Saturday, 17 September 2016

Seven Left Myths about Capitalism

By Blair Taylor

Occupy Wall Street has renewed hope for a left political renaissance by challenging economic inequality and the neoliberal discourse that legitimated it, and reintroducing the word capitalism to political debate. The “greed” of the “1%,” counterpoised to the hardworking, rule- abiding 99%, has emerged as the dominant political frame of OWS. Rhetorically powerful, the slogan’s elegant simplicity conceals as much as it reveals. The language of “corruption,” the betrayal of Main Street by parasitic Wall Street bankers, and nationalist appeals to “take America back” all express a deep confusion as to the nature of the current crisis. This often results in a highly personalized moral critique of capitalism rather than a systemic one. 

The crisis wracking capitalism today cannot be understood as simply the evil actions of greedy bankers and the 1%. In fact, as Max Weber pointed out, unlike the ostentatious opulence of earlier economic forms like feudalism, capitalism actually has tendencies which check greed for example how intra-capitalist competition forces firms to save and reinvest. Thus the logic of states wielding coercive external power in human form as armies and police is quite different from that of capitalism, wherein power is more difficult to pinpoint or assign personal agency to. Conflating these two modes of power leads to very different political demands and outcomes. Capitalist power acts not only or even primarily on us from outside, but through us, as worker and capitalist alike are caught up in an impersonal competitive imperative that would quickly bankrupt any turncoat bankers or CEOs who might suddenly take Occupy’s message to heart.

With this in mind, I would like to examine seven myths about capitalism commonly found on the left that offer an incomplete critique of capitalism that points in the direction of insufficient reform or towards reactionary rather than emancipatory forms of anti-capitalism. 


Why is decrying greed problematic? Because focusing on greed personalizes what is a structural problem, making it individual rather than systemic in nature. Although there are certainly greedy people, this is not a moral failing or “human nature,but people acting quite rationally within the structures of capitalism. Our present age of mergers and megacorporations is no accident; they are the winners within a capitalism driven by a grow-or-die imperative fueled by never-ending competition. Within capitalism there is little space to act “ethically,” as institutionalized competition forces everyone from owners looking to cut costs, workers seeking to maximize gain, and consumers hunting for the best price to act immorally. By subjecting them to economic calculation, capitalism makes a mockery of our deepest ethical values. An analysis emphasizing greed points towards changing morality, when what is really needed is to get rid of the institutions that incentivize such behavior.


Another familiar charge in the current crisis is corruption that greed drove bankers to break their own rules, wrecking the economy in the process. But capitalism obeys only one fundamental rule: generate ever more profit or perish. The language of corruption implies exception, a situation wherein something has gone wrong; but the problem is rather the rule: the ordinary workings of capitalism. Although there are always scandals where outright deception, bribery, or insider trading occurs, the reality is that very few laws were broken in creating the current crisis. Calls for getting money out of politics only get us to the point of nations with strict election finance laws, like England, where politicians still govern according to the needs of capital. Corruption is not the problem.

Economic Nationalism 

Strong nationalist currents have also surfaced in Occupy Wall Street. Whether it’s purple armbands that signify the mixing of the red white and blue of the flag, or the language of “Take America Back,there’s a strong desire for a return to normalcy, defined as a middle class standard of living. But the idea that the state, like “the economy,” is a neutral and unified entity that works for the good of all is a falsehood: the nation-state never protected anyone from capitalism, but rather provides for its smooth functioning. Likewise, there was no “Golden Erawhen capitalism somehow respected national borders in its search for new exploitable resources, labor, markets, and profit. At best it struck a compromise with a small percentage of mostly white workers in the West for a short time in the wake of World War Two. America’s post-war economic dominance has faded; international competition has brought the austerity it once imposed on the third world home. In addition to reinforcing the state, such economic nationalism displays a callous disregard for people in other nations, as well as immigrants; a poignant reminder why rightwing libertarian elements were prominent in the early days of Occupy. But we don’t want to go back to an American Dream that was built largely on the backs of people of color both in the US and abroad. Capitalism has never worked for “the people,” American or otherwise, and never will.

Finance Critique

Another line of argument identifies finance as the culprit, contrasting the speculative greed of Wall Street to an honest and hardworking Main Street which produces tangible goods and services. It is claimed that Wall Street is a casino economy that doesn’t produce anything useful, has no loyalty to American workers, and is run by amoral CEOs who make astounding salaries. But this distinction between a real and unreal economy is a fiction, Main Street operates according to the same logic as Wall Street on a smaller scale, and may even finance parts of it. But more fundamentally, to single out banking misses the point: all capitalist enterprise exists to produce profit, not meet human needs.
Finance as a sector has certainly grown in size and importance, but this must be contextualized within a larger trajectory of capitalist development the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) economy became central to the neoliberal project because, aided by technological development, it was a convenient and low-cost strategy for dealing with the crisis of capital accumulation in the 1970s finding new ways to extract profit in the face of international competition, automation, and the gains of workers’ movements.2 But Wall Street is no more or less parasitic than any other sector of the economy. This populist analysis blames opulence, money, and abstract exchange while ignoring the equally problematic nature of good old fashioned exploitative wage labor, or how the two are mutually intertwined. Furthermore, both lines of argument must also cope with a present reality wherein to even be exploited as waged labor is increasingly the luxurious privilege of a dwindling few. The irony is that workers today appear to need capitalism more than it needs them.


The American left has often substituted a critique of corporations in place of a critique of capitalism. And it’s easy to beat up corporate giants like Wal-Mart, Coca Cola, and Bank of America, whose global operations obviously do much harm. However, the problem is not a quantitative one of size or scale, but rather qualitative. Capitalism is a social logic which impels small companies to act the same way, and sometimes even worse. Large corporations, because of their size, reach, visibility, and superior resources, are often in a better position to be unionized or otherwise pressured to pay better and offer benefits smaller businesses simply can’t offer.

In a conversation during the early days of OWS, activist “preacher” Reverend Billy expressed exactly this critique, stating that Brooklyn bodegas (corner stores) posed an alternative to “the 1%” economy because they build community you might know the person behind the counter or be able to momentarily leave your kid there while running an errand. Yet these same bodegas are often family businesses employing family members who are un- or underpaid, work long hours and lack vacations or health care. OWS has suggested moving money out of big banks like Bank of America and Chase and into smaller credit unions. Unfortunately, it turns out many credit unions are engaged in the same practices as larger banks, only at a local level.4

Focusing on large corporations also has the tendency to reduce politics to aesthetics: absent a critique of the common logic behind large and small firms, politics becomes a search for authenticity too easily channeled into consumption and individualism. Size is not the problem; the only real difference between Wal-Mart and Etsy is taste and market share.


These various partial critiques easily combine to produce conspiratorial views of capitalism. In this view the problem is the result of a secret, hidden cabal of evildoers we just need to rip off the façade and voilà! liberation. This narrative of redemptive revelation is seductive, but it ignores the systemic nature of capitalism. Marx stated that capitalism operates “behind our backs,” appearing natural and rendering exploitation invisible so that when problems are identified, conspiratorial perspectives become attractive. But the problem is not the secret machinations of the Federal Reserve, bankers, Jews, or the trilateral commission; it is the fundamentally irrational logic of capitalism.5

Alternatives and the Myth of Autonomy

Faced with the ugliness of capitalism, understandably people often look to alternatives such as cooperative enterprises, community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, local currencies and barter networks. These projects often provide important and desirable things like higher quality products, a sense of community, or increased self-management. However, their limitations are too often overlooked or simply wished away. Embedded in the same capitalist logic and subjected to the same market pressures as traditional firms, they can easily become indistinguishable from entrepreneurship with noble intentions. But you can’t small business your way out of capitalism. The workers’ cooperative of Mondragon in Spain is an instructive example. Forced to compete with traditional firms, their avowed political aims like higher wages, longer vacations, or environmental considerations become a competitive disadvantage in relation to firms lacking such moral scruples. The result is that Mondragon increasingly resembles a typical capitalist enterprise, compelled to make similar decisions only with fewer bosses to blame.

Such projects are often oblivious to the long history of attempts to economically move away from capitalism, or to restrain it politically. In France, 1981 Francois Mitterand tried to implement a moderate socialist program and was rewarded with massive capital flight, he quickly changed course. In Greece, it was socialists who presided over post-crisis austerity. The “market” also recently punished France for its insolence in electing a socialist president. If even powerful nation-states are powerless to control capital, how can small enterprises expect to fare any better? 

In their zeal to transcend the many horrors of capitalism, many of these strategies seek to jump outside of it. But “autonomy” from capitalism is even more impossible than autonomy from the state it has captured. Limited by the competitive pressures of a market economy and private ownership, every social gain won by alternative economic projects or reform-minded politicians constitutes a competitive disadvantage against capitalist firms, or nations, lacking such scruples. The result is typically liquidation or a more self-managed form of capitalism not so distant from the quintessential entrepreneurial dream of “being your own boss.” However, acknowledging Adorno’s insight “There is no right life in the wrong oneis not to admit defeat but instead to demand a politics which squarely confronts the structural limitations and opportunities posed by the totality of capitalism. 

Why Does Our Analysis of Capitalism Matter?

Having an accurate understanding of capitalism is not simply a nitpicky or academic concern; it is important because different analyses of capitalism lead in very different political directions, not all of which are emancipatory. Unfortunately, some of the critiques put forth by Occupy today unwittingly echo slogans from National Socialism – to “take backthe economy from a disloyal and parasitic class, make the economy work for the “right” national group, etc... The left has no monopoly on critiques of capitalism, and given its present historical weakness there is great danger in the rise of reactionary forms of anticapitalism. Around the world today right wing movements and parties tap into economic discontent and channel it into nationalism, blaming foreigners, welfare recipients, and “disloyal” corporations. One common nationalist demand is to make capitalism work once again” for the native-born citizens of their respective countries. But such nationalist and fascist critiques of capitalism are false solutions in that they misunderstand the nature of capitalism and pose authoritarian solutions that destroy freedom. 

The documentary film “Inside Job” provides a good example of this constellation of false critiques, and the problematic political solutions they imply. It portrays the economic crisis as a classic case of a few “bad apples” whose greed and bad morals, established through their use of cocaine and prostitutes, also happen to ruin the economy. The film even goes so far as to biologize the problem, showing brain scans that allegedly show how excited bankers get when handling money! Its final panoramic shot of the Statue of Liberty suggests a patriotic return to economic nationalism; naively utopian in the face of a globalized capitalist economy that has long since rendered even such mythical notions quaint. 

Many historical factors sustain today’s fuzzy thinking about capitalism. One is the legacy of the Cold War: the collapse of “actually existing socialism” and resulting “End of History” consensus only strengthened a hysterical anticommunism that made talking about capitalism, let alone socialism or communism, almost impossible in the United States. Systematic repression from McCarthyism to COINTELPRO also contributed to the rise of a left which largely neglected political economy for 40 years, while more robust critiques and history of capitalism languished in ever-dwindling sectarian Marxist circles. American traditions of pluralism, pragmatism, and anti-intellectualism also work against a deeper theoretical understanding of capitalism. This also sheds light on the current popularity of prefigurative politics. While the desire to model the world we want in the here and now is an admirable one, it also holds out the seductive fiction that we don’t need politics, analysis, or organization we can lead by example, until so many people join that the world changes. Thus prefigurative politics fills the vacuum of clear left political ideas, allowing populists and anarchists to converge in practical matters while carefully avoiding addressing questions or demands which will inevitably entail fragmenting the perceived unity of the 99% according to how they understand the nature of the problem and thus the appropriate solution.
The Need For Radical Thinking 
After years of neglect, Left thinking about the economy has become vague, opportunistic, lacking vision. Many simply nod along to recycled Keynesian solutions of those like Paul Krugman, which fail to explain why social democracy was steamrolled by neoliberalism in the first place. The economic crisis of 2008 revealed that capitalism is only in “crisis” when it hurts capital. But if the fundamental issue is to make the economy serve human need rather than the other way around, then why stop halfway? Capitalism certainly hasn’t – the most “successful” revolution in terms of transforming the globe in the last 40 years has been the market utopianism of neoliberalism. We must also think big: we don’t just want a bigger slice, but the whole damn bakery! 

In this regard, we should learn from the capitalists, who ironically have taken up traditional left demands more ably than the left itself has. Automation has made fewer jobs necessary, and everyone knows work sucks anyway, so why valorize toil and demand useless busywork jobs? Instead of chastising the 1% for their lives of idle luxury, the left should demand it for all. And sadly it has been the capitalists, not workers, who have shown they have no nation. The left should follow suit with a militantly cosmopolitan internationalism that has no more use for borders than transnational corporations do. The “crisis” has revealed that what used to be deemed impossible is in fact a matter of political will, as the state has bailed out banks and nationalized the auto industry but left people to fend for themselves. The result is a perverse socialism in reverse: socializing all the risk while privatizing all the wealth. Our task is simple, but not easy: the current crisis has shown that a society organized around production for the accumulation of profit doesn’t work – even according to its own standards. It’s up to us to reverse this communism for capital, making our vast productive and intellectual capacities serve humanity, not the other way around.

1 Ross Wolff, “Concerning Greed and Romantic Anticapitalist nostalgia.” kinder-gentler-capitalism-past/. The Charnel House.

2 David Harvey. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005 

3 Doug Henwood. “Small is Not Beautiful.” National Post (Canada), September 23, 2003. http://lbo- 

4 Henwood, Doug. Moving Money (revisited).Left Business Observer. November 8th, 2011. http://lbo-
5 Spencer Sunshine. “Occupied with Conspiracies? The Occupy Movement, Populist Anti-Elitism, and the Conspiracy Theorists.” Shift Magazine, November 2011.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Attacks on Israel Ignore the Long History of Arab Conflict

 By Murray Bookchin

There is certainly much one can criticize about Israeli policy, particularly under the Likud government which orchestrated the invasion of Lebanon. But the torrent of anti-Israeli sentiment that has surfaced in the local press and the virtual equation of Zionism with anti-Arab racism impels me to reply with some vigor.

For years I had hoped that Israel or Palestine could have evolved into a Swiss-like confederation of Jews and Arabs, a confederation in which both peoples could live peacefully with each other and develop their cultures creatively and harmoniously.

Tragically, this was not to be. The United Nations resolution of 1947, which partitioned Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, was followed by the invasion of the country by Arab armies, notably the Egyptian, Syria, and highly trained Jordanian “Arab Legion” with direct or indirect aid from Iraq and other Arab nations.

In some cases these armies, particularly the Arab irregulars who accompanied them, took no prisoners in their assaults on Jewish communities. Generally, they tried to systematically obliterate all Jewish settlements in their paths until they were stopped by furious and costly Jewish resistance.

The invasion and the annihilatory combat it created set a terrible pattern of fear and bitterness that is not easy to erase from the minds of Israeli Jews. That a desperate lunatic element of Jewish zealots behaved in kind before it was stopped by the newly formed Israeli military forces should not allow us to forget the Jewish men and women who were slaughtered by the stalwarts of Arab nationalism even after they had raised white flags of surrender.

I have seen very little mention of this fearful pattern of “combat” which stained the Arab invasions of Palestine and so profoundly influenced Jewish confidence in the value of “truce negotiations” and the predictability of peace agreements with Arab irredentists. Indeed, the partition lines that were eventually established after the 1948 invasions were the product of bloody warfare – literally the give-and-take of battle – not the “imperialistic” or “land-grabbing Zionists,” to use the language that is so much in vogue these days.

Nor do I hear any longer of the ernest attempts by the the Haganah – the Jewish citizens' militia of the partition era – to encourage Arabs to remain in their neighborhoods and towns, of the Israeli vehicles with loudspeakers that went through the streets of Jaffa, for example, urging Arabs not to succumb to the feelings of panic engendered by battle conditions and by extremists on both sides of the conflict.

That many Arabs remained in Israel clearly challenges the myth that Israeli Jews tried to rid the country of its Moslem inhabitants. What seems to be totally ignored is the certainty that there would have been an Arab state in Palestine side-by-side with a Jewish one if Egyptian armies to the south, Syrian in the north, and Jordanian in the east had not tried to seize both U.N.-Partitioned lands with imperialist interests of their own and, when this failed, used the Palestinian refugees as pawns in future negotiations with the Israelis and their western supporters.

There is another myth that must be removed: that the present volatile situation in the Middle East has its source in the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts; indeed, that the relationship between the Jews and Arabs was “beatific” until it was poisoned by “Zionist ambitions.” Leaving aside the simplistic image of Middle East problems that this notion fosters, the extend to which it is a sheer distortion of Jewish-Arab relations in the past verges on the unspeakable.

Are we to forget that Arab persecution of Jews, while less genocidal than European, has a centuries-long history of its own with the exception of Oslem Spain and Ottoman Turkey? That Arab pogroms against the Jews accompanies the Jewish settlement of pre-World War II Palestine, culminating in the extermination of the ages-old Jewish community of Hebron (once the seat of the Hebrew tribal confederacy) in the late 1920s? That the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in the 1930s (the precursor of Yassar Arafat two generations ago) was an avowed admirer of Hitler and called for a “holy war” of extermination of Palestinian Jews up to and into World War II? That Jordan's “Arab Legion” systematically leveled the old Jewish quarter of Jerusalem in 1948 and stabled horses at the Western Wall of Herod's Temple, defiling the most sacred place of world Judaism?

Are we to forget that General Hafez Assad, the so-called “president” of Syria (elected by a “majority” of 99.97 percent of the Syrian “electorate”) slaughtered between 6,000 to 10,000 people in Kama in February 1982, for daring to challenge his leadership of the country?

One wonders why there was no storm of protest when Amnesty International in 1983 declared that “Syrian security forces have practiced systematic violations of human rights, including torture and political killings, and have been operating with impunity under the country's emergency laws”? Why is there no concern over Syrian imperialism – notably Assad's fantasy of absorbing Lebanon and Palestine, including Israel, in you please, into a Syrian empire – a goal every objective expert in the Middle East knows to be Assad's Arabic version of Rabi Kahane's insane version of a “Greater-Israel” -- a notion that has been vigorously denounced by responsible Jewish and Zionist organizations in Israel and abroad.

If the “core problem” of the Middle East, to use Miriam Ward's words in her Vermont Perspective of April 27, is the confiscation of Palestinian land by Israel, what would the whole area look like if Israel and its Jewish population magically disappeared from the scene? Would Syria be less of a police state than it is today and would its Sunni Moslem majority feel less dominated, exploited, and manipulated by General Assad, who tends to speak for the Alawite Moslem minority of the country?

Would Saudi princes cease to squander much of their country's wealth on limosines, palaces, jewels, and real estate abroad, much less bring a modicum of freedom to their own people at home? Would Egyptian landowners, living in lavish opulence amidst incredible squalor, return a fraction of their landholdings to a starved Egyptian peasantry? Would Iraq free its Kurdish peopulation to speak only of its most vocal and rebellious minorities, or meet their demands for genuine equal autonomy?

Would the Iraq-Iran war come to an end, a war that has already claimed a million lives in the past few years? Would Colonel Khadafy cease to be a strutting militarist who has been trying to eat away at the territories of many of his neighbors? Would Khomeni and Moslem fundamentalism, whose main thrust is against any form of modernity and western culture, give equality to women and freedom to critics of Iran's present-dat theocratic regime?

What is so disquieting about many persistent attacks of Israel is that they help to completely obfuscate what is really a “core problem” of the Palestinian people. This abandoned people is being used in the most unconscionable manner by the Arab states to conceal deep-seated economic, social, and cultural problems in their own lands and in the Middle East as a whole. That the differences between the Israelis and Palestinians have to be resoled equitably such that both people can live with a sense of security that resolves their fears of what has happened in the past and achieve a constructive harmony with each other goes without saying.

I am not sure what that solution will be. But it certainly will not be achieved by acts of PLO-related terrorism against independently minded Arab mayors who are trying to negotiate a settlement between the two peoples at one end of the spectrum or lunatics like Rabbit Kahane at the other end who are trying to expel the Palestinians from their landholdings and communities.

But crucial as such a settlement surely is, we should not bury the real “core problem” of the Middle East as embodied by its cynical politicians, landowners, oil barons, military juntas, fanatic clerics, and imperialistic predators in the welter and tragic problems that have emerged between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Given this background, it would be wise to remember that both peoples have more interests in common than they have differences. It would be a splendid example of political independence if people who raise a justifiable hue about military juntas in Latin America would remind themselves that they are confronted with an exact parallel in the Middle East -- from Colonel Khadafy to General Assad?

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Advanced Discrimination & Dragons: A Critical Look at Varg Vikernes’ Myfarog RPG

 So yeah, you can get angry at how racist/sexist/fascist this is. On the other hand, it’s pretty sad just how banal his version of bigotry turns out to be. It’s like looking at footage of a minstrel show. It’s out of date and out of touch with reality, just like Varg himself. As long as he doesn’t kill anyone (else), he’s welcome to live in his little fantasy land where primitive people have perfect teeth, sneaky Jews keep trying to pollute his pure heathen bloodline, and some esoteric notion of “honor” is more important than compassion or love or any of the things that make life satisfying. He’s a pathetic man who made a bad game and will probably blame his failure on the Zionist conspiracy or something.

It’s time for the community to reject Myfarog

Fantasy has always suffered a dangerous flirtation with the ugliest form of racism. The earliest voices of the genre – Tolkien, Lovecraft, and many others – lived in a time and place where ugly racial theories of supremacy and degeneracy were mainstream. We inherit imaginary worlds where dark-skinned people tend to be evil and malignant (drow, orcs, etc.) and light-skinned people tend to be good and virtuous.

For several decades now, the RPG world has worked to dismantle that part of our heritage, working toward new stories and new mythologies that are racially and culturally complex. I remember reading through the Eberron setting for the first time and thinking, cool, we’re finally getting there. Goblins were complex and often heroic. They had motivation, history. Orcs, too.

Now along comes Myfarog, an indie game produced by Varg Vikernes, a white supremacist from Norway who was convicted in the 1990s of murder and arson (he was found guilty of burning Christian churches).

In Myfarog, Vikernes doesn’t reject or downplay fantasy’s ugly history, nor does he distance himself from his own racist and violent past. Instead, he embraces those things. Indeed, he explicitly uses the racist elements hard-wired into many of our favorite fantasy games and novels to justify his own bitterly ugly RPG.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Toward the Next Jewish Rebellion: Facing Anti-Semitism and Assimilation in the Movement

My knot turns into a hot anger. Why doesn’t anyone say anything about this? And then it occurs to me that, I, too, have said nothing.

I said nothing when my friends blamed the Israel Lobby for US support of the war on Gaza and shared articles about how the US was tricked by Jews into supporting Israel in the first place, as if a lobby is actually what’s responsible for US elites deciding that it is in their interests to support a colonial Israel, as if even an organ as powerful as AIPAC can be held responsible for centuries of US imperialist foreign policy, as if it is always the all-powerful Jews behind the scenes pulling the strings.

I said nothing as friends of mine rejoiced at the deaths of Israeli soldiers with a glee I’d never seen toward any other soldiers, as if to root for the underdog also meant relishing the death of the opponent, as if the dead soldiers were not 18 year old kids raised on war and drafted by law into it by their leaders but somehow patently evil in their blood and their bones, as if slogans we used during the Iraq war like “Bring the troops home,” were too generous for them...

... I said nothing about the massacres of civilians in Syria that took place at the same time, just as most of my friends said nothing about it, as if the only reason to do so would be to distract from the war on Gaza, as if the Syrians must be forgotten so that the Jews can be held accountable.

I said nothing about the deafening silence of my friends about the children murdered at the Jewish day school in France, the shootings at Jewish community centers in Kansas City and Seattle, the Bat Mitzvah shot up in Denmark, the Jewish stores destroyed in Brussels, the synagogues firebombed in Germany, the Jewish graves defaced in Toronto — as if the only purpose of grieving Jewish death would be to justify Israeli militarism or American Islamophobia, as if mentioning these tragedies was to equate them with the oppression of other peoples, as if Jews today are too powerful to have compassion for.
As is common in Ecofascism, Varg Vikernes puts forth the idea that there's a spirit of nature that human beings must submit to, and also ties it in to overpopulation. This is presented on their Youtube channel ThuleanPerspective, where videos they post presenting their "Odalist" ecofascist perspective generally receive thousands of views.

Mankind has grown too much, and soon Mother Earth will see the need to teach us a thing or two about our place on this planet. Whenever any population on this planet grows too much, Mother Earth has her ways to deal with it. - Varg Vikernes 

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Company He Keeps: Meet Fromm's New Friend Brian Ruhe

Brian Ruhe is was a continuing-education instructor at Capilano University teaching courses on meditation and Buddhist philosophy, however on learning of his other activities, some of which might have been taught in his classes according to one anonymous poster in the comments section of the "Georgia Straight" article, Ruhe's contract was not renewed.

You see Ruhe was also a UFOologist (which might be eccentric but otherwise harmless) and a proponent of antisemitic tropes (which was not harmless and would sort of damage the university's reputation if they remained associated with him) which he cloaks in eastern spirituality...

... In short, Brian Ruhe is Canada's 21st century poor man's version of Savitri Devi, though he justifies his antisemitic Hitler worship based on a warped interpretation of Buddhism and, unlike Devi, Ruhe has the charisma of a lightly-used dish rag.


Thursday, 28 July 2016

A Left without Enlightenment? Postcolonialism in the Wake of Terror

By Blair Taylor

The murder of satirical journalists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris by Islamist gunmen became a hotly contested event for the contemporary left. On one side, liberals, atheists, and a smattering of “classical” leftists harshly denounced both the attacks and Political Islam, defending free speech and declaring their solidarity with the victims: “Je suis Charlie.” On the other, the postcolonial and anti-imperialist left denounced not the attack, but the magazine Charlie Hebdo as racist and Islamophobic for its satirical depictions of Islam, placing primary blame on domestic racism and imperial military intervention. For them, expressing support for free speech or the murdered journalists was understood as complicity with racism and the status quo. The recent Paris attacks have posed similar arguments placing primary blame on western imperialism and criticizing gestures of solidarity as hypocritical and racist. 

Thus the contemporary Left is sharply divided on questions regarding the universality or particularity of political critique, the validity of critiques of religion, and the role of international solidarity. Concerns about the cynical manipulation of solidarity and false universality have translated into a deep suspicion of these once basic left concepts. Increasingly, one set of ostensibly left commitments anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and anti-militarism are deployed against the values of universalism, free speech, and solidarity. Is this simply a matter of strategic differences, or does it reflect more fundamental political disagreements that are reshaping the basic contours of left politics?
This article will suggest the latter; namely that a political constellation which draws from postcolonialism, white privilege and Critical Whiteness theory, poststructuralism, and queer theory comprise a new and distinct tradition in left wing politics. These perspectives are typically united by a profound distrust or complete rejection of universalism, secularism, and liberalism, understood as irredeemably false universals which can only ever mask racist, imperialist, and heteronormative assumptions and power relations. As the whole is always both partial and reflective of oppressive power relations, these discourses insist that one can only ever speak on behalf of oneself – or one’s identity group i.e. in the name of the particular. The very term “we,” once the foundation of left politics, is today viewed with suspicion.

L’Affaire Charlie Hebdo 

This new perspective came clearly into focus during the recent Charlie Hebdo affair, which prompted an immediate and seemingly unbridgeable divide within the Left. Notably, large segments of the Left refused to express solidarity with the twelve left wing journalists murdered by right wing extremists. As the gunmen were Islamists, left attention immediately leapfrogged over the actual murder of leftists to the possible (however likely) anti-Muslim backlash. Richard Seymour’s article “On Charlie Hebdo” in Jacobin was typical, skipping “platitudinous points” about protecting free speech to focus on the real threat Islamophobia. Seymour begins by redefining “terrorism” – a suspicious word he puts in scare quotes as not the calculated murder of civilians for political effect, but rather a “narrative device.” He suggests this framing of liberal rights versus Islamic terror is not only dubious, but mobilized by the powerful to “defend a fetishized, racialized ‘secularism,” amounting to a form of “blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.” Three months later, 204 prominent writers – including Junot Diaz, Eve Ensler, and Michael Ondaatje announced a boycott of the annual PEN free speech award gala in New York, arguing that by honoring Hebdo there were “not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.” In this formulation, free speech depends on one’s relationship to power, so that for a “population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims” Hebdo’s cartoons “must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”1

By boycotting an event to honor slain journalists by an organization founded to support writers imprisoned and killed for their views, these ostensibly liberal writers performed a strange reversal of perpetrator and victim which reproduced the same arguments of the right wing extremists who carried out the attacks: Hebdo constituted an intolerable affront to the Muslim world. Indeed, they echoed the response of the Catholic Church and conservative Islamic groups: by offending religious sensibilities, Charlie Hebdo had essentially “asked for it.” Within this enclosed worldview, however, Hebdo’s racism was assumed rather than demonstrated. For Seymour, this meant condescending appeals to a different kind of sacred text: “if you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia, and then come back to the conversation.” Yet this was a curious and partial anti-racism; left attention focused solely on the alleged Islamophobia and symbolic “violence” posed by Hebdo’s cartoons – a charge analyzed and refuted by a Le Monde Diplomatique study and the potential violence to come. Yet these same writers said almost nothing about the actual violence which took place, and ignored completely its explicitly racist dimension the targeted murder of Jews.2 Indeed, this antisemitism has become a pattern in the wake of terror attacks; the day after the recent Paris shooting an IS supporter in Marseilles stabbed a visibly Jewish school teacher. 

These positions do not result from a mere misunderstanding of Charlie Hebdo’s irreverent anarchic politics or French political culture, but rather reflect the explicit politics of a postcolonial left which discards Enlightenment values of universalism, secularism, and free speech as nothing more than masks for racism and imperialism. When considered alongside the total silence or explicit rationalization regarding one form of racism antisemitism this constellation and the strange bedfellows it results in is hard to see as either accidental, or for that matter, left in any meaningful sense. 

Decolonial Politics versus the Left: Le Parti des indigènes de la République

This becomes especially clear in the case of the French political organization Le Parti des indigènes de la République (Party of the Indigenous of the Republic, PIR), which first became known outside France in the wake of Hebdo for controversial statements like “freedom of expressiontakes on the opposite meaning and is being used instead to impose a reign of intimidation and fear,or that solidarity with the victims merely “served to unite white power.”3 Founded in 2005 in response to the racism which fed the explosion of immigrant rage in the Parisian banlieues, PIR has become a prominent political voice embraced by many left groups and thinkers. However, they openly state their politics are neither left nor right but “decolonial.” In fact, they state their “primary adversary” is the French left, whose “Eurocentric emphasis on the issues of class and employment” is presented as the primary obstacle to PIR’s priorities of “racism, police violence, Islamophobia and Zionism.”4 PIR claims these politics are grounded in the “real and authentic experiences” of postcolonial subjects, a perspective which explicitly “counteracts and opposes... the Enlightenment, Marxism, Western Rationalism, Universalism and Republicanism,” understood as contributing to a “linear historicity aiding the concept of white supremacy.”5 The resulting politics is a familiar one for those who claim to be “neither left nor right”: 

“[PIR] is a middle finger, a big “fuck you” to the Left. Or if you prefer, a quenelle. This pendulum swing to the right, contrary to appearances, is one of liberation. We should be considered allies... For this to be possible, we must be accepted as we are: a group that is racially and socially dominated, not necessarily clear-cut on several issues: not clear-cut on capitalism, not clear-cut on class struggle, not clear-cut on women, not clear-cut on homosexuality, not clear-cut on Jews.”6
But it is not the case that PIR is not “clear-cut” on these issues, but rather that it is all too clear. Although PIR are often celebrated as a more radical antiracist group than traditional integrationistorganizations like SOS Racisme, this same article, titled “Dieudonné through the
prism of the white left,” not only refuses to denounce the comedian’s antisemitism but embraces it. Despite its assurance that “the project uniting us must be a project of radical justice for all,” the very same line continues with the ominous qualification “For this, one must necessarily accept to get one’s hands dirty, as C. L. R. James advises us.” The James’ quote which follows is chilling and unambiguous: 

“The movements which seek ‘to drive the Jew out of Harlem or the South Side’ have a valid class base. They are the reactions of the resentful Negro seeking economic relief and some salve for his humiliated racial pride. That these sentiments can be exploited by fanatical idiots, Negro anti-Semites, or self- seeking Negro business men, does not alter their fundamentally progressive basis.”7
Such open racism exists alongside open homophobia. Party leader Houria Bouteldja has stated “The homosexual way of life does not exist in the banlieues, and that’s not entirely a bad thing,” and queers have been asked to leave the group.8 Given PIR’s explicit homophobia, antisemitism, cultural chauvinism, and ambiguity towards anticapitalism and universalism, the hostile reception by parts of the French left is unsurprising. What is more surprising and perhaps novel is that such ideas have found any welcome on the left. Yet oddly, such “decolonial” positions are in fact often most likely to be heard within the very groups demonized by this discourse – queers, (antizionist) Jews, “westerners,” and white leftists.

Reversing Orientalism, Inverting Eurocentrism 

These issues are not unique to PIR, but reflect particular common theoretical and political assumptions within postcolonial discourse more generally. Rather than rejecting racism, colonialism, and Orientalism, postcolonial arguments invert them essentializing various traits and positions as “indigenous” and defining them against an equally essentialist “white” or “western” population. Having abandoned universalism, postcolonialism frequently aligns with reactionary traditionalist, nationalist, and religious ideas. Unsurprisingly, nationalists and conservatives in Poland, Indonesia, and Nigeria have begun to justify their right-wing views in the language of “postcolonialism,” branding feminism, gay rights, liberalism, tolerance, secularism as “western” or “imperial” and thus inauthentic and oppressive to the “local” culture.9 Earlier, Germany marketed Nazism in the Arab and African world as an “anti-imperialist” ideology against the French and British. Therefore it is politically unclear what “decolonization” means in practice. Some seem to take the verb literally – to “decolonize” suggests abandoning any “contamination” by what is construed as “the West,” and sending colonizers and their descendants back to where they came from. 

Such arguments are not only deeply ahistorical mobility and migration have been constants of human history they are also profoundly Eurocentric. Europeans have no monopoly on imperial domination; indeed they arrived relatively late to that game, following in the bloody footsteps of the Mongol, Persian, Umayyad, and Ottoman empires. Indigenous societies were never peaceful utopias but have their own oppressive hierarchies and power relations slavery was common among Pacific Northwest tribes, while the powerful Iroquois dominated the Huron in imperial fashion. Postcolonialism often offers crude and reductive analysis of power and social relationships. Much left analysis of the Hebdo attacks followed a general pattern of explanation regarding Islamist terrorism: focusing solely on exclusion, Islamophobia, poverty, and an imperialist War on Terror. Yet in their zeal to blame Islamophobia and Empire, such explanations paternalistically ignore the actual stated motivations of Islamist actors the desire to impose a global Caliphate by force. As the PIR stated after Hebdo, “Deep inside them, they are well aware of this truth: it is they who, by their excesses and their encouragement to Islamophobia, have fueled this unhealthy climate for many years, while, conversely, we kept warning against fatal outcomes of this sort.” In these accounts, Islamist terror is and can only ever be a regrettable and confused form of resistance by the powerless to bigger and worse problems caused by the West and liberalism. While historical context is certainly important, it easily veers into rationalization. By contrast, one never hears leftists argue that “Violence by the KKK is deplorable, but must be seen as the direct result of decades of outsourced jobs, defunded schools, and the erosion of the welfare state.” Yet the arguments are structurally indistinguishable, viewing political violence as a rational if confused response to real political problems, thus requiring not condemnation but deeper introspection and self-analysis on the part of the victim.

Such accounts are not only dangerously naïve, overlooking the sponsorship of powerful, well- funded states like Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also the significant appeal political Islam poses even for the middle class and affluent. Especially in the Anglo-American left, this common sentiment does not challenge Eurocentrism, but reinforces it by viewing the world only in relation to the crimes of the imperial metropole, simply reversing the normative polarities of colonialism. This narcissism renders postcolonialism oblivious to the imperial ambitions, past and present, of non-western nations like Turkey, China, Russia, Iran, and Japan. The left’s deafening silence on Syria is telling; as the United States and Israel have been eclipsed by sectarian struggles for regional dominance between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, it no longer instinctively knows who to blame and what side to take, and thus says nothing at all.

Such narratives rest on a highly mechanistic view of social reality that is false. As David Bell notes, it is “it is in fact deeply condescending to assume that Muslims do nothing but react to the crimes and mistakes of the West.”10 It assumes that the West or in the case of Hebdo, small leftist journals acts, while Islamists (and the non-west generally) only ever react to this “prime mover.This perception is not only inaccurate but racist, as it denies the agency of those actors. There is no direct causality linking social exclusion and poverty to political radicalization, either of the left or the right. While such immiseration theories of social change have been largely discredited regarding Marxism and the working class, they live on in post-colonial discourse. The result is a reverse Orientalism wherein essentialist categories are retained but with the normative polarities reversed post colonial subjects, Muslims, and people of color are inherently good and progressive; while the West is always bad or worse regardless of the case or the stated politics of actors. Vivek Chibber thus concludes, “in the name of displacing Eurocentrism, postcolonial theory ends up resurrecting it with a ferocious intensity.”11

When Left and Right Switch Polarities 

Postcolonialism’s binary politics of “the west vs. the rest,” results in an affirmative rather than critical view of society. Rather than the “ruthless critique of everything existing” Marx called for, it becomes a ruthless apologia for everything existing. In a historical irony, the left and right have switched positions on many key issues the importance of cultural difference, universalism, relativism, secularism, free speech, human rights, and even the need for revolutionary change. This is especially clear concerning questions of Enlightenment, universality, and particularism. On this view, it is no mere accident that post-colonialism has significant overlap with conservative politics it reflects shared philosophical assumptions. This helps to explain the otherwise seemingly strange political bedfellows of Islamists and Marxist- Leninists, theocrats with queer activists, anarchists and reactionary nationalists.

This development reflects the impotence of the left in an era where hopes for emancipatory social change have dimmed. Responding to the frustratingly slow pace of social change, the intransigence of racism, and relative absence of progressive mass movements, large parts of the contemporary left have embraced a politics which combines particularism with a barely concealed skepticism about the possibility of social change the same orientation that was once the exclusive domain of the right. This results in a similarly conservative and defensive orientation which idealizes static endogenous populations and reduces politics to resisting “outsiders.” As with anti-imperialism before it, this creates space for endorsing reactionary movements as vehicles for powerless leftists to project their desires and resentments onto, disregarding these movements’ own stated goals. This is “radicalism” at its worst – other- directed, backwards-looking, and violent decidedly non-utopian. The absence of serious channels for social change produces a politics of bad faith that is moralistic and highly symbolic. Yet this powerlessness-induced left realpolitik can also work both ways, by creating an equal and opposite impulse to uncritically defend liberalism, interventionism, and the progressive aspects of capitalism. Thus the unlikely alliance mentioned above has been at times been mirrored on the other side: labor leftists, certain feminists, and Marxist intellectuals finding themselves agreeing with liberals, civil libertarians, and some right wing critics. This divide between a politics based on particularity and a shared culture versus universalism and shared positions is becoming an increasingly central fault line, one that is profoundly reconfiguring “the left.” 

The legacies of colonialism and racism are all too real, as is the Islamophobia fueling a resurgence of right wing xenophobic movements. However, while combating these forces the left must avoid several pitfalls: silently ignoring or dismissing the real threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism, adopting postcolonial positions that reproduce essentialist and monolithic categories of “culture,” and the resultant rationalization of indigenous forms of domination obscured by a simplistic “inside/outside” political dichotomy. It is necessary to address the ongoing reality of inequalities based on fictional and restrictive categories of race and nation, but without reinforcing and reproducing these same irrational social divisions. The “west,” “non- west,” “white people,” and “people of color” are not stable or unified categories but relationships of power which can and must be challenged, not affirmed. It must also be stressed that these groups are not monolithic, but internally divided by class, gender, and most importantly, subjective political commitments that do not directly correspond to subject position. By fusing subjectivity, culture, and politics to one’s social location, postcolonialism often resurrects the same closed worldview the Enlightenment sought to abolish.

The cultural relativism undergirding such arguments makes politics impossible, as it allows no place to judge different “cultures” understood as static, autonomous, unitary, and authentic. Not only does this evacuate politics, but it can easily backfire; just as claims about essential difference once buttressed slavery, the Confederate flag is defended today as a symbol of a unique Southern cultural heritage that must be protected. Absent any universal metric, which “culture” is worthy of support and defense? By its nature politics means judgment and taking positions, while revolutionary politics means a transformation of the status quo, not its defense. This extends to the ideas, lifeways, and institutions of both elites and masses, whether states, markets, patriarchal masculinities, or religious obfuscation of the social world. Once obvious, many leftists seem to have forgotten that social change requires conflict and offending received wisdom, not its polite affirmation. As Kenan Malik writes, “Today, when Enlightenment ideas are often seen as racist or reactionary because they are the products of European culture, and when the line between anti-imperialist and anti-Western sentiment has become all too blurred, [C. L. R. James's] insistence . . . that the aim of anti-imperialism was not to reject Enlightenment ideas but to reclaim them for all of humanity has become all the more important.” The answer to the incomplete and partial legacy of universalism is not its wholesale rejection; a glance at the examples offered by history and the present reveals that rooting political claims in particularity, fixed cultural differences, and “tradition” is to embrace the philosophical and political project of the right. Indeed, as the examples above demonstrate, there can be no left politics without the Enlightenment’s core principles of universalism, critique, and reasoned argument. As power relations around the world shift and the power and dominance of the U.S. and Europe continue to fade, the left must be clear about its basic principles and not embrace reactionary ideologies simply on account of what they oppose or who espouses them.

Works Cited:




8 denoncent-l-imperialisme-gay#

11 Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. P. 291