Confused Feelings About UK Bombing of ISIS

I have mixed feelings about increased UK military action against ISIS. On one hand, I am acutely aware of the privilege by the UK n the West pseudo-left taking calling for a pacifist position. It is easy for the left to critique military assaults when ISIS are not knocking on your door. There is a distinct human cost to not militarily confronting Daesh – looking at ISIS’s nostalgia for a glorious past, celebration of violent masculinity, and inability to deal with difference inside controlled areas, it looks a lot like an aggressively expansionist proto-fascist regime.

Further, attempts to make equivalences between the UK’s currently proposed interventions and 2003-style occupation can be naive, and frankly, more to do with Western ignorance of Middle Eastern politics than legitimate objection “military intervention by right wing leaders in Middle East? must be bad!” Simply because Daesh arose from a power vacuum created by Western imperialism does not mean it should therefore be militarily ignored. Likewise, concerns about Saudia Arabia’s role in feeding Wahhabism are correct, and should be addressed. But I once again return to the privilege of pacifism – one can and should address the ultimate causes for ISIS, while dealing with its proximate consequences.

On the other hand (and my hands are getting heavy now), there are some obvious issues with feeding extremism through indiscriminate bombing. As far as I can tell (and I am not an expert), support for Kurdish forces on the ground in the north has been a largely successful  in terms of collateral damage (note that the map is six months out of date now).

I worry that Kurds have control of limited areas of Syria, support is often geopolitically blocked due to Turkey, and that this intervention, in light of Paris, is more about appeasing moral sentiments and countering Russian influence. The rhetoric and outrage over Paris as an attack against “humanity” nauseates me because it reinforces the idea that humanity lives in the West, and that ISIS vs. NATO is a struggle between civilization (West) and barbarians (everyone else). Timed with the refugee crisis, it taps into middle-class fears of hordes of Others on the borders.

This is a toxic reproduction of neo-con fantasies and a (flipped) version of Daesh’s ideology. Critically, any victory against ISIS will be political. These discourses help justify the very ideologies that they purport. As mentioned above, one can and should address the ultimate causes for ISIS, while dealing with its proximate consequences. I fear that military intervention will nominally address the proximate, at the cost of the ultimate.

Then there is material difficulties of bombing in urban areas. Strikes on oil supply lines deep in ISIS territory is one thing, but urban centres, like Aleppo and Homs is another. Cities are geopolitical cluster-fucks. Multi-fronted urban warfare where front-lines are intangible and alliances constantly moving is difficult at the best of times, let alone when you have little presence on the ground. These are areas where air-based military action, in any conflict, is difficult to achieve without large amounts of ground intelligence.

And so, in response to “should the UK militarily intervene against ISIS”, I’m mostly “Huh???” It is difficult, and perhaps naive, to sum up opposition or support for the the UKs proposed plan in a single yes or no position. I can neither condemn nor condone air strikes in general, although I can point to specific parts of both discourse and action that I like/dislike. Compared to many strident commentators, at least this is honest.

[Edits based on comments]

Walled States in a Sea of Fleeing Nations

In a post discussing the problems the nation-state might face over the coming century, I finished by saying:

“… the “horizontal” and “culturally similar” parts of [the nation-state] face major stressors. Something has to give, or borders will become so hard that the dying parts of the world will increasingly look like burning ships trapped in an ocean of our own creation.

Watching the world react to the dual presence of terrorism and refugees in wake of the Paris attacks has afforded a concerning snapshot of how the rich world responds to border pressure. The Syrian crisis, and the associated flight of refugees, will eventually end. The West’s efforts to battle terrorism, on the other hand, look more like a game of whack-a-mole. Likewise, while climate change’s consequences for the world are unclear, it is relatively certain that increasing rates of disasters will lead to rising rates of displaced persons. With terrorism being fueled by political instability, and the displaced persons probably increasing in the long run, I wonder what we can learn from recent events.

The future is notoriously fickle, but “the 21st century—100 years of increasing stability” seems a long shot (although the same could have been said at the end of WWII). Right now, I think a more interesting question is how the world will react to an increasingly unstable world order. A editorial comment in The Economist paints a vivid picture of Europe:

“Even if the Schengen system of passport-free travel officially remains in place, “temporary” border controls will spread, Europe’s frontiers will be blighted by the barbed-wired perimeters of “migrant processing” camps—and still hundreds of thousands of refugees will stream in.”

I fear that this is a vision of both the present and the likely future.

Why Accepting More Refugees is Good for National Security

In light of disgusting comments in the Republican debate, and the stiffening of barriers for refugees from Iraq and Syria, I want to turn to my Republican friends (and right wing European parties) who have stepped up their rhetoric after the Paris attacks. I’m going to talk about one of your favorite topics: national security.

When the refugee crisis became more visible, and people talked about the US taking in more refugees, I imagine you turned to one another and said “No no, they are all confused. We bomb the Middle East, not take in their people!”

You seem to think refugees pose a security risk. This is incorrect. In fact, refugees are the opposite: accepting more refugees is a boon for national security. Despite its awful humanitarian costs (but you never cared about that anyway), the refugee crisis is your biggest opportunity to fix one of the most persistent threats to your national security: people’s perception of the US (and Europe) in the Middle East.

Here is a conversation that ISIS recruiters desperately do not want to have:

“The West are imperialist crusaders. They exploit the Middle East for oil and support dictators. You should join us and destroy them”  (this is your problem. The middle sentence is true)

“Well, they were like that. But then when we needed them, they accepted us and our families into their countries and their lives. Despite the racist hostility of a minority, the EU and the US welcomed refugees with open arms. I have family in Berlin, New York, and Paris! I visited them last year. Why would I attack them!?”

Accepting more refugees will do three key things for your national security:

  • It will be positive PR in the Middle East. Once settled, refugees will send royalties home and stories about how great it is not being stuck between Assad, Rebels, ISIS, and Russian and NATO fighters.
  • Provide much needed fiscal and social relief to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Iraq, who have taken in 95% of refugees so far.
  • Not be complete assholes by bombing the shit out of Iraq, then refusing to deal with the fallout. Or the moment the West gets a taste of what it is like for Syrians everyday, you make it harder for people to get out.

You have a relationship with people in the Middle East. Yes, even Muslims. For the past century, this relationships has had terrible consequences for that part of the world. You consume imported oil. You send military aid to Israel and Saudi Arabia. You orchestrated a CIA backed coup in Iran (which worked out so well in the long run). You invaded Iraq (twice). This is your opportunity to start changing the nature of that relationship.

ISIS fanatics will not change their view of the West. This is not true of the people they are trying to recruit. Accepting more refugees into the States will improve national security in the long run. Refusing them, or only accepting Christians (like Jeb Bush suggests), will only feed the interpretation of the world ISIS is promoting.

And when changing your stance on refugees improves national security, people will laud your ethical ethos, willingness to take a stand, you’ll be remembered fondly in history, and you can pretend you actually gave a shit.

Refugees, Borders, and the Death of the Nation-State

The refugee crisis seems to illustrate fundamental tensions within the world political-economic order. On one hand, there is the nation-state — an imagined community of people sharing an assumed history, language and culture, bounded and enforced by state power. The punitive responses to refugees illustrates both faces of the nation-state hyphen. Anti-refugee and racist pronouncements rhetorically trace the boundaries of the nation-state as the boundaries of a nation. Meanwhile, state-agents violently draw these rhetorical outlines as real.

On the other hand, there is capitalism. Capital did not directly cause the refugee crisis. Nevertheless, the difficulty of people crossing borders makes apparent what does cross borders — financial capital and commodities. Following the neoliberal readjustments of the 1980s, politicians have gone to extraordinary efforts lubricating the flows of capital. The trail of acronyms left in their wake, NAFTA, ASEAN, TPPA, CISFTA, speaks to this legacy. These changes have been facilitated by Export Processing Zones (EPZs) in poorer countries, areas with minimal taxes and lax labour laws seeking to encourage foreign investment.

Elements of these two forces exist in tension. Globalization pushed by international capital seeks to reduce barriers and flatten difference, while nation-states only accommodate difference insofar as it can be realized in a tapestry of bordered cultural blocs. The most fanciful dreams of cultural homogeneity are evidently false — all nation-states are, to a degree, hybrid. However, there limits to the capacity of nation-states to accommodate difference. When nationalists claim that refugees are a threat to the integrity of the country, they are correct. The free flow of people across boundaries does threaten the idea of a nation.

So far the tension between capital and nation have managed to exist in uneasy concert. Capital solved its labour problems of the 1970s by breaking unions and freeing finance. Labour in the majority world was comparatively fixed by borders, so capital came to them with lax labour laws, poor environmental standards, and low taxes. Meanwhile, the minority world  maintained the vestiges of the welfare state and a degree of cultural segmentation. They reap the benefits of majority world labour without accepting their people.

Now, cracks are emerging. It appears as though global poverty is being internalized. For much of the 20th century, poverty was distributed between the “developing” and “developed” world. However, immigrant labour in the Gulf states, sweatshops in Asia, favelas in Brazil, and the deindustrialized city cores of the Rust Belt have spread poverty around. Likewise, unequal development in India, China and Russia have created new classes of elites. Currently, the flow of refugees into Germany provides a much needed input of young labour to support their aging population. Tomorrow, climate refugees will flee as previously arable land becomes barren.

I suspect that the nation-state will increasingly struggle to cope with these changes. It is telling that for most of human history, elites had more similarity to one another than to the vernacular population. The nation-state, for all its faults, created an imagined similarity between all “citizens” of the nation. However, as inequality deepens, as people strain against borders seeking a better life and to escape the horrors of the homeland, and as colonial boundaries continue to thaw, the fantasy of horizontal, culturally similar citizenship becomes more and more untenable. Both the “horizontal” and “culturally similar” parts of this dream face major stressors. Something has to give, or borders will become so hard that the dying parts of the world will increasingly look like burning ships trapped in an ocean of our own creation.

Shitty Poetry

They were meant to be together
Free of shit, children and houses
No longer trapped in a cycle of care
Free to be selfish for a change

They were meant to be together
Only them and a grumpy cat
At last away from responsibility and picking up the pieces
Only them and the sea

We used to joke they would break up when we were gone
Jokes on us
They never got that chance

Excerpts from After the Revolution No. 1 – The Lost Wonks

One of the unexpected results of the anarchist insurrection was the dislocated place of technocrats, policy wonks and members of the numerous think tanks that previously crafted government legislation. Walking down the street, it is likely you will come across women and men in tattered suits handing out hand drawn, bullet pointed proposals, written out on whatever bits of paper they can find. Confused by their newly anarchistic environment, the wonks continued to make policy, handing it out on the street to whoever would take it.

One person explained “we’ve told them that the state has been abolished for 5 years now, so they are free to do whatever else they want. But they keep coming back with policy proposals. They’re not hurting anyone, so we figured we’d just let them keep doing it. It seems to make them happy”

Another passer-by described how “last week, one of them jumped at me with a detailed proposal about how to improve sustainable gardening initiatives. She had some pretty good ideas, so I suggested talking to some people about it. We could work through the ideas and start making the changes ourselves. At the phrase “talk to people” and “making the changes ourselves” she started foaming and muttering “committee review process”, “need to talk to necessary interest groups” and “taxation”.”

These concerns haven’t stopped dedicated wonks from trying to rebuild their old lives.

“Last week they had an election. I’m not sure which one is the president now but he cried. He was like “Mom, I did it. I’m finally the president. My policies will come true. ” The president of the four other wonks. The president of the United States of America”

I guess these souls always remind us that it is possible to build an old society out of the shell of the new as well.

(h/t @atbiggles)

Eleanor Catton and the Insecure Imaginings of a Colonial Country

I’ve been following the Eleanor Catton saga with bemused interest. Eleanor Catton is the Man Booker Prize winning author of the Luminaries, who recently stirred some shit by describing New Zealand as a country led by:

“neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture…They care about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my Government”

She also added, “”We have this strange cultural phenomenon called ‘tall poppy syndrome’; if you stand out, you will be cut down,””.

Subsequently, there was a bit a storm as the New Zealand media proved all her points, with RadioLive host Sean Plunket calling her a “traitor” and an “ungrateful hua”, and the Prime Minister John Key saying that her views should not be given any more credence than those of the Mad Butcher or Richie McCaw.

There is some good commentary on what the response reveals about public debate in New Zealand and how it relates to the Dirty Politics saga. However, what has fascinated me about the whole clusterfuck is how ideas of “New Zealandness” are invoked, discussed and debated. Commentary is strewn collective identity “we en masse made it our business to chop [successful New Zealanders] down,” “the quality of our public debate” and as the Herald editorial put it “We remain proud of her and do not believe she misunderstands these gestures in a country that was proud of her”

In these ideas, people happily talk about the collective emotions of New Zealand, talking about how “we remain proud”, similar to how John Key is confident he knows “what New Zealanders think is important”. The weird homogenisation of the hopes, emotions and desires of 4.5 million people speaks to the sheer power of New Zealand as an idea – people may disagree over what is “right for New Zealand”, even “the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand” but the question of New Zealand as a thing itself, for all it’s complex post-colonial history and internal divisions, is rarely broached. New Zealand is only partially imagined as a nation, and the details are still not quite sorted out, but it is axiomatic that New Zealand is a thing that exists and it should to be imagined more.

Nevertheless, New Zealand was only recently colonized, and this makes the ease of imagining slightly more difficult. There is a contradiction here – everyone talks about “us” and “kiwi culture”, but at the same time it is abundantly clear “New Zealand” was recently considered an entity in the world. Compare this to Greece. Most people don’t really believe that contemporary Greeks are descendants of Ancient Greeks but “A-hah! They’re both Greeks! They had similar skin colour, spoke Greek (sorta)…sure they didn’t have a flag and were a bunch of different city-states but…Greeks!

These persuasive resemblances don’t quite fly in New Zealand. The contemporary dominant white population look very different from historical Maori, speak a different language, and despite the best efforts of colonial society to forget the past, the land wars and the colonial creation of New Zealand loams large in New Zealand’s collective imagination. Unlike Greece, New Zealand does not have luxury of retroactively casting the nation-state back into the past. There is not a canon of “great people” and historical events stretching back thousands of years to claim ex post facto as part of the glorious history of the nation.

This leads to a kind of contradiction in living in a post-colonial nation-state, particularly for the white settler population: “I know very well that New Zealand is recently made, it involved violent appropriation but I’m told I should be proud, that we punch above our weight and so on…” What emerges from this tension is a profound anxiety in how New Zealanders “do” being New Zealanders.

In a less quoted part of Catton’s speech she states

“If you get success overseas then very often the local population can suddenly be very hard on you. Or the other problem is that the local population can take ownership of that success in a way that is strangely proprietal.”

The two tendencies Catton points out reveal a strange anxiety in how New Zealand is imagined. Collectively, success overseas underscores the fear of rejection and insufficiency – that maybe New Zealand wasn’t good enough, that really New Zealand is small and insignificant on the world-stage, while the odd sense of ownership is strange over-compensation for these fears. The wider concerns of many New Zealanders that Australia might claim their famous people or inventions is a sub-set of this wider phenomenon.

These anxieties and tensions come to a head when “famous” people are seen to reject, or even potentially reject New Zealand – consider the fury when Russell Coutts signed on Oracle, and the fears that Kimbra will forget that she was born in New Zealand since she gained prominence while living in Australia. The anxieties of being a post-colonial nation are illustrated perfectly by the out of proportion reactions to Catton’s comments. New Zealand, while “punching above it’s weight” and being full of “kiwi battlers”, is also a country with big self-esteem issues.

Three Primary Religions of the United States of America

“During the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, the United States of America (USA) of Earth practised three primary religions: Christianity, ancestor worship and nationalism.

The Abrahamic religion of Christianity was practised in numerous forms across the country, and various documents indicate it was an important part of the governance of the state. While records show that many prominent persons of the period desired a separation between the worship of a monotheistic god and the everyday running of the government, numerous official seals invoke this god and it was commonplace for political officials to turn to Christian ideals to justify laws or conflict.

Ancestor worship took the form of a generalised veneration of the mythical-historical figures known as “the Founding Fathers”. Particularly during times of crisis, state-officials and media outlets would attempt to divine what the Founding Fathers desired, and attributed the country’s decline from a mythical golden era to failing to adequately appease the Founding Fathers’ wishes. Many households practised everyday worship of these figures, incorporating their portraits into numerous household objects. Historians continue to debate whether there is sufficient evidence that these Founding Fathers ever existed.

Finally, the population of the USA practised nationalism. This was not unusual for the period, as nationalism grew from the 18th century into an almost universal force by the end of the 19th century. This religion became so hegemonic that it became difficult for people in the early 21st century to imagine any other possible political order other than that of territorially bounded nation-states. In this particular case, the population worshipped an abstracted idea of “the USA” through a range of rituals and sacred objects, and ascribed it certain ideals, such as “freedom”. Objects like coloured clothes called “flags” were worn or displayed to indicate one’s devotion to this religion, and people constantly argued over the true meaning behind the most sacred document of all, “the Constitution”. In the case of the USA, the aforementioned ancestor worship was closely linked to their practise of nationalism”.

– Ayalah Dahan, Political Historian, 3167

Ticks and Leeches in PNG – NGOs, Development and other Parasitic Things

If you learnt about life in a Papua New Guinean village from development writing and NGO websites, you’d get a strong impression that villages are places of lack and want.

Take this quote from a study by the Australian NGO, CARE:

“The lack of real hunger in PNG [is] not a valid indicator of poverty. While people have enough to eat it [is] mostly in the form of high carbohydrates with low protein and nutrition, and is lacking in oil and fats; thus setting people up for a lifetime of poor health and low life expectancy.”

Despite the somewhat awkward and revealing caveat about people not regularly reporting hunger, similar images are reproduced again and again in representations of food and health Papua New Guinea. Subsistence food producers are presumed to be in a constant state of nutritional deprivation, edging through their lives with negligible cash incomes and growing what food they can.

This image is bullshit.

I do not deny that there is comparatively low protein intake in many places in the Highlands – this was a major shock to my body in PNG.

However, this one sided image of people in villages constantly on the edge of nutritional deficiency is completely at odds with how people talk about their lives.

There is an elaborate ideology of filling people up with food here. One of the papa’s of the village I spend most of my time in explained in no uncertain terms that he was going to make me fat so that people in NZ would know I was well taken care of. One of my greatest sources of discomfort when staying with people in the village is that people always want me to eat too much.

People talk about how food is free and how the ability to garden enables people to do as they please. As my best friend here memorably said to me:

“You have to pay rent, pay for power, pay for water, pay for food. Here, life is free. I don’t have to pay rent, pay for water or pay for food. If I want to go to the garden, I do. If I want to go to town, I do. If I don’t, I stay in the village. Here, I am free”

In no development report about PNG do you find “most people in Papua New Guinea control the means of producing food and largely own the products of their labour”.

I don’t want to say “there are no people in PNG who live in squalor”. This is false. There are certainly people who sometimes struggle to find food and make ends meet. Particularly around landless settlements near town, I have been in some very rough houses.

However, NGOs have an incredibly marginal role in doing sweet fuck all about this. Most NGO workers are terrified about walking down the street, let alone talking to someone in one of the dreaded “settlements”. Rather, many/most NGO workers stay in hotels, drive around in large black glassed cars and do their genuine best to avoid actually talking to people.

Rooms in the Grand Papua Hotel in Moresby can be rented out for a month for a tidy K25,000 (12,000 NZD). NGOs regularly do this.

Reading development reports about PNG, you find a systematic emphasis on the deprivation and want of other people. There is a two-fold perverse incentive to do so.

Firstly, development agencies material income depends on making other people look as needy as possible.

Representing people as generally happy folk that perceive the constant need for cash in Western lifestyles with skepticism does not bring donors crowding at the door.

Making people seem like they are on the edge of constant nutritional deficiency waiting for their agency to be unlocked by beneficent white people is a better business plan.

Beyond the material incentive, I think there is a lot of ideological self-justification here – NGOs have to emphasise lack because otherwise what the fuck are they doing. Similarly, making other countries “underdeveloped” is a lot more to do with Western narcissism than the Othered people.

I think the word “problematic” is thrown around a bit too much in leftist academia. It’s a weak word that alludes to a lot of hand waving. I don’t believe that the way most development agencies act in and represent PNG is problematic.

I think it’s parasitic. It creates and recreates a Western projection of superiority of the world while misrepresenting the people it claims to help. It does so by feeding off the lives of people both in PNG and abroad.

It’s not a case of “problematic but sometimes does a bit of good so I dunno”. It’s that the methods that most NGOs use are actively destructive and maligning of people they purport to help.

Letter to an Evangelical Voter

Dear Evangelical Voter,

I voted this election. Not because I thought it would make a difference in the long run (it won’t). Not because I think voting is the highest form of civic duty (it isn’t). I voted because I think it is the least I could do. I view elections as a generic poll for “how shit is the government” (Pro-tip: I will always say “pretty shit”).

Nevertheless, doing so has left me nauseated. Not because of the potential ill effects of my vote (which are little), but because of the moral weight you put on my action.

I hate that you believe, implicitly or explicitly, that ticking a box every three years is an exciting, laudable means of governance by the people. I hate that you draw on discourses of responsibility to demean, belittle and undermine those that don’t vote. “You have a responsibility to educate yourself” “A refusal to vote is a vote for the right” “These are the people that really should be voting” “Voting is a an opportunity to have your say.”

Since when do we believe that the institutionalised form of “having a say” represents the highest form of self-governance? Since when did we ignore the structural constraints on the bullshit choices people are faced with?

Every three years I am given the option to vote on whether I’d like to have my leg cut off, or whether I’d like to have my leg cut off with anaesthetic. Anyone that points out that they’d “like to keep my leg as it is, thank you very much” is labelled apathetic, irresponsible or morally deficient.

Stop degrading those who do not vote. This is not their problem. Voter turn-out is evidence of the systematic short fallings of parliamentary democracy. Stop valorizing voting.

Actively attack the poverty of electoral politics and help us build alternative modes of governance. This low-intensity, minimalist democracy must be denounced for the petty concession it is. Help grow new forms of active, everyday democracy.