THIS SEMINAR IS NOW CLOSED. BUT FEEL FREE TO READ THE DISCUSSION.
Welcome to a new seminar which has some unique features. Chief of these is that it will discuss a whole book, not just a paper. Emancipatory Politics - A Critique edited by Stephan Feuchtwang and Alpa Shah (both anthropologists at the London School of Economics) is the first book to be published by OAC Press (http://openanthcoop.net/press/). You can visit the book here and download it as a single pdf or individual chapters. We also intend to make print copies available for purchase on demand. The book is issued with a cultural commons licence which places minimal limits on use. Equally the authors may subsequently publish the material without restriction.
For our present purposes, the main focus will be on taking an overview of the main themes of the work; but please feel free to raise questions or comments on any part of it that catches your interest. There is no organized sequence. The editors and I will be happy to respond to your contributions as they come. We also invite the individual authors to take part on either or both sides of the fence.The point of having a seminar that lasts two weeks is to allow for further reading and reflection; and our responses need not be immediate.
The book aims to show that movements for a better world, with and without armed struggle, are still active in postcolonial states, having flourished in the 1960s and 70s when Mao Zedong's influence was great. The movements analyzed here are still to a significant degree Maoist, but other revolutionary traditions also play a part. The case studies include two commentaries on armed struggle in contemporary India, the examples of FARC in Colombia and the Communist Party of the Philippines, the rise to power of Maosts in Nepal and two cases where revolutionary movements achieved state power, in Nicaragua (the Sandinistas) and Mozambique (Frelimo). To these the editors add a substantial introduction and theoretical afterword which combine a hopeful vision with critical reflections. The book is thus remarkable for its "grounded empirical critique". Most chapters lend historical depth to their accounts.
By "emancipatory politics" Feuchtwang and Shah mean "political activities that aim to end exploitation and enhance participatory democracy through which leadership can be held to account on a daily as well as periodic basis, in the workplace and beyond". A major focus is on the dynamics of armed struggle, but these are always influenced by shifts in political organization, ideology, economic forms and the need to mobilise popular support. In some cases, these factors assume greater prominence than fighting as such.
The editors identify three inter-related themes. 1. The tension between mass organization and the party in charge of the armed force. Democratic centralism may lead to an inflexible inability to accommodate local conditions. 2. This raises th equestion of the relationship between democracy and emancipatory politics. The party sometimes becomes unaccountable to the people it claims to serve. 3. Analysis of the classes, issues and alliances involved in the struggle for emancipation is essential. The answers chosen often turn out to be wrong, but the cases presented here also provide many interesting solutions.
The OAC is a network devoted to exploring anthropology's potential to contribute to the making of a better world. Yet anthropologists rarely study war and revolution. This volume is unique in my experience for its open embrace of the spirit of revolution and the violence it often entails. Perhaps that is why it is here and not (yet) in some glossy publisher's catalogue. I hope that members will take up this issue more generally, as well as addressing the contents of this book.
Replies are closed for this discussion.
Thanks so much Keith for this generous introduction and thanks to the team at Open Anthropology Cooperative Press for the hard work in publishing our book. Welcome everyone to the book and the discussion; do contribute with your thoughts and hope you find some food for thought in our book!
Stephan Feuchtwang, the other editor who is a member of the OAC, sent this comment to me personally instead of posting it himself here. I hope that some of you who are more familiar with the OAC will help this discussion to take off.
The problem that we have left open, after the Epilogue, is this. How can an armed uprising, even when starting out as necessary defense against state violence, remain and continue to be political, rather than becoming ever more military and commandist?
By 'political' we mean not just responsive and accountable to its immediate base, but also engaged with others in the broader political context, within the territory of the state in question, and beyond. It means having a strategy that takes in the whole context. To be engaged can of course include electoral campaigning, but that is too confined a definition. It means to address what political others represent, how they define a current reality, how they challenge 'our' conceptions and strategy, and it means always to be ready to adjust or revise strategy.
Mao and the Chinese Communist Party often made the mistake of what they called 'communism', even though at the same time it proclaimed the so-called 'mass line' - from the people via the Party to the people.
The same problem can be stated in converse. The priority for any revolutionary, emancipatory transformation must be a burgeoning political and social movement, but then how should it defend itself and how should it seize state power (in order to transform it) without becoming commandist?
I have read this book with considerable interest--thanks Alpa and Stephan for making it freely available here. Perhaps the lack of response so far has something to do with how we all know that taking free gifts can have complicated consequences.
This book is a particularly difficult gift because it is about who gets to control violence or as Jack Goody put it 'the means of destruction' in contemporary world society.
The problem about 'commandism' versus participatory democracy can also be viewed in terms of types of control of violence. In classical liberal philosophy the chief legitimate role of a state is to control and centralise the use of violence so that a peaceful civil society can flourish. If the state is not fulfilling that role then its legitimacy as a state diminishes to an inflexion point. In the utopian version states control violence so that no-one has to use it in their everyday lives; but that is hardly the empirical reality of contemporary states globally.
Another view of the relationship of violence to state formation was offered to OAC a few months ago in the form of a seminar on the Shilluk Kingship by David Graeber. If I have it right, Graeber argued from the special ritual practices surrounding Shilluk kingship that states are formed by a foundational act of arbitrary violence by a sovereign. http://openanthcoop.ning.com/forum/topics/invitation-to-...
I have worked for many years in Jamaica which, for social scientists and novelists at least, has become a prime site for making stereotypical claims about violence and societal breakdown. Admittedly the 'means of destruction' have been effectively distributed right across Jamaican society and beyond to its diaspora; yet most of the people I know there avoid violence as much as they possibly can.
So, this is by way of setting up a few perspectives from which to ask the contributors to the volume--how do you view the constitutive role of violence in your different settings?
Following Keith’s call for increased participation in OAC by members of our large non-Western online community, it struck me that here was the ideal occasion for them to come forward. Indian and Nepali Maoist movements, the Frelimo of Mozambique, communist insurgents in the Philippines – all are subjects (which I know nothing about) which should matter to thinkers and writers who live in and suffer through conditions of state oppression outside the hegemonic centers of the West. Regrettably, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead, after a few days of inactivity, I see the same old retreads, like indefatigable Vaudeville troupers, making their appearance.
Why? Rather than blame the hordes of quietist “lurkers” here on OAC – more than a few of whom have probably felt, unlike us I presume, that boot on the neck, I would suggest the problem here is not the vital and visceral subject matter, but how it is packaged. Stephan Feuchtwang and Alpa Shah do a laudable job in bringing this material together, but – and here my status as pariah shows through – the life-and-death struggles they describe get lost in academic prose and complex argumentation. Those struggles get translated into what I might describe as LSEese.
Let me be specific. Right away, for me, the term “emancipatory politics” is a head-scratcher. I have to stop and try to figure it out. I’ve grown used to that problem – as used to it as I can get, which is to say not used to it at all – with the offerings of Latour and Co., but I don’t want to be faced with it when reading about revolutionary struggles in the Third World (or whatever we’re calling it these days). I get “politics”; that’s the concerted action by individuals and groups in furtherance of their interests within some constituted public space (government, society).
But “emancipation”? Here I must pursue a line of thought most will probably find bizarre.
Without dusting off my microprint OED, Google’s definition rings true to me:
Emancipation: the fact or process of being set free . . .
Being set free. The on-going process of obtaining and continuing to enjoy freedom. Freedom. Hugely, hugely important word and idea, perhaps the Numero Uno of human existence. What is freedom? How does one seek it out and, just possibly once partly obtained, nourish it?
The Introduction to Emancipatory Politics (Google search) doesn’t include the word, not even once. Instead, it leads the reader (who, again, is keen on learning about particular revolutionary struggles) through a thicket of head-scratchers. “Emancipatory politics,” we learn, is a path to “participatory democracy,” which, however, may readily be subverted into “commandism.” By now I’m completely lost, along with, I’d wager, any reader without a ready grasp of Maoist thought. “Commandism,” apparently, is right out of the Little Red Play Book. And “participatory democracy”? Isn’t that redundant? Isn’t a group, organization, or government that is “democratic,” that is, truly democratic and not some shameless poseur, by definition “participatory”? Admittedly, this is a tougher question than it appears, since there seem to be no democratic governments anywhere. I know I’ve never experienced or read about one. Big problem here, since how can that convoluted process of “emancipatory politics” ever usher in a social arrangement that is not out there anywhere, a “participatory democracy” that describes no society?
I think these are problems enough for non-Western readers eager to engage a substantive discussion of revolutionary struggle. How do they – or anyone – begin to get a handle on it?
Earlier I alerted you that my argument, conventional enough up to now, would trail into the bizarre (that is, bizarre in that conventional sense). So here it is:
Again, freedom is perhaps the most important concept in social thought. Yet I suggest that “freedom” doesn’t actually apply to the social in the sense of constituted groups or populations. It is an attainment, fleeting, sporadic, elusive, of the individual, not society. We need to examine, to rewrite the grammar of the word. A society or a population may indeed be oppressed, may lack freedom, but it cannot be free. Just as a population cannot be curious, thirsty, or have a toothache, so it cannot experience freedom. That is a matter of individual experience.
As usual, Camus makes the point far better than I, in the concluding passage of The Rebel – and note the final word of that magnificent and shamefully ignored essay:
At this moment, when each of us must fit an arrow to his bow and enter the lists anew, to reconquer, within history and in spite of it, that which he owns already, the thin yield of his fields, the brief love of this earth, at this moment when at last a man is born, it is time to forsake our age and its adolescent furies. The bow bends; the wood complains. At the moment of supreme tension, there will leap into flight an unswerving arrow, a shaft that is inflexible and free.
I can think of two interesting points to raise here
1) the relation of tactics and democracy.
Often when discussing revolutionary tactics, violence or non-violence, but particularly the form and degree of militancy, people focus on either the moral issues of whether or how much it's right to hurt people in a good cause, or they look at questions of effectiveness in the field, but they don't really ask the political and organisational questions: what forms of organization are implied, what can be sustained and what can't be? Basically, how democratic or participatory or egalitarian can you really be if you do X? And what does that imply for the kind of society you will create if you actually win? To take an obvious example, I don't think I've ever heard of a classic terrorist strategy (the use of violence against non-combatants to create terror by a formally non state actor) being pursued by organization that was internally democratic. One of the most interesting debates in this regard was had by APPO in Oaxaca, during the uprising there in 2006. The internal debate focused on: what kind of tactics were most consistent with maximising internal democracy? They concluded that either a purely non-violent, Gandhian approach, OR creating a guerrilla uprising, would necessary lead to top down leadership structures. The way to maximize internal democracy they concluded was by sticking to a strategy of erecting barricades and defending them with rocks or (if facing armoured riot cops) molotovs, but no actual guns. This actually proved quite effective in that context until the central government sent in the army.
2) if one is in a situation where armed struggle is pretty much the only option, as for instance in Rojava today, or arguably, for the Kurdish Freedom Movement (PKK etc) in Iraq and Turkey as well, can this be organised in a democratic way. The Kurdish movement has developed an interesting idea of "defence" in this context. Warfare they argue can be democratically organised if it is essentially defensive, defining the latter in broad terms of "defence of life, social relations, and ecosystems." They are also, curiously, using the circumstance of war as a way of creating a feminist revolution which they would find it much harder to do in peacetime: it's common for women to be mobilised as combatants in revolutionary circumstances and then basically told to go back to the kitchen as soon as the struggle is won, but the Kurdish movement is very self-consciously trying to make sure this doesn't happen. When I was in Rojava I kept hearing variations on "well, we're anti-capitalist, but we realise no you can't get rid of capitalism without getting rid of the state, and you can't get rid of the state without getting rid of patriarchy. How to get rid of patriarchy? Well, making automatic weapons freely available to all women is one place to start." The women's military units serve as feminist think-tanks and they send men found to be too macho to the women's groups for re-education. But men and women while in the military also aren't supposed to have sex. So they're effectively putting off the really difficult stuff until the war is over.
Stephan Feuchtwang said:
I think there's a big difference between violences in particular between the violence needed to cut out rivals and the official state forces in pursuing trade in illegal substances (or human traffic, or arms; violence used in political electoral campaigns; sectarian or communal violence; and violence used in defence against state violence, or against its collisions with any of the above in order to maintain a space for the emergence of self- governing social movement - a space of peace. But John McCreery raises a big question, what can anthropology offer as insights into this differentiation and to the problem of commandism? I think the chapters of our book and the previous publications by Alpa Shah on the Maoist stronghold in which conducted fieldwork. They track the growth and effects of mobilisation and persuasion and conviction in the base and from the base, and the ideals, commitment, the failures and dogmatic mistakes in strategy of the upper levels of the command structure. But they don't offer a way out of the dilemma of the use of defensive, emancipatory violence.
David Graeber provides his own version of the old controversy: States and law based on arbitrary violence:: state monopoly of violence establishes rule of law and spaces of peace. For him, anthropology is peculiarly well suited to promoting political and social life without the need for a state. But what should we do to defend ourselves from state violence?
This is a brave, instructive and timely book. I have learned a great deal from it and am proud that the OAC Press could publish it. Instead of just being a neutral manager of proceedings, I will temporarily abandon my chair’s role to make some personal observations.
In the cases of the Sandinistas and Frelimo, each principal failed as a state after a successful military campaign. What struck me was that, along with Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Mozambique were the target for dirty wars instigated and supported by the Reagan government in the 1980s. The interesting Philippines case seems to have escaped that level of attention. Colombia was an object of a US anti-drugs campaign which did much to shape FARC’s strategy on the ground. India appears to be self-contained in this respect. The Nepal case, as reported by Anne de Sales here, seems to have been mainly about ethnicity, but the country also suffered massive and disruptive swings in US import policy.
I found David’s intervention elegant and persuasive. It reminded me of the democratic forces unleashed by World War 2 and thus of the relationship between war and peace. Colombia’s peace negotiations have now been going for three years (I think) and FARC’s corner in them is very much tied up with land redistribution, but the country is 70% urban and even the landlords have found new sources of accumulation. Similarly, in Zimbabwe Mugabe and Nkomo differed strongly over what to do with the white farms, a dispute that led to genocide in Matabeleland before long.
This book, as we have seen, is mainly about the struggle for power in a potentially revolutionary transition and here inevitably we encounter the question of violence. Fanon is rightly singled out in the editors’ Afterword for his strong and deep reflections on this topic. Indeed he is read and discussed today as much as ever. Since Sartre’s Preface to The Wretched of the Earth, attention has been focused on Fanon’s opening chapter where he advocates violence as essential to the removal of colonial and other regimes. The message, “kill whitey” was intended to shock a European audience.
Yet his final chapter, based on his practical experience as a psychiatrist in Algeria during the war of independence, says something rather different. He describes the traumas of two Algerian boys who killed their French peer and of a French squaddie who cracked up after torturing suspects. Fanon concludes that violence is humanly intolerable, not just for the victims, but for the victimisers too. I can't help wondering whether all that stress led to his death from cancer in his 30s.
This finds a link in my mind to Albert Camus’ The Plague. People start dying in a North African town and they personalise its causes. But it becomes clear that the plague is bigger than any human perspective. Humanism won’t do if we want to understand the causes of our collective fate. Camus later pulled out of the Algerian war, perhaps for related reasons. The plague might be seen as a metaphor for world war. The Algerian war, in which a million people were killed, is still with us – in the shape of de Gaulle’s French constitution which Hollande now says is too liberal to cope with a couple of terrorist acts in Paris.
It is a legitimate question to ask what anthropology might offer when faced with the human aspirations and tragedies described in this book. Superficially it seems that the field is host to a fad for human/non-human studies, with an emphasis on the latter and even the post-human. In a world increasingly dominated by massive corporations, the limits of humanism should be interrogated. What light does the present volume throw on this question?
Stephan and Alpa are to be congratulated on bringing the social phenomena assembled here to our attention. As the man said, they are good to think with – and learn from.
First, a confession. I have only begun to read the book. Five weeks ago I set out to do something unprecedented in my life, a three-week group tour to Ecuador and the Galapagos, bracketed by family holidays (Halloween and Thanksgiving) with daughter, son-in-law and grandkids in Fairfax, VA. Academic reading has been a low priority during this period. Tomorrow we fly back to Japan. Serious reading related to this seminar will begin post jet lag. Thus, I am, for the moment, responding to the thread alone.
I am struck by the fact that McCreery, Hart, Feuchtwang, and Drummond are contemporaries. Anthropologists from our generation grew up in a world where our parents had experienced the Great Depression and WWII. Our formative years where shaped by the Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam. Armed struggle was a familiar, urgent theme for all of us. Non-violence or violence in confronting "the System" was a question that deeply affected us all. I suggest that this has not been true of most of our younger colleagues, especially the majority here who have grown up in Europe or North America since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and China's rejection of Maoist ideals. In their experience, violence aimed at political emancipation is something "over there," not part of their world. They may reject with shock and horror police brutality and other forms of racism, along with such nightmares as female genital mutilation, honor killings, etc. Nothing in their experience or training equips them to contribute to a conversation that, to them, seems to have little relevance to their own predicaments.
Nothing would delight me more than to have these observations falsified.
The good people at the Open Anthropology Collective (OAC) have produced a new volume of essays titled Emancipatory Politics: A Critique (available here as with a Creative Commons license: Emancipatory Politics), edited by LSE anthropologists Stephan Feuchtwang and Alpa Shah.
Here is a comment by Keith Hart summarizing the for sake of which:
The editors identify three inter-related themes. 1. The tension between mass organization and the party in charge of the armed force. Democratic centralism may lead to an inflexible inability to accommodate local conditions. 2. This raises the question of the relationship between democracy and emancipatory politics. The party sometimes becomes unaccountable to the people it claims to serve. 3. Analysis of the classes, issues and alliances involved in the struggle for emancipation is essential. The answers chosen often turn out to be wrong, but the cases presented here also provide many interesting solutions.
Within these key themes, perhaps the most important, and perennial, point is (again in a comment by Keith Hart):
The priority for any revolutionary, emancipatory transformation must be a burgeoning political and social movement, but then how should it defend itself and how should it seize state power (in order to transform it) without becoming commandist?
My own experience and reflection takes me back to endless discussions in left-political contexts pitting efficacy against ideals:
“It takes and army to fight an army.”
“If you take on the mode and method of the enemy, you become the enemy.”
“Refusal of armed struggle is complicity with state violence.”
“Once you take up arm, you can never really put them down again.”
All of those are faux quotes, but they capture the essence of things I heard stated and argued over an over again during my years doing anti-imperialist, left and related politics in the United States. As a veteran of the United States armed forces, presumably already compromised (infected? stigmatized?) by violence, I was often asked to comment.
This made me profoundly uncomfortable. My insights into the matter always felt cursory and unworthy, but such as they were (and are) they go like this:
The question can’t be answered in the abstract. State violence, so far as I can see, is almost never justified, but revolutionary (“emancipatory”) violence cannot so easily be set aside. Refusal of revolutionary violence, under conditions where state violence is endemic, effectively displaces both perpetration and victimization onto others. Yet no matter the justification, violent acts are never good for the perpetrator—much less the victim. David Graeber makes the point in one of the comments on this volume:
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a classic terrorist strategy (the use of violence against non-combatants to create terror by a formally non state actor) being pursued by organization that was internally democratic.”
The type, degree and context of violence matters. Stone throwing, even Molotov cocktails, do not equal bullets or bombs—or I would add prolonged incarceration and/or torture. The latter can never be compatible, in my view, with a movement of emancipation—which of course is not to say that no movement aimed at emancipation can ever engage in such tactics: human beings contradict themselves, even at the level of fundamental values, all the time.
The hinge around the argument, however, is not only the degree of violence employed. It is also the degree to which substitutionary logics become extended. That is, to what extent are people of certain ascriptive categories, as determined by the users of violence, considered interchangeable? War logics allow the widest possible extension, such that, say, a hospital run by an international NGO that happens to be “in the wrong place” might become collateral damage in a bombing campaign. Those who are unintentional casualties of such violence point up the plenitude of violence available to the perpetrator, but such “messaging” is nearly beside the point. In the end, it’s just easier to bomb indiscriminately—and what bombing is really discriminating?—than otherwise.
So where do I come down on the inevitability of violent means leading to a soul-deadening, hierarchically obnoxious organizational culture? I come down thinking armed struggle is a dreadful, awful, terrible idea that is, at times, very slightly less dreadful than the alternative—allowing the undefended, unarmed, and otherwise unprepared to become unacknowledged collateral damage. I come down with the notion that social substitution—the logic of war—should be avoided to the extent possible. You might shoot back at people shooting at you; you don’t shoot at their brothers, sisters, spouses, or children or bomb the cities in which they happen to live. It’s a higher standard than the perpetrators of state violence hold themselves to—but no lower standard is compatible with democratic (in the broadest sense) action.
I've been sort of dancing around writing a response for about a week now. In the end I'm not sure what I think about the sorts of social structures (or, as Lee would put it, freedom) what we end up with via armed struggle. I'm most familiar with the FSLN (Sandinista) case, in which people who tried to challenge Somoza and the US were killed, tortured, disappeared, and thrown out of helicopters. What else could people do but fight back?
The Sandinistas has to build popular support, but they also had to take up arms. Fonseca and others also knew they had to do more than just garner political support: "To seek the people is not enough – they must be trained to participate in the revolutionary war." They needed people who were wiling to take up arms, fight back against Somoza. Interestingly though, the popular mobilations ended up outpacing the FSLN, who "often had to catch up with radical mobilisations of the masses in the later phases of the struggle." In the later phases of the movement, the FSLN fell victim to internal authoritarianism, centralism, and "verticalism," which was then projected onto the mass popular organizations. By 1984 the populace began to question whether or not the new system had anything to do with popular democracy at all...and the Sandinistas were, by and large, voted out of power via liberal democracy. Vanden argues that the FSLN was successful for a time, but fell out of favor because it lost touch with its base and veered away from participatory democracy. It's a story of a big almost...except everything unraveled, and US/Western pressure only made that happen quicker.
Vanden seems to argue that the real power or democratic promise came from the mass organizations. The FSLN, despite its democratic/populist rhetoric, turned out to be quite authoritarian and centralist. For me this gets back to the point David Graeber made above: "How democratic or participatory or egalitarian can you really be if you do X?" I suppose the FSLN was a sort of catalyst for potential democratic change, but it certainly wasn't long lasting. Why didn't it work? Why wasn't longer lasting change realized? Maybe the use of violence was part of the problem.
I'm thinking of all of this stuff in the context of a very local situation. I know some folks who live out in a pretty rural community here in California. They've been there for about two decades. People out there have a range of interesting politics, but many adopt a sort of "live and let live approach to life." It works for the most part--and people often helping one another out in the way that out-of-the-way communities often do. But things have changed recently. This region has suddenly become a new location for large-scale illegal marijuana grows. This has changed how things work out there. It's the other side of the whole legalization debate, and honestly not something I've ever thought too much about before hearing about this situation.
There have been some threats and disputes coming from these new operations, some of which are quite big. Some of the growers have made a sort of "show of force" by firing off automatic weapons on their property. Among other things, including some direct threats. Many of the neighbors are very intimidated, and aren't sure what to do. Lots are talking about getting guns and protecting themselves. Some already have guns. The local Sheriffs are involved, but there is only so much they can do at this point. So the community is sort of on its own when it comes to day to day life. So where does this all lead in the long run? What kind of "society" do they end up with if everyone gets a gun and everything comes down to protecting their way of life via the use of force? Is that freedom? Well, I don't know. It doesn't sound like it to me. Many people are worried, scared, and fearful of what might happen if something goes wrong. Some folks sound downright paranoid. So they all have their guns. I have a two year old kid and the idea that everyone needs to be walking around with a gun to feel safe (and impose some sort of order) seems like the exact opposite of freedom. The social order has some serious problems, if you ask me, when a situation starts devolving to this point.
Maybe I agree with Steven Gardiner (above), when he writes, "armed struggle is a dreadful, awful, terrible idea that is, at times, very slightly less dreadful than the alternative—allowing the undefended, unarmed, and otherwise unprepared to become unacknowledged collateral damage." Maybe.