One Question
United Nations
(Part Two)

One Question
United Nations
(Part Two)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

Is the United Nations still relevant?

Due to the number of responses we have received, we have split them into two parts. This is part two. Click here for part one.

Part two responses from: Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad; Ramzy Baroud; Helen Lackner; Gerry Simpson; Obiora Chinedu Okafor; Anne Marie Goetz; Dan Plesch; Tom Farer.

United Nations Part Two

Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad

The question is wrong. It is not whether the UN is ‘relevant’: which UN are we talking about?

The UN is not one thing. It reflects the contradictions of the world order and the imperatives of geopolitics, but also serves as a site of contestation where world order is actually produced and struggles from below for legitimacy, recognition and rights are played out. Meanwhile, UN bureaucrats in New York, Geneva and in the field go about doing their work, sometimes on behalf of power and other times for the marginalised, disadvantaged or vulnerable.

The most visible face of the UN is the Security Council (UNSC), which has come to stand in as the executive of the UN body on all matters of international security. It comprises fifteen states, five of them permanent members (the P5: China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) that hold veto power, allowing them to define which matters to deliberate on and which decisions to scuttle. So, Yemen is off the table, Russia blocks resolutions on Syria, and the US halts otherwise unanimous decisions on Palestine. These vetoes, however, are the exception not the rule: the UNSC was set up precisely to further great power interests. Vetoes reflect anxiety at the top in policing world order. When France and the UK broke ranks to veto US plans to invade Iraq in 2003, it precipitated a moment of genuine crisis in Atlantic relations. The fate of Iraqi civilians did not much bother them.

The UNSC stands in for the General Assembly, whose one hundred and ninety-three members set the tone for world opinion and produce or oversee the bulk of the UN’s huge social, development, environmental, and humanitarian agenda and actions. Following de-colonisation, the General Assembly mounted a radical challenge on behalf of the global South against the stifling structures set up by big powers. However, it has been largely tamed by the P5 in the post-Cold War period and after the Third World bloc broke apart. The relationship between the UNSC and the General Assembly remains fraught, with the former seeing itself as independently able to chart policy while the majority of the world’s states see the latter as the embodiment of a true democratic institution.

As the UN passed resolutions and drew up conventions, a myriad of indispensable, specialised agencies developed to deal with the various crises of the modern age. These UN agencies provide relief and advocacy for refugees, protect labour rights, move nuclear energy from war to peace, improve telecommunications around the world, provide development assistance, and many other functions. They are routinely taken for granted by critics of the UN, and pay the price for dependency on funding from, and the political whims of, rich states such as the US. When the P5 do agree on an important task, such as eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons, funding and political will become non-issues in the completion of the task. When they do not agree, there is paralysis.

The UN, in all its forms, mirrors the contradictions and tensions in the world’s political environment. That is both its strength and its weakness. The question, then, is not about relevancy but about what the crises say about humanity. READ MORE

One Question
United Nations
(Part One)

One Question
United Nations
(Part One)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

Is the United Nations still relevant?

Due to the number of responses we have received, we have split them into two parts. This is part one. Click here for part two.

Part one responses from: Hans von Sponeck; Richard Falk; Rose Parfitt; Balakrishnan Rajagopal; ; Zillah Eisenstein; Sital Kalantry; Göran Therborn; Ian Hurd.

United Nations Part One

Hans von Sponeck

In 2000, US Senator Jesse Helms, attending a meeting of the UN Security Council, reminded his audience that the US would support the UN as long as it was in the interest of the United States. The UN was relevant whenever the US and the UN agendas tallied. Long before, meetings preparatory to the creation of the UN during the years 1941 to 1945, especially at Dumbarton Oaks, Bretton Woods and Yalta, had unequivocally confirmed the competitive ambitions of Stalin, Roosevelt/Dulles and Churchill to take control of the evolving post-WWII global order. Who should own the United Nations was the issue. The Mexican delegate to the San Francisco UN conference observed: the 51 founding members ‘had created an institution which could control the mice but the tigers would roam around freely’.

Western economic power, finance and leadership, with a majority of permanent members in the UN Security Council, led to a UN multilateralism controlled by the western world, with decision making essentially dictated by the United States. Subsequent globalisation, de-westernisation and the failures of the West in responding to geo-political challenges in the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere led to a questioning of unilateral US leadership. The UN became an arena of increasing confrontation. As a tool for western, or more accurately US, interests, the UN began to lose its political relevance.

UN relevance, it must be stressed here, relates not just to its political but also to its operational dimension. National representatives in the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly have a political mandate. The UN operational system of Agencies, Funds and Programmes led by the UN Secretary-General is responsible for multifarious tasks in development, peace-keeping and humanitarian assistance. It is considered an important, albeit chronically under-financed, contributor to the global order. Its relevance is rarely questioned.

In order for the political UN to be the credible institution defined by the UN Charter, reforms have to be introduced with a sense of urgency. The shelves are full with many proposals for change. The 193 UN member states (governments and civil society) at long last have to muster the political will to consider such change. East, West, North and South have to be ready for compromise, convergence and accountability in handling global relations. Once this process has started in earnest, the affirmative answer concerning UN relevance will be easy to give. READ MORE

Adam Kotsko
The Political Theology of Neoliberalism

Adam Kotsko
The Political Theology of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is primarily considered an economic logic which promotes ideals of ‘free trade’, and reduces the role of government to a facilitator of deregulation and privatisation. But accompanying the economics has always been a particular worldview or ideology, and neoliberalism in fact relies on a whole social system of support and legitimation.

In his new book, Neoliberalism’s Demons, theologian and social theorist Adam Kotsko considers neoliberalism as a form of political theology, to understand how it functions in societies not only as a mode of economics, but also politically and culturally as a moral order. In this interview, I discuss with him some of the core ideas in the book.

Adam Kotsko teaches in the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. He is the author, most recently, of Neoliberalism’s Demons (Stanford University, 2018) and The Prince of This World (Stanford University, 2016), and the translator of many works by Giorgio Agamben. Visit his professional site for more information about his work, including links to articles and interviews.

Adam Kotsko

In your book, you approach neoliberalism from the perspective of political theology. What does political theology bring to the analysis of neoliberalism?

Adam Kotsko: Political theology has meant many things since the term was coined in the early 1920s by the German jurist Carl Schmitt, and so I was aware going into this project that I was at the risk of trying to explain the unknown by the unknown. In the book, I try to define the term in a way that is faithful to the intentions of earlier political theologians like Schmitt, while also making it more broadly useful. Ultimately, I view political theology as the study of the structures and sources of legitimacy – of the ways that people attempt to answer the question of who should be in charge and why.

A lot of times, people think of political theology as a discipline that points out parallels between theological and political structures – for instance, the sovereignty of the executive branch bears comparison with the sovereignty of God – but I think that the focus on legitimacy allows us to account for why those parallels exist: namely, because both the theological and the political orders are asking for our trust, for our faith. Neoliberalism is no exception to that, though most analyses of neoliberalism as a system do no foreground those questions of how the system legitimates itself. READ MORE

One Question
1968

One Question
1968

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, to mark the 50th anniversary of the events of May 1968, we ask:

How Should We Remember 1968?

With responses from: Lewis Gordon; Rachel Harrison; Françoise Vergès; Daniel A Gordon; Max Elbaum; Robyn C Spencer; Gabriel Rockhill; Stephen Milder; Sarah Lincoln; Eric Mann; Ron Jacobs; Nadia Yala Kisukidi; R A Judy; Leo Zeilig; Catherine Samary; Stephen D’arcy.

Internationale Vietnam Konferenz 1968

Lewis Gordon

We should combat the hegemonic, whitewashed historical misrepresentation of 1968. That year was one of upheavals across the globe, yet dominant discussions are of white college students taking over universities and mostly white people protesting against the Vietnam War.

Understanding 1968 as part of a period from 1966 whose arc reached into the mid-1970s, we should remember Indigenous people’s struggles, new formulations of Black Power, poor people’s campaigns, women’s liberation and queer movements, and, beyond North America and Europe, we should remember uprisings and ongoing practices of decolonisation across the African continent, Asia, Australasia, and Latin America.

It is significant that 1968 and now 2018 call for reflections on the lives of freedom fighters. This year Frederick Douglass and Karl Marx would have been 200.  Nelson Mandela would have been 100.   We lost such fighters as Mamma Winnie Madikizela-Mandela of Azania/South Africa, the Black Liberation Theologian James Cone, the great physicist Stephen Hawking, the Corsican liberationist Ghjuvan’Teramu Rocchi, the revolutionary jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, and so many more in the first half of 2018.

We should reflect on the global demand for freedom, marked by struggles for liberation and social justice.  This requires also thinking through mistakes of what is generally called ‘the left’.   While ‘the right’ unabashedly pursued power in their counter-revolutionary endeavours, an unfortunate development since the late 1960s is the left’s seeming allergy to power.  This has had a catastrophic effect of the right seeking and acquiring rule with the left locked in a pattern of reaction in the form of protest as the primary expression of political life.

Power is the ability with access to the means to make things happen.  It is crucial to understand that protest without power is ineffective.  A both-and approach is needed.   Disempowering fascism, new forms of colonisation, and unbridled capitalism, whose reach now threatens the ecological welfare of life on our planet, requires embracing positive power – empowering – through the building of institutions conducive to dignity, intelligence, and material conditions of freedom. READ MORE

Lewis R. Gordon
Revisiting Frantz Fanon’s The Damned of the Earth

Lewis R. Gordon
Revisiting Frantz Fanon’s The Damned of the Earth

Written at the height of the Algerian war of independence, The Damned of the Earth (1961) is a controversial book. This is because its author, Frantz Fanon (originally from Martinique but later based in Algeria, where he worked as a psychiatrist and developed close ties with the Front Libération Nationale, FLN), unapologetically says what a Black man is not expected to say: the degradation inflicted upon native populations by colonialism can only be overcome by anti-colonial violence. Here I discuss with Lewis R. Gordon the multiple layers of this anti-colonial violence which has been (sometimes wilfully) misrepresented by (mostly white) critics. Beyond the colonial context, we also talk about the impact of Fanon’s ideas on oppressed people around the world, particularly Black Americans (starting with the Black Panthers, who called The Damned of the Earth ‘the handbook of the Revolution’) fighting racism and injustice.

Lewis GordonLewis R. Gordon is a philosopher, musician, and global political intellectual. He is Professor of Philosophy with affiliation in Jewish Studies, Caribbean and Latin American Studies, Asian and Asian American Studies, and International Studies at UCONN-Storrs; Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies; Honorary Professor at the Unit of the Humanities at Rhodes University (UHURU), South Africa; and the Boaventura de Sousa Santos Chair in the Faculty for Economics at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. He also is the drummer for the band ThreeGenerations and a variety of jazz and blues bands in the New England area. His recent books include What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought (NY: Fordham UP; London: Hurst, 2016) and the forthcoming Fear of a Black Consciousness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA and Penguin Books in the UK). He edits the American Philosophical Association blog series Black Issues in Philosophy and co-edits the UK’s Rowman & Littlefield International book series Global Critical Caribbean Thought.

Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre (1961) is popularly known as The Wretched of the Earth, but you prefer to translate it as The Damned of the Earth. Apart from being the literal translation of ‘damnés’, does the word ‘damned’ give you more insight into the text?

Lewis Gordon: The word ‘damned’ is not only appropriate but also offers insight into the text. The standard response to my objection is to appeal to the English translation of L’Internationale, Eugène Pottier’s 1871 poem that concludes with the line: ‘Debout, les damnés de la terre!’ The well-known translation is, ‘Arise, the wretched of the earth!’ It could also be translated: ‘Arise, the damned of the earth!’ The preceding two lines (my translation) are: ‘The International / Will be humankind’.

Fanon, however, was referring to the Haitian poet Jacques Roumain’s ‘Sales nègres’ (‘Dirty nègres’) from his collection Bois-d’ébène (‘Ebony Wood’). Fanon referred to this work in the fifth chapter of Peau noire, masques blancs (‘Black Skin, White Masks’, 1952). The reference point here is not ‘The International’ but in fact the Haitian Revolution and its connection to revolution in the Third World or, in today’s parlance, the Global South. Roumain concludes his poem with a long list of subjects struggling against the days of being called ‘dirty nègres’ to ‘dirty Indians’, ‘dirty Hindus’, ‘dirty Indo-Chinese’, ‘dirty Arabs,’ ‘dirty Malaysians’, ‘dirty Jews’, ‘dirty proletarians’, and concludes with ‘And there we stand / all the damned of the earth’.

Now, dissecting both poems, we see an immediate difference between the role of the international as humankind and a list of humankind and the connection to ‘dirt’. The word ‘human’ is from the Latin word homo, whose origin relates to the word humus, which means ‘dirt’ or ‘clay’. Words such as ‘humility’ and ‘humble’ reveal the obvious connection of coming down to earth. This connection with earth and dirt reveals an influence or relationship with ancient African conceptions as found in, for example, the Hebrew language, where the word for human is adamah. It, too, is connected to the ground or earth. It specifically refers to red clay akin to what happens when animals are slaughtered in a kosher way, with the blood flowing into the soil. It’s the origin of the name Adam, which literally means ‘red’ as well as ‘human’. A more radical archaeolinguistic effort points to the precursor of the Hebraic forms in ancient Kmt (‘Egypt’) to the god Atum (think of the possible pronunciation of the t as the English d), the god who created himself out of a mound of earth arising from Nun (the primordial Nothing or dark waters).

We now have the basis of stressing the importance of the word ‘damned’. It’s from the Latin damnum, which refers to harm, hurt, or injury. The connection between the words damnum and adamah reveal a story of emergence from the earth and damnation or condemnation as a form of being pushed back into it. The human being, as we know, is a creature, in existential terms, of emergence, a creature with feet on the ground while reaching for the skies. READ MORE

One Question
International Women’s Day
(Part Two)

One Question
International Women’s Day
(Part Two)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th, we asked a number of women academics:

What is the biggest challenge facing women today?

The response has been huge. Overall we have received 25 answers, and as such have split them into two parts. Part one can be found here. Please take the time to read through both.

International Women's Day
Sara R. Farris

I think we should begin by acknowledging that not all women are the same and not all of them face the same challenges. The brutality of neoliberal capitalism in the last twenty years or so – with its anti-welfare agenda, its profound class inequalities and its intensification of racism – has deepened the divisions among women along class and racial lines in particular, but also along gender lines when we think of the exclusion that trans-women encounter in some feminist and women’s circles.

While the women belonging to the wealthy 1% of the population – and I am thinking of course of the ‘neoliberal feminists’ à la Sheryl Sandberg – face the challenge of feeling in full control of the corporate boardrooms and making even more money, the large majority of women, or the 99%, have the problem of making ends meet. Migrant and ethnic minority women face additional challenges insofar as the racism ingrained in western labour markets and societies at large relegates them to the most precarious, low-paid and under-valued jobs in the socially reproductive sector (as cleaners, nannies, domestic workers and so forth). READ MORE

One Question
International Women’s Day
(Part One)

One Question
International Women’s Day
(Part One)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th, we asked a number of women academics:

What is the biggest challenge facing women today?

The response has been so great that we have split the answers into two parts. Please take the time to read through both.

International Women's Day

Cinzia Arruzza

If I had to summarise in a slogan the greatest challenge women face today, I would say that ‘taking feminism back’ is the one. From the 1990s onwards, contrary to the past, in a number of countries formal gender equality and the recognition of formal rights for LGBTQ people has ceased to be a taboo. Even right-wing political forces have started to adopt some form of ‘feminist’ discourse to justify their policies. The most notable phenomena in this sense are those recently labelled as ‘homonationalism’ and ‘femonationalism’, that is, the mobilisation of ideas of gender and sexual equality stemming from feminism and gay liberation struggles in order to justify military aggressions.

This, of course, is not a novel phenomenon as women’s bodies and ‘liberation’ have been instrumentalised by colonial forces already before. But neoliberal capitalism has managed to both exhume and greatly expand this practice. Besides this adoption of feminist slogans by nationalist and neoliberal forces, we have also witnessed an increasing capacity of right-wing or conservative parties to endorse women’s leadership: Sarah Palin, Marine Le Pen, Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Giorgia Meloni are only some examples of this phenomenon, which shows all the limits of a formalistic approach to gender equality and the representation of women in elected institutions.

The candidature of Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election of 2016 also marked the impasse of the liberal feminist approach to gender equality. Hillary Clinton, in fact, embodied the kind of lean-in feminism that privileges the experience and aspirations of upper middle class women, while leaving the rest behind. Her candidature also symbolised the disconnection between women’s representation in elected institutions and the improvement of the large majority of women’s lives.

The challenge we face today is, therefore, to retrieve feminism as a force of social transformation for all women – starting from the liberation of working class, migrant, trans women and women of colour – and as a form of critique of social relations in their complexity, starting from capitalism and its effects on women’s lives. Together with other feminist authors and activists I have labelled this anticapitalist and antiracist feminism as ‘feminism for the 99%’, by which we understand a class-based feminism capable of being a force of transformation not just for women, but also for what we understand by class struggle, and for the life on this planet as a whole. READ MORE

One Question
Democracy

One Question
Democracy

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, we ask:

Is democracy working?

President Trump

Jeremy Gilbert

The question of whether democracy is working obviously depends on what we mean by ‘democracy’ and what we mean by ‘working’. But let me answer the question as naively as possible. By ‘democracy’, let us mean the existing institutions of liberal representative multi-party democracy in most countries that have such institutions. By ‘working’ let us mean ‘doing the thing that they are hypothetically supposed to do’. The definition of the latter is obviously itself contentious, but let us agree that if they are supposed to do anything, those institutions are supposed to translate the express wishes and desires of electorates (insofar as they can be measured) into the programmes enacted by their governments.

From this perspective, it is clear that they are not working and have not been, across much of the globe, since the 1970s. The general neoliberal programme has never enjoyed a clear majority mandate anywhere (except perhaps in parts of Eastern Europe in the wake of the collapse of state socialism).

It has been implemented by governments from the notional Right, elected by an electorate who believed that they would enact socially conservative measures that would slow down processes of social dislocation and cultural change; those governments may have passed some reactionary measures, but they slowed down nothing.

It has been enacted by governments from the notional left, elected by electorates who for the most part expected them to restore and extend post-war social democratic settlements; those governments may have passed some measures to ameliorate the worst effects of economic inequality, but they have rarely passed a measure that would have been recognised as social democratic by even the most right-wing members of their own parties just a decade or two previously.

Such a situation cannot be described as ‘democracy’ in any meaningful sense. READ MORE

Howard Zinn
On Civil Disobedience

Howard Zinn
On Civil Disobedience

Howard Zinn

To commemorate the eighth anniversary of the death of historian and activist Howard Zinn, we republish the interview we conducted with him in January 2007.

Howard Zinn
24 August, 1922-27 January, 2010

You once wrote that direct action ‘encompasses a great variety of methods, limited only by our imaginations’.  What methods do you find at our disposal today?  And what limits does your imagination impose upon them?

Howard Zinn: Direct action means acting directly on the object of your protest or the source of your grievance, as opposed to petitioning or lobbying for your elected representatives to act. We see it in strikes, both historically and today, which are a form of direct action against corporations that, for instance, exploit their employees, or manufacture war weapons. Another form of direct action is non-violent (that is, avoiding violence against human beings) action, including forms of sabotage.

Around 1980, ‘ploughshares’ groups (turn our swords into ploughshares) began invading companies that made weaponry, and committed minor acts of sabotage to protest the actions of these companies. Only recently, a group of religious pacifists calling themselves ‘The St. Patrick’s Four’ poured blood on a marine recruiting station to protest the war in Iraq. Boycotts are another form of direct action. The national boycott of grapes, carried on in the 1960s by the farm workers of California against the powerful growers, brought about better conditions for farm workers. The desertion of soldiers from immoral war, or the refusal of men to be drafted for war, are also forms of direct action.

You say that our problem is civil obedience, not civil disobedience.  ‘Both in war and in the law courts and everywhere else you must do whatever your city and your country command’, states Socrates; and these words, you claim, have been impressed on our minds.  You find in history many instances of submission to authority even in the face of terrible injustice, and very few of rebellion.  Why do people submit so readily to injustice? 

HZ: People submit to injustice for two reasons: one is that they do not recognize it as injustice. A young person submits to the exhortation to join the military without recognizing that he or she may go to a war which cannot be morally justified. The media and the educational system may not educate them about historical examples of resistance to injustice. Or people will submit to an injustice because they feel they have no alternative, that if they refuse they will be punished, perhaps by loss of a job, perhaps by being sent to prison. They may submit because people they have been taught to respect and trust – the President, their minister, even their family – may tell them they must submit to injustice because they owe something to their government, or their church or their family (as Plato had Socrates saying in The Crito, he couldn’t escape from his death sentence because he owed something to his government). READ MORE

One Question
Fascism (Part Two)

One Question
Fascism (Part Two)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, we ask:

Is Fascism making a comeback?

The second set of responses is collected below. Click here for Part One.

Is Fascism making a comeback?

Laurence Davis

Seventy-two years after the end of World War II, the spectre of fascism is again haunting the globe. The important questions we should be asking are why, and what can be done about it.

The evidence of history suggests that fascism thrives in periods of severe capitalist crisis by redirecting fear and anxiety about socioeconomic dislocation onto easily scapegoated ‘outsider’ groups, who must be brutally repressed in order to reaffirm society’s ‘natural’ hierarchies and enable national rebirth. Just as Mussolini and Hitler capitalised on the economic and political crises of their time, so too contemporary fascists are endeavouring to tap into a deep and racialised popular anger that has emerged out of the crumbling ruins of neoliberalism and market globalisation.

Many commentators of a liberal democratic persuasion have dismissed such warnings as scare-mongering, and insisted that the most appropriate response to ‘populist politics’ is a renewed commitment to market globalisation with a ‘human face’. I maintain, to the contrary, that the only effective antidote to emerging forces of fear and hate is not less popular democracy but more.

Whereas contemporary fascists are giving voice to the ugly authoritarian and reactionary face of popular opposition to the political and economic establishment, an egalitarian and inclusive left popular radicalism can and must expose the real roots of festering social problems by speaking plainly and directly to ordinary people’s needs, without pandering to their worst prejudices and fears. In practical terms, this will require grassroots democratic organising of the sort exemplified by political forces currently leading the struggle against fascism and working to construct viable community-based post-capitalist alternatives, such as in Rojava and Greece.

At the level of ideas, it hinges on a reconnection with radical democratic revolutionary roots. Historically, the revolutionary ideas and social movements that are the very antithesis of fascism, and the only sure defence against it, have tended to emerge out of, and given ideological coherence to, popular democratic social forms. However, in our time once revolutionary ideologies and movements like socialism and anarchism have grown increasingly detached from their radical democratic roots, leaving a political vacuum that right-wing populists and demagogues have been quick to fill.

Walter Benjamin’s observation that every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution speaks poignantly to our current condition. It may be interpreted not only as a warning, but as a grimly realistic utopian hope that we still have a fleeting historical opportunity to act before it is too late. READ MORE