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How to See Palestine: An ABC of Colonialism

Nicholas Mirzoeff

Visiting Palestine was astonishing for the sheer intensity of the oppression. It was clarifying to see how the occupation operates and how little it cares what others think of it. It was humbling to see what being an activist really means and how privileged academic activism seems compared to the daily litany of harm to which any person in Palestine is exposed.

I saw elements of many different visual regimes struggling to cohere into what might become a new form. Surveillance is universal, but it’s not a panopticon because the jailers are all too visible. Religion is the justification for settlement, as it was under high imperialism, but there is no desire to convert the unbelievers. Counterinsurgency seeks “full spectrum dominance” but expects the insurgency to be permanent unless its conditions of possibility are removed.

The one thing everyone on all sides agrees on is that it’s all about land—who owns it, who can farm it, live on it, use the rainwater that falls on it, mine the minerals below—and so on. Whatever this is, it’s patently a form of colonialism. So, I decided to use my impressions to create an ABC of occupation.[1] Unlike Nicolai Bukharin’s classic ABC of Communism, this is not a program. It is a report back on the heart of visuality’s own contradiction. That is to say, Palestine is an actually existing possibility for the general condition of social life in the twenty-first century.

Perhaps the election of Donald Trump clarifies this issue somewhat. The complicated ways in which someone willing to discuss Palestine gets produced as anti-Semitic surely pale by comparison with the insertion of Stephen Bannon, an old-fashioned Jew hater into the White House.

Perhaps the success of a campaign based on the promise of a “beautiful” wall, xenophobia, hatred of Islam and Muslims and a willingness to separate existing populations will help people understand why Palestine is an example not an exception.

Perhaps.

 

A is for Area A

The regime covers the territory with signs, expressing its intent (fig. 1). These signs are posted wherever Area A, under the nominal control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), borders with what the regime considers to be the state of Israel. Apparently, the Hebrew and Arabic versions are at variance. The English message is clear: Palestinians are dangerous. Red alert. Less obvious is that Area A covers only 18 percent of what is still referred to as the “West Bank” in a series of increasingly isolated pockets, centered on the Palestinian cities like Ramallah and Nablus. No functional state can be made from these islands. The “two-state solution” is visibly impossible.

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Although Area A signs are quite common, there are no others. Where do you enter Area B (largely considered defunct on the ground) and Area C, now considered to be some 63 percent of the West Bank? There are no signs other than the change of rules of engagement and the appearance of settlements, settler buses and the settlers themselves. Palestinians seem to know, as do the settlers and the Israeli Defense Force. So the Area A signs are really for people like me, or Israeli leftists, venturing into the West Bank. I don’t think they work. I hadn’t been there long before the sight of an Area A sign made me relax and feel safe.

 

B is for Benjamin

Here is a sign of colonialism if there ever was one (fig. 2). It depicts the wolf emblem of the tribe of Benjamin, one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Massive in size and posted high above the ground, it is positioned on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, notionally running through Area C but extensively used by tourists going to the Dead Sea. However, according to legend, Joshua assigned this area to Benjamin. So what the sign indicates is that Oslo may have designated the land for Palestinians, but God had already given it to the Jews. Posted signs indicate that the area is officially known to the regime as Judea and Samaria. Benjamin’s land.

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The Benjamin sign is only in Hebrew, a message for the colonists alone. But its visual message is clear enough. The howling wolf arcs his body over a cluster of white houses with red roofs, set against green grass and trees. The imperial echo of the Roman wolf cannot be missed. The empire protects. The houses are recognizably those of the illegal settlements that cover every hilltop in the West Bank, which all have such red roofs, in part to make them visible to the Israeli air force as settlements.

The grass and trees transform the scene into an evocation of American suburbia, the picket-fence view of the world. When I took this picture, the temperature was 115 farenheit (45 celsius). Any greenery in a Dead Sea settlement—and there is plenty—is both an ideological production and an environmental fabrication that relies on appropriated water. 10,000 settlers living in the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea area use one-third of the water accessible to the entire Palestinian population in the West Bank (estimated at over 2.5 million).

 

 

C is for City.

Cities are the testing ground for what is now in formation. Hebron, a notionally Palestinian city, has become the front line of settler colonialism in Palestine. The settlers are expanding, street by street, using their mix of the carceral state, religion and military force. To visit Shuhada Street, formerly a shopping hub of the Palestinian neighborhood, you have to pass through a forbidding checkpoint. The street is closed, all Palestinian shops barred and sealed. Settlers and soldiers patrol to make sure you know who’s in charge.

Although the street has been closed for years, it was nonetheless disturbing to see Stars of David painted on the closed doors, as if in active forgetfulness of those other times and places where such stars were painted on Jewish shops to different ends (fig. 3). More disturbing yet was the thought that perhaps the ends were not that different after all.

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At that moment, a settler started to film us from the other side of the street. Losing my temper, I walked towards him, holding my phone so as to film him. He retreated, only to return with a soldier a few moments later. Nothing was said, but the point was made: we were photographing on their sufferance. We left in short order.

 

D is for Desert

In the Naqab desert (called the Negev by the regime and within what Palestinians call the forty-eight, meaning the 1948 border), Bedouins at the village of al-Aqarib told us how their village had been destroyed ninty-eight times by Israeli police (over one hundred times as of October 2016). Their crops have been sprayed with Round Up from the air. The Jewish National Foundation plants millions of trees over as much of the Bedouin land as they can, aided by well-meaning environmentally inspired donations from the United States and elsewhere.

The Bedouin’s animals are arrested as they graze by the Green Patrol—an ecological unit of the regime—and the Bedouin are forced to pay heavy fines to retrieve them. How so? The regime has declared 85 percent of the Naqab to be state land or environmental reserves, so any person or animal setting foot in these areas is trespassing. The camels are arrested just like anyone else. Despite these conditions, we were treated to a lavish and delicious meal at al-Aqarib, according to the dictates of hospitality. A week after we left, the structures were demolished yet again.

 

G is for Giraffe

The Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi has called Israel a “carceral state.” A metonym of this condition, and its complications, can be found at Qalqilya zoo. Qalqilya is almost entirely surrounded by the Separation Wall, as a result of its involvement in the first Intifada. Despite this embattled status, it has within it a zoo, one of the few functioning public leisure spaces I saw.

Like most zoos, its containment of animals is grim. A brown bear paced in his cage relentlessly, as if wanting the Palestinian visitors to see his confinement as their own. Most dramatic is the separate museum that contains a number of stuffed animals. They died in the Intifada, as in the case of the giraffe, who lay down in fear during gunfire, causing her to die from her own blood pressure (fig. 4).

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It transpired that she was twelve months pregnant (out of fifteen), and so the zoo director, Sami Khader, turned taxidermist to preserve them. Their spindly bodies are perhaps indicative of his emergent skills or maybe testify to the emaciated condition of the animals under siege. You might see them as martyrs, nonhuman victims of the occupation, or as surrogates, waiting until Palestine is free to welcome other giraffes. It’s a poignant story, and there’s a film being made called Waiting for Giraffes and a published book called The Zoo On the Road to Nablus.

But there were very few visitors other than us to the museum, not least because there was an additional charge for admission. And then there’s always the occupation. During the Intifada the animals that did survive were forced to eat leaves from the trees and other local plants. At some point later, Dr. Sami (as he is known) decided to take animal food and other equipment from Israeli zoos. To do so is to break the boycott of Israel. Palestinians condemn his action.

Is sustaining a public resource and keeping animals alive a reasonable cause? Or is a boycott a boycott? Palestinians demonstrate time and again a long-term steadfast resistance, known as sumud in Arabic, to their own material and physical detriment. There is no simple and painless answer to this dilemma, which is the condition of being under occupation. The proper solution is, of course, an end to that occupation.

 

S is for Settlement

Perhaps the strongest impression that a visitor to Palestine receives is how many settlements there are in the West Bank. No one should imagine that they all can be removed in some future two-state solution. That’s why I initially put West Bank in quotation marks: there is no West Bank. As we were driving, we once went into a valley where there was no settlement. Surprised, I glanced at my watch. It was twenty-five seconds before the next settlement became visible.

Settlement landscape in Palestine is not hard to read because it is intended to dominate and intimidate (fig. 5). The settlements occupy hilltops to command a dominant viewpoint all around. The windows of the buildings face out to have as many eyes engaged in this monitoring as possible. They are close together for supposed safety, built behind defensive walls on land cleared of trees. There’s little left to tell you that Palestinians once farmed the land. Even the slow-growing olive trees have been cleared to make way for fast-growing pines.

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The pines are cultivated for timber, but they also serve to make the settlements look established. And they remove a resource from Palestinians. Locals told us that the Israelis had sedated and removed even the local wildlife, like deer and eagles. I have not been able to independently verify this account, but the absence of wildlife was notable.

In this valley, though, one farmer has kept a foothold. Using Ottoman-era documents to demonstrate ownership, the family has been able to cling to their land. Their goat pen is visible at bottom left. Thousands more were not so “lucky.” Their land is gone, appropriated or made useless. The Bedouin at al-Aqarib have similar documents that have not helped them.

 

T is for Tell es Sultan

A ‘tell’ is the name for an archaeological mound created by an abandoned human occupation (fig. 6). In Tell es Sultan, just outside Jericho, the British architect Kathleen M. Kenyon excavated human settlements reaching back to 10,000 BCE. That’s the very beginning of the Holocene, the now concluded window in which stable climatic conditions allowed for settled agriculture and what we call civilization.

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Kenyon’s signature “stratigraphic” style allows us to see the unfolding of human possibility from that early period, via the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages to the Romans. Her vertical method emphasizes these changes over time, rather than allowing for a horizontal exploration of how people lived in any one epoch. The discoveries of tombs on the north side of the site were in fact made by Palestinians from the ‘Ein-as-Sultan camp that held 20,000 refugees after 1948. In 1967, all but a thousand or so were expelled into Jordan. The British Museum where some of Kenyon’s objects are now housed makes no reference to the Palestinian role in discovering the tombs or to the camp, which is visible if you know where to look in the site photograph provided. No one does, they all rush past to get to the Egyptian “mummies,” human remains on display for tourist consumption.

Everything changes. An urban civilization fell circa 2530 BCE. It was not restored until 1900 BCE. The big white tourist buses arrive and take a look at what they incorrectly believe to be the fallen walls of Jericho and leave. When you look up at the mountains above you realize what a mote in the eye of geological time these little ripples have been.

 

 

Q is for Qalqilya

Everywhere you look in Palestine, there’s detritus—discarded packaging, demolished housing, unfinished settlements, abandoned cars, electrical components, and trash and waste of all kinds. In Area C, most of the West Bank, no one is authorized to pick up trash—the PA has no authority, and the IDF could care less. In the refugee camps the United Nations steps in. Elsewhere, it piles up or people burn it, contributing to the omnipresent smog.

At the Qalqilya checkpoint at the end of the day, after the last few workers have returned around 7:30 at night, crossing back into Palestine from Israel where they work, no one hangs around (fig. 7). To be sure of getting through in time for work, people will begin queuing again at 2 a.m. to be well-placed when the checkpoint opens at six. It processes one person at a time. Around four thousand will go through.

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And so coffee cups, soft drink bottles, bus tickets, and candy wrappers pile up, signs of lives lived in transit (fig. 8). As they sediment into the ground, the impermeable plastics and metals will await some future archaeologist, one who will note with surprise the sudden collapse of a short-lived but apparently consumer-oriented society. They will puzzle over the fences and walls; what purpose could they have served? Perhaps a new legend, like that of Joshua and the walls of Jericho will have been created. It’ll be a long wait for these new investigators; evolution takes place in deep time. The plastics, metals, and rocks won’t mind.

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Acknowledgements

I visited accompanying the art activist group MTL and with the generous support of many Palestinians, especially Habshe Yossef. I would also like to acknowledge the decolonial activist group Zochrot for arranging my meeting at al-Aqarib. The full web project is still being worked on by techs at USC for security. When available it will be  here. For the time being I have made a PDF of the project that you can access, with either the full text or just the introduction.

That said, all the opinions expressed here are mine alone.

 

[1] These are selected entries from the full ABC available at scalar.usc.edu/nehvectors/mirzoeff/index

 

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New Essay from Danny Postel

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.

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The Liquid State

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?

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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.”

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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.

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Palestine at the 2016 MLA

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.

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What do Dinosaurs want? Read W. J. T. Mitchell’s review of The Good Dinosaur at LARB!

Check out the review at LARB!

 

1eb3b-gertie_the_dinosaur

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Bond, Treasury Bond: 007 Is Out of Cash, but Your Government Can’t Be

By Scott Ferguson

spectre
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.

Digitally rendered exterior of Spectre’s privately backed British Intelligence headquarters

Digitally rendered exterior of Spectre’s privately backed British Intelligence headquarters

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.

Inside London’s City Hall

Inside London’s City Hall

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.

Christophe Waltz as Franz Oberhauser: criminal mastermind and head of SPECTRE

Christophe Waltz as Franz Oberhauser: criminal mastermind and head of SPECTRE

SPECTRE’s desert base exploding

SPECTRE’s desert base exploding

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.

bernie_sanders_2016

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.

Stephanie Kelton: MMT economist and advisor to Senator Sanders

Stephanie Kelton: MMT economist and advisor to Senator Sanders

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.

WPA poster created by WPA artists

WPA poster created by WPA artists

And such a world can be made ours without risking  inflationary price rises, says MMTers such as Kelton, so long as government funding remains directed at  real resources and productive capacities.

Digital explosion in Spectre’s Austria sequence

Digital explosion in Spectre’s Austria sequence

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.

MMT shows that government spending works, not by draining physical money from public coffers but, rather, through “keystrokes” (i.e. pushing buttons on Treasury computers). Hands Typing on Computer Keyboard --- Image by © Lawrence Manning/Corbis

MMT shows that government spending works, not by draining physical money from public coffers but, rather, through “keystrokes” (i.e. pushing buttons on Treasury computers). Hands Typing on Computer Keyboard — Image by © Lawrence Manning/Corbis

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.

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Toward a People’s History of the Syrian Uprising—A Conversation with Wendy Pearlman

(Cross-posted from PULSE)

By Danny Postel

In the increasingly disfigured debate about Syria, it is scarcely even remembered that it all began as a popular uprising—indeed, as a nonviolentand non-sectarian one whose goals were dignity, justice, and freedom from a one-family mafia torture state in power for more than four decades.

Wendy Pearlman is out to set that record straight and explain why the Syrian uprising happened in the first place.

Pearlman, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University in Chicago who serves on the faculty of the university’s Middle East and North African Studies Program, is the author of Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada and Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement.

For the last two years Pearlman has been working on a book that she conceives as something of a people’s history of the Syrian uprising. She has interviewed more than 150 Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey about their experiences in the uprising and war. Along the way, she has published a series of powerful articles, among them “Love in the Syrian Revolution”“Fathers of Revolution” and “On the Third Anniversary of the Syrian Uprising”.

In September, our Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver had the pleasure of co-hosting Pearlman (along with the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy) for a pair of presentations about her book-in-progress. While she was in Denver, I conducted this interview with her for our Middle East Dialogues video series:

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