it is to be understood that they do not have any greater meaning than the flaws in the heart of an individual bigot.
All of this, as I said, socially organizes our attention and our reactions to things. This doesn't make us bad people or political failures -- it's larger than us as individuals -- but it is something we need to think critically about and figure out how to challenge.
So back to Rob Ford. Let's be perfectly clear about what his vote this week meant. He voted for more queer kids to die. He wanted, moreover, to be publically seen as not caring about queer kids dying.
And let's also be clear about the socially organized attention and affect in response: It was not about the harm and violence to queer kids. I mean, I'm sure lots of people condeming Ford do actually care about the welfare of queer and trans kids, but the energy behind the widely circulating public attention and affect was not about that harm and violence, which happens all the time and usually gets ignored in mainstream discourse. No, the socially organized attention and affect were focused on an elite man (and, for many, a political opponent) flouting the discursive norm of liberal equality describe above -- which mostly boils down to being boorish, being a jerk, being uncivil. In fact, I would bet that for many people -- and I'm thinking particularly of many straight people -- the powerful hold of the mainstream story of liberal equality almost achieved, and of deviation from it as individual flaw, is such that even in responding to a story that has ongoing systemic marginalization of queer kids at what should be its centre, the reality of pervasive everyday harm and violence and vastly unequal distribution of the benefits of struggle mostly don't register.
It's tempting to rationalize this away, to make it an "of course" -- of course a colourful, powerful figure behaving badly will grab attention, of course a diffuse "social issue" will be harder to mobilize to sell papers, and so on and so forth. But I think it's important to resist that urge.
It is all about norms and about whose lives matter. Rob Ford is the focus of socially organized attention and affect because he is an elite man who flouts established, mainstream social norms. Queer kids dying on the streets is -- tragically -- entirely ordinary and consistent with dominant norms, such that even among folks who deplore the fact that it's a norm, the publically available structure of feeling for responding to it is very different than for responding to bigoted mayoral buffoonery. The bottom line is that underneath the veneer of liberal equality, landscapes of harm and violence don't just exist, they are the norm and therefore are largely unremarkable in mainstream discourse.
And the reaction to Ford isn't even about politicians augmenting that harm and violence -- they do that all the time without so much as the batting of an eyelash in the mainstream. Rob Ford's violation of mainstream norms is the way he goes about it. To illustrate, here's a thought experiment: How many of the people heaping scorn on His Homophobic Honour this week are supporters of the Liberal government in Queen's Park that recently announced an escalation of attacks on disabled people, in line with international trends towards this in the UK, New Zealand, and elsewhere? The thing is, the Liberals are doing this in a way that carefully observes the norms of mainstream stories of equality, that follows the rules that manage to make it portrayable as not an attack at all or as just a sad thing that has to happen in the name of belt-tightening, while obscuring that it is a massive infusion of harm and violence into the lives of disabled people.
And let's face it, "austerity" is nothing more than a fancy word for doing harm to poor and marginalized people. It is happening all around us, it is expounded by all major political parties, it is endorsed by most mainstream newspapers. If the socially organized attention and affect in response to Rob Ford's most recent actions were really about the harm and violence to marginalized people, that would imply an environment in which it is relatively easy to make the massive harm and violence that is austerity legible as such in mainstream discourse. Which of course is not the case at all -- it can in fact be pretty difficult to do that, and in part that is because of the ongoing prominence of ways of talking about marginalization and harm and violence that either erase them completely in the name of dominant discourses of liberal equality, or that portray them as frightful aberrations by flawed individuals, rather than recognizing that they are constitutive of our social world at a very basic level.
As I said, this isn't about blame for how we as individuals react to things. It isn't about saying we shouldn't condemn Rob Ford, because he deserves every bit of it. But maybe as we do it, we can do our bit on our Facebook walls, in our Twitter feeds, in our blog posts, and in our conversations to nudge that attention and affect away from the flaws of an elite individual and towards the underlying, endemic harm and violence that myths of liberal equality so often obscure.
Posted by Scott Neigh at 7:25 PM
Friday, July 04, 2014
I'm not used to feeling blocked, as a writer. It's not that I find writing always and only easy -- sometimes I'm fast, sometimes I'm slow; sometimes it is joyous, other times painful. But part of the benefit of putting pen to page and fingertips to keys, week in and week out in a whole bunch of different forms for approaching two decades -- of having the privilege to be able to do that -- is that even if the stress and the pain and the slow never go away, you learn better how to manage them. When I have a task and a deadline, there's rarely any doubt in my mind that the former will be done by the latter, and that I'll feel its quality to be somewhere between "tolerable" and "actually quite good, thankyouverymuch." And when I have a glimmer of inspiration and a block of time, odds are I can harness the former to make use of the latter. The end results may or may not be something I would ever share, but either way I usually feel like I've learned something and advanced down some kind of path in some kind of direction. So there are ups and downs, but the downs don't generally fit my understanding of the word "blocked."
For the last few days of June and the first few days of July, I was out of town. It was a trip that marked something of a transition. It was the occasion of the last main piece of work (other than a day or so of loose-end tying that had to wait until I was home) for a contract that has filled a non-trivial minority of my hours over the last six months or so. And then the trip involved several days of visiting and of doing not-so-much, which often for me boils down to time for reading and writing. I read uncharacterisitically little, and wrote...well, I'm not sure the ratio of staring at the page to writing was actually any different than usual, and I certainly spent a fair chunk of time doing it, but it felt very much like the engine was revving but the car was in neutral, or maybe the clutch was engaged but the ice was too slick, or the rowers were straining but the boat remained tied to the dock, or some other metaphor of energy fruitlessly expended. That is, it felt more like something I would describe as "blocked" than the harder moments usually do.
I'm still not entirely sure what it's all about. I mentioned above that I'm at a transition between this contract and whatever comes next, but the contract was only ever a part of my time, and in the kind of self-directed stuff-making work that I'm lucky enough to get to do, such transitions aren't all that unusual. They rarely worry me and sometimes excite me, and I've been feeling moderate but consistent anticipation of this one.
Another factor could be that part of the "after" with which I will replace the "before" that has been this research contract could well involve moving forward with a new book project. That is a bigger deal, no doubt, and it could explain part of my flummoxed reaction to the page. But, really, I'm not in a position to have to commit to anything yet. It will be more a matter of slipping into a somewhat more active engagement with something I've been reading and thinking (and indirectly writing) my way towards for a year and a half. I even have a good idea of how to approach the first chapter, and am not feeling super fussed about either that approach or about the project as a whole -- if I try it and it isn't working, I'll change it up, start again, work on something else, whatever. I mean, I'm not quite that blasé about it, but it feels like it's in a reasonably good place, and I know (kind of) where I'm going, (kind of) what I'm doing, and (approximately) what my decision points will be. I just need to get to it. (That said, if you know me, don't ask me about it. :) )
So what's going on, then?
In reflecting on it further tonight, I've realized that what I'm really feeling knotted up about boils down to grasping for what might be called "sensibility" or "stance" -- not for this possibly-maybe book project, but for my writing-related activities in general over the next while. Whenever you write -- and I'm thinking mainly about nonfiction, because I've don it a lot more -- there are a lot of different factors that you can combine in a lot of different ways that will shape what you write and how, and even if there is a deliberate, conscious component to arriving at the precise combination, making it real always ends up being about implementing a gestalt rather than a measuring out of specifics one by one. This whole is a synthesis of considerations of voice, audience, self, agenda (for the piece), analysis (of the world), larger writerly goals, the contours of interest and passion, and probably a bunch of other things that would take a separate post to sort out and do justice. Any given instance of such a synthesis doesn't really doesn't need to have a lifespan longer than one piece of writing, and there is no reason you can't be working on several things based in very different sensibilities at the same time or in close succession. Certainly I have had intervals in the past when the spectrum of sensibilities spanned by my work has been reasonably cohesive, and others when it has been an eclectic hodge-podge. One isn't better than the other. Nonetheless, I'm feeling a need for a bit of cohesion at the moment.
Now, I'm not looking for some single sensibility to inform everything, but rather a range that is broad enough to flexibly guide what I'm doing in projects large and small (or to be what I'm deviating from when it doesn't). And I think the part of that whole that is stumping me at the moment is that I want it to have a certain kind of groundedness in my experience and in the world around me, broadly understood -- not in a confessional way and not necessarily in an obvious way, but at least potentially in a vulnerable way and definitely in a way that makes sense to me. This might, at times, be directly about the content of what I'm writing, and be visible to others, but it may just as easily only really be visible to me, and show up under the surface in things like how I choose topic and focus, in the epistemological underpinning -- what I claim to know and how I claim to know it -- and in considerations of craft.
So obviously I'm not at a complete loss, here. I have some pretty good ideas of what I want, at least on a propositional level. But, though writing this post has helped, it still hasn't gelled for me. It's still a tangle of conflicting impulses rather than a shape clearly outlining a set of productive tensions brought together into a cohesive whole. And I have next week's episode of Talking Radical Radio to finish for Sunday night and the last bit of contract-related work to complete, if I can, for a lunch meeting on Tuesday, so it's not like I can submerge myself in it and come up with an answer in the immediate term. But hopefully the angst-inducing, wheel-spinning portion of the process of synthesizing that whole is over, and I can get on to working out the kinks in a more practical, experimental way...in projects both big and little.
Posted by Scott Neigh at 10:42 PM
Friday, June 13, 2014
[Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, editors. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.]
It will come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog that I read some pretty dense nonfiction for fun. Oh, I'm no "theoryhead" -- those people who have devoted so much of themselves to such learning that rhyming it off not only effortlessly but accurately and well in pint-side conversations is an everyday occurrence. And I still come at such reading as something of an outsider, not only in the institutional sense that the intellectual and political work that I do is not housed at a university, but also in the epistemological sense that I try (with no particular claims to success, admittedly) to ground my work in the needs of movements and communities-in-struggle rather than primarily in the discourses I encounter in such reading. I do not think that such dense, theoretical writing (or those willing and able to engage with it) should necessarily be anywhere near the centre of our struggles, and I fully admit that a big part of why I engage with it, even if I sometimes deflect this by saying things like "it's for future writing projects," is about pleasure. I like reading this stuff, at least sometimes.
With all that said, though, I also engage with such writing because I think it is useful to do so. Having been written in a university for university reasons does not necessarily preclude that. Being written in ways that are more responsive to other university-produced discourse than to lived realities of struggle doesn't rule it out. Being obscure or hard to understand or awkward or off-putting in how it is written doesn't make it intrinsically dismissal-worthy -- as others much cleverer than I have observed, part of how oppressive and exploitative social relations work is by stealing the concepts and language we need to name our realities, so developing them anew will sometimes feel awkward and hard.
This particular book of university-produced theorizing is one that I quite enjoyed and one that I think, as these things go, is quite worth reading. Lots of critical scholarship over the last few decades has amounted to a rejection of earlier materialist approaches -- that is, approaches that treat some sort of external material reality as a bedrock for thinking about the world -- and an exploration of the roles that language and culture play. This collection features the work of a number of scholars who are part of a new trend to turn back to materialism, but no longer the naive materialism of half a century ago but one that works seriously to learn from the intervening insights produced by writers who have focused on the linguistic and the otherwise less materially social (as well, interestingly, the much more complex picture of the material world that has emerged from multiple scientific disciplines in the last century). This turn is still fairly new, so there are lots of different approaches and no real consensus about how to do it, and that is evident here.
There are a number of reasons why I think this sort of back-to-fundamentals rethinking of how the world exists and how we might know the world is important. Partly, this is because I think the dominant culture and the movements organizing within-and-against it are permeated by two broad sorts of commonsense about the world that are quite different from each other but that are both troubling. These commonsenses are part of the foundation upon which discussions about the state of the world and how to change it are inevitably based, though often that is not made visible. One of these broad flavour of commonsense is a version of the naive materialism shared by 19th century physics, orthodox marxism, and many versions of classical and contemporary liberalism. The other is a spectrum of different-seeming but essentially similar approaches that reject materialism -- sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly, and sometimes along with perverse and laughable claims to be more materialist (and its close cousin, empirical) than thou. These two broad stances (which often happily exist side-by-side in the same spaces and people) are socially rooted and need to be considered as part of the larger ways in which movements are always partly struggles to transform how we can and do know the world, so I don't expect individualized suggestions to go away and read and think about them to be very politically useful. Nonetheless, doing so can't hurt.
I also think such reading and reflection is useful because of the role it has played in my own journey. I generally date the beginning of my politicized, intentional thinking and acting in the world to a specific period of time, albeit with earlier roots. Until I was reading this book, I hadn't realized that a big element, not so much in the fact of my politicization but in the course of it once it began, was that in the years preceding it I had read a bunch of popularized but thoughtful and reasonably rigorous books coming out of scientific fields that presented different ways that the "natural" world and its systems at various scales don't really work at all in the 19th century, mechanistic ways that are still popularly believed to be "science" -- James Gleick's Chaos, the wonderful Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstader, and Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, to name a few. There were plenty of social-scale political reasons as well, but I think such reading helped make it more likely that I would not be satisfied with approaches to thinking about and acting in the world dependent on the understandings of the material world these books displaced, and would be open to approaches dependent on a more complex and less intuitive materialism.
Now, for all that I enjoyed this book and think it's a useful thing to read and reflect on, it did make me roll my eyes in a few places. That is largely related to the fact that I agree with contributor Sara Ahmed -- the only one of the contributors whom I had read before, and a scholar whose work I really like -- that none of this is really as "new" as the title and framing of the book claim. She points out that this claim of novelty relies on mis-identifying a lot of scholarship that happened during the cultural turn, particularly much feminist scholarship, as rejecting the material in ways that it just didn't. I would add to that my own experience in my own quirky little niche of political work and writing, where it is nothing new at all to be committed to materialism yet to learn from and build on work that is conventionally understood as not being materialist (even though much of it really is, at heart). That's not to say that the specific things done in these essays aren't original -- to my knowledge, they are -- but rather that the sensibility of seeking an eclectic synthesis of diverse strands of scholarship that can still be responsive to the needs of movements and communities-in-struggle in material ways is not new; what's new here, I think, is who is speaking about these things and who they think they are speaking to. I found that particularly stark in the final essay of the book, which is one of the few to engage directly with the marxist tradition. It says useful things, more or less, but what it extracts from Marx to point towards a living engagement with the world rather than a set of dead and deadening rules of orthodoxy, as well as its consideration but ultimate rejection of Hardt and Negri as the answer, are things lots of other people have done before. Particularly when it comes to the former, there are long histories of autonomist, open, feminist, and other heterodox thinkers that engage in one way or another with the marxist tradition to do exactly the kinds of things that this writer recommends, but very little of that is even acknowledged let alone explored in the essay. For me, none of this makes the book less interesting, it just makes it more obvious that it is produced from a specific place and speaking to a specific audience.
As for the essays themselves, I'm not going to try and do each one justice in this review, as it would just take too much time and space. There was really only one that I didn't get -- Pheng Cheah's "Non-Dialectical Materialism" was an effort to extract a different approach to materialism from Derrida and from Deleuze, who are not conventionally understood as materialist. Unfortunately, I got about 20% of what the essay had to say about Derrida, and maybe 60% of what it had to say about Deleuze. I really enjoyed and found useful the several essays that drew on phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, many of which were focused on putting his work in conversation with later social constructionist and scientific scholarhip. William Connolly's engagement with the latest science of how we perceive and experience the world was fascinating. Rosi Braidotti's reflections on re-thinking biopower in relation to practices of dying was interesting, particularly what she had to say about regulation/production of selves and how we inevitably overflow that, but I'm not sure that I see how her interest in going from ontology to ethics could really be convincing. Samantha Frost's consideration of Thomas Hobbes' account of fear as the basis for political order felt like a bit of a stretch -- it actually felt to me a lot like my objections to how psychoanalysis often gets used in social theory, in that it seemed to depend on homogenizing how the affective experience of fear actually operates in people's lives in order to be able to jump from that to social consequences. I appreciated Melissa Orlie's use of Nietzshe to try to develop an "impersonal materialism" (116). And I really liked Sara Ahmed's piece on the ways in which "orientations matter" (236) -- how our proximity and orientations to that which surround us can profoundly shape our experience and knowledge of the world.
Anyway, this has become a long, cumbersome review, so I will wrap it up. This is not a book that rocked my world, and it isn't going to be one that rocks yours. But in its breadth, and in its push to reexamine fundamental questions about how the world -- the material world that is at least in part beyond the social world, but that is deeply intertwined with and shaped by the social world -- works, I think it could provide lots of different readers with lots of different openings to take your own thinking down new paths.
[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]
Posted by Scott Neigh at 10:49 AM
Tuesday, June 03, 2014
Saturday, May 31, 2014
[Deborah Cowen. Military Workfare: The Soldier and Social Citizenship in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.]
After what I had already read, I didn't really expect to find work like this, especially in the Canadian context. It is history -- well, social and historical geography, really -- tracing intertwined changes in the Canadian military and broader Canadian society from the Second World War to the first decade of the 21st century.
The book begins by laying out how most scholarship from most disciplines has treated the military as distinct, almost as if in an entirely separate realm, from the rest of the social world, and why not doing that might be a good idea. For my own poorly defined but gradually clarifying purposes, this chapter alone would be worth the price of admission. It then goes on to examine the centrality of the Second World War in the emergence of social citizenship in Canada (and elsewhere in the West), not just in the temporal ordering indicated by the phrasing of "post-war welfare state" but mechanistically, in how it reconfigured belonging, produced "a people" (26) in a novel sense, and forced the development of state practices that would otherwise not have existed and that made it all possible. It then moves to the immediate post-war years, which were both highly militaristic and highly supportive of the welfare state; then into the '60s and the social shifts caused by and reacting against the limits of the welfare state, including a burgeoning opposition to militarism and the beginnings of a chronic recruitment crisis; an examination of how the military responded to that crisis, including by creating one of the most exhaustive and sophisticated social research programs in the country in that era, efforts to recruit previously excluded groups, and reorganization of military labour. The book closes by looking at changes in the military and in Canada during the neoliberal era.
The argument begins, as I said, from the assertion that the war itself was much more central in creating the conditions of possibility for the welfare state than commonly recognized. Part of this, Cowen argues, is that how this happened was in part through the extension of welfare measures already developed in and for the military to the population as a whole. One implication of this is that, right from the very beginning, the premise was that this was support from the nation in return for service to the nation. Rather than the more comprehensive universality dreamed of in more radical corners, from the beginning the welfare state in Canada was built on presumptions of reward in exchange for labour, and on a deserving/undeserving divide. Still, attitudes about universality in those years were much more robust (for that section of the population within narrow and rigid gender, racial, and sexual norms, at least) and it was the very workings of these state practices and national imaginings that were adapted from the military that reorganized Canadian society, and the identities and desires of many Canadians, to make the military much more marginal as an institution after the early 1960s, and created the practical challenges it continues to face to this day as an employer.
The research program developed in response to the military's recruitment challenges is both creepy -- so much knowledge developed to manipulate larger numbers of people into active participation in institutions devoted to mass violence -- and also intriguing. For all that it has very different ends and envisages a top-down sort of intervention in society to achieve its ends, its relentless searching and its willingness to apply and adapt the cutting edge of scholarship in grounded ways for focused practical ends also made me think of what movement research needs, in its own from-below sort of way, to be doing. And the military's efforts to integrate women, to recruit people of colour, and to reorganize work and life in the ranks, in the face of stark limits to the kinds of changes that a hierarchical, patriarchal, institution of mass white supremacist imperial violence can actually change without ceasing to be what it is, is illustrative of other, less stark contexts in which efforts at "inclusion" are limited because they are happening in fundamentally oppression-producing and oppression-dependent relations.
The final chapter on the neoliberal era shows further shifts in how it is all bound together. The welfare state has largely shifted from tightly bounded pseudo-universality towards more and more means-testing, sharper explicit divisions into deserving and not, and more and more demands for labour in exchange for benefits. The logic of workfare is deepened in individualized ways for civilians even as measures to enhance the appeal of the military as employer look more and more like classic welfare models, but that too is consistent with the most deserving of the poor (as understood in a nationalist, capitalist, and imperial way) getting the best treatment. The lousier employment of the neoliberal era means that the military becomes, in comparison, a more appealing employer, even with all that comes with being a soldier. And the book argues that in the era of the War on Terror, the aspect of the military experience that is being generalized to the rest of the population is no longer welfare state practices, but rather the restrictions on basic liberal-democratic rights that have always been inherent to being a soldier.
Despite being a fairly standard scholarly monograph in most respects and in its writing, the topic and ideas kept me avidly turning the pages -- though as always in such work, the detailed consideration of evidence plodded a bit, at times. I was surprised that there was no engagement with Sunera Thobani's writing about race and the welfare state in Exalted Subjects. And I would've liked the chapter on the contemporary period to be developed more. But overall, this book will be very useful to me.
[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]
Posted by Scott Neigh at 6:07 PM
Saturday, April 19, 2014
[Max Haiven. Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons. Black Point, NS and Winnipeg, MB: Fernwood Pubishing & London: Zed Books Ltd., 2014]
It's not a new question: How can we talk about the working of the social world such that we don't reinforce the dominant rupturing of what is actually a single flow of practices into various dualisms patterned on the Western insistence on a mind/body split? That is, how do we recognize that the material and the cultural, the visceral and the imaginary, the objective and subjective (in their Marxist senses), are all part of one social world, and that we need to analyze the world and intervene in it in ways that recognize that, and refuse to fall into caricatured and simplistic materialism that pretends the (so-called) immaterial is irrelevant or entirely derivative, or voluntaristic liberalism that makes agency and will all-powerful? The work of some prominent radical thinkers can be read as wrestling with these questions: Gramsci's notion of hegemony, for one, as well as cultural studies and all of the other approaches that draw on him; Foucault and those who take up his approach; Dorothy Smith's ontology of the social; and I'm sure lots of others that I'm not aware of. I can't pretend that my own reading and thinking about this question have been more than arbitrary and partial, and I like and have been influence by aspects of all three specific examples I mention, in my own completely unsystematic and non-rigorous way. But for all of that, when faced with understanding and intervening in some real-world problem of the interflow of (what gets unhelpfully reified as) the cultural and the material, I don't think we yet have very good tools. And as Haiven points out, the neoliberal/post-New Left evolution of capitalism places ever more emphasis on recapturing what once might have been insurgent imagination, creativity, and desires for its own reproduction, so it is arguably more important than ever to have such tools.
This book, unfortunately, is not a source of final answers either. But it does contribute some useful explorations, both in terms of examining related questions in some specific areas and in terms of modelling an approach that looks like a useful step down the road to a more general framework for answering them. Haiven's quest for "what might be called a materialist theory of the imagination" (13) takes him first to an exploration of value which brings together an autonomist approach to Marx's writing on that question, an attempt to knit together artificially divided "economic" and "cultural" struggles through the multiple meanings of "value", a theorization of radical imagination that puts it in a dialectical relationship with values, and an argument about how certain contemporary struggles fit into that nexus. He then talks about the idea of the commons and its renewed appeal for radicals in recent years, its relationship to the notion of "the public", and the recent global wave of struggles that have been using occupations as a tactic. The following essay is a creative exploration of how finance capital and the financialization of our social relations should in part be understood as being "about transforming value, imagination, and social reproduction beyond the confines of capitalist accumulation" (105). Then there's a short, critical piece on the university as a laboratory for the transformation of work and its attendant disciplines, followed by a fascinating chapter on history and memory, a critical genealogy of creativity and its present status as both source of inspiration for the continual adaptation of capitalist power and energy for resistance, and finally a look at the history of radical imagination (based on some earlier work by Haiven and Alex Khasnabish).
I won't respond in detail to all of the essays in the book -- essays which were apparently written separately but which hang together quite well as one volume -- but I'll say a few things about a couple of them. The chapter on the public, the commons, and occupations was a good reminder of the potential of "the commons" and "commoning" as ways to frame experiments in social reproduction that are collective but neither state/public or market/private. I particularly appreciated the book's practical, non-sectarian approach to struggles that focus on the public, struggles that focus on the common, and the actual and potential connections between the two. In principle, I think that giving priority to the commons is the only way to find our way free of the state/market impasse; in practice, I agree that a big part of that will have to be both defending the public realm from neoliberal attack and simultaneously nudging the state and the public realm towards more "common" forms of social organization, because we have yet to demonstrate that we can create non-trivial commons from nothing. My biggest political concern with the book fell in this chapter, however. It talks about the recent wave of struggles that have used occupations as a central tactic, and in particular focuses on Occupy Wall Street and the larger Occupy movement that spanned North America (and beyond). And the way in which the book did this inadvertently highlited the problems with talking about the "commons" as path and tool and endpoint for liberation on Turtle Island if you don't make it anti-colonial from the word go. The last couple of pages of the chapter do focus on indigenous struggles and do raise some of the key anti-colonial and anti-racist critiques of OWS that emerged from and with it, but given that those critiques emerged essentially simultaneously with OWS itself, it seems like a missed opportunity (and a repetition of the perpetual deferral to which struggles against racism and sexism and colonization seem to be subjected in mainstream left contexts) to put this in the last two pages instead of the first two. Yes, this would have inevitably changed the conversation and the politics through the rest of the essay, but that's precisely the point. Those of us who see potential for justice and liberation in politics that prioritize an expansive understanding of the commons have to wrestle right from the word go with the fact that our starting point for thinking about the commons on Turtle Island is colonization, and the indigenous/settler relationship must be a primary structuring element (likely through treaties and the idea of the treaty commonwealth) of any revived notion of the commons, whether overtly land-based or not. That anti-colonial focus has to be included right at the start.
The other chapter I want to highlite is the one on history and memory. One important piece of my work has been history-from-below that has been done outside both the institutional and the epistemological confines of the academic discipline of history, and I really liked Haiven's overall framework for thinking about the past. Though our languages are somewhat different, it is quite consistent with things I have written, and even more so with things that I talked about in the launch events I did for the books. His application of the idea of the commons and of "commoning memory" to thinking about history is an interesting one, and one that I will definitely be reflecting on as I inch my way towards plunging into a new and quite different-for-me historical project later in the year. The amount of space the essays gives to using "radical events", with particular attention to May '68, to explore some of its ideas about how memory and history work makes me a little concerned, though I'm not sure it should -- I worry that centering instances of spectacle and militance in thinking through how we do history might smuggle some version of "the cult of the militant" into our history-from-below, and further reproduce the marginalization of everyday life and everyday forms of resistance, though I can't say with any confidence that this is happening from the way that "radical events" are talked about here. And I think his discussion of commoning memory would have only been strengthened if it had included some explorations of actually existing practices that either do what he is suggesting or at least contain seeds and gestures from which we can build this new approach to the past. That said, though, while I hope that all of the essays in this book spark future work, from Haiven and others, I hope that for none more than this one.
I feel like I should say more about the book's overall approach, but I'm not sure I can. I liked it, certainly, and its political sensibility felt quite consistent with my own. On the topics that will be familiar to many lefty book nerds -- value, the university, history and memory, finance -- he adds useful new insights, and those that are central to Haiven's overall project that have not received the same attention from left writers in the past -- creativity, imagination -- he challenges us to radically reconsider what they mean and what place they have in our overall analysis. It doesn't (and doesn't pretend to) offer a final answer to the questions I listed at the start of this post, but it is an important step on the path of developing a materialist analysis of imagination that might meet our needs in this era when our most resistant imaginings and counter-hegemonic desires so often get recaptured by capital.
[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]
Posted by Scott Neigh at 12:10 PM
Monday, March 31, 2014
[Leanne Simpson, editor. Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Resurgence, and Protection of Indigenous Nations. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2008.]
This book is a collection of essays mostly by young indigenous scholars from nations across Turtle Island. They draw from and contribute to a particular vision of resurgence and decolonization. This vision, at least as I understand it, focuses on the importance of indigenous people and nations revitalizing the land-people-language-tradition nexus -- and it is key that these are seen as inseparable -- as a basis for strengthening their capacity to persist, to resist, and to transcend the colonial domination they have faced for over five centuries. As Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred and others have written, this is not some sort of rigid and fundamentalist approach to tradition, but instead a complex, nuanced, living of it that draws on strength, practices, intelligence, and wisdom built over millenia, and does so with the confidence to explore what it means to live those truths in the particular circumstances of today.
Most of the essays in the book are different kinds of grounded explorations of this approach to resurgence in the context of the authors' own lives and nations. The where and the what and the how vary a great deal, as does the balance of "this is what we are already doing" with "this is what we desperately need" in each essay. A few of the later ones are a bit different, and include a look at what this approach might mean for urban contexts, a fascinating essay by Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez about the (indigenous) inter-national level and about how notions of self and difference are shaped, and a powerful piece by Glen Coulthard that starts from Frantz Fanon's writing to show the inadequacy of liberal politics of recognition when it comes to struggles against colonization. All in all, with the proviso that as a white settler I comment as an outsider to the debates and struggles of which these essays are a part, the collection reaffirms the sense that I have held since I first learned about this way of thinking about indigenous struggle and resurgence that it seems to be a very powerful combination of the practical and the radical, and is therefore something very important for settlers trying to figure out how to work against colonization to listen to and align with.
A big part of the reflecting that I did as I read this book was trying to figure out what its implications were for me, as someone situated on the other side of the indigenous/settler relationship. There are general answers to that question that are always relevant, if not always easy to live: listen, educate yourself, build relationships, speak in support, act where you are, and so on. But in the case of this book, I was particularly drawn to a kind of thought experiment, to a deliberate attempt to de-centre whiteness, inspired by my recollections of an essay that I read many years ago by Mohawk legal scholar Patricia Monture in which she talked about being asked about ... I think they asked her about her experience of the very white and racist environment of law school, but it might have been about her experience more generally, and it was someone who clearly expected her answer to be all about hardship and pain and suffering. Instead, she talked about feeling sorry for white people, since they don't have access, as she did, to a different sort of space that operated by a different logic in which to ground and nourish themselves.
And the re-focusing of perspective inspired by that essay and by this collection goes as follows: One way to think about social struggle that has transformative intent is as attempts to transform or replace the predatory social logics of white supremacist colonial heterosexist patriarchal capitalism with a liberatory mosaic of other ways of living that allow for genuine, widespread flourishing. A key question is how and where to ground those logics of living and organizing the social world otherwise. The various strands of the settler-dominated left in North America have a number of ways of approaching this issue -- ignoring it, seeking to impose abstractions, or deferring it to either an ever-retreating future or to a magical spontaneous moment -- that have in common the fact that they mostly do so quite poorly. However, the basis of the approach to resurgence that is the focus of this book is the reality that indigenous peoples already have access to such other logics in the form of traditional teachings and practices, and therefore their struggle is a matter of strengthening them, carrying them forward, and winning back more physical and social spaces to them. (Indigenous approaches also offer a basis for how the diverse elements of this mosaic can/will be able to relate to each other, through the notion of the treaty commonwealth.) The lesson here is not, of course, that we need to just take someone else's ways of living otherwise, which would be a horrendous way of missing the point. But maybe we might do a better job of responding to this void, this uncertainty, that lies at the centre of our visions for social change -- better than ignoring it, trying to fill it with abstractions, or pretending that being unable to fill it (yet?) is a virtue -- if we allow an awareness of the rather different situation of indigenous nations to knock our own experience out of the centre of things. I have a few thoughts on what that might mean but they would stray farther from the book I'm responding to here than I want to go, so perhaps I'll save them for another post, but I think seeing the specificity of our situation might help us address it better.
In any case, this is a book that should be read widely, and as one of "the ones that only read" (21), in Simpson's delightful phrase, I am very happy that its insights have been shared in a form I can access.
[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]
Posted by Scott Neigh at 12:20 PM
Thursday, March 13, 2014
[Kenneth J. Saltman and David A. Gabbard, editors. Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools, Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2011. (First edition, 2003.)]
The different things brought together by this book feel variously useful and a little strange, but the final mixture, for all that it has moments that are less engaged and engaging, is quite a bit more emotionally moving and politically meaningful than I generally expect from an edited scholarly collection.
This is a revised edition from 2011 of a collection originally published in 2003. Most of the essays are from the original, with a greater or lesser amount of updating, but there are also several essays new to the second edition as well as a new foreword from critical pedagogy superstar Henry Giroux. Though the focus of the collection might sound quite narrow -- the intersection of neoliberalism, militarism, and education -- the essays are a real mix in terms of the scale they talk about and how abstracted and/or empirical they are. So, for instance, you have sweeping analyses mixed in with careful, local case-studies. There's an interesting overview of the integral role of compulsory education in capitalist societies from one of the editors; a moving ethnography focused on the voices of poor and working-class youth of colour and their experiences of education in a small US city; various essays dissecting aspects of the always-neoliberal and often-militaristic education 'reform' in the US from Reagan onwards, with particular emphasis on how such reforms have predictably and consistently entrenched educational and broader social inequalities; a provocative (and not necessarily entirely convincing) piece linking the growing trend of single-sex classrooms with the militarization of women's bodies in the US armed forces; and lots of other things. The geographical focus is almost exclusively the United States, though there was one on the militarization of language education that also talked about Japan, a very powerful look at the role of formal education in militarizing the worldviews of children in Israel, and a still very US-centric sort of overview essay focused on the Obama era by someone at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto.
I have been reflecting a little bit over the last year about the ways in which neoliberalism and militarism are connected. My increasing conviction that there is a deep and essential intertwining of the two is not an original idea, but at the same time most of what I have encountered that talks about one of them either treats the other as connected but peripheral or doesn't have much to say about the other at all. There are exceptions, and it's possible I just haven't been looking in the right places, but I was pleasantly surprised by how this collection starts from an openness to recognizing exactly that kind of deep integration and goes on to explore what that might mean in different contexts. Given the diverse kinds of essays in the book, I didn't leave the collection feeling like it had enabled me to develop a stable sense of how it is all socially organized -- another axis of diversity in the book is the extent to which the essays actually explored aspects of social relations in grounded materialist ways, versus the extent to which they used more distant and reified approaches -- but it did include plenty of examples of specific ways in which neoliberal and militarist impulses play out in relation to one another. Given the paucity of other material that I've found that does this, I think this book would be a useful resource for anyone attempting to write about neoliberalism and militarism together, regardless of whether they were particularly interested in questions related to education.
Another surprise that I encountered in my engagement with this book was its emotional impact on me. You don't necessarily expect that from scholarly collections, and of course not every essay in this one affected me in that way. But some did, and the book as a whole did, such that it took me rather longer to finish it than would usually be true of a book of this sort. And I think that is because it hammered home in a way that I had not appreciated before how the US education system as it currently exists -- as it has been constructed by reforms instituted under all presidents from Reagan to Obama -- is quite openly and horribly premised on various forms of violence against youth, particularly youth of colour. Progressives and radicals have pointed out that this is the case each time so-called reforms have been proposed; they have documented the fact that these have in fact been the impacts each time such reforms have been implemented; and they have attempted to make more and more people aware of this. Yet this trajectory of reform continues unabated. There's lots to say about why this might be the case, but it is inescapable that part of the mix has to be the fact that lots of people, particularly people who are better off and/or white, really don't care that these changes amount to, depend on, and reproduce (in very clearly demonstrable ways) violence against kids who are poor and/or non-white. And that, however unsurprising, is heartbreaking.
I should add that it's not that I was completely unaware of these things before reading this book. But, given that I don't live in the US, I had never had to face the whole picture, presented in both broad brush strokes and specific details, in quite this way before. And I think, for various reasons -- including white privilege, the fact that the trajectory of the white supremacist neoliberalization of capitalist education is in a bit of a different spot in Canada, and my own experiences of education as a youth -- I still tend to default the starting point of my criticisms of mass, compulsory education to the many things that I see wrong with the social democratic ideal for such things, without fully appreciating the extent to which anything resembling that ideal in most places in the United States is far back in the rear view mirror.
And that leads to consideration of a common dilemma in the age of neoliberalism: What is the best way to talk about something that has gotten much worse in recent years without indulging in romantic nostalgia for and idealization of the better-but-still-bad of years gone by? There are any number of areas where that is a risk in the Canadian context, given the direction of so many social changes in the last 20 years, and it can be depressingly difficult to find writing or conversation that doesn't fall into either left-nationalist/centre-left nostalgia for the high point of the welfare state and liberal internationalist foreign policy, or sectarian revolutionary-socialist/anarchist rhetoric that names the systemic evils but so easily forgets that gradations of livability and awfulness in people's lives really are crucially important. I'm not sure that this collection solves this dilemma, at least not in a blanket way. Many essays don't even try to escape the idealization of the social liberalism of earlier decades. Many others do make that attempt, and it is interesting to observe how many don't quite manage it despite trying. I'm not sure I could really capture what's happening without re-reading portions of the book, but there are some of the essays which manage to name the (not-so-) recent worsening without idealizing that earlier moment, and that I think really do come from a radical place and make usefully radical criticisms, but which still include aspects of a distinctly US-flavoured celebration of liberal and republican social forms that, to someone who didn't grow up inside of it, feels a little incongruous. This is not meant, incidentally, as a sort of backhanded Canadian left nationalism -- I know that analogous rhetoric happens here, based on somewhat different building blocks from social liberalism and social democracy, and such rhetoric will no doubt continue to grow and infest the political culture unless mass movements displace our current neoliberal militarist trajectory.
Of course that leads to the question of how to relate this book to the Canadian context. I don't think I actually know enough to say in any sort of conclusive way. Certainly attacks on teachers and on education systems have been a key plank of neoliberal governments in Canada (though given the distribution of powers here, the role for federal action in this area is less direct than in the US). In Ontario, we saw that most spectacularly with the Harris Tories of the late '90s, and it has happened in a different way with the current Liberal regime. I think it is the provincial Liberals in British Columbia that are at the forefront of attacks on teachers and students at the moment. And certainly militarization of Canadian society has been a goal that has been tied into almost everything that the current federal Conservative government has done while in office, and I know from the bits and pieces that I see from my own kid that there are ways that has trickled down into schools. But I'm not sure how it all works here. And though I know that schools have more often than not failed indigenous, Black, and other racialized kids in Canada -- that is, when they haven't been quite blatantly put together to inflict violence on them, as in residential schools -- I have a (poorly informed) sense that the way this is playing out in the neoliberal era continues to take a somewhat different form here than south of the border. So I would be very interested to see the focus of this book taken up in the Canadian context, but I'm not sure I know enough to even suggest what that might look like.
So this is an uneven collection in a number of respects, but one that does a lot of important things that I haven't seen done, or haven't seen done in quite the same way, elsewhere. And I do hope that it is the tip of an iceberg of material out there that really does take seriously the integral connections between neoliberal shifts in white supremacist patriarchal capitalism, and militarist shifts in same.
[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]
Posted by Scott Neigh at 9:00 PM
Saturday, March 01, 2014
This past week, Sudbury city hall announced new security measures. The chatter that I have seen about these changes on social media makes the very reasonable points that they are unnecessary, foolish, and anti-democratic. But I want to argue that they have even more unsavoury implications than I've so far seen recognized in the online conversation.
At the moment, the details of the changes are not entirely clear, but a few things are known. There will be new restrictions on where ordinary residents of Sudbury can go in city buildings. This seems particularly to apply to city council meetings and to city committee meetings -- there will be a clear separation between where residents must be and where staff and councillors can be. Journalists will have to get formal accreditation, and that will entitle them to be in the staff-and-council area at certain times, though from what I've seen it looks like even accredited journalists (i.e. those considered sufficiently respectable by city authorities) will be more restricted in their movement and activities than previously. As well, every council and committee meeting will have a uniformed security officer at the door, 'welcoming' people to the event. And the impression given by the coverage of the issue so far is that there are other changes happening as well that are not, or at least not yet, being made public.
According to the original CBC reporting of this development, the city staff person in charge of it -- manager of corporate security and court services, Brendan Adair -- indicated that "security is not being tightened in response to anything in particular." While there is no way to demonstrate in a court-of-law sort of way that this is false without having access to internal documents, it seems highly implausible. What seems much more likely is that this is at least in part a response to an action in late January by the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (S-CAP). For about ten minutes, members and supporters of the group noisily interrupted a city council meeting to draw attention to the city's woefully inadequate response up to that point to the lack of a full-winter, fully accessible, night-time warming space for homeless people in the city. This public shaming would have been embarrassing enough for the mayor and council, but -- as I reported at the time -- the mayor's handling of it was additionally embarrassing. And it no doubt rankled that she was not, in the moment, able to use security personnel to just make this very brief but embarrassing interruption go away.
In the Sudbury Star piece on the security changes, the fact that these actions are a response to S-CAP's brief, non-threatening, but embarrassing intervention seems even more stark. The story's lead quotes Adair as asserting a need for "more control" at city council meetings, and as far as I am aware, there really isn't anything else he could be referring to. In addition, Adair is also quoted as saying, "We're in the North. How many men do you know that carry knives on their belts?", which is a ludicrous and insulting thing to think is relevant to this discussion. It is, however, an attempt to invoke fear of ordinary people, a rhetorical tack used by law-and-order types that is all too familiar in the era of the War on Terror. (Interestingly, in this case, he doesn't seem to be particularly trying to incite fear of people of colour, which is the bread and butter of War on Terror rhetoric, but rather, through the invokation of a particular classed way that masculinity is enacted in the north, it is fear of working-class men that he is hoping to mobilize for political ends.)
There are a number of kinds of objections to these measures that I have seen on social media from people that might be generally categorized as "progressive." They point out that there hasn't been anything even resembling an actual threatening incident, so these measures are unnecessary. They point out that this seems to have been in response to a non-threatening but politically embarrassing action that was clearly aimed at saving lives, and as such it is a poor use of resources, it is anti-democratic, and it is reactionary. And, in fact, the obliging Mr. Adair was quoted yet once more in the Star article, making quite clearly the anti-democratic point that, "We're trying to create a barrier between citizens and staff." Others are more familiar with this history than me, but in light of various other quiet changes at Sudbury city hall in the last number of years to make (the admittedly always quite limited) scope for political participation by residents even more difficult and less relevant, even if you believe the dubious claim that these changes are not about beefing up the capacity of security staff to respond in repressive ways to entirely commendable political actions, it still seems like it will further corrode whatever semblance of actual democracy might exist at city hall.
I want to argue, though, that we need to see this decision as part of a much larger historical trajectory as well, one that isn't just about Sudbury. So for a paragraph or two, let me step back and give some of that context.
In the decades after the Second World War, the dominant consensus in the rich countries, including Canada, was that the best way to respond to clearly demonstrated human need, particularly when people were getting upset and politically active because of it, was to find some way to partially meet the need in order to get people to quiet down. This is where the welfare state came from. It has always been far more limited and politically contradictory than its most ardent proponents claim, and it always excluded significant numbers of people and reinforced the subordination of others, but it met some needs and was a site for struggle through which other people with other needs could hope to have them met as well.
Starting globally in the 1970s, and arguably then in Canada too though it really picked up steam here in the '90s, was a change in that dominant consensus. There's lots to be said about the causes, character, and extent of that change, but the bottom line has been changes in how our society works such that there are more people with more unmet needs, and the dominant social response to those people is more likely to be repression rather than the partial, inadequate, and contradictory measures to meet (some of) the needs of the earlier social democratic era. In both the context of the everyday manifestations of crushing need experienced in particularly oppressed communities, and also in the context of collective efforts to demand change that would alleviate need, social responses have come to rely increasingly on policing rather than on addressing symptoms (or, heaven forbid, even root causes), and that policing has become increasingly militarized and violent. As a simple illustration of the change in the context of collective political action in Canada, you only need to look at the shift in policing across the Toronto Days of Action in 1996, the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001, and the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010. And there are countless other examples, domestic and international, of a shift from responding to angry collective expression of demands for justice with (often inadequate) bread to responding with batons and plastic bullets.
I think these new security measures at city hall are one small part of that much larger and longer trajectory. Contrary to what some other lefty types have asserted on social media, while I agree that these changes are odious and anti-democratic, I don't think they are just making something out of nothing. They are, I think, based on city officials perceiving something real and then making a political choice about how to respond to that. It's a bad political choice, but it's responding to a real phenomenon. Adair's framing of it as a fear of dangerous northern Ontarians and their knives may be foolish and insulting, but buried in that statement, and in the more implicit nod to the non-threatening but disobedient and disruptive S-CAP action, is a recognition that there are going to be -- inevitably, one way or another -- more angry people. The trajectory that has been going on since the '70s has only accelerated since the financial crisis began in 2008. Call it "neoliberalism," call it "austerity" -- there are going to be more people suffering, more people being attacked by the violence inherent to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, more people who don't have the means to meet their needs. And there are going to be people taking action based on those needs. Many people will take action in fragmented but absolutely essential everyday ways to ensure their own survival. A few might act in individualistic, anti-social ways that express their rage but do nothing to change anything. And others -- hopefully many others -- will find ways to join their resistance to the resistance of others to make it social and collective and visible.
So you have a situation that is going to produce more people whose lives have been pushed into need and suffering and who are understandably angry about that, and who might express that anger in a whole range of ways. And you've got a situation where repression is increasingly the go-to response to people who are making various sorts of demands for justice. There are a whole lot of little choices that go into making such trajectories a reality, lots of little ways to either reproduce them or to work against them. And the city has made a choice here.
I'm not saying, by the way, that the city is only repressive, or is likely to become so. State relations, of which municipal governments are a local manifestation, are complicated, and there are plenty of good people doing what they can in that context to mobilize resources to meet at least some kinds of needs some of the time (albeit inevitably in limited, social democratic ways). But core to this new, neoliberal, austerity-based reality is a recognition that such socially useful work goes so far and no further, and will have increasingly starker limits in the years ahead, and those who think that the well-being of ordinary people and the planet should take precedence and who are willing to take disobedient action to make the state and elites act accordingly are not going to be met with soft words and partial measures but with uniformed people empowered, ultimately, to use violence against them.
Some might argue, in reference to this one small change, "Well what else could the city do?" But part of truly prioritizing the well-being of ordinary people and the planet is refusing to accept pleas to practicality that disguise the politics beneath. "What else could the city do?" is just not good enough. These changes are the City of Greater Sudbury, in a small way, preparing itself to be better able to respond to articulations of human need -- which it knows will come, one way or the other -- with repression and force. And that isn't acceptable, however you dress it up.
Posted by Scott Neigh at 6:57 PM