Nationalisms, Globalisms, and Their Alternatives

ukrainian-nationalism-1920
A symbolic depiction of Ukrainian nationalism, c. 1920

While the world probably doesn’t need any more commentary on the recent American election, I’d like to offer some anyway, though in a way that looks at happenings beyond the US to the rest of the world, where we see related patterns unfolding according to local particularities and conditions. While the US is its own case, it is also part of an interconnected world, the ties of global capitalism, human movement, globalized classes, elites, and political structures, and other things working to move American realities in directions broadly congruent with other, often quite different, parts of the world. My thoughts here—which are reflective of the halting directions my political thought have been taking as of late, but should not be interpreted as final or fully coherent—are springing off an article by Jonathan Haidt from back in the summer, but which is rather prescient and worth reading in its own right. What follows here, then, are three interlinking thoughts precipitated by, but in some cases sharply diverging from, Haidt’s article.

One, while right now the dominant options are either liberal ‘cosmopolitan’ globalism or some form of nationalism, within the framework of nation-states (whether more autonomous or more directed from supra-national entities being at question) and of some form of globalized (if not globalist) capitalism, those are not in fact the only options. To give but one example, Continue reading “Nationalisms, Globalisms, and Their Alternatives”

Some Reflections on the Aftermath of the American Election

Political ideologies are deeply toxic, psychologically destructive things. Their function is fairly simple: they allow people to navigate the contours of states and industrial economies, and they offer the surest routes into the ‘core’ of such entities. They map the terrain. But in so doing, they also preclude all other terrain. Modern ideologies, even when they incorporate ‘extraneous’ elements, reduce all other forms of identity and meaning and value into a homogenized, internally bound whole. When these ideologies encounter insurmountable incongruity, or outright collapse, the damage to individual psyches and emotional well being is enormous, as all the erasures of identity and personality come to light in the gaping wound left by epistemic collapse. The subject is left confused and troubled, anxious to rediscover the surety that was there before.

In the American context, liberalism—here understood in the American vernacular rendering, though the broader sense should be kept in mind—is the primary, or perhaps, strongest vehicle of this totalizing effect, of this subsumption of all else into one overriding, all-structuring political and ideological identity and generator of meaning and social value. Conservatism by its very nature lacks systematization, and requires the existence of other values, other traditions, other forms of life, to give it meaning—even if all those other things are themselves deeply deformed and distorted by the effects of modernity (and in the American case this is especially true). Over time, it is true, many of the identities and traditions and forms of life which flow into conservatism have themselves become artefacts of ideology, integrated into the logics of the state and its political, value, and linguistic systems, albeit in often erratic and unpredictable ways (the current political disruption being one such effect). But the multiplicity of identity and meaning among conservatives remains, if only in tatters—not necessarily healthier or less damaging psychologically, but perhaps with slightly more openings out. Perhaps.

For liberals, however, everything tends to be reduced to political identity, Continue reading “Some Reflections on the Aftermath of the American Election”

Thoughts, Occasional to the Day, and Unsolicited

Indulge me, dear reader, some of my out-loud thinking, taken from my common-place book, where I jot down, in a sort of haze of free-form association and reckless philosophizing, unbound by genre or affiliation, and often indirectly occasioned by the dreary roll of the day’s headlines, my scattered ideas and attempts to corral my thoughts and emotions into something coherent-ish, and, perhaps, of interest to others…

1. One knows not to indulge in O tempora tropes, knowing that one’s own age is ultimately not really all that different from any other. At every age there are madnesses at the center, and the madnesses of the periphery, the strange and terrible machinations of the human heart spilling out of the prevailing discourses and modes of behavior, at once shocking, at once emerging from what is normative and central.

2. It is best not to begrudge people their fantasies, their naivety, their willful, unreasonable optimism. If people were in the habit of dealing with reality, and not their delusions, it would be utterly crippling for most. Perhaps it is better to imagine a world in which things work out they way you imagine they will—by the time the time comes and they don’t turn out that way, the infinite flexibility of human thought and perception will not be perturbed, but will merely adapt its future-looking vision, untroubled by prophets proved wrong, cheery—or apocalyptic, cheery in their own way to our odd little minds—prognostication unfulfilled, and forgotten, new ones replacing. Human memory is akin to the cellular structure of our bodies: seemingly stable and self-reproducing, but constantly in flux, dying and being reborn to meet the passage of time, the perils and presses of biology, heading towards a biological end but a spiritual and historical afterlife and extension elsewhere and in others, transformed. Memory—particularly our memory of the future—is largely unstable and flexible, at once incongruent with the world as it is and yet malleable to what the world turns out to be, or what we come to remember the world having been. The material traces, the psychic echoes…

3. I suppose it makes me a conservative in the technical, and not the ideological sense, in that I no longer suppose—and in the back of my mind, I have never supposed—that history moves on some progressive, teleological line, without terrible (or wonderful—who knows) and fundamentally unforeseen feedback loops built into that movement, which can, in time or suddenly or both, send history into new and unexpected directions, directions that belie any talk of ‘progress’ or unidirectional (or bidirectional) movement. History, time, is a welter, and there is no telling how things will move, what will become.

Proceeding from this conviction—or, I would say, observation—is the congruent conviction that for many ‘problems’ there is in fact no ‘solution.’ If time, human societies, ecology, history, so on, are infinitely complex, malleable, their ontology at once visible and invisible to us, driven by logics and processes known only to God, as it were, then why should we expect our lives capable of division into neat moral binaries, or liable to neat solutions and resolutions? That is not to deny the possibility of moral certainty, in propositional terms, or even in a deep sense of the self before the world and God: but when we attempt to arrive at a ‘social’ morality, at a morality that is dispersed, woven into our human and natural ecologies in ways that preclude personal reckoning and analysis: then we enter territory for which ‘ambiguity’ is too mild a term.

Value judgments need not collapse utterly, but we are more in the realm of tragedy and comedy wherein the sheerness of the world, its apart-from-us-ness, is the primary operative reality. In the face of everything, then, what is best…? Prayer, sorrow, the momentary discoveries of good and gladness, small comforts perhaps, unless joined to a conviction, in the movement of prayer, liturgy, and the pin-points of sanctity, human and natural, that beyond our immediate, history-bound ken, there is God, there is an eternal stability in eternal movement, as unpredictable as that of this world, but in a movement of fundamental goodness and wholeness, moving Itself and us and all towards a fulfillment beyond, behind, our temporal knowledge, into an unending, ever expanding Completion.

Popular Unrest, Elite Machinations, and Ottoman Political Processes in 17th Century Damascus

Bribery, looting, civil unrest; public meetings and unresponsive government officials; tangled lines of communication, competing stories: these things are the stuff of many a contemporary political struggle, but they are hardly unique to the modern world, or any period, probably. As the story below reveals, these ‘key words’ could be quite apt in describing provincial Ottoman power struggles and governance. This particular story, of a ‘unjust’ Ottoman governor of Syria and the repercussions of his apparent ‘crossing the line’ in and around Damascus, comes from the ‘notebook’ of Ismā’il al-Maḥāsinī, briefly described in the post preceding this one. As a member of the ‘ulama, the body of learned, elite men who constituted one of the key political and economic power groupings of the Damascene body politic, Ismā’il was not a disinterested observer, unsurprisingly. In this story the ‘ulama are seen uniting around the qadi, the Ottoman-appointed judge (and one of the most respected and powerful, though by no means unchallengeable, public figures in any Ottoman city); alongside the ‘resident’ military class (here probably one of the two groupings of janissaries stationed in Damascus) they support the qadi in his attempt to bring the rapacious governor and his lieutenant to bay.

Yet there are other political groupings as well- significantly, the heads of the craft guilds, presumably supported by the larger body of craftsmen, rally against the governor, going so far as to participate in (and perhaps initiate) a general strike across Damascus, shutting down their shops and joining in the chorus of discontent with the governor. In other words, it was not just the ‘ayān, the so-called ‘urban notables,’ who participated in politics. Others could have a voice (indeed, the irregular soldiery should also be seen as political participants).

Things proceed from the strike and ‘public meeting,’ growing more complicated as the governor’s faction- which in this story seems to consist solely of a few lackeys and a mob of irregular soldiery- tries to ‘control the narrative’ at the seat of imperial power in Edirne and Constantinople, against efforts by the qadi and others to do the same. In Ismā’il’s somewhat breathless and sometimes hard to follow account things eventually work out: justice is eventually had through the intervention of the imperial center, or so it would seem from the somewhat abbreviated conclusions (this is, after all, someone’s personal diary, albeit probably with a semi-public intention). In read it, we should keep in mind that it represents one particular perspective- the governor would no doubt have had a different view of things, as would his followers, such as they may have been (and he may indeed have been isolated- a crucial factor in his downfall).

In my translation I have tried to retain as much of the tone of the original as possible. I ran up against some difficulties, noted in brackets, due to my limited knowledge of colloquial Syrian in the period; there are also what appear to be either errors in the original text or in the editing of the printed text. Words of Turkish origin I have presented in their Turkish rendering for clarity.

Stained-Glass Window, 17th century [Egypt or Syria]. (93.26.3,4) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Stained-glass window, 17th century [Egypt or Syria]. (93.26.3,4) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Praise be to God. When Ḥusayn Pasha Yek Shasham was Pasha [governor] of Syria [al-Shām—here also simply Damascus] in the middle of the year 1085 [1674], he had a katkhudā [steward] named Ḥasan Agha who had previously been kutkhudā for Ibn ‘Abd al-Raḥīm Efendi, previously Shaykh al-Islām. Ḥusayn was ordered to accompany the pilgrimage, [but before leaving] and he carried out the utmost oppression upon the subjects (ra’īya) and the villages, and he took from the heads of the craft-guilds (arbāb al-ḥiraf) many things which would have been worth a great deal had they been sold on the market, and he left Syria and did not pay anyone anything. He left in his place the aforementioned Ḥasan Agha. He undertook oppression, transgressions, the reception of bribes and refused to listen to the command of the Qāḍī Shahlā ‘Abd al-Bāqī Efendi. And he had in his service a man whom the pasha used to send as a mutasalim [a deputy of the governor, and often a tax-collector], named Aḥmad Agha. The aforementioned Ḥasan sent him to around five or six households [? jihāz] in the eyalet [province] of al-Shām, and he killed unjustly, plundered, and the community was ashamed, he not fearing God at all. When the pasha returned, this Ḥasan kept on with what he had been doing, and the pasha likewise, as he no longer listened to the qadi’s commands and prohibitions. And things become dire for the Muslims to the extent that the pasha had saricas and sekbans [locally-raised irregular cavalry and infantry] who would interfere with the property of the people of al-Shām and the villages, and with their very lives, obliterating public safety. Then they went so far as to begin meddling with the sacrosanct households of the Muslims—and the people could not tolerate that. So, on Friday, Rabī’ al-Ākhir 4, 1086 [June 28, 1675], the people of the city gathered together, shut down their shops, and came to the qadi in order to complain about their condition. The ‘ulama and the soldiers (al-‘askar) also gathered together in the place of the court, and the qadi sent a contingent drawn from the ‘ulama and the soldiers to the pasha, who reported on behalf of the people the injustice against the people and the injustice of Ḥasan and [called for] his dismissal. But nothing came of their visit to quench the burning thirst of the Muslims [i.e. no remedy to the oppression was forthcoming].

So they sought from the qadi, and the ‘ulama and soldiers who were present, a petition to the exalted Sultan with all the relevant information contained therein. So the qadi, with the ‘ulama and soldiers, wrote the petition and handed it over to Muḥammad Agha ibn ‘Abdī Agha, previously a regimental commander, for him to take it to the Threshold of the sublime Sultan— God grant him victory! So he took the two of them [sic—two separate petitions?] and went out from al-Shām covertly, at night, on the night of Monday, Rabī’ II 7, 1086 [July 1, 1675]—may God make the Muslims heard through him so as to gladden them, and repel from us and from them what afflicts us and them, amen.

Then the pasha sent the aforementioned Katkhudā Ḥasan to the Sultan also in order to defend himself—may God rather defend those who believe! Ḥasan Agha went via postal-horse and overtook Muḥammad Agha in reaching the place of the exalted Sultanic abode, Edirne, by many days. And by embellishing his speech he gave off impressions in order to derive benefit. He sent out a report the pasha. He went out with it on al-Jumādī I 7. He came to Istanbul and it just so happened through the divine decree that He beheld the matter of the judgment of al-Shām. And he came to Mīrzā Muḥammad Efendi, and he took the report and went with it to al-Shām, reaching the city at noon on Saturday, Jumādī II 9. And Mīrzā Muḥammad Efendi sent a letter to Aḥmad Efendi Bakrīzāde delegating him for duty, so he sat for judgment in a courtyard in the place of the court, and on Sunday in the Nūriyye. On this day the pasha summoned the aforementioned qadi ‘Abd al-Baqi and all of the ‘ulama to the Ṣālihiya, [then] to the palace of Ḥusayn Efendi ibn Qarnaq, and he showered the qadi and the rest with great hospitality and kindness. After the hospitable reception was over, he sent the qadi a horse as a gift.

As for Muḥammad Agha, report came from him to al-Shām that that he entered Edirne on Jumādiī I 12, and the cause of his delayed coming was that he went to Edirne from al-Shām upon a different route from Ḥasan Agha, and that he was riding his own mount, not upon a postal-horse.

And ‘Abd al-Bāqī travelled from al-Shām on Monday, Rajab 2, 1086. And on the night of that Tuesday an agha, named Ḥasan Agha, a qapuju [warden-officer] of the Sublime Porte, entered al-Shām, in order to adjudicate regarding the truth of what the qadi and the people of al-Shām reported, and the truth of the words of Ḥasan Agha and his pasha. Then our lord Mīrzā Muḥammad Efendi entered al-Shām on Monday, Rajab 16 of the aforementioned year [October 6, 1675]. On the second day [after his arrival] the notables (‘ayān) of the land from among the ‘ulama and soldiers gathered together in the place of the court, and the Qapuju Ḥasan Agha came and read the sultanic order which he had brought, and its gist was that the petition of the Qadi of al-Shām and of the people present with him had risen to the Sublime Porte, and his complaint had arrived, they mentioning that Ḥusayn Agha took many things from them. ‘So We sent Ḥasan Agha so that for everyone from whom something had been unjustly taken he might restore what had been taken from him, after establishing the matter in accordance with the Shari’a, in the presence of the qadi.’ He specified that the qadi would listen to the claim, and specified that the commanding and the realization of the supplication be the affair of the Sultan—God grant him victory! And the people came out, as everyone who had a complaint came to the place of the exalted Shari’a.

Then Ḥusayn Agha assigned Kutkhudā Ḥasan Agha to listen to the complaints of the supplicants from among the assembly. And they laid charge [upon him and the pasha] with some eight of the specific points written out in the petition of the qadi and the people. So Ḥasan Agha [the qapuju] acknowledged that and the qadi wrote his report and put in six items of authorized evidence, and the veracity of the petition of ‘Abd al-Bāqī and the people of the land present was made manifest. The qapuju sent the authorized evidence along with the written report of the qadi to the Sublime Porte on Ramaḍān 2, 1086; he himself left al-Shām on Ramaḍān 27. Then on the second of Shuwwal [December 12, 1675] Ḥusayn Agha turned away from al-Shām, in the company of our lord Vezier Ibrahīm Pasha, who had previously governed al-Shām distant from Ikrīd [this last line’s meaning is unclear to me].

Ismā’il Maḥāsinī, Kunnāsh Ismā’il Maḥāsinī, ed. Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Munjad (Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-Jadīd, 1965), 111-113.  

Friday Roundup

Land-Grabbing and Climate Change in Uganda: Nothing new here, unfortunately: statism and capitalism have a long relationship, indeed inter-penetration, that has often been most exemplified in the ‘developing world.’ The creation of a particular sort of market, and a particular sort of polity, with rules, regulations, and institutions that favor the lop-sided concentration of both wealth and power: these are not ‘natural’ or inevitable processes. They must be created and enforced, at the cost of human life and livelihood. In this case, land-grabbing- designed for the profit of a multi-national and for the benefit of Ugandan state-creation both- has as part of its ideological supporting structure the ideology and practices associated with the politics and economy of global climate change. This is hardly new, either, though of more recent origin than other ideologies of state and capital.

Companies Using Immigration Crack-Downs to Turn a Profit: Not really new, either. ‘Privatization’ schemes in which states farm out their coercive activities to others, who then turn a profit, are very old. The most recent batch of ‘privatization’ efforts have seen a heavy focus on incarceration; this is merely another, even more insidious example- as the ‘criminals’ in this instance are almost all ‘guilty’ of transgressing imaginary lines on the map, and nothing else.

The Assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki: It’s not really surprising, I guess, that the drone warriors are killing Americans. The brilliance- from the point of the American state, of course- of drone warfare is the distance it places between the executing force and the state itself, not to mention domestic opinion. Warfare carried out at a great distance with minimal American personnel on the ground requires relatively little grooming of public opinion. Even if the targets are American citizens…

Grey Markets in Mexico: Oh no! What will state and capital do if people start ignoring them and creating their own markets and social spaces? Horror!

Empire of the Son: Despite the insane conspiracy theories of the right (Obama as secret liberation theology follower, Obama as secret Muslim, Obama as secret communist), the current American President is very much a product of the massive extension of American power and influence that took place during the Cold War, and continues apace today under different names and forms.

Friday Roundup

Occupation of Wall Street: ‘Only time will tell which of the above two tendencies can capture popular imagination and become dominant in the near future. Also, at this point it is a matter of speculation if the protesters manage to get large numbers of people angry enough to, say, storm Wall Street, or just degenerate into a tourist curio (much like our parliament square campers) who have the feel-good factor of ‘protest’ but offer no means of self-empowerment or solutions to changing the present state of things.’

One of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong Here: ‘People like Maddow and Schultz can make all the noises they want about “green jobs” and “walking softly on the earth.”  But it’s simply incompatible — as incompatible as matter with anti-matter — with the mid-twentieth century economic model of the Hoover Dam, the Interstate and the Detroit auto industry celebrated by people like her and Schultz.’

Venezuela From Below: This is in reality the old idea that somehow the liberation of the oppressed and exploited can be brought about from above by enlightened leaders controlling the state. What we see in the case of the Bolivarian Movement, on the other hand, is how these “revolutionary cadres” in control of the state work to coopt and control social movements. A self-managed socialist society is not likely if it isn’t a conquest won by self-managed mass organizations of the oppressed and exploited. Thus self-management has a dual character: self-management of struggles for change, and self-management of the gains won through struggle.

International Statement of Solidarity with Cuban Anti-Authoritarians: ‘Our Cuban comrades’ only sin is that they have the effrontery to contemplate (and change) their reality without waiting for promises from the Nanny State or Capital’s siren songs. They believe in a fuller life, in a community where the unhindered growth of each is the precondition and measure of the unhindered growth of all.’

More Secret US Drone Bases: ‘Instead, researchers are working on a number of software packages to take the “remote control” out of the picture and let the robots decide on their own who to lob missiles at. Researchers say this would be an important development because the robots would decide who to murder much faster than CIA targeters are liable to.

The Postville Immigration Raid: Not recent news, but worth watching. The war on migrants is one of the more disgusting aspects of state thuggery in the modern world.

Friday Roundup

Distributism and the Health Care System: I’m no expert on the American health-care system; what I know is a matter of first-hand experience, anecdotal matters from those within the system, and some reading on the subject. That said, Médaille’s ideas here seem quite sound: the current system is deeply flawed, with profits and power flowing towards the top- whether state or corporate or both- with costs heavily distributed along the bottom. It is also a system in which both workers and consumers are marginalized despite their immense importance. Médaille hits on two of the biggest problems in sustaining this system: monopolization and lack of genuine workers’ control, both of which are propped up by the State and the powerful (and vocal) interests that wish for the continuation of the system. Of course, the central problem with Médaille’s analysis is one common to many radical critiques: the system is deeply entrenched, as are the mentalities that support it, both among those at the top and those spread out along the bottom.

White House Admits Some Medical Value to Marijuana: But of course, said medical value would be doled out by a State-approved company, employing a monopoly privilege that would industrialize medical marijuana and drive small-holders under.

Illegal Gardening in Detroit: One that’s been making the rounds of the internet. A reminder that even small acts of resistance- like planting your yard with vegetables instead of monoculture grass- can bring the fist of the state down…

The Great Generational Threat: To say the American public has been sold- is being continually sold- a bill of goods does not go far enough.

How Taft-Hartley Restricts Labor Rights: A nice run-down of some of the ways in which the American state’s appropriation of the labor struggle robbed it of much of its fire and potency. ‘In the 1930s organized labor, largely led by the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), fought back through sit down and wildcat strikes. A wildcat strike is an unofficial strike, usually called in response to mistreatment of a co-worker. In essence, workers refuse to return until management agrees to their demands. Because slowdowns and wildcat and sit down strikes are illegal under the Taft Hartley Act, American unions face steep fines for engaging in them.  In 2011, if a worker is bullied, harassed or illegally fired by an employer, his only option is to file a grievance through the National Labor Relations Board, a process that can drag out for months or years. Because there are no real sanctions against employers, workplace bullying and harassment are incredibly common in the US.’

Libertarianism: Left or Right?: ‘Libertarians also showed their Left colors by opposing imperialism, war, and the accompanying violations of civil liberties, such as conscription and arbitrary detention. (See, for example, the writings of Bastiat, Cobden, and Bright.) Indeed, they didn’t simply condemn war as misguided; they also identified it as a key method by which the ruling class exploits the domestic industrious classes (not to mention the foreign victims) for its own wealth and glorification. Libertarianism and the anti-war movement went hand in hand from the start.’