Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Embers of Easter and the Coming Insurrection

On this day, 100 years ago, Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and their comrades took over the General Post Office on Sackville Street in the heart of Dublin.  After they had invested the building, sent the Post Office workers home, and run up the flag of the Irish Republic, Pearse stepped back out onto the street, and read aloud the text of the Proclamation of the Republic.  As with other kinds of rhetorical performance, this act of itself brought its object into being.

Over the last four months, Ireland has been 'celebrating' or 'commemorating' the Rising and its central figures, tenets and incidents.   Thousands of events have been held all over the country.  Some have been organised by the State, many others have been organised and run by a plethora of political, civil, local and popular bodies or institutions - towns and villages, schools and universities, unions and campaigning organisations, local history societies, academic and popular historians, political theorists, political parties, cultural groups and institutions.  For the most part, the events held appear to have been conducted in a genial and good-natured manner.  Such has been the range of events; such has been the effort made to be accessible and 'inclusive', to highlight the involvements in the Rising of women (listening to RTE or reading the Irish Times one might be forgiven for thinking that the Rising had more female participants than male), Protestants, atheists, children, eccentrics of every stripe; such has been the effort to make the large State events 'family-friendly' with music of no particular pertinence, anachronistic dance or art, speculative performance pieces (the de-politicising Toibin/Dennehy effort on Casement and Conrad); such has been the effort apparently to 'internationalise' the Rising and  its legacy, that one has the impression that the events of Easter Week 1916 themselves have been muffled, partly occluded, de-centered by context, hidden. 

Furthermore, it must be noted that the social category which has been relatively neglected in this welter of 'commemoration' is that of class.  Every commentator rightly notes the commitment and intelligence of James Connolly, but this is where the analysis tends to halt.  Connolly was a brave, clever and energetic man; he was also, utterly unapologetically, a Marxist revolutionary, and described himself as such.  He was an important leader of working-class agitation in Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century, in America from 1903 till 1910, and then again in Ireland for the rest of his life.  But he was not a lone figure, and to overlook the class ferment of Ireland in the years leading up to the Rising, and even more in its wake, is unhistorical and reductive, detaching the revolutionary elements from their social bases.

Ernest Renan, writing in 1882, famously noted how much had needed to be forgotten for the making of the French nation:  'Yet the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things. No French citizen knows whether he is a Burgundian, an Alan, a Taifale, or a Visigoth, yet every French citizen has to have forgotten the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, or the massacre that took place in the Midi in the thirteenth century'.  Renan's wider point is that modern nations are built on foundational acts of accumulative and centralising violence even as they retroject a claim to an ancient legitimacy, and this means that our contemporary 'commemoration' of the Rising is as much about state-sanctioned forgetting as about remembrance.  This is then illustrated by timid, bungled and ignorant state-sponsored efforts such as the ludicrous video put out last year by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht under the leadership of the gormless Heather Humphreys, 'Ireland Inspires 1916', which failed almost entirely to mention the Rising while somehow including Bono, Ian Paisley, Bob Geldof and David Cameron.  

To invoke the name of a great philosopher like Gilles Deleuze after those of such mediocrities may seem bizarre, but in Logic of Sense, and A Thousand Plateaux, he produced a theory of the 'event', or more accurately a critique of the concept of the event, which has some pertinence here.  Where, he famously asked, is a 'battle'?  Everywhere on the battlefield struggles are taking place, but does the 'battle' inhere in all of them or only some?  How to choose?  For Deleuze - a little as for Stendhal in the hilarious scene in The Charterhouse of Parma where Fabrizio arrives on the field of Waterloo only to find it a confused muddle and only for him to be summarily removed from his horse and dumped on his arse in the mud - the battle is neither collective nor personal, but instead a series of individual moments that communicate without being reducible to each other.  It is anonymous, evanescent, an infinitive outside conventional time:

If the battle is not an event among others, but rather the Event in its essence, it is no doubt because it is effectuated in diverse manners at once, and because each participant may grasp it at a different level of effectuation within its variable present ... But it is above all because the battle hovers over its own field, being neutral in relation to all its temporal effectuations, neutral and impassive in relation to the victor and the vanquished, the coward and the brave; because of this, it is all the more terrible.  Never present, but always yet to come and already passed, the battle is graspable only by the will of anonymity which it itself inspires.

Deleuze argues that the way to deal ethically with such a situation is to 'will the event'. As Ronald Bogue, a leading commentator on Deleuze, puts it, '[w]hat soldiers should affirm in the battle is not so much any specific outcome as the pure event of the battle, the virtual "to battle" that plays through any of the diverse actualizations of the battle that may take place.  To be worthy of what happens is to will the virtual event immanent within one's ongoing actualization in the world'.

Deleuze describes some of the effect of the 'commemorations' of the Rising, and hints at some of the reasons that the Rising alarms the Irish state and political class so much, even to this day and why the attempts to muffle it may fail.   If the 'event' of the Rising is or has been rendered indeterminate in the way described above, then there remains the fact that it is 'always yet to come and already passed'.  To grasp the Rising in a Deleuzian manner is to affirm the 'to battle' which underpins the diverse and various actualisations of the Rising which took place.  The strength of a Deleuzian reading of the Rising and its commemoration is to find resources even in the occluding clouds of cross-hatching discourse by which 'the battle' of the GPO is accessible to us now.

Here are some decently inflammatory  readings to mark today's centenary:

First, the greatest single piece of radical commentary on the spur of events: Marx on the counter-revolution of 1851 in France, and its aftermath:

Then, Marx, just a few years earlier, theorising revolutionary philosophy by thinking through Feuerbach:

Theses on Feuerbach

Next, Walter Benjamin's great set of maxims of historical materialism, 'On the Concept of History'.  I think that sections VI, VIII, XIV and XVI, in particular, are interesting at this moment: 

Antonio Gramsci, theorising the workers' revolution in 1919:

The development of the revolution

A review of a fine new biography of Ireland's greatest Marxist activist, James Connolly:

The Real Revolutionary

A late statement in The Workers' Republic by Connolly:

We Will Rise Again

And a manifesto of resistance, rising and 'willing the event' from contemporary France:

The Coming Insurrection - About Tarnac9


Monday, 11 April 2016

The Spectres Haunting Israel - The Ghosts of Palestinian Civil Society

'A spectre is haunting Europe', Marx and Engels famously wrote, opening their Communist Manifesto in 1848, 'the spectre of communism'.  With these words, Marxist revolutionism brought into being that to which it aspired: the active movement of the communist left across the globe.

The spectre haunting the Zionist state of Israel these days is not the prospect of Syrian armoured divisions ready to break through into the Galilee, as it apparently was in 1973; nor the prospect of an Iranian ballistic missile striking Tel Aviv with a nuclear warhead, red herring as that notion always was; nor even the prospect of another war with Hizbollah like the one that bloodied the nose of the IDF so dramatically in 2006.  Rather, the ghost in the Israeli machine is the spectre of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), which takes its cue and its beginning from the call from 170 Palestinian civil society organisations in 2005 for a worldwide boycott of Israeli state institutions until the occupation is brought to an end, and Palestinian national rights are properly recognised.

BDS is a movement which has been gathering ever-greater pace in recent years. Corporations and religious institutions have withdrawn from investments previously made in Israeli companies or businesses.  The Irish company, Cement Roadstone Holdings, finally last year got rid of its shares in Nesher, the major Israeli group supplying the concrete for the construction of the West Bank Wall.  And on campuses around the world, students, scholars and teachers have rallied to boycott events which are sponsored by or with Israeli state assistance.

For long derided and marginalised by mainstream politicians, smeared by its enemies as a mere expression of anti-Semitism, BDS and boycott specifically have attained recognition by powers of the highest stature and most conventional nature - this exemplified in February 2014 when American Secretary of State John Kerry warned Israel, as bilateral talks with the Palestinian Authority broke down once more, that it might eventually find itself isolated on the world stage and suffering a 'economic boycott'.

Israel is rattled by BDS.  Israeli politicians and state officials complain of a campaign to 'delegitimise' the Jewish State.  American presidential hopefuls, such as the odious Hillary Clinton, have made obeisance to the Israel lobby in the United States (this always being part of the presidential race), and declared that they will take action against BDS campaigns on university campuses.  France - the home of liberté, egalité and fraternité and the perfervid defender of the right of Charlie Hebdo to discuss Islam in racist terms - has legislated to make advocating BDS an offence punishable by law.  The Conservative government in the United Kingdom is aiming to bring in similar restrictions.

Recently, a conference was held in Israel, organised by the widely-read newspaper Yediot Ahronoth, and entitled 'StopBDS'.  It was addressed by a rather motley array of speakers, including the President Reuben Rivlin, the American TV comedienne Roseanne Barr, and ministers of the ruling right-wing coalition.  In his speech to the conference, Israel's Transport Minister, Israel Katz, called for a policy of 'focused civil elimination' to be applied to leading figures in the BDS movement, most obviously Omar Barghouti. 

The terminology is directly reminiscent of that used to refer to Israel's policy of 'targeted assassination' deployed against Palestinian guerrillas and militants in Gaza and the West Bank.  The armed and physical violence of extra-judicial execution in one sphere is to be matched by the anticipated discursive and representational violence in the other sphere.  Remembering the fate of a Palestinian advocate and intellectual such as Ghassan Kanafani, killed by a car-bomb in Beirut in 1972, one wonders at what point one kind of 'elimination' will turn into the other, or when civil elimination will be seen not merely to anticipate but to justify physical elimination.  At the very least, we have here an example of an Israeli cabinet minister inciting hatred and, potentially, even murder.

Where is the protest and criticism from the 'international community'?

Some further reading on this grim topic.

First, a report on Alternet on the StopBDS conference:

Watch: Israeli Gov't Calls for 'Civil Elimination' of Left-Wing Activists and Roseanne Barr Goes on a Rampage

Second, distinguished Stanford Professor David Palumbo-Liu, also on Alternet:

Israel Targets BDS Movement Co-Founder With 'Civil Elimination' Plan


Third, also from Alternet, a report on the French government's attack on BDS campaigning:

France's Shocking, Wrong-Headed Repression of Protests Against Israel's Violent Policies


And fourth, from Mondoweiss, a rallying call by a leading American BDS campaigner, Nada Elia:

As threats against BDS grow, it is time for ‘sumoud’ in activist communities







Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Antinomies of the Exception - Empire and Emergency Law

[I began writing this piece in the immediate wake of the November 13 attacks in Paris, but was forced to leave it to one side by sheer workload.  Completing it now in April leaves it tied to its original moment of writing in a few places, but not, I hope, damagingly so.  I post here articles on the French state of emergency, and also on the Belgian bomb attacks that have supervened in the wake of the French atrocities.]

France continues to be convulsed in the wake of the breathtakingly murderous attacks in Paris.  Shock, pain, grief, anger, at the individual level, and at the level of society itself, are understandable and inevitable.  The problem is when political and military actions are taken in this kind of atmosphere.

Further airstrikes on ISIS targets have been carried out, though they do not represent a new policy, but rather an intensification of action that was already underway.  Police raids have taken place all over the country.  The most significant of these was the raid in Saint-Denis, in northern Paris, which resulted in a prolonged shoot-out and siege, and a number of casualties, including the alleged 'mastermind' (as the media like to call him) of the November 13 attacks, Abdelhamid Abaoud.  The Assemblée nationale has extended the period of emergency by three months, greatly expanding the already considerable legal powers of the French security forces.  M. Hollande has been calling on the leaders of great powers past and present, including America and Russia, to join France in a grand coalition against ISIS.


A couple of simple truths nevertheless are not part of the fever of discussion and debate - much of it driven by media speculation, by the kind of idiotic bar-talk that passes in Ireland for public discussion on radio, in particular.

France disports itself on the world stage as the home of Enlightenment revolutionism, citizen republicanism, and liberté, égalité, and fraternité.  In truth, it has left those values behind long ago, and what we now see is an empty husk.  The hegemonic ideological power and attraction of the husk is still immense: hence the capacity of a milk-and-water RTE radio presenter, Cathal Murray, to finish his early Saturday morning programme of anodyne light music a couple of days after the attacks by playing the Marseillaise and declaring 'Vive la France'.  The power of the husk is such, in fact, that this kind of statement is beyond or above politics: hence Murray's freedom for otherwise unacceptable editorial commentary, and the declared plans of the English Premier League to play the Marseillaise before all football matches the following weekend.

France's adherence to these values was questionable almost from the start, and this partiality was dramatised most overtly in the colonial context, as exemplified in the violent struggle that ensued in Saint-Domingue - now Haiti - in 1791, when the French revolutionary government allowed citizenship only to wealthy persons of colour, and Toussaint l'Ouverture led the only slave uprising that ever established a state.  Enlightened France then imposed reparations - 150 million gold francs - in 1825 on the Haitian Republic for the losses suffered by slave-owners in the revolution.  These reparations systematically bankrupted the young republic, were not paid off until 1947, and distorted the economy of Haiti in ways from which it still shows few signs of recovering.

The conquest and colonisation of Algeria were initiated in the days of the Restoration, but they were  ramified and strengthened by the Second and Third Republics.   Since King Francis I signed an agreement with Suleiman I of Ottoman Turkey in 1536, France has styled itself as a 'protector' of Christians in the Middle East, a position that survived even the great Revolution, and the laicité of 1905.  Broadly speaking, France has been meddling in the Middle Eastern region - as a crusader power in the High Middle Ages, with Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt in 1799, with its 'humanitarian intervention' to save the Christians of Mount Lebanon in 1860, with the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, and the granting to France of the League of Nations mandates of Lebanon and Syria after the First World War - for a very long time.

What this history shows is that in its actions in the Middle East and the Maghreb France has not always been driven by the ideals of Enlightenment rationalism and Kantian cosmopolitanism.  Rather it has behaved as a great power, seeking wealth and resources, territorial aggrandisement, ethnic and religious sway and advantage, and an imperial sphere of influence.  This genealogy feeds into any actions France takes in the Middle East today.

Yet one must also note that for all the verve or swagger with which France carries out actions in its former territories or zones of interest in Africa in the postcolonial era - in Kolwezi, in Mali, unseating Qaddafi in Libya with Britain - it is a defeated power, and one which has not come to terms with its defeats.  Invaded and greatly damaged three times by Germany - in 1871, in 1914, and in 1940 - France also suffered much greater reversals than Britain in the decolonising period - from the disaster of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954, to the Algerian War of Independence, the attempted coup of the generals in the face of defeat in Algeria, and the return to France of the pieds noirs - whose children and grandchildren form the backbone of the Front national now in its southern strongholds.

With defeat in North Africa also came an increase in the flow of Algerian immigrants to France, including the 'harkis' (Algerians who had sided with the French colonial regime and who were at risk in independent Algeria).   At the time of the War of Independence, there were already 200,000 Algerians living in France, and these numbers rose dramatically in the 1960s, passing the million mark in the late 1970s.  In a France that was modernising rapidly in the post-war period of reconstruction, a pool of cheap migrant labour was economically useful.  Initially, France adopted a policy vis-a-vis these immigrants of assimilation, but from the 1980s onwards, the policy was of integration.  The policy shift was experienced by many immigrants and their children as one of exclusion. 

The net result, then, is a France which seeks to act as a great power on the global stage, in spite of its declining geostrategic capacities. When it comes to intervening in the Middle East, French freedom of action is not only hampered by shrinking military power and reach, and the necessity of working with transnational alliances such as the EU or NATO, or a regnant superpower such as the United States, but it is also affected by legacies at home and from history.

One may conclude, therefore, that in ways which stand out among the North Atlantic great powers, France's activity in the Arab Muslim world is particularly shadowed and overdetermined by historical legacies and by its internal demographic and social balance, producing extreme torsions and imbalances in attitudes, policy and actions.   On the one hand, France wishes to take aggressive military action in Syria and Iraq, to become Saudi Arabia's premier armourer, to remain a major influence in North Africa, to pay service of even symbolic kind to its historical tradition of guardianship of Christian communities in Lebanon and the 'Holy Land'.  On the other, it has a large, often impoverished, disgruntled population of Maghrebi Arab Muslims, to whom the rhetoric of republicanism and the Marseillaise is a cruel joke, who live outside the gilded world of old Paris, who have little cultural recognition or capital in modern France, and who provide a relatively tolerant milieu, and in some instances a fertile recruiting ground, for Wahhabi or Salafi Sunni extremists. 


'Sovereign is he who decides on the exception', wrote the German rightwing jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt in his Political Theology (1922).  To liberal thinkers - the followers of Rawls, most obviously - the scandal of Schmitt's formulation has been its suggestion that sovereignty is a constitutive precondition of a legal order, not a product of such an order.  Any legal order is based on a sovereign decision, not a legal norm.  What follows from this is Schmitt's exposure of a form of authoritarianism secreted within supposedly liberal constitutions such as those underpinning most Western democracies.  True sovereignty, in this vision, lies in the political agency in society capable of suspending the law, and installing the 'state of emergency'.

Schmitt, writing in the early 1920s, was working and thinking in the era of the Weimar Republic, the shaky liberal constitutional arrangement in Germany after the First World War and the various uprisings in Germany that followed defeat in that war.  It's unsurprising, therefore, that he should offer a vision of a legal order which is so aware of the vulnerability and even arbitrary character of that order.  Schmitt, an admirer of Thomas Hobbes, takes from Leviathan the nostrum that law is not made by truth, but by authority.  He suggests that the applicability of legal norms presuppose or require a situation of 'social normality', or social homogeneity.  No legal norm can function in conditions of social chaos, and therefore a polity must be entitled to decide whether and when to suspend application of its law on the ground that the situation is abnormal.  Hence, his definition of sovereignty: if there's a person or institution, in a given political unit, able to institute a total suspension of the law, and then to use extra-legal force to 'normalise' the situation, then that person or institution is the sovereign in that polity.

If this seems like a warrant for dictatorship, then it must be noted that Schmitt also argued that attempts to legalise the state of exception are doomed to failure.  The state of emergency cannot be prepared for in positive law.  On the contrary: if a Schmittian sovereign exists, its authority to suspend the law doesn't require positive legal recognition, since the law's applicability itself rests on a situation of 'normality' put in place and secured by the sovereign.

Further paradoxes structure Schmitt's thought in this matter. If the sovereign's power to decide on the emergency or exception is not restrained by positive law, then the sovereign has the authority to decide what is an emergency.  To respond properly to such an emergency, nevertheless, the sovereign must be sensitive to social attitudes and mores.  So, to respond to and deal with the emergency, the sovereign must have the support of a substantial social constituency.  Yet, the sovereign's decision on the state of emergency is most likely to be required under conditions of social fragmentation.  In this situation, no unanimity of opinion will  be possible, and the sovereign will end up having to throw its weight  behind one social conception of 'normality' over against another contending conception.  So, the sovereign making of normality is the creation of a community's political identity, and this creation is likely to be predicated in part on the quoshing of other groupings whose notions of normality differ from those of the sovereign.  And so the matter of the legitimacy of the law turns on the question of the legitimacy of an identity-forming sovereign exercise of foundational or originary violence.


The pertinence of Schmitt's work to the current French situation, or indeed to the situation in the United States in the wake of 9/11 and the Bush Administration's announcement of the 'war on terror', or indeed to the modes of governance deployed by Israel against the Occupied Territories, is clear. The occurrence of some kind of military or 'terrorist' 'emergency' is held to permit of the 'partial' or 'temporary' suspension of the law or of elements of the law.  The colonial context is striking and crucial: the last time France declared such a state of emergency was during the riots in the banlieues in 2005, and the time previous to that was during the Algerian War in 1961.  It appears that the defence of the values of the political Enlightenment requires their suspension by the polity that presents itself as their chief home.  At these times, the supposedly liberal-republican order of France has turned itself inside-out to reveal the usually-hidden authoritarian authority underpinning liberté, égalité and fraternité.  It's this angle of vision that allows us to realise that crowds spontaneously gathering at the Place de la République to proclaim their adherence to laicité are not simply expressing popular democratic values and a defence of human rights, but rather, or at the same time, are expressing ethnic-majoritarian authoritarianism of an alarming kind.

Here are three articles worth reading on this situation:

Firstly, Richard Falk.  Falk is emeritus professor of international law at Princeton, and one of the most distinguished scholars of human rights law alive.  Here is an essay from his blog on the recent bomb attacks in Belgium:

Reflections on the Brussels Attack

Next, two articles from Jacobin on the French emergency situation in the wake of the November attacks.   Gilbert Achcar is a prominent Lebanese scholar teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London::

France Returns to the State of Exception

And Grey Anderson, a young student at Yale:

The French Emergency