Saturday, November 11, 2017

Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Vulgarity: a short history

When I was a kid the rich Saudis who filled Lebanon’s mountain resorts in the 1960s were often racialised.
Configurations of racialisation often intersect. Though some Lebanese Christians racialised Muslims, already in the sixties both joined in racialising Syrian workers for instance. But while the Syrian workers were racialised as stupid, the Saudis were racialised as vulgar (The Syrian middle classes in Lebanon participated in racialising the Saudis in this manner). Saudis were portrayed as backward people who have come across wealth and have joined the wealthy classes economically but who don’t know how to be part of them culturally. This went beyond the usual stereotypes of the vulgarity of the nouveau riche. One stereotypical image that I remember and that circulated widely was of Saudis sitting inside their Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces using their fingers to alternately eat and play with their toes. Such is racism: a vulgar mode of thinking that gives itself the power to differentiate between what is and isn’t vulgar. In the same way it also is an un-intelligent mode of thinking that gives itself the power to differentiate between who is and who isn’t intelligent.
This question of Saudi vulgarity comes to the fore today in the way they have dealt with the Lebanese Prime Minister, the man who was supposed to represent their political interest in Lebanon. The majority of Lebanese Sunni Muslims have no problem with the idea of Saudi Arabia exercising some influence over their leadership or even in contributing to chose that leadership. But this is generally done in a subtle manner which does not infringe on the Lebanese sense that they are masters of their own destiny. It is part of Lebanon’s everyday Political culture that you try to portray your enemy as a vulgar lackey and a servant of a foreign power while you portray your own relationship with a foreign power using the sophisticated discourse of ‘alliance’ and common interest. This meant that your adversary was tribal/primordialist/unthinking while you were modern/strategic/reflexive. Thus the Sunnis will say that Hizballah and the Shi’a are the tools of Iran in Lebanon while they speak of their alliance with Saudi Arabia. And the opposite is also true. Depending on the season and the side, the history of Lebanese sectarianism abounds with communities that are the allies/the tools of the West, the communist regimes, the Americans, the Assad regime, Israel, Abdel Nasser, Saddam, etc.
So there is nothing new in Saad Harriri being seen as the tool/the ally of the Saudis. What is new however is the Saudis, in a process of self-vulgarisation, giving up the language of alliance themselves and contributing to making Hariri be seen as a tool and a lackey that can be summarily dismissed from his position (not to mention having him 'emprisoned', which has sinister orientalist/medievalist connotations). This is what has led to the re-emergence of the discourse associating them with vulgarity.
Thus we have the new sight of Hassan Nasrallah gleefully appearing on TV, not to accuse Hariri of being a vulgar Saudi tool, but to lament the fact that the Saudis are vulgarily treating him this way. Suddenly you have Lebanese Sunnis shaking their heads in agreement with something that the leader of Hizballah has said. This hasn’t happened for years. 
The Saudis are apparently trying to force on the Hariri family and on the Sunnis the leadership of Saad’s brother Bahaa’ who is seen as more willing to toe the line with their uncompromising anti-Iranian politics. Saad, apparently, was becoming too Lebanese and willing to take the idea of co-existence with the enemy a little bit too far and needed to be replaced. Thus the Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, part of Hariri’s group and an ‘ally’ of the Saudis finds himself also all but accusing them of political vulgarity:
"We are not herds of sheep or a plot of land whose ownership can be moved from one person to another. In Lebanon things happen though elections not pledges of allegiances." 
Why this crude (oil?) mode of deployment of political power? Some argue that it is the product of an internal Saudi culture of dealing with Lebanese immigrants. I have heard many times from Lebanese middle class professionals working in Saudi Arabia that the younger generation of Saudi elite talk to them ‘in the same way they speak to the Indian labourer on the building sight’. The new Crown Prince is clearly of that younger generation. But then again with Trump looming in the background it can be said that there is a global resurgence of vulgarity in politics.
Maybe a vulgar Marxist analysis of all this is needed. Well, a vulgar one at the very least.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Submission to the Lancet commission on Syria

Some reflections on the relation between civilisation and violence, peace and war, bio-politics and necro-politics

Introduction: ‘I can’t believe I am protesting this shit again’
Throughout the world today we increasingly see a reversal of what was in early modernity too often optimistically considered an irreversible linear civilizational process. In the past there was a firm belief, at least in the west, that we humans were progressing from a society based on arbitrariness, law-lessness, intolerance, unrestrained exploitation of humans and natural resources, and more or less generalized authoritarianism and violence to a more peaceful society increasingly regulated by the rule of law, democracy, tolerance towards otherness, measured exploitation of people and an exploitation of natural resources aware of the limited availability of these resources and the need to protect nature and create ecologically sustainable futures. Today we see those earlier forms of relationality re-invading social space with authoritarianism, sexism, racism and the unbridled exploitation of people and resources on the rise. ‘I can’t believe I am protesting this shit again’ said a banner carried by a woman opposed to US president Trump’s proposed introduction of laws restricting women’s access to abortion clinics. So firm is the idea that we ought to be progressing towards an increasingly peaceful, tolerant, lawful society that these intrusions of micro and macro forms of authoritarianism, domination and violence into social space are seen as unusual. They are also defined popularly and by some analysts as ‘a crisis’ such as when the ‘rise of racist violence’ is defined as a crisis.

The idea that the appearances of these micro or macro forms of oppression, exploitation and violence represent in themselves a crisis is based on particular conceptions of the relation between ‘peaceful civilized reality’ and ‘violent uncivilized reality’. It is those conceptions that need to be challenged if we are to better understand the relation between violent and non-violent forms of existence in the world today. So let us begin by examining what these conceptions entail.

Civilisation as negation or repression of violence
To begin with, and as the chosen terminology ‘peaceful civilized reality’ and ‘violent uncivilized reality’ already indicates, in these dominant conceptions we have an association of violence with barbarism and non-violence with civilization. Now as far as the relation between these two orders is concerned, this is seen in two ways: The first as a relation of negation and the second as a relation of repression. Negation involves the idea that wherever civilization comes democracy, the rule of law and reason displace and replace the violent and barbaric rule of authoritarianism, arbitrariness. The latter simply disappear as the former consolidate themselves into a new civilized order. Repression on the other hand involves the different idea that the new civilized non-violent order is a continuous process of taming violence, cruelty and savagery. The capacity and the tendency towards violence is always there and the function of civilization is to stop this capacity and tendency from materializing. What distinguishes negation from repression is that in the first conception civilization is seen as eradicating violence entirely wherever it manages to institutionalise itself, while in the second civilization is in a continuous struggle with the violent order of life that is always there in a latent form and is always ready to rear its head wherever and whenever civilization falters or weakens.

It could be said that negation as a conception belongs to an early optimistic phase of modernity where the belief in the capacity of civilized non-violent life to spread and entrench itself was strong and where for some people at least there was a palpable experience of a retreat in the forms of life ruled by authoritarianism and where violence prevailed. Today, repression is a far more popular conception as it can make sense of an experience of decline in the colonizing momentum of the democracy-tolerance-rule of law assemblage and can help explain the re-emergence of the micro and macro violent forms of life mentioned above. But also the belief that there is a struggle between the forces of civilization and the forces of despotism and violence with each representing a different set of antagonistic interests. Thus while the optimism of the idea of ‘negation’ has disappeared, the idea of ‘repression’ maintains it in a more qualified way. It stages a situation where, on one hand, it allows for a pessimistic outlook which can make sense of a reality where racist, nationalist, ethnic, homophobic, sexist and other forms of violence is on the rise, continuously rearing their head, but on the other hand, it offers the optimistic promise that there are forces, from education to policing, that are fighting against this uncivilized order and which, if supported, can still prevail and perform their repressive function and allow the civilized order of life to prevail.

But there is an even greater optimism underlying this conception of the repressive relation between civilization and uncivilized orders of life: it is the idea that they belong to two different and antagonistic political and moral orders. It is a version of a struggle between good and evil where the two can easily be distinguished from each other and where ‘any reasonable normal person’ would know where they stand and which side to support in this struggle. In this mode of thinking, the inability of the civilized order to tame violence, such as the situation we find ourselves in today, constitutes a ‘crisis’ (defined as an intrusion of evil into the space of goodness) which will continue for as long as violence and its source are not properly domesticated.

This same relation between civilization and barbarism, and between good and evil, is also the lense through which some see, with a slightly simplified Foucauldian gaze, the relation between an imagined civilized democratic good government and an imagined barbaric violent bad government: the first is a government that is primarily interested in the politics of fostering of life; a government that rules through an interest in controlling the forces and mechanisms that shape the physiological and psychological health of its population. It is a government that maintains itself in power through these bio-political practices. The second is a government that has no interest in the lives of those it rules but rather in the way it maintains power over them repressively. Such a government rules though the control of demonstrative and actual violence and the technologies of death and domination. It is a government that maintains itself through its necro-political practices. Similar to the way the relation between civilized and violent modes of existence, as examined above, is conceived, bio-politics is seen as flourishing either through the displacement and negation of the primacy of the necro-political or through the repression of the necro-political. And in much the same way, necro-political spaces when they intrude are seen in themselves as constituting a crisis, as blotch on the bio-political landscape, a failure of the bio-political to saturate political space with its civilized logic.
Violence as foundational to the civilizing process
While there are clearly some important differences between the conception of the relation between civilization and violence as one of negation and as one of repression, they nonetheless both work by creating a radical difference between the two. In both, as we have seen, civilizational forces and violent forces, bio-political forces and necro-political forces are antagonistic to each other and are seen as having nothing in common. There is, however, a third way of conceiving the relation between civilized spaces and spaces of violence which highlights forms of dependency between the two, a relation that the conceptions examined above disallow us to perceive and understand. In this third conception, civilized peaceful space, even though it might be aiming to repress the spaces of violence, it is also, paradoxically, dependent on it for its very existence.
A good introduction into this relation is what Marx has called ‘Primitive Accumulation’. In his critique of political economy, Marx ridicules the story classical economic theory tells itself about the origin of wealth and whereby wealth begins when, unlike the majority of people who unthinkingly live for the present and spend what they have, a group of people decide to think for the future. They start living a frugal and thrifty life and in doing so manage to save the money that becomes the original capital accumulation. Marx argues that there is no historical evidence of this kind of accumulation ever occurring. In fact, he argues, most early forms of accumulation of capital occur in the form of violent appropriation of wealth like theft, piracy and plunder. In this sense, civilised capitalism has its origins in what Marx then called ‘primitive accumulation’. What’s more as the argument was later developed by radical political economists, capitalism is continuously in need of such a ‘primitive accumulation’ which historically most often took the form of violent colonial appropriation of wealth, or the creation of spaces of extreme exploitation of people and resources.
Here, then, we have a very different conception of the relation between ‘civilised space’ and the space of violence. Civilised space is not antagonistic to violence but has violence as its very historical and structural foundation. This is not specific to capitalist primitive accumulation. Though primitive accumulation draws our attention to the more generalized phenomenon where civilization is founded on violence. We can sit in a very civilized and cosmopolitan restaurant and eat a particularly pleasant and well-presented piece of steak, but behind this experience and at its very foundation lies the killing of an animal. This is no different from enjoying a nice cosmopolitan cup of coffee in Tel Aviv and forgetting the violence towards Palestinians which has made this experience possible. Likewise, we could enjoy the peace and the health facilities that the Assad regime provided some of its population and forget the people languishing in its prisons, or the populations that have been massacred with chemical weapons, and which made ‘peace and health facilities’ in some other places possible to experience. Just as civilization is grounded in violence, so is bio-politics grounded in necro-politics: some are made to die in order for others to be made to live.
Perhaps one of the most important ramifications of thinking the relation between civilized bio-political and violent necro-political modes of existence in this way is a radically different conception of what constitutes a crisis. In the first section we looked at how crisis is perceived as the very existence of violence in what should be a peaceful civilized space. This can only be true if we believe that civilization and violence are opposites and that civilization aims at eradicating violence. But if we take as our starting point that civilizational bio-political existence needs violent spaces as a condition of its emergence we arrive at a different conception of crisis. This is because, first of all, we arrive at a different conception of civilization. Instead of saying that civilization is the process of eradicating or repressing violence, we say that civilization is the art of hiding or concealing from people the violence needed for them to experience a peaceful civilized existence. Colonialism by locating the space of violent necro-political appropriation in a space geographically remote from the metropolis used geographical separation as a mode of concealment. The citizens of London did not have to experience the necro-political dimension of governing India that was at the foundation of their civilized existence. But the technologies of concealment are different when necro-political space is within the nation such as in a colonial settler society like Australia or Israel, or in an authoritarian regime such that of Baathist Syria. Indeed it can be said that what makes some nations more civilized than other is their capacity to hide their foundational necro-political violence from their citizens. Even more so, we can also say that the wealthier a nation is, the more sophisticated are the mechanisms of concealment at its disposal. It is from this perspective that we arrive at a different conception of crisis: crisis is not the emergence of violence amid peaceful civilized space since this violence is always there and civilized space needs it. Rather, crisis is the failure of the mechanisms of concealment. It is when the foundational violence that was concealed seeps into the peaceful interior where it is not supposed to appear that makes the people occupying those violent free spaces experience a ‘crisis’.

From the above we can offer a couple of tentative theses relating to Syria:
1.     The difference between the state of war and the state of peace in Syria is not a difference between a state where a civilized bio-political imperative ruled and where a necro-political order has replaced it.
2.     One of the key differences between bio-political and necro-political space is that the repressive government of bio-political spaces involves the primacy of policing while the repressive domination of necro-political spaces involves the primacy of war. The nature of the crisis that existed in Syria prior to the current war was that already at that time policing against certain sections of the population took the form of a war of eradication. Therefore what we have today is an extension rather than an emergence of the space of war and necro-politics.
3.     The provision of health and the entire bio-political network of pre-war Syria was founded on an extensive necro-political order which constituted the foundation of its bio-political order. That is, the Syrian regime was already predisposed to treat a large part of its population as enemies that need to be eradicated rather than as citizens whose quality of life needed to be maximised. When one speaks of a return to the norm in Syria this is the norm.

4.     Non-Syrian organisations aiming to intervene in Syrian space have had to face a particular situation: It is not that the State was no longer able to provide health for a section of the population. Nor is it simply that the State had no interest in the provision of health for this same section of the population.  It is that the State had an interest in the extermination of such a population as part of its strategy to lay the foundation of its post-war bio-political order. Health organisations are not operating where governmental bio-politics has failed. They are operating where governmental necro-politics is being practiced successfully.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The El Telegraph, the Community Activist and Same Sex Marriage: When the editor-in-chief of a Lebanese-Australian paper produces hate speech

A couple of weeks ago the Arab Council Australia issued this statement:

Arab Council Australia is proud to stand together with other groups in support of marriage equality.
People who identify as LGBTIQ are an integral part of our community and are entitled to the same freedoms and rights and the recognition before the law as every other citizen in this country.
Arab Council Australia stands by its values and works tirelessly on combating discrimination. inequality and injustice in all its forms.
As Arab Australians, we know all too well the pain of exclusion and discrimination. In knowing this, how could we stand by and allow this hurt to be inflicted on to others – let alone our own?
We acknowledge the diversity of views in our community on the issue of marriage equality. This diversity reflects our democracy and the freedoms we enjoy. We also recognise that equality for some is not equality at all and that selective equality is fundamentally against justice.
Arab Council Australia believes that a survey of the population was neither necessary nor desirable. However, we are here now. Let us hope that the outcome upholds the principles of human rights, justice and equality.
We look forward to the day when we are not as driven by our fears but more by our love and wanting the best that life can bring to all peoples.
Please join us in ensuring that everyone is treated fairly and equally under the law.

Last week, Mr. Antoine Kazzi, the editor in chief of the Lebanese Australian newspaper El Telgraph, used his paper to publish this attack on the Arab Council and on its CEO, Randa Kattan. Here is what he wrote:

Et tu Brute? The Arab Council or the Arabic Communities Council has lost its eligibility to shoulder the trust the community has placed in it. It no longer represents its aspirations and it is no longer the voice that raises its concerns. Rather, its CEO now chirps away as she pleases, speaks in her own name and presents her personal opinions while deluding people into thinking that she is speaking for the Council.

Her excellency, the CEO was not satisfied with supporting same-sex marriage, which the vast majority of the community rejects, in her individual capacity, but she issued an insolent statement expressing her pride in saying «yes» to same sex marriage under the banner of the Council, singing out of tune and against the direction of the communal tide.

There might be many reasons behind this “courageous” position, one being that the council has been falling apart for many years now, has lost its shine and has become just another name added to the names of many surviving on Government grants. So perhaps the CEO, using the method of ‘go against the tide and you’ll be noticed’, thought that this was the chance to strike to bring the council back into centre stage and give it back some of its fading shine. But her move destroyed whatever was left of its credibility.

We ask her excellency the CEO who is so dying to say “yes” what will Arab Council now do on international women’s day which it used to celebrate every year and where awards were distributed to highly achieving women and what word will be used to refer to this event?

Goodbye Arab Council. God has mercy on the one who knows his limitations and stops at them. And the last and most important question we ask it to the board, who include some mature and sensible people: Does the opinion of the Arab Council’s  CEO represent them or has she deluded herself into trying to build up whatever is left from the council? Or does the board want a new Clover Moore in the midst of our community? For if liberation, open mindedness and modernity look like this, we are proud to remain on the list of the reactionaries and the culturally strict… those who have a male father and a female mother.
And who knows maybe her Excellency might decide to open an Arab Council branch on Oxford Street in Paddington to serve the needs of those who she’s proud of.

This is a deplorable text on so many levels. But before I say anything about it let me say to the English reader that if you found part of the editor’s text incomprehensible it is not because I am bad at translating from Arabic to English. It is because the Arabic text itself is in places seriously incomprehensible and badly written and edited. I know I am already putting the chief editor in a bad light saying that his piece is neither well written nor well edited but that is unfortunately the case. Another technical deficiency of the text in so far as it is written by a journalist is that it lacks the most basic research: Why wonder if the CEO is speaking for herself or for the Arab Council when a simple phone call would have been sufficient to know how the statement came about? In my case a simple conversation on messenger allowed me to know that the Arab Council’syy board voted on this text and it was endorsed by seven out of ten board members. But I suppose a clear-cut fact would not have lent itself to the poetics of innuendos that Mr. Kazzi engages in.

The text’s obsession with ‘who represents the community?’ and the idea that ‘the community’ is some kind of monolithic entity is one of the least helpful illusions fostered and encouraged by the multiculturalism of the late twentieth century. It is a fantasy that has always united racists and people who have aspirations to be ‘community leaders’. It has no basis in facts but clearly some people find it hard to let go of the idea.

The fact of the matter, as is obvious to any reasonable person, is that Arab communities in Australia show similar tendencies as the rest of Australia. Certainly, Christian and Muslim religious organisations are important and they have a large population that is more likely to be conservative in outlook on same sex marriage. But they are far from being the only game in town. Arabs like all Australians are more likely to support same sex marriage if they live in the inner city rather than in the suburbs or in the country, they are more likely to support it if they are secular rather than religious, they are more likely to support it if they have an urban rather than a rural background and they are more likely to support it if they are tertiary educated than if they are not and the list goes on. Even if we accept the editor in chief’s argument that an overwhelming majority of Arab Australians are not supportive of same sex marriage, and this is not as much of a foregone conclusion as he likes to think, are those who support the yes vote not supposed to have ‘community organisations’ that speak in their name? Mr Azzi’s text shows a disturbing logic of communal excommunication towards anyone who is contemplating to support the yes vote in the plebiscite.

Take me for instance, when the Arab Council issued this statement I saw it on Facebook and was heartened to read it. I left a message expressing how happy I was that they’ve written it. I was not the only one. Hundreds of Arab-background Australians liked it. Many Arab-background gay people commented to thank the council for their stand. Now all of these people myself included might not be the majority of Arabs but Mr Azzi needs to get out of his conservative communal hole and stop thinking that we are negligible. We are not. And it is he who has to adjust to our existence, not us who need to think of ourselves as communally illegal because the Bishop, the Sheikh, the newspaper editor and the three or four conservative financiers who finance community newspapers think so.

Historically, the Arab Council has always offered a different kind of leadership within the community to the conservative leadership of the church and the mosque and the local media financed by moneyed Arabs with a conservative bent. The Arab council was ‘Arab’ when narrow nationalists wanted it to be Lebanese. It was secular when others wanted it to be religious. It has had a healthy number of women among its leaders when other Arab institutions remained as ever male dominated, it has been vocally anti-zionist when other institutions had opted for quietism, and most importantly it has invariably articulated the struggle against racism towards Arabs to as many others Australian struggles for justice as is possible, be they the struggles of indigenous people or women or refugees or other excluded and mistreated minorities. And sure enough it has a long history of supporting struggles against homophobia. In short let me then reiterate that the Arab Council represents the outlook of many Arab-Australians and actively helps many more in their struggle to lead a decent life. It certainly has never made a claim to represent ‘the community’ as if it is some unified entity. But nor should anybody else make such a ridiculous claim.

This, however, is the least disturbing aspects of Mr Kazzi’s text. What is worse is the attempt to humiliate a woman who has a long and brilliant record as a community activist. The mocking, ‘her excellency’, ‘chirping’, all this smacks of seriously unchecked misogyny that extends towards Clover Moore. Apparently Clover Moore is not a suitable model for Lebanese background women to follow. Nor would the ex-governor Marie Bashir be by those standards. Perhaps Mr. Kazzi thinks he is. He is after all supposedly concerned about the fate of ‘International woman’s day’ (though I am still struggling to understand what exactly he is saying here). Mr Kazzi should know that this pseudo-caring about women like the eternal ‘we put women on a pedestal’-mode of thinking does not fool anybody: it has accompanied misogynistic discourse forever. He should apologise to Randa Kattan for this ridiculous mocking tone.

Perhaps Mr. Kazzi feels so strongly about this issue of same sex marriage that it has made him lose all sense of proportion. He certainly goes way more than the usual ‘we don’t care who you love we just want to protect the institution of marriage’-type of conservative opposition to same sex marriage. His pride in those who have ‘a male father and female mother’ is a discourse of homophobic hate destined to hurt every child who doesn’t have a father and a mother, before being a discourse of hate for those who support plural forms of familial arrangements. At the end of the day, this is the worst aspect of this unfortunate piece of editorializing. It is hateful. It teaches people that you need to try and mock, humiliate and obliterate those you disagree with. If I was the Australian state looking for what fosters a culture of ‘radicalisation’ among young people, I would consider this culture where people are taught not to differentiate between disagreeing with someone and wanting to humiliate and obliterate them, as just as responsible as the radical Imams preaching their discourse of hate. Mr. Kazzi’s text does not differ much in its tone and in its content from this kind of murderous preaching. And it is very concerning that this is a text produced by the editor in chief of an important community newspaper.