Danny Postel, a frequent contributor to this blog and the Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, has an essay in the new issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas in which he reviews Laura Secor’s new book Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran and also examines Iran’s role in the changing political landscape of the Middle East—especially in the Syrian catastrophe. You can read the essay here.
W. J. T. Mitchell
On 22 July 2016, I paid a visit to David Gilbert in Wende Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison not far from Buffalo, New York. The visit, arranged by one of David’s legal counselors, Cynthia Bowman, consisted of five hours of nonstop conversation on personal, political, and what can only be described as philosophical topics. From the moment we met, David impressed me with his marvelous sense of calm self-possession. He has a radiant smile, a resolute gaze, and an unbroken stream of humor, intelligence, ethical and political clarity without a trace of resentment. When he speaks, David has a habit of raising his hands above his head like an orator addressing an audience. But there is not a trace of pomposity in this gesture. It’s as if he is framing whatever he has to say (often modest and self-critical) in a moment of intense, deeply considered communication that is almost as arresting as his ideas and opinions.
David is serving a life sentence for “felony murder,” a uniquely American legal nicety that makes a person guilty of any murder committed during a felony (like robbery), regardless of whether one actually killed anyone, intended to hurt anyone, or was even carrying a weapon. David was involved in the famous robbery of a Brinks truck in Nyack, New York on 21 October 1981, an act of what he called “revolutionary expropriation” aimed at supplying financial support for the Black Revolutionary Army, a militant spin-off from the Black Panther Party. At his trial, David insisted on representing himself, refusing to recognize the authority of the court, and presenting himself as a political prisoner who should have been tried by an international court. As a result, he received the harshest possible sentence and (barring a pardon) is unlikely to leave prison in his lifetime.
At one point I asked David if there was anything good about being incarcerated in a maximum-security prison. He was able to think of two things. First, “you meet a lot of interesting people in here that you would never meet on the outside.” Second, being a convicted felon means that you don’t have to participate in the joyless decision of voting for Hillary Clinton instead of the awful Donald Trump. A third thing, which he didn’t mention, is that a life sentence is a very effective way of finding out who your true friends are, who will stick by you and work hard to make your life bearable by visiting as often as possible and keeping your existence visible to the outside world. Certainly Gilbert is a very unusual “lifer,” sustained by a network of friends, centrally the former leaders of the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who have raised David’s son, Chesa Boudin, since he was a baby.
When I asked David how he has learned to cope with the miserable conditions of imprisonment without hope for parole, he made a point of emphasizing this environment of love, loyalty, and friendship that has sustained him now for thirty-three years of prison life. In this respect, he is certainly not typical of the prison population, many of whom feel abandoned to a living death. Is this just because he is such a remarkable individual? Or because he has an unusually energetic group of friends, which now includes young political activists from Black Lives Matter and other groups who come to seek his counsel. Most surely it is the interplay between his personality, his political principles, and his excellent choice of friends. Inside Wende prison, which is all too typical in having a black male population of about 90 percent, he relies on the long-standing network of racial solidarity engendered by his work with the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 70s and his subsequent work inside prison. These comrades protect him from what could otherwise be a very dangerous environment for a slender Jewish guy who is now becoming a somewhat frail senior citizen. In 33 years in maximum security, David has never experienced a physical assault.
Another factor in David’s remarkable endurance has been his self-definition as a political prisoner, an identity that gives incarceration itself a meaning quite different from the usual self-image of criminals as losers and/or victims. There is no trace of self-pity in his conversation. And right alongside his relentlessly thorough self-criticism and acknowledgment of the terrible results of the crime he was involved in, there is a quiet, reflective sense of mindfulness, both in his relation to present circumstances and the conditions of everyday life, as well as the long arc of history to which he feels connected.
Perhaps the most interesting moment in our five-hour conversation was at the moment of parting. As the loudspeaker rang out orders to leave, David took a moment to give me some advice. “As a first time visitor to a maximum security prison, you will probably feel a kind of melancholy as you depart. This is a common reaction, and you should be prepared for it.” This made me want to stay for another hour, because I was already starting to feel exactly the emotion he was describing, which only grew stronger as we made our way through the numerous gates out to the car. But what is this feeling really about? Could it be the sense of massive injustice that weighs down on this gentle, wise soul in every moment of his waking life, and must haunt his dreams? Is it a version of “survivors guilt” at the contrast between my own freedom and his probably endless imprisonment? Could it be my own sense that I could never endure the kind of conditions he has not merely suffered but also transformed into the setting for a meaningful life? Whenever I try to imagine what it would mean to be locked up for so long in this ludicrously misnamed “correctional facility,” my heart sinks into a certainty that I would never be able to stand the daily humiliations amid a system that seems designed only to induce despair and a breaking of the spirit. A kind of blackness opens up in my imagination that only seems deeper and darker when I contrast it to the wonderful life, freedom, and work that I have been so lucky to have, and appreciate even more having met David. Or maybe it was just the strangeness of feeling that David Gilbert, a man who maintains his moral equipoise, political vision, and modest cheerfulness amidst conditions whose thought utterly terrifies me, was taking out a moment to comfort me.
 Since Gilbert is in a state prison, he cannot be pardoned by President Obama, but must depend upon the mercy of Governor Andrew Cuomo, an unlikely possibility.
Since their days as medical school classmates, Bashar al-Assad and Zaher Sahloul have followed rather different paths: one became a war criminal; the other, a humanitarian advocate.
Dr. Sahloul is the immediate past president of and a senior advisor to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a humanitarian and advocacy organization that provides medical relief to Syrians and Syrian refugees. Last year, SAMS served 2.5 million patients in five different countries. (The organization’s vital work is featured in the recent documentary film 50 Feet from Syria, which is available on Netflix.)
Dr. Sahloul is also the founder of the American Relief Coalition for Syria, a coalition of 14 US-based humanitarian organizations working in Syria. He is an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and is a practicing physician in pulmonary and critical care medicine. He has written about the medical and humanitarian crisis in Syria for Foreign Policy and the Huffington Post, among other outlets.
I conducted this interview with Dr. Sahloul for the Middle East Dialogues series produced by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies on April 26 — less than 48 hours before the Assad regime’s airstrike on the MSF-supported pediatric hospital in Aleppo that killed dozens of patients and doctors, including one of the city’s last remaining pediatricians.
Originally published on Pulse
By Jason Adams
Solids cancel time; for liquids, on the contrary, it is mostly time that matters… for power to be free to flow, the world must be free of fences, barriers, fortified borders and checkpoints. Any dense and tight network of social bonds . . . is an obstacle to be cleared out of the way. Global powers are bent on dismantling such networks for the sake of their continuous and growing fluidity, that principal source of their strength and the warrant of their invincibility.
—Zygmunt Bauman (Liquid Modernity)
A number of recent articles have focused upon the central culpability of Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder in deposing Flint’s democratically-elected city council and appointing Darnell Early, the Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) who presided over the unilateral decision-making structures that gave rise to the sourcing of lead-tainted water supplies in the now-famous Flint Water Crisis. A similar number of response pieces have drawn upon Matthew MacWilliams’ University of Massachusetts-Amherst poll of 1,800 respondents, finding that authoritarianism was the single most important factor in the public’s support for Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump.
If a shift away from public support for representative democracy and towards more authoritarian modes of government is the driving factor in both cases though, what is at work on a more general level, that undergirds this shift in our time? What my book Occupy Time: Technoculture, Immediacy and Resistance argues is that such questions cannot be answered without an attentiveness to both political economy and the cultural and technological relations that provide conditions of possibility for such outcomes. In short, if we live in a culture describable by Douglas Rushkoff as one of “present shock,” in which a disposition of “presentism” (or as I prefer, “immediatism”) prevails over one concerned with past and future, in what form might that be expressed politically?
A few of the more perceptive commentaries have come close to answering this via foregrounding the influence of the Michigan-based right-wing think tank The Mackinac Center for Public Policy in the development of Governor Snyder’s EFM policy. Writing in Salon, for instance, Paul Rosenberg notes that “what’s happening now is rooted in a state-level attack on democracy . . . [based upon The Mackinac Center’s agenda to] consistently shift the framework of policy debate in a given ideological direction.” Similarly, on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow describes Snyder’s EFM policy as “the single most radical policy” in all of American history, one which also derives from a think tank that targeted Michigan professors who uttered Maddow’s name in personal emails.
While Maddow is incorrect—the emergency manager policy at a minimum, is not as extreme as legally-enshrined slavery was—the policy is nevertheless of a piece with it on the level of the unrestrained structural authority thereby enabled, in a form that conjoins the culture and technology of our time with a neoliberal policy apparatus. That apparatus, of course, is one that The Mackinac Center not only celebrates, but directly cultivates through the development of policy documents like the one that lead to Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law, Director of Labor Policy Paul Kersey’s Reconsidering Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act: Restoring Balance to Public Sector Labor Relations.
Initially focused on eliminating public sector labor union influence, The Mackinac Center’s January 2011 document articulates how EFM laws like the Snyder-championed House Bill 4214 could “end with the state appointing an emergency financial manager.” Of course, the effects of such a fundamental shift in governance structures would be felt much more broadly than just labor relations: and, as the think tank noted in March 2011, “The Mackinac Center in January highlighted four ways that the law needed to be improved. The new law implements all of them [HB 4214]”. These included: protecting the EFM from litigation; increasing the scope of the manager’s authority to cover all areas; allowing the manager to move around charter provisions; and, giving the manager more opportunity to reform union agreements.
In effect, what Zygmunt Bauman has described as “liquid modernity” was being written into actual state policy: policy in which, given that the EFM could both enact and suspend laws willy-nilly, “all agreements are temporary, fleeting, and valid only until further notice.” First and foremost, of course, this includes the right of the citizenry to enact policy themselves, either through referendum, or through elected representatives. The withdrawal of this right produces a new state-form that, even if its temporary, emergency nature eludes a single, ultimate definition, is certainly articulable as a liquid state, one in which no rights or other guarantees are fixed interminably, and which can be edited and revised as easily as a Wikipedia page could be.
The Flint Water Crisis makes more clear than ever then, that some form of postdemocratic “emergency government” has been introduced, one in which the first and most extreme consequences are reserved for working-class, minority-majority communities in the first world, as they already have been for some time in the third world. Of course, the ongoing epidemic of summary executions meted out by local police departments already set the pace for a full understanding of this development over the past several years, but the potentially fatal poisoning of thousands of children, the elderly, and others lacking fully-functioning immune systems does so with greatly-intensified force.
In our time, legally-sanctioned mass murder in the form Lauren Berlant refers to as “slow death” is becoming normalized on cultural level, such that more often than not, the perpetrators of such acts go unpunished. This is particularly clear upon revisiting the legitimation rhetoric used when Governor Snyder and The Mackinac Center replaced numerous, popularly-elected municipal governments across the state of Michigan with EFMs. In the Flint case, prior to Early, the initial EFM was Michael Brown. Consider then, the following Op-Ed in which The Flint Journal defended Brown’s appointment in January 2012, amidst widespread public outcry:
Some are equating Brown and his colleagues in a half-dozen other local governments in Michigan to dictators. That’s harsh, but with an element of truth. With a swipe of his pen and state approval, Brown can make major changes in city spending, personnel and negotiated contracts; eliminate or combine whole city departments and even merge the entire city with its neighbors. So, yes, we can see why emergency financial managers make a lot of people uneasy. We are reassured, though, from what we’ve seen in Brown’s first report to the state. It’s almost entirely composed of ideas that should be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to city affairs for the past two or three years. No surprises, but plenty of ideas that were born here. Nobody had the political will or the power to enact them. That’s what’s different now. Brown can make them happen.
In short, The Flint Journal reassured riled-up city residents by appealing to the canard of localism, reassuring them that, even if the newly-appointed EFM was in fact making decisions in a manner that displaced popular authority, he was nevertheless doing so with full awareness of local opinions and desires, “ideas that were born here”. The question this raises however, is whether that in and of itself, is sufficient as an explanation: does an appeal to local needs and supposedly pre-existing desires itself adequately legitimate the unilateral form of EFM-based policy-making, as opposed to duly-elected policy-making via the city council? And if so, is it not simply on the basis that he can make them happen faster, “with a swipe of his pen”, than a deliberative public body could?
Legitimations of authoritarianism and the rise of the “authoritarian personality” of course, have been a central concern for social and political theorists dating back at least to the horrors of Nazi Germany, so their reappearance in media outlets like The Flint Journal today should give us pause. As noted, we are living in a time of the liquid state, one in which political authoritarianism with a decidedly opportunist bent is rearing its head to a degree that was previously unimaginable in the US, much as it has been around the world since WWII. What is different today is that there is no substantial counterbalance as there had been in the leadup to fascism in Europe, which means that would-be authoritarians have a much freer hand to create impermanent, “liquid” structures entirely distinct from the attempt at authoritative permanence and solidity experienced there.
Would Flint have seen EFMs displacing the democratically-elected city council in the absence of the larger cultural and technological milieu of Rushkoff’s presentism, or my immediatism – a culture of instantly-deployed social media posting and cellphone-based text-messaging that has displaced the norms associated with periodical media in print and broadcast form? Perhaps, but the fact that US society has grown increasingly comfortable with unmediated, willy-nilly decision-making on an individual level – decision-making that isn’t slowed down by the periodical rhythms of public or representative deliberation so as to instead, simply decide as quickly as possible – probably also has some reverberations on a collective level, too.
A liquid economy is one in which, as Marx and Engels famously argued (picked up on by both Bauman and Marshall Berman), “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society… [thus] all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind… [and along with this transition,] the weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.”
Of course, whether this liquification, this constant revolutionizing of the means of production and relations of production simply amounts to capitalists automating production lines and firing workers such that they are disemployed en masse, or police officers engaging in summary execution rather than sending a court case through the established channels, or EFMs sourcing public water from a poisoned/poisoning supply rather than carefully vetting the range of options, ultimately makes little difference. In all cases, the common denominator is that the process of the decision has become liquified and rendered capable of circumventing any form of interlocution. As a result, the EFM’s decisions are made “with a swipe of his pen”, rather than a popularly-elected group of representatives that might deliberate, and agree or disagree.
Of course, the flip side of such a liquid economy is that it is not simply a matter of culture and technology speeding-up “too quickly”. The point is not to argue in favor of slowing down compared to the print- and broadcast-based culture and technology of the past, but to instead think through the manner in which the weapons of the bourgeoisie might become the weapons of the proletariat. US and world political economy will almost doubtlessly remain at speed going forward, no matter what interventions might be made at this point. Thus, the real danger lies in the failure of the working- and middle-classes to match the capitalist speed-up with a speed-up of their own, one that resituates, redirects, and redeploys what doing so is about, on the most basic of levels.
Before that can happen though, we need to understand not only the political and economic sources of the current malaise, but also the cultural and technological sources. Snyder’s EFMs were legitimated in several sources on the basis that “a single manager can respond to problems quickly, as meetings and board approvals are unnecessary.” And of course, as Marx reminds us in the Grundrisse, the origins of such developments cannot be separated from an economic system mobilized by the most efficient disposal of time, which in the US case is historically coupled with the authoritarian nature of American federalism, mobilized by figures like John C. Calhoun to justify slavery.
But the concept of the liquid state also exemplifies the insights of Deleuze and Guattari’s much-cited work A Thousand Plateaus on the question: today, they argue, “the totalitarian State is not a maximum State but rather, following Virilio’s formulation, the minimum State of anarchocapitalism.” While the more common assumption today is that communism and fascism formed the totalitarian nexus of the twentieth century that more enlightened twenty-first century liberalism avoids, they point to Pinochet, whose Chicago Boys-inspired, proto-neoliberal state apparatus served as a central inspiration for the installation of dictatorship in Chile.
Whether the Flint Water Crisis is best read through the lens of the liquid state or minimum state totalitarianism is an open question, but the resistance to representative mediation in states like Michigan today is clear, especially in working-class, minority-majority communities. The fewer the elected officials, the more quickly decisions can be made: temporal expenditures can be greatly reduced once election campaigns, civil deliberation, intergovernmental negotiation, and related features of representative democracy no longer constitute an obstacle to decision-making. In this respect, a minimum state can indeed be authoritarian, despite the fact that economists who call for less government frame the argument as a matter of intensifying liberty.
In a liquid environment, governance is no longer slowed down by a majoritarian citizenry to which elected rulers are at least formally accountable, nor to other officials with whom they are expected to share decision-making processes. Rather, governance operates at the velocity appropriate to the economy of which it is an expression: that of speed at the speed-limit, of instantaneity. This is seen especially clearly in that in the name of empowering the “will to enact,” governor-appointed officials on the level of the state replace the elected city council persons who are the supposed hallmark of representative governance and local governance in particular.
And, reducing their lengthy, necessarily mediated deliberations to the immediate, unimpeded decision of a single, unchallenged “decider”—a boss, in short—arrives amidst the rising influence of real-time culture and technology, an influence that intensifies especially when combined with the liquid economics of efficiency and austerity. The rhetoric of urgency need not even be articulated, since both are already culturally and technologically presupposed: as the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt famously argued, representative democracy is insufficient to deal with the emergency situations since its essence is to “permit the decision to be suspended forever in an everlasting discussion.”
What the emerging liquid economy demands then, is a particular politicization of immediacy that relies upon the emergent habitus it inculcates in order to justify an increasingly authoritarian mode of both state and economy. But as the role of The Mackinac Center in the Flint Water Crisis clarifies, it cannot do so without developing a significant rhetorical defense of authoritarian modes of governance that nevertheless, do not fundamentally depart from already-existing assumptions amongst the well-inculcated US populace, particularly about the sacrosanct status of the free market—or more accurately, the liquid market. Where the free market claims to enhance the freedom of all given sufficient personal talent and effort, the liquid economy no longer guarantees anything, since “the people operating the levers of power on which the fate of the less volatile partners in the relationship depends can at any moment escape beyond reach.”
Free-market ideology is famously Austrian in character, and is centered around two central figures: Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. While Mises was the one who most explicitly flirted with fascism, the architects of Michigan’s liquid state and liquid economy are closer to Hayek, conceptually. And unsurprisingly, they are as deluded about what the “road to serfdom” amounts to culturally and technologically as they are politically and economically. Isaac M. Morehouse, Director of Student Leadership at The Mackinac Center, for instance, champions Hayek’s claim that economic planning is unsupportable, since no single individual can attain sufficient knowledge about all the unique contexts in which needs would be identified and resources allocated.
Celebrating Hayek’s influence upon Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Morehouse suggests that the success of self-edited Wikipedia pages demonstrate that the identification of needs and allocation of resources must be left up to separate, autonomous individuals to discover, bringing dispersed knowledge together in an efficient and expedient disposal of time that brings many actors into a convergent state within which they might isonomize the production process. Under cultural and technological conditions of immediacy, Morehouse opines, the entries would be continuously updated as new events occur, so that “the” encyclopedia would never be outdated but would always be updated with the latest information, unlike the quickly-outdated artifacts previously produced under print capitalism.
Much as with the liquid state and liquid economy then, liquid media are those in which publication is “increasingly mobile, slippery, shifty, evasive and fugitive,” including, obviously, categories previously catalogued with some solidity, by the print-based encyclopedias. As Morehouse explains, “most often the edition on your shelf has facts and figures that are already out of date and can never keep up with the rapidly changing world.” Insofar as Wikipedia entries are temporally superior in that they are altered in “real-time” just as Facebook pages and blogs trump periodicals because they are updated “instantly,” Morehouse claims they exemplify the Hayekian claim that “millions of individuals’ localized knowledge freely pooled together is greater than any central authority could compile alone.”
Never mind, of course, that the same Mackinac Center that published Morehouse’s article on the folly of allowing economic planning to be performed by “any single individual” also lobbied for the decidedly single individual that is the centerpiece of EFM policy over the course of the past decade—asking as far back as 2005, for instance, “Can Detroit’s Problems Be Corrected by an Emergency Financial Manager?”, with ample funding from the billionaire families behind Amway, Walmart and other major corporations. And yet, perhaps this disjuncture between democracy and dictatorship within the Mackinac Center’s output is itself evidence of the centrality of liquidity as a structural element of the contemporary period, one that becomes at least temporarily describable as “minimum state totalitarianism” in situations like the Flint Water Crisis.
The Mackinac Center’s deployment of the liquid dynamic then, is giving rise to new forms of power and authority in the state, economy, and media alike that support the definitions of liberty they employ, but with added twist. Despite appearances, the legitimation of Hayek via Wikipedia is not at odds with the more explicitly authoritarian discourse that confronts working-class and middle-class people in the realm of mortgages and student loans. Efficiency, expediency, and liquidity are all beyond dichotomies of democracy and dictatorship, since the emphasis is not on one or the other, but on the zone of indistinction between them, that which makes them all possible in a given, unpredictable situation. The rise of EFMs provides one of the clearest examples of the manner in which the immediacy of contemporary capitalism is not only about democratically empowering dispersed individuals to pool collective knowledge into digital entries, but is also on an ideological level, deeply antidemocratic in nature.
In other words, the new media environment is one in which, as David Weinberger’s book title insists, Everything Is Miscellaneous: digital culture is producing a “digital disorder” in which all that was previously defined according to the hierarchies of space are now recontextualized according to the immediacy of time, the fluidity of the modern. Weinberger asserts that ideological categories that came into being in the era of print capitalism are dissolving into a post-ideological, virtual space just as democracy and dictatorship dissolve into one another as well. As people use Wikipedia and other user-generated media to define political ideologies, political terms and political networks, each of the old categories becomes as subject to the vicissitudes of individual idiosyncrasy as does the liquidity it ensures between democracy and dictatorship.
This is especially the case since at the same moment that immediacy has enabled the spread of movements such as Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter, liquidified economic imperatives have enabled ideologies of efficiency and expediency to supplant Keynesian and print- and broadcast-bases for representative democracy. The ideological success of the once-marginal Austrian wing can certainly be attributed in part to what Paul Virilio calls the culture of reflex, in which rapid-fire dissemination is prioritized over the content of what is disseminated. Whereas in the past, parliamentary and extraparliamentary political movements alike relied upon predictable, periodic intervals separating publication and organization, today the Mackinac Center celebrates the immediacy of communication which blurs all rhythms and distinctions.
In doing so, it produces a generalized miscellaneity within which political categories are opened to relativization and resignification, while an anti-interpretive, anti-intellectual discourse reigns over what is then resignified. Given the simultaneous legitimation of an at least temporary dictatorship, it is also no surprise that references to liberty rarely mention their relationship, or lack thereof, to the more explicitly egalitarian domain of democracy. And while The Mackinac Center’s ongoing critiques of democracy [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] reveal explicit hostility to equally enfranchised, shared decisionmaking, by avoiding such references in public discussion on the part of the representatives like Governor Snyder whom they support, an emergent liquid state is enabled to reinflect terms such as liberty that would otherwise be signified differently.
In this manner, policy agendas such as the installation of EFMs and the call for the deactivation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are understood as advancing rather than obstructing the image right-wing think tanks disseminate of “liberty.” And it is, of course, little distance from that point to further posit that representative democracy itself constrains liberty and should thus be abolished and replaced with some other state form preferred by dominant economic forces. As a result, in the name of liberty, the freedom of to engage in it is restricted, while a postdemocratic, immediatist movement is primed for expansion in the form of the liquid state.
W. J. T. Mitchell
One of the most notable developments at the 2016 Modern Language Association meeting in Austin, Texas could be glimpsed simply by looking at the program. There were no less than a dozen sessions devoted to the question of Palestine. Many of them were, of course, devoted to the movement known as BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction), which for the last ten years has been directed at Israel’s financial, agricultural, and military institutions and now includes academic and cultural institutions as well. Like the boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, the BDS movement seems to be reaching a critical mass in its effect on professional organizations in the American academy. Already six associations, including the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association of Asian American Studies, and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association have endorsed the boycott, and it looks as if the American Anthropological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association may join the movement as well. This time next year the Modern Language Association will consider a resolution to endorse BDS.
This is a far cry from the days when Palestine was only a distant rumor at the MLA, with the voice of Edward Said crying in the wilderness. Today numerous scholars from many different disciplines are converging on the issue, using their considerable skills of research and analysis, not only to illuminate the oppressive conditions of Palestinian life in Israel, but also to bring Palestinian culture into a new prominence. The sessions at MLA ranged from discussions focused directly on BDS, to “Comparative State Racisms” and “Cross Racial Alliances,” to specific cases (the firing of Steven Salaita by University of Illinois) to discussions of Palestinian literature “beyond Darwish,” the famous national poet of Palestine. Particularly striking to me were the frank and open discussions of the complexities of joining a boycott that tries to distinguish between individuals and institutions, encouraging open dialogue and cooperation between scholars on all sides of the debate, while firmly condemning the complicity of Israel’s universities in the occupation and military subjugation of the Palestinians. It seemed clear to me that the discussion has now moved beyond a simple “for or against” rhetoric into a more nuanced debate over the internal struggles of BDS to refine its tactics and reach out to form a broader consensus. It was refreshing to hear detailed historical discussions of previous boycott movements, from the Civil Rights era to South Africa, and to give serious consideration to the precarious and often ambivalent moments that punctuate activist practices. One panelist critiqued what she called “teleopoetics,” the sense that the success of liberation movements is somehow guaranteed in advance, and that every choice of tactics is simple and straightforward.
As someone who has come late to BDS, after a long history of solidarity with progressive scholars and artists on both sides of the Green Line, it was reassuring to find that one can be critical of specific tactical decisions while remaining supportive of the fundamental goal of the boycott. It has struck me that the decision of BDS to boycott the West-East Divan, the musical organization founded by Said and Daniel Barenboim to foster exchanges between Palestinian and Israeli musicians, was a rather sad mistake. I understand the complaints that the Divan’s programmatic rationale contains familiar liberal clichés about “dialogue,” mutual understanding and the transcendent neutrality of the arts, but still, one wonders at what is to be gained by disrespecting an organization founded by Said and Barenboim to overcome the occupation and degradation of Palestinian lives. If there were ever a prime candidate for an exception, the West-East Divan would seem to qualify. (See the response to Mariam Said’s arguments in favor of the Divan in The Electronic Intifada.)
More generally, the ready-made distinction between individuals and institutions needs to be interrogated in more detail. If contemporary theory has taught us anything, it is that individual and collective identities are deeply interwoven by racial, national, gendered, professional, and political forms of belonging. Barenboim has been a Palestinian citizen for eight years (Haaretz, January 13, 2008). The fact that both Iran and Israel hate the idea of Barenboim conducting the Berlin Staatskappelle Orchestra in Tehran indicates to me that he is doing something right. When the militant mullahs, reactionaries, and racists start agreeing about who is not to be tolerated, I know where my instinctive sympathies belong.
So I have made my decision to join the BDS movement as a supportive critic who regards political movements, not as lock-step marches toward a single goal, but as internal and external struggles for moral and political clarity. As Said once put it, I want there to be a Palestinian state (or, as now seems to be inevitable, a pluri-national state called “Israel/Palestine” where everyone enjoys equal rights), so I can take up my proper role as a critic and attack it. Meanwhile, for those who are wavering about the rightness of the boycott, and want their questions answered in a straightforward fashion, I recommend the fact sheet focusing on the proposal for the MLA boycott.
I should mention, finally, that this is my personal decision and is not a matter of Critical Inquiry policy, which maintains its neutrality on the question of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
Further information on the Palestine sessions at the 2016 MLA may be found at: https://mlaboycott.wordpress.com/
The CI Blog welcomes other comments, information, and debates about the boycott.
Check out the review at LARB!
By Scott Ferguson
In the most recent James Bond film, Spectre (2015), a cabal of digital surveillance capitalists-cum-global terrorists known as SPECTRE attempt to take over the British national intelligence service. This clandestine group builds a flashy high-tech skyscraper in the heart of London and, at one point, it is explained that only private investment would be able to afford this cutting-edge structure.
In reality, the scenes inside the fictitious data center were shot within London’s current City Hall. Yet according to the film’s harrowing storyworld, the British government simply does not have the money to commission such an extravagant edifice.
Though mentioned only in passing, this comment about the insufficiency of public funds appears to structure the film’s entire plot, which pits what is essentially an embattled government program against the allegedly greater powers of global information capital.
Deemed “Bond for the age of austerity,” Spectre’s cash-strapped hero still gets a pair of handsome cars, as well as a perfectly pressed ensemble for every climate and occasion. In the end, however, what Spectre shows is that, today, it is easier to believe a man can single-handedly take down an evil capitalist organization than it is to imagine a government being able afford dazzling new public infrastructures.
Meanwhile, the true specter haunting the latest installment of the Bond franchise is not global info capitalism, as the film’s narrative suggests, but rather what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) reveals to be the limitless government treasury bonds that could be immediately deployed to enfranchise everyone. As MMT has it,
A sovereign government’s finances are nothing like those of households and firms. . . . [Such a] government does not need to ‘borrow’ its own currency in order to spend. Indeed, it cannot borrow currency that it has not already spent. . . . Government never needs to sell bonds before spending, and indeed cannot sell bonds unless it has first provided the currency and reserves that banks need to buy the bonds. . . . A sovereign government cannot become insolvent in its own currency; it can always make all payments as they come due.
MMT’s two-pronged revelation is that it is impossible for a currency-issuing government to run out of a unit that it alone supplies and that austerity is a cruel fiction that can be instantly reversed. More pointedly, there are no monetary reasons why we, as a public, cannot have nice things.
Thus in contrast to what The Washington Post alleges, the U.S. government can afford everything current presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders is proposing: universal healthcare; free university education; infrastructure repair; first-rate public housing; environmental retrofitting; and low-cost postal banking.
But with MMT, we can do Bernie one better. Just ask Stephanie Kelton, a top MMT economist who also happens to be Sanders’s key economic advisor for his role as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee.
In addition to what Sanders is officially suggesting, we can also create a high-quality public child– and elder-care service; a robust public arts program; and a federally funded yet communally organized public works system, which would guarantee everyone a job who wishes to have one.
Think of the latter as something akin to a permanent but more inclusive and locally sensitive version of the Works Progress Administration implemented under the Roosevelt presidency. This program would not only virtually eradicate problems of un- and underemployment. It would also establish just minimum standards for pay and benefits, put the means of production in the hands of workers, and ensure everyone’s right to meaningfully participate in shaping our world.
For all this, we require neither Bond-like physical prowess nor computer-simulated collisions. Instead, we’ll need an explosive combination that is at once more powerful and less substantial: political will and the capacity to electronically generate money out of thin air.
Big budget digital spectacles such as Spectre will no doubt continue to thrill and delight global audiences. What we deserve, however, is a renewed and lustrous public life, which only government computers hold the power to make a reality.
(Originally posted on the blog The Unheard of Center: Critique After Modern Monetary Theory)
Scott Ferguson is a professor of Film & New Media Studies at the University of South Florida. Historically, he has published mostly in academic journals: Screen, Arcade, Qui Parle, Liminalities, and he has another piece forthcoming in the academic journal Discourse. He also has pieces appearing in CounterPunch, Arcade, and now Naked Capitalism. His recent CounterPunch piece is being translated into Spanish for the Leftist publication Rebelión.