Archive for April, 2010

Machinisme (1913)

Extract from the first part (“What socialism wants”) from How We Are Socialists, by Sixte-Quenin (Socialist Encyclopedia, Quillet, 1913)

Today we can perceive that ‘mechanisation’[1] has rarified human labour.  Nonetheless, it has not begun its full development and capitalist concentration is not at its apogee.  When mechanisation has penetrated all production, and we cannot predict the multiple inventions that in the future will still create productive forces that abolish human labour, if man continues to work hours as long as he does currently, it will suffice that perhaps 20% or 10% amongst them will work to produce enough to meet the needs of all.  Problem: those that will not work, because the machine has replaced them, will not be able to buy from the capitalists what they need, so that there will be more and more accumulation of merchandise; the capitalists see that there is overproduction still abolishing work, even as they continue abolishing purchasers.  Eventually, we will one day see productive forces, of a power without equal that, if brought to bear, will furnish to Humanity all that will be necessary, resting absolutely inert, unproductive because the capitalists that possess them will have an interest in not producing.  The use of their machines will actually cost them, for they will not be able to sell their products, not out of lack of want by consumers, people die of hunger at the side of well-stocked tables after all, but because consumers lack the means, money, needed to buy.[2]

Additionally, it must be said that the workers who were shown the first machines had a vision of the misery it would bring; they burnt and destroyed and if there really was no other way to escape the impasse in which the proletariat was driven, if truly mechanisation would continue to be in the hands of the capitalist class a means of exploitation against the working class, we should return, to combat it, to the brutal and simple means employed against it at the very beginning.

Thankfully, it is not so; the mechanisation that, today, creates misery amongst the workers perhaps can, and surely will be, the instrument of its emancipation.  For them, it suffices that the means of production cease to be the private property of a privileged class and become the collective property of all.  The machine therefore will not deny some men of work, as it does presently, but it will diminish the amount of work of all, at the same time leaving production at a level wherein the needs of all can be satisfied.

Meanwhile, capitalist society puts on the mass on un-propertied a regime of misery and servitude that no long corresponds to mentality of today’s Man, and this contradiction between the needs of equality and liberty for which the modern world labours, and a social system that is the source of inequality and oppression, is the cause of the great troubles and convulsions we are witnessing, and will only end along with the regime that causes them.

[1]               I doubt that the work, strictly speaking, was in use: machinisme sounds more like machine-production-isation or machinising

[2]               This section proved difficult to translate: I’m not sure if I was missing the full meaning, whether it was vague and poorly worded to begin with, or the jargon of hundred year old socialists was too much for me.

Translated from an excerpt posted on Bataille Socialiste.  Part of my first attempt to do some translating work to spruce up and practice my French.  More on the way.

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A classic of British empire history, nearly fifty years old and still eminently readable and valuable as a contribution to the study of an idea with global clout. The Imperial Idea is complex, with a loose chronological narrative tying together a series of analytic and interpretative sections on the defence and opposition to Empire. Thornton’s book is sometimes frustratingly tangential, straying frequently away from the central preoccupations suggested by its title.  Power, as a concrete expression of police and armies, capital and law, class and bureaucracy, is elusive and not an end of the study in itself: consuls and armoured cars certainly appear, and his chapter on nationalism and the racism and discrimination is certainly enlightening, but what the reader will not find is a study of policing and military administration, as in Anthony Clayton’s or David M. Anderson’s work, nor much on the mechanisms and men who governed in Africa or India, nor any appreciable analysis of the financial and commercial sinews of empire found in Hutton and Davis’ Mammon and the Pursuit of Empire, or a thousand other deeply researched and heavily footnoted monographs. Perhaps it is the slipperiness of the subject: “imperialism has suffered from a working definition,” something that Thorton is obviously trying to rectify by studying the ideas of the imperialists and their opponents.  His focus on a coterie of important men is necessary because imperialism’s “translation into practice” demands “a political expertise that must be looked for amongst the few.” (264) Certainly many will disagree, and a great deal of excellent scholarship has been written about those ‘on the ground’ as it were and how they saw their duty, from Sarawak to Ghana.

Palestine Mandate, 1920, British Locomotive

Thorton’s book is instead much more of a history of ideas, ideology and political culture, one of the best I’ve read, that uses the conflicting discourses[1] of imperialism to get unfold its central tensions and ‘iron’ certainties.  Thorton thankfully writes fluidly and engagingly, a man so thoroughly familiar with the debates, sources and personalities that he rarely indulges in footnotes.  And like other great synthesising historians from the same period like Hobsbawm or Thompson, the editorial and polemical voice is never far.  Thorton can present the ideas, intimately and sympathetically, of a Milner or Churchill as if he himself holds them, and then by the next paragraph pull the curtain back on their venality, brutality or hypocrisy.  Careful reading is often necessary, as it can be easy for the unwary, as I was when I first read this book two years ago, to confuse Thorton with his subjects of study. The chapters on ‘The Imperial Idea at its Zenith’ and the two very loosely organised around the impact of the Boer and Great Wars are solid and probably some of the best condensed analysis of high-politics imperialism; Viscount Milner is the only major figure of stature who emerges unscathed, a man who seems to have genuinely felt that the Empire was a redeeming institution and worked to that end.  These chapters don’t reveal anything particularly new other than in the lightly incredulous treatment of bluster and hyperbole combined with high ideals.

Thornton’s treatment of British power in retreat are the strongest chapters.  He, for instance, identifies quite clearly the need of imperialism to “preserve its own moral content, its imaginative range, or its grip on the imaginations of its subjects,” wary of ever having the curtain pulled aside and the illusion shattered.  Imagination and emotion were necessary for imperialism to justify itself: “justification was therefore a term used emotionally.  The moment an imperialist began to use it rationally, he could not but see himself – in his private moments at least – as his enemies had always seen him: as a cynical power-grabber who would make use of any humanitarian or sentimental argument that happened to suit him at the time.” (213) Hence why emotional nationalism, either English or of the colonised, had less problem with emotional imperialism, with cricket or army barracks: it was the manipulative power behind the charade, profiting off empire while professing sacrifice.  The problem was that, aside from Milner and a few other prominent imperialists, imperial power, despite its imaginative appeal, had no real imagination.  It was run as a technocracy, of sorts, an administrative dictatorship that confirmed “there must always be a group of experts – the distributors, the co-ordinators, the trainers” running the show. The natives could not be trusted to run their own affairs, after all, nor would they be allowed.  The Radical and Liberal supporters who looked to the empire as a bastion of civilisation and education were uncomfortable with “the government of one people by another” (265) and had trouble reconciling the implications of their own enthusiasms, especially when it was  men from professions and classes often politically associated with Liberalism who ended up becoming those distributors, trainers and co-ordinators.

The penultimate chapter on democracy is unsettling for this reason, and contains a great deal of sometimes well-earned jabs at the opponents of Empire. What worried the opponents of empire was “the reckless inculcation by the imperialists of an unthinking jingoism – the lust of the spectator – in the masses” and how “dangerous it was to beat on a big drum.”  They feared their own populism because so much of what was ‘popular’ seemed so repellent and conservative.[2] This is analogous in the Empire: they feared the colonial peoples even while they claimed to work in their name.  A little of this discomfort is actually on display in Orwell’s Burmese Days, in which the Burmese and the Empire compete equally for Eric Blair’s loathing. The Radical critique of empire was never a critique of empire, but instead a call to recognise that “the British people…[were] the largest race that imperialism had cognizance of,” and their oppression, misery and mal-education needed to be cured as readily as that of Central Africans or Fijians.  (269)  Again and again, an uncomfortable parallel is obvious in The Imperial Idea between imperialists and Radicals, who both pushed for schemes of human betterment; indeed, the irony should not be lost that, “even by the 1930s, when the leading imperialists were generally held by public opinion to be ‘Die-Hard and reactionary to the bones, it was still amongst their group that the most far-reaching ideals of human progress, as conceived by Conservatives, were to be found.” (270) Colonial administration looks all the more ‘apolitical’, like any good technocracy, when conceived in this way, a system designed and organised for human betterment that has little time and enthusiasm for the humans it aims to better; the difference being in the British empire paternalism reduced colonial subjects to children instead of numbers.


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Tariq Tell, “Guns, Gold, and Grain: War and Food Supply in the Making of Transjordan,” in War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East, ed. Steven Heydemann (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000)

A train in the Hijaz, 1905.

States grow through war, are indeed designed for war, and it is usual, in studying the history of the formation of states in Europe and Asia in the early modern era, to focus on the act of warfare and its links to the growth in taxation, bureaucracy, markets and even citizenship and nationalism.  So what happens when a state is built by actively attacking and challenging the very processes that are supposed to be tied to a strengthening, centralised state?  This is the subject of Tariq Tell’s essay on the origins of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, or Transjordan as it was called between the world wars.

Tell attempts to move beyond the narrow historiographies of Hashemite propaganda of a patriotic people’s war rallied behind the sharif of Mecca, and the Arab nationalist counter-argument that Hussein’s revolt was a narrow, reactionary affair, the Bedouin tribes fighting for gold and not for a wider Arabist ideal.   Instead, “it is precisely the social and economic conditions of war, local strategies, and material incentives, rather than the high politics of British treachery and Hashemite ambition, that hold center stage” in his narrative, focussed upon the way in which food supply “shaped patterns of participation.” Where the Turks controlled adequate supplies of food or the markets, “tribal leaders displayed a greater reluctance to join forces with the anti-Ottoman campaign of Sharif Hussein.” Only good harvests or material success in capturing those points of supply ensured widespread tribal backing for the Arab Revolt.

Tell lays the success of the revolt on “the inhabitants of the province, whether townspeople or Bedouin…united in their hostility to the centralizing bent of Ottoman reform.” Ottoman rule was extended into the Transjordan between 1851 and 1893 by forts and outposts, reinforced by loyal settlers from the Caucasus, Circassians and Turcomen implanted along the frontier.  These settlements became centres for Arab merchants and professionals, who turned a former Circassian village, Amman (the current capital!) into a market town.  Grain farming increased due to booming prices, while the collection of taxes “created excess demand for liquidity and, therefore, an opportunity for merchants to accumulate capital through money lending.”  From the 1880’s onward, land transfers increased as communal Bedouin pastures were bought by settlers, merchants, moneylenders and bureaucrats, who, along with some Bedouin shayks, imported Palestinian and Egyptian sharecroppers; the surplus of this expansion of farming helped to solidify a new local elite.  What, in some anthropologies of the Middle Eastern state, is called a ‘dual system’ of settled agriculture alongside nomadic husbandry, developed uneasily, with frequent raids and revolts well into the 1890s.

Tell stresses that Transjordan was an unlikely place for Arabist ideology to develop, as it was relatively backwards, a frontier where the state was actually seen as being ‘progressive’ or at least superior to the alternative.  But both the Bedouins and the Sherif of Mecca feared the centralising efforts of the Ottomans, especially the expansion of the railway, which curbed their significant autonomy. Tell notes, for instance, that Hussein’s call to revolt “appealed to educated Hijazi opinion in traditional rather than Arabist terms…and the articles and editorials of his mouthpiece Al-Qibla, accused the “atheistic” CUP [Commitee of Union and Progress, ruling party of the Ottoman Empire] of tampering with the Islamic legitimacy of the Ottoman state and called for the preservation of the ancient privileges of the Hijaz.”  The fighting forces assembled by the Hashemites in 1916 and after were mostly, almost entirely Bedouin or Arab tribesmen: few deserters from the Arab officers or ranks of the Ottoman army played much of a role in Hussein’s forces, except in training and administration.  The centrality of Bedouins and Arab nomads “stamped the Arab Movement with a tribal character. This ensured that whatever the motives of its instigators, the form and content of the Arab Revolt reproduced traditional patterns of political change in the rural hinterlands of the Middle East.”


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Glory be to the Kyrgyz people, who did what I admit fully I would be far too chicken to actually do:  take on their corrupt government, fight the riot police and army in the streets, take over the armouries and ram the Presidential Palace with an armoured carrier, seize the means of communication, including state television, proclaim a revolutionary government and chase the hated president into hiding, bringing the armed forces to your side.  That is a brilliant heroism, paid for with a steep price in dead and wounded, especially after the Kyrgyz police opened fire with live rounds  in the capital, Bishkek.  Western commentary is predictably rather worried about the US military presence in the country, including a detailed article in Business Week that repeats twice that the US airbase is safe and unharrassed, and then relieved that the interim leader has “adopted Western mores,” whereas only a day later Time is rather distraught that “it seems clear now that Kyrgyzstan will quickly return to Moscow’s sphere of influence after months of strained relations with Russia, making the U.S. military presence in the country all the more precarious.”  Unsurprisingly, almost all the papers in the US, and it seems in Canada, are running with this story as a case of Russian resurgence or troublesome Kyrgyz, but beneath the rather pedantic and typical quivering boilerplate is a dramatic story that has become quickly elided.  A piece in Eurasia Insight traces the origins of the successful revolt to arrests of opposition leaders after disorders in Talas, the exclusion of northerners from the Kurultai, and economic sanctions from Moscow that raised the price of gasoline.  A massive hike in utilities seems to have been the final catalyst, hitting the urban workers, immigrants from the countryside, especially hard. The eXiled has, at yet, nothing to tell me about it, a shame because these kinds of events are often their speciality.  And we have seen the rise, according to this site, of the Fanny Pack Revolution:

Bakiyev’s fall marks  the first time this has occurred to leader elected during the journalist-named ‘colour revolution’s in the former Soviet Union, in his case the Tulip: the Rose brought Saakashvili in Georgia to power, and the Orange brought Yushchenko to the presidency in Ukraine.  In all three cases, they were not revolutions in the sense that this week’s events in Kyrgyzstan are: they all occurred during contested elections between an incumbent seen as being pro-Russian and using fraud to rig the vote in their favour, the response being small but well-organised protests, marches, sit-ins, some strikes in the Ukraine but all part of a protracted election and inter-elite bickering, a bit like the 2000 recounts in Florida if people had went out in the streets for a week for Gore.  Dramatic events, surely, for all involved, but the ‘colour revolution’ were also lauded, exalted and fellated in the Western press, NGOs and politicians (I recall some particularly adulatory articles from Maclean’s at the time) as if these electoral struggles were a kind of liberal democratic second coming, freedom finally here, universal human rights and American-style politics triumphant, the overthrow of evil kleptocratic ex-Soviet anti-democratic Russian bootlickers finally at hand!

Not, of course, that popular revolt wasn’t in the streets, or that the governments unseated by the ‘colour revolutions’ weren’t unpleasantly corrupt, but to advocate that they were only grassroots events involves “steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the extent to which today’s velvet revolutions have fallen increasingly prey to manipulation by ruling class and imperialist interests,” as Dragan Plavsic has it; Mark MacKinnon’s book on The New Cold War might also be worth reading along these lines.  The sequel to the ‘manufactured’ revolutions aren’t exactly encouraging, either: Saakashvili turns out to be little better than his predecessor, starting a war with Russia, cracking down savagely on protestors and the opposition in general, his popularity slipping fast.  Yushchenko turned out to be an ugly character when in office, dissolving the Rada twice and bitterly battling in the dirtiest political way, kicking out former supporters, his popularity slipping fast.  Bakiyev doesn’t appear to have been much better, and he followed the ‘colour revolution’ pattern of also advocating and pushing through neo-liberal structural adjustment and privatisation; the opposition had, as one of its first aims, the return of some companies to state control. The movements that brought them men to power obviously believed deeply in real democracy, and practised it in the streets, but what they got was, it seems, another aspect of real democracy: out with the old, in with the new, more of the same.

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About those Christian militia guys who got arrested in the States.  One of them is a real Surrealist, it seems, and surely is prove enough that Surrealism and its bastard child of absurdist comedy has infiltrated the consciousness of even those one who one who least suspect of it:

But Sickles, who in those videos identified himself as a member of the Ohio Militia, may also have a lighter side. The accused plotter looks to have starred in a deeply Not Safe For Work movie, filled with cursing, mock violence, pot jokes, and sound effects conveying flatulence. Sickles appears entirely naked but for a mask of President George W. Bush that obscures some, but not all, of his genitalia.

In the film, Sickles’s chubby, tattooed character finds himself attacked by an enormous creature which appears to be half man, half duck. “Scar my tattered body no more with your punishing dildo mallet,” Sickles exclaims at one particularly dramatic moment.

The Freudians should have a field day with this as well:  Christian anti-federalist militias as projections of deep sexual anxiety about dildos, duck-rape and skull-fucking George W. Bush.

Link:     http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/04/scar_my_tattered_body_no_more_with_your_punishing.php

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