Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Homo Sacer and Biopower

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life

Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose, "Biopower Today"

The protagonist of Agamben's book is "the homo sacer: the sacred man, who may be killed and yet not sacrificed"(8). This enigmatic figure stands in for the concept of bare life, the simple fact of living common to all living beings. Bare life brackets bios; it brackets particular forms or ways of living proper to particular types of being. Agamben's central assertion is that Western politics is founded by way of an inclusionary exclusion of bare life. The ancient polis opposed itself to the bare lives of its citizens; it constituted itself through this opposition. Modern politics, in turn, made society, the sum of men as living beings, central; the previously marginal realm of bare life revealed its central/constitutive character.

Bare life then is the key to politics. It is the key to sovereignty. The principle of sovereignty is to deny bare-life legal status, render it vulnerable to its coercion and then justify that vulnerability as law: "in-distinction of law and violence"(35).  Sovereignty collapses the distinction between law and violence. Law decreed by the sovereign easily posits itself as natural law, the principle of  the preservation of biological life.

The indistinction between law and violence, between law/culture and nature become conspicuous in the "state of exception" where the sovereign replaces juridical norms with de facto necessary measures. In the state of exception, de facto necessary measures become indistinguishable from laws. The state of exception coincides with the normal order(38)

Most historical and contemporary politics is founded on the exception of bare life, argues Agamben. Consider the following striking statement: " Until a completely new politics- that is, a politics no longer founded on the exceptio of bare life- is at hand, every theory and every praxis will remain imprisoned and immobile, and the "beautiful day" of life will be given citizenship only either through blood and death or in the perfect senselessness to which the society of the spectacle condemns it"(11). Here, Agamben tells us how suffocating and sterile a politics based on the exclusio of bare life becomes. This holds equally for politics of death camps and mass hedonism and consumerism. The solution, he implies, lies in rendering bare life sensuous, creative and spontaneously self-organizing.

Rabinow and Rose, on the other hand, take issue with the conflation of the kind of bio-politics that manifests itself in death camps, 'a politics of death'- and the kind which manifests itself in discourses of vitality, 'letting die.' Contemporary bio-politics shows a remarkable interest in creating healthier and more autonomous populations, whether by way of curing cystic fibrosis,mass depression and other diseases or identifying groups susceptible to disease through genetic testing or promoting reasonable and gentle measures of birth control. While there is much that is problematic in these efforts, they create a reality categorically different from both pre-modern structures and modern totalitarianisms. In that regard, Rabinow and Rose stand closer to Foucault's appreciation of historical rupture than Agamben's rather a-historical perspective.

Let me conclude by considering Agamben's call to render bare-life creative, make it the ground on which to build more inclusive and thriving communities. The challenge is to marry zoe and bios, voice and language, matter and form, demands of life and communal deliberation and so on. The challenge is to think beyond efforts of merely prolonging life- technologically and politically- to considering what kinds of life are worth prolonging.

Monday, September 26, 2016

James Ferguson, Global Shadows

James Ferguson, Global Shadows
Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2

James Ferguson views Africa as a particular positionality. He adopts, in other words, a relational perspective. "Africa" stands in for conditions of extreme inequality and weak and predator states. As Ferguson observes, Africans themselves understand their condition as a weakness. They are far from celebrating their condition as a mark of cultural difference. Neither do they think their problems are caused by being overrun by consumer goods from the West, the so-called McDonaldization of the world. They are aware that the real source of problems lies in the absence of political institutions, a lack that is closely related to Africa's place in the world economy. Ferguson's dual ability to think in terms of a world system and to emphatically take in his informant's world-view is remarkable.

Chapter 2 discusses what Ferguson dubs the "de-politicization of poverty." Poverty is depoliticized when it is localized, when it is exclusively tied to the performance of a particular nation-state. Ferguson observes this process in the talk about the underdevelopment of the small nation-state Lesotho. Commentators turned blind to the fact that Lesotho became a mere labor-reserve and commodity market for its large neighbor South Africa. Failing to adopt a relational perspective, these commentators missed the root causes of Lesotho's problems. In contrast, many critics effectively linked the poverty of the pseudo-nation state Transkei to the devastation caused by the Bantustans project undertaken by the policy makers of the Apartheid era. We learn from this contrast that talk of national independence can easily slide into a misguided localization/nationalization of what are really regional and indeed global issues.

Where does this leave us? The "global" can be an effective tool of analytical clarity; it can help us see in the dark, see through the "shadows." When severed from the "global," the local becomes the site of confused "culture talk" masking consequential political-economic inequalities. The "local" also operates as the site of exclusionary spatial enclaves where global forces, supported by the most regressive forces of the "local," operate in the most rent-seeking and shadowy fashion, ripping potentially stable and prosperous communities apart.    

Monday, September 19, 2016

Globalization and Neo-Liberalism

Globalization as a Political Project

Harvey, D. 2004 Spaces of Neoliberalization

Jacques, Martin 2016 “The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in western politics” @ Eurozine

Kalb Don, 2005. From flows to violence: Politics and knowledge in the debates on globalization and Empire. In: Anthropological Theory 5: 176

Globalization can be fruitfully viewed as a political project, among other things. As a political project, it refers to "an emergent coalition between neo-liberals/market liberals and political liberals"(Kalb, 177) Gaining ground in the early 90's, this coalition puts forth a political program grounded in the civilizing force of trade. In this program, economic interests of autonomous individuals are made predominant. This approach is expected to produce prosperity and political order by holding in check collective passions fired by ethnic/religious claims. In the later 90's, Kalb observes, political liberals gain the intellectual upper hand in this alliance. Unlike market liberals, political liberals emphasize political institutions' role to create structures of accountability and preempt populist strongmen. Market alone, political liberals learn, fails to bring about political development.

It becomes clear from Kalb's account that political liberalism's ascendancy is in fact deeply contested. Illiberal mobilizations surface all around the world, from the Balkans to South East Asia. Kalb points to "culture talk" setting parochial notions of belonging against global demands. Globalism or global liberalism spearheaded by a profit-seeking transnational capitalist class gets challenged by ethnically or religiously driven mass mobilizations. It also becomes clear from Kalb's survey that empire/imperialism becomes the major strategy of globalist trans-nationalism as it strives to prevail against rivaling forces.

Kalb's account dovetails with Harvey's perspective on neo-liberalism as the restoration of class-power. Harvey too reads neo-liberalism politically, as the manifacturing of consent for policies which exclusively benefit capitalists, above all finance capitalists. The language of liberalism, with "freedom" "individualism" "autonomy" as its keywords, fits the bill in this hegemonic project. Harvey's task is to uncover the ideological mask of this hegemony and show that neo-liberalism has not generated wealth, it has merely re-distributed it away from the vast majority of the population to an upper strata. "Accumulation by dispossession" is the right term to describe this process. "Conversion of various forms of property rights(common,collective,state) into exclusive private property rights" drives the neo-liberal project.

Jacques Martin's opinion piece points to rising popular discontent with neo-liberalism. The challenge for me is to make sure this discontent does not take the form of a reactionary shoring up of so-called ethnic or cultural differences. To prevent such a reactionary form, we must maintain a focus on social and economic rights and reflect about non-capitalist/though still global forms of property and social organization. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Problem-Space of Globalization

The Problem-Space of Globalization

Comaroffs, 2000 Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming. Available at:

Ong, A and Collier, S 2005. Introduction, from Global Assemblages.. Blackwell Publishing

Anna Tsing, 2000. The Global Situation. In: Cultural Anthropology. Vol. 15/ 3. Pp: 327-360.

Further reading: Karl Polanyi. “The Great Transformation,” Boston, MA, Beacon Press

"To invoke the global at the turn of the second millenium is to call attention to the speed and density of interconnections among people and places" (Tsing, 331) "By globalism, I refer to the endorsements of the importance of the global"(Tsing, 330)

The global refers to the increased speed and density of interconnections among people and places. The interesting question for me here is how we connect to each other in this newly fast and dense context. Do we connect as mere bearers of labor-power with a pre-determined set of interests or do we connect as whole moral persons? I ask this question in light of the following quote from Polanyi: 

"To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their          natural environment, indeed, even of the amount of and use of purchasing power, would result in the demolition of society. For the alleged commodity 'labor power' cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affecting also the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this particular commodity. In disposing of a man's labor power, the system would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity 'man' attached to that tag. Robbed of the protective covering of human institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as the victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime and starvation." (Karl Polanyi,76)

Polanyi wrote this before the advent of the "global" and accompanying ideology of globalism. He wrote it to highlight the dislocation caused by modern industrialization. Man, he said, needs the protective covering of human institutions to prevent or survive such dislocation. Man's physical and mental health is beholden to the protection offered by institutions. Recalling here the earlier diagnosis of the global as increased speed and density of connections, we can note the continuing relevance of Polanyi for today: increased speed and density of connections would wear man out in the absence of protective institutions.

The essay by Comaroff&Comaroff promotes reflection along these lines:

"The roots of this process lie deeper: in the interiors, and the animating forces, of the Age of Millennial Capitalism- in particular, in its impulse to displace political sovereignty with the sovereignty of "the market..." to parse human beings into free-floating labor units, commodities, clients, stakeholders, strangers, their subjectivity distilled into ever more objectified ensembles of interests, entitlements, appetites, desires, purchasing "power."( Comaroff&Comaroff, 333)

"We seek instead to draw attention to, to interrogate, the distinctly pragmatic qualities of the messianic, millenial capitalism of the moment; a capitalism that presents itself as a gospel of salvation; a capitalism that, if rightly harnessed, is invested with the capacity wholly to transform the universe of the marginalized and disempowered" (Comaroff&Comaroff, 292)

Millenial capitalism, a form of capitalism tethered to the occult offers quick and false promises of salvation. In my view, it degrades man's rationality and dignity. It perpetuates irrational/mystified explanations of the world system and devalues hard, honest and socially responsible work. It realizes in the most jarring way what Polanyi has predicted- vice, perversion, crime, starvation.

On the other hand, millenial capitalism captures only one side of the contemporary reality. In many ways, it is only a fiction/ideology, albeit a very powerful one. The reality contains other sides, more concrete bits of human interaction.

"In contrast to the abstract globe conjured by social science globalism, the scholarship I am imagining would stress the concreteness of "movements" in both senses of the word: social mobilizations in which new identities and interests are formed and travels from one place to another through which place-transcending interactions occur."(Tsing,350)

As a composite concept, the term "global assemblage" suggests inherent tensions: global implies broadly encompassing, seamless, and mobile; assemblage implies heterogeneous, contingent, unstable, partial and situated. (Ong&Collier,12)

Can we find meaningful interactions among moral persons- not mere bearers of labor-power- somewhere in these "global assemblages"?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Islamism Between Authoritarianism and Democracy


In this essay, I analyze Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Hasan al-Turabi and Yusuf al-Qaradawi's ideas on the "Islamic State" (based on their writings on the theme made available in the " Remaking the Islamic State" section of Princeton Reading in Islamist Thought edited by Roxanne Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman ). My analysis indicates that Islamist views on the state represented by these authors vary from authoritarian and democratic conceptions. I argue that Islamism can embed itself in Muslim societies more effectively if it scales up the democratic conceptions in its midst.
Islamism has generally been pioneered by political intellectuals like Abul A’la Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb, not clerics (ulama). Khomeini is an exception to this pattern. Coming from a hawza/ madrasa background, he became the architect of the Islamic Revolution sealing it with the doctrine of the velayet-e faqih, the guardianship of the jurist. This doctrine is grounded in the authority of the fuqaha(jurists) to act as the trustee of God’s sovereignty accountable to the ulama alone. The jurists in this model execute the law and decide matters not covered by the letter of law through their powers of independent reasoning. While they do not have the same status as the Prophet and imams, they have the same function. In fact, Khomeini’s text is entirely devoted to justifying the need for jurists to take on the legislative and executive powers of the state, from taxation to education.
Like Khomeini, al-Sadr comes from a Shi’ite background. In his “The General Framework of the Islamic Economy,” he explains his understanding of the Muslim perspective on property, market, freedom and social justice. He supports multi-faceted ownership of resources, a combination of public and private property. The overarching idea is to allow individuals “economic freedom within a defined limit of social justice” (186). Limitations on individual freedom are necessary to create harmonious and orderly social relations.

Some of the limits to freedom come from Muslims internalization of social norms. Muslims should act virtuously, respect each other’s property and pay the zakat. Other limits are set up and enforced by authority, for example the restrictions with regard to usury and monopolies. These limits exact sacrifices from individuals for the sake of social benefits. Religion provides the motivation to consent to these sacrifices. Al-Sadr concludes then that Islamic science of economy can be fully realized only when it becomes embedded in a larger transformation of society in accordance with Islamic norms.
Notably, Sadr, a symbol of Shi’i resistance to Saddam Hussein regime, builds his alternative vision in a bottom-up manner, from economy up to the state. This, in my view, sets an interesting contrast to most other Islamist visions, like that of Khomeini, which start off from ideas about sovereignty, about who can speak and act in the name of God or divine sovereignty.  From a common-sense or practical point of view, what matters in life is economics, the practices and arrangements through which individuals sustain themselves. Furthermore, in a society in which resources and earnings are justly distributed, political authority can claim to greater legitimacy. From this point of view, Sadr’s emphasis on creating a framework for freedom and justice in civil life is well-placed. When such framework is put in place, political power is less likely to confront citizens as alien and coercive. Even if such a confrontation ensues, various civic groups can draw on their resources to resist it. Taking all this into account, we can conclude that Sadr’s vision comes close to a democratic version of Islamism.

While not predominantly focused on economics, Turabi’s thought advanced in his “The Islamic State” has democratic dimensions as well. This is surprising and somewhat ironic given his early close relations to first General Numayri’s and then General ‘Umar Hasan al-Bashir’s authoritarian regimes. These regimes have put into practice the hudud punishments in shariah and forcefully restricted all opposition to their idea of Islamic governance. Turabi’s complicity with these regimes belies his commitment to representative democracy in his writings. This shows the Islamist temptation to capture state-power even when the organization of state-power contradicts their principles. Turabi was tempted to work with illegitimate powers to implement his ideas. He wanted to use these powers as instruments for his ideology.

As far as the democratic dimensions of Turabi’s text are concerned, we can note his ideas on the sources of political legitimacy in Islam. Shariah, Turabi notes, rules out usurpation and succession as grounds for political legitimacy (215). Rulers have to be elected and they have to consult with people when they govern. This resembles a form of “representative democracy” (216). Individuals participate directly or through their representatives to the practice of consultation. Political, economic and scientific knowledge, dispersed through the population, are brought to consultation. Knowledge that is relevant to the organization of the state cannot be reduced to strictly religious knowledge.

Unlike most Islamists, Turabi argues that the state cannot endorse religious obligations (217). Individuals retain the freedom to deny authorities the right to tell him or her how to live his or her Muslim identity. Submission is to God alone. In Turabi’s words, “the freedom of the individual ultimately emanates from the doctrine of tawhid” (219). Submitting to God alone, individual believers oppose the prerogative of their rulers to determine their fates. Highlighting all these restrictions to political power, Turabi puts forth a liberal idea of state. Given this idealist philosophy, his practice as mentors to authoritarian rulers is indeed puzzling.   

Compared to Turabi, Qaradawi appears as a more coherent democrat. Reaching to a wide and international audience through satellite, television, internet and print, he stands as an influential public intellectual against the authoritarian excesses of Islamism. Qaradawi appropriately describes his thought as moderation or centrism. The philosophy of moderation advocates education in modern forms of knowledge and a wide spectrum of Muslim identity. The latter point is particularly crucial. By endorsing a capacious understanding of Muslim identity, Qaradawi takes issue with takfiri thinking whereby Muslims charge each other with unbelief when they do not agree on various articles of faith and/or practice.   

Qaradawi’s text “Islam and Democracy” frames Islamic politics in opposition to tyranny. The entire message of the Quran, Qaradawi emphasizes, rebukes the rule of tyrants and oligarchs like Nimrod, Pharaoh, Haman and Korah. In modern societies, says Qaradawi, we can make good use of democratic mechanisms like voting and deliberating to curb the excesses of tyranny or authoritarianism. When we adopt these mechanisms, we do not contravene God’s universal or determinative sovereignty; we only exercise the inescapable/inevitable task to put into practice what God has revealed. Qaradawi thus refutes the Islamist objection to democracy.  

In conclusion, I would like to suggest that among the views put forth by Islamists, some are more democratic than others. Sadr’s emphasis on economic organization and Turabi’s at least theoretical endorsement of individual freedom are noteworthy. Perhaps the most coherent example of democratic trends in Islamism is the thought of Qaradawi. One can hope that Islamists can learn from experience and change in more democratic directions as they seek to embed Muslim values in society. As Qaradawi emphasizes, when authoritarian rulers, secular or Islamist, take away people’s freedoms and livelihoods, imprison anyone who opposes them, declare emergency powers and enact military tribunals, people lose their agency and dignity. The right path for political Islam, in my view, is to abandon a state-centric point of view in favor of a society-centric one. That would perhaps entail a radical transformation of Islamism toward a reformist or democratic Islam. While some may see it as unlikely, the jury, again in my view, is still out on the possibility of this transformation.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Anxiety of the Whistleblower

How do whistleblowers fare in America, arguably one of the most advanced democracies in the world? Whistleblowers, to remind you, are those employees who sue their companies for fraud or harm to public at large. Although there are plenty of legal documents which are enacted to protect them, they usually end up in less-than-ideal conditions, often job-less, anguished and alone. Fred Alford tells us that whistleblowers learn and teach us that the statements below are all lies( Whistleblowers, page 49):

"That if one is right and persistent, things will turn out all right in the end

That it makes sense to stand up and do the right thing.

That the family is a haven in a heartless world. Spouses and children will not abondon you in your hour of need.

That ours is a government of laws, not men.

That loyalty isn't equivalent to herd instinct."

It turns out that even in advanced democracies our familial and civic lives depend more on herd-instinct and habit than 'rightness' or 'public good'. For many, it is more prudent to keep one's edges round and stick with others in the group than to do the right thing and suffer the resultant loneliness. This insight is reminiscient of Tocqueville's observations about America in his Democracy in America:

"When the inhabitant of a democratic country compares himself with all those about him, he feels with pride that he is the equal of anyone of them; but when he comes to survey the totality of his fellows, and to place himself in contrast with so huge a body, he is instantly overwhelmed by the sense of his own insignificance and weakness. The same equality which renders him independent of each of his fellow-citizens taken severally, exposes him alone and unprotected to the influence of the greater number. The public has therefore, among a democratic people, a singular power, which aristocratic nations cannot conceive of, for it does not persuade to certain opinions, but it enforces them, and infuses them into the intellect by a sort of enormous pressure of the minds of all upon the reason of each...."

The families, organizations and political parties that compose the public sometimes act in conformity and unison. They thus create a 'singular power.' Think of this as the center of a circle drawing multiple forces around it into itself. Whistleblowers are the best people to tell us about how strong that force is. This is because they resisted that force and suffered for it.

This does not mean, however, that this is a overwhelmingly uniform society. There are divisions and conflicts between the forces composing the public. Furthermore, these are not minor divisions: they are about ultimate values of life. American democracy, to its credit, contains their conflicts effectively. Sandel describes this containment as follows.

Thomas Nagel, "Sandel and the Paradox of Liberalism",110

"[Moral and political conflicts in America] are not just about the best means to pursue generally accepted ends. They are about ultimate values. Yet they do not threaten the stability and legitimacy of the system. Except for a small lunatic fringe, citizens of the United States are prepared to accept the results of the political and legal process even when those results contravene some of their most fundamental convictions. Americans may vilify one another as bigoted religious fanatics or morally depraved atheists, racist reactionaries or crypto-totalitarian socialists, but they know they will not be put up against the wall if their party loses an election."

This organization of the political space demands from us the virtue of tolerance when we lose in social and political contests. But, again, what about the convictions and the systematic losses of the whistle-blowers? Are these losses to be suffered in silence? True, whistleblowers are usually not 'put up against the wall.' But, they suffer in a heartless world and end up losing their sanity and connectedness to others. Is that loss tolerable?

Let us think, now, with Wolin, Politics and Vision, page 590:

"While the powers and responsibilities of the presidency have accordingly kept pace with the growth of Superpower, the powers and responsibilities of the citizen have shrunk- also accordingly. This becomes most apparent when important elections loom. The media aided by the pollsters proceed unchallenged to construct either a Pavlovian democracy conditioned to respond to stupefying questions("public opinion polls show that 60 percent of the voters believe that the president is doing a good job"), or a democracy fragmented into abstract categories of citizens who do not consciously know, associate, or colloborate with each other on the basis of such categories-"over thirty years old," "women earning over 50000 a year," and so on."

Is this, then, a Pavlovian democracy with a diminished sense of community? Fragmentation seems overwhelming. Our civic preferences are aggregated by putting us in abstract groups- boxes- that do not mean much to us.

But maybe we should not rush ahead too far like this. We are allowed to seek solidarity outside these given boxes: we can find our own ideological niche. Nagel is partially right. We can fight from within these boxes in ways meaningful to us. We can refuse to be Pavlov's dogs. This, in a way, is a system that makes whistleblowers possible.

Yet, again, the moment the whistleblower tries to deny fragmentation and connect to others, to public at large, he is pushed away. He is rendered insignificant and weak. Can the society contain his/her resultant anxiety? That seems to be the great challenge of our democracy now- more so than public opinion and the problems associated with majority rule.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

T.S Eliot and the Dwarf-Chief of the Little People: Insights on Education and Leadership

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of the earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning
--- T.S. Eliot

Ceaseless exploration takes us through unfamiliar and uncharted territory. We should try, however, to find our way back to home, the place where the journey began. We can thus come to see what is belonging to our home- what is familiar- with new eyes. The new knowledge we acquire finds its way to the depths of our identity, our starting-point.

"He will be a Chief," said the Dwarf-chief. I can give him nothing. He already possesses the power to become great if he will use it. Let him cultivate his senses, let him use the powers which Ah-badt-dadt-deah[God] has given him, and he will go far. The difference between men grows out of the use, or non-use, of what was given them by Ah-badt-dadt-deah in the first place... In you as in all men are natural powers. You have a will. Learn to use it. Make it work for you. Sharpen your senses as you would sharpen your knife. Remember the wolf smells better than you do because he has learned to depend on his nose. It tells him every secret the winds carry because he uses it all the time, makes it work for him. We can give you nothing. You already possess everything necessary to become great. Use your powers. Make them work for you, and you will become a chief."

The dream of Young Plenty Coups of the Crows tribe. In this dream, he is taken up and counseled by the Dwarf-chief, the head of the Little People, legendary creatures who lived in the hills and valley near Pryor, Montana. Quoted in Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope, p.125

"We can give you nothing": at first, this sounds odd. Teachers surely do have something to give; otherwise, we would not seek their help. But, upon closer introspection, I realize that Dwarf-chief expresses a profound insight. He knows that Young Plenty Coups, like the rest of us, already has the raw material to work on- his natural powers. What he requires is a willingness to depend on what he has- like the wolf who uses his senses to learn the secret of the winds. Attunement to, not overcoming of, what we have is the key.

The Dwarf-chief's perspective is not far from that of T.S Eliot. They both urge us to look back at our starting-points- our senses, natural powers and convictions- in the midst of a perilous journey of educative exploration. Upon looking back, we will be equipped with new insights about ourselves. We will also be more willing to take up new quests and bring new gifts to the house of our being. These gifts are not things that decay or perish with time- like money, status and might. They are rather values that connect deeply with the innermost part of our nature- our curiosity, desire to sharpen our skills and yearning to understand what is around us, for example, the last piece of the earth, the secret of the winds or how best to take care of the public realm.