Monday, 17 February 2014

Anarchism's Global Proletarian Praxis

categoryinternational | history of anarchism | opinion / analysisauthor Friday March 09, 2012 21:14author by Michael Schmidt - ex-ZACFReport this post to the editors

This is the text of a talk given by Michael Schmidt, co-author with Lucien van der Walt of the book Black Flame: the Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (AK Press, USA, 2009), at the DIRA bookstore in Montréal, Canada, on 18 March 2010, as part of his Black Flame tour of Canada. Thanks to Aaron Lakoff of Lux Éditeur, Montréal, for the transcription.
Korean Anarchist Federation militants with some Chinese comrades, 1929. The KAF established the Manchurian Revolution of 1929-1931, then fought in the anti-Japanese resistance until 1945.
Korean Anarchist Federation militants with some Chinese comrades, 1929. The KAF established the Manchurian Revolution of 1929-1931, then fought in the anti-Japanese resistance until 1945.

Anarchism's Global Proletarian Praxis

This is the text of a talk given by Michael Schmidt, co-author with Lucien van der Walt of the book Black Flame: the Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (AK Press, USA, 2009), at the DIRA bookstore in Montréal, Canada, on 18 March 2010, as part of his Black Flame tour of Canada. Thanks to Marie-Eve Lamy of Lux Éditeur, Montréal, for the transcription.

Thank you so much, especially to UCL [Union Comuniste Libertaire], Common Cause, AK Press and everyone else who has made it possible for me to come out. I think it's very important for militants who live in different parts of the world to compare ideas and practice. Hopefully that's what we're all about – putting ideas into practice, and being very pragmatic about the way we exercise our politics. I come from a very strange country, and it's nice to see one of my countrymen here. One of my comrades from South Africa has just moved to Montréal, temporarily, but nevertheless. And hopefully you'll make him feel at home as you have made me feel at home.

It's been really fantastic over the last couple of days to have been speaking to people who come from many different walks of life, many of whom are working class but have a very clear understanding of politics, and a very clear class line. And certainly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall 20 year ago, I think we are really starting to see the necessity around the world for class-line politics. Politics which draw a line in the sand and say we will not adopt bourgeois culture or bourgeois values or a bourgeois way of living, and says in fact we will establish a new way. A new method of politics – which in fact isn't that new, but it's new to a lot of people – in the here and now, in order to construct a physical and real future.

I've been going around and doing a variety of different talks depending on the type of audience. My audience last night was quite mixed, maybe not as experienced as some of you are. Hopefully I'm judging things right, and not talking beyond what you know. But some of what I will talk about hopefully will be beyond what you know, because of all the political philosophies in the world, all of the big practices of the working class, the excluded, the poor, the peasantry, anarchism has been the most misrepresented. I believe this is largely because it has conformed very closely to proletarian practice.

The book [Black Flame: the Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, which I wrote with Lucien van der Walt] did not start out as a book; the book started out as a pamphlet that somebody else had written, that I read and realised very quickly suffered from the main errors of our understanding of the world, and that is it was very much derived from a North-Atlanticist way of seeing things; to call it Eurocentric would be too kind to it! The standard anarchist histories written by anarchists themselves are notoriously centred on Western Europe and portions of North America.

There is a bogus theory, but very current amongst academics and even militants, of “Spanish exceptionalism,” that is, that it was only in Spain that anarchism achieved anything of a mass working-class presence. A Marxist historian like Eric Hobsbawm, who has quite a nice eye for the colour and detail and texture of class struggles – in many respects I actually like him as a writer – is sadly very crude on such matters, simply because it doesn't conform to his politics. And he ascribes what he thinks of as this “Spanish exceptionalism” to some weird deviation in the Spanish character, which if anything is a bit of an unfortunately chauvinistic attitude.

What I want to talk about is a different kind of practice to that of which some of you are accustomed to – I know a lot of you are accustomed to it – a practice which has largely been “disappeared” from the historical record, but is still traceable certainly in the police record, and in the records of all the authorities who have oppressed us over the last 150 years.

I like to joke that the book was a little monster living in my basement that ate scraps that I threw from my table from time to time, and eventually became this huge thing that outgrew the house. So today it is two volumes [Black Flame is the first, and the forthcoming volume is Global Fire]. The reason that it is two volumes is that as the re-writing of this history to try to reorient it towards the massive Latin American in particular and East Asian anarchist movements got underway, it became very apparent that we – my co-author Lucien and I – as anarchists needed to define what the hell anarchism was, because there is a heck of a lot of confusion on this topic.

This confusion is generated in part because many of us as anarchists have accepted bourgeois definitions of who we are. And there is one very specific bourgeois definition – we will leave aside the obvious calumny of anarchism equals chaos, an immature response of the declining artisanal classes as it is usually painted by most, but not all Marxists... We'll leave aside that, but the primary way in which anarchism is misrepresented is as something that was a brief spark, that was essentially disconnected from daily struggle, that it was born in some philosopher's head, and died in some foolhardy experiment in Spain in 1939.

The anarchist movement has currency primarily because it was, and remains, a proletarian practice. We do not corner the market on reality; anarchists don't have the final word on, for instance, the key question which faces all revolutionaries, which is how do you transmit communist ideas – the ideas of a free society – from a militant minority to the mass in a way that the mass makes those ideas their own and in fact moves beyond the origins of those ideas. To be honest, we all face that idea whether you're a Maoist or a Trotskyist or whatever – we all have to grapple with that issue.

So I think it is worthwhile to take a look to see what anarchism had to say about that. Because based on the historical record, anarchism was quite different to the way it has been represented in the bourgeois press. It is ironic that many anarchists conceive of themselves – outside of certain movements, and within that I include my own, your own, and our comrades in several places in the world, Chile, Argentina, Italy, Ireland and elsewhere, people who are clear about who we are – most anarchists’ idea of themselves is in fact derived from a German judge. It was a judge named Paul Eltzbacher who 1900 wrote a book in the period in which anarchism was a global movement that was challenging the order of the day. [He said anarchism was solely anti-state: but its not, its anti-capitalist, class-struggle-based, anti-authoritarian, and it comes from the oppressed classes. But Eltzbacher’s view remains influential, and that’s a problem, as it distorts our history and our praxis.]

If you take a look at the origins of Interpol, you will see that before Interpol itself was established, there were two conferences, the first one in Rome, and the second one in St-Petersburg in the 1890s, that laid the groundwork for what would become Interpol. And these conferences were specifically aimed at crushing these specific anarchist movements. This was in a period that was remarkably similar to our own. I mean, it was very different in many ways, and very similar. It's very different in that today we live in a world of nano-technology, space tourism, and other nonsense. Our movement today lives in a world which is very different to the gas-lit origins of the movement, and yet we find remarkable similarities. In the period of what you might call the “short twentieth century” – the century between the First World War and the collapse of the Berlin Wall – we find that the state form actually locks its populations down quite significantly, both mentally and physically. The nation-state and nationalism become the dominant ideology throughout much of the world – even in the welfare states – and this dramatic movement of working-class people around the world that you see in the period of the 1880s and 1890s to the 1920s is largely absent. But now, since the fall of the Wall, we've seen that start to open up again.

So the origins of the anarchist movement was not in some philosopher's head, but in the international revolutionary socialist trade unions and workers’ groups of the First International who were banding together on very pragmatic grounds; the grounds of solidarity, to try to stop French workers being undercut by British scabs and vice versa, and it grew out from there. It was a world in which the telegraph had started connecting people across the world at the very same time that barbed wire had just been invented and was being rolled out across the world and being used to cut them off from their own resources.

In this world, there was the consolidation of financial capital, and this massive push into Africa and Asia by the imperialist powers. Imperial wars were being fought (and this sounds familiar) in the Middle-East and Central Asia. The working class, which was all of a sudden very mobile in this environment – part-time sharecroppers coming from repressed and depressed southern Italy going off to Argentina for a season, where they had no vote, coming back to Italy where again they had no vote, this great cycle, this great global movement of workers – responded in several different ways in this period to the pain that they were feeling.

This was a really globally mobile, but very excluded and flexibilised labour force. They responded, some of them, by turning to religious fundamentalism and fanaticism. Others started to consolidate ideas around revolutionary class struggle. So I think you might agree with me that there are some remarkable similarities between today's section of flexibilised, precarious, continually moving, and excluded labour – people who are cut off from any means of real participation in the political process in their own countries, or in the countries into which they are drafted to be the underpaid subject class of labour.

What was remarkable about the early anarchist movement was that despite its militancy, it was deliberately building a lot of educational institutions along the way. It was building popular universities in Cairo, in Cuba, in Peru, in Argentina, and in China. The reason for this is the same as the reason why we had the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa: it was necessary to cut the mental bonds that attached the rape victim to the rapist, the oppressed to the oppressor. And the anarchists shocked bourgeois sensibility by educating not only freed slaves alongside white people, but of all things, educating women alongside men, and girls alongside boys. This kind of stuff just wasn't done back then. I mean, who knows what kind of ideas they might get when you get them out of the kitchen.

On that note, I would like to say that gives us a little hint that the direction in which we need to be organising needs to be determined by our real conditions. In Brazil in 1930, there was an industrial working class of 1-million, but there was a maidservant class of 3-million. Perhaps the anarchists should have been organising among the maids. We need to be connected to where our people are at.

One of the reasons that the anarchist movement spread so dramatically around the world, establishing trade unions, what we call syndicalist unions (in other words, directly democratic and overtly revolutionary rank-and-file unions, anarchist trade unions) in Cuba, Mexico, the USA, Uruguay, Spain, and arguably (although the record is a little slim) in Russia, in the period of the 1870s and early 1880s – the reason this kind of thing spreads into Egypt and Uruguay and Cuba – these places which are under colonial or imperial control (Uruguay was free of the Spaniards, but not free of their own comprador capital) – is because in this period I think, if we are to be honest, up until Lenin in Marxism, in classic Marxism, you don't really find a serious Marxist engagement with the peasantry and the colonial world. By contrast, Bakunin was saying “What happens when 800 million Asiatics wake up from their sleep?”

The anarchist focus, right from the beginning, is saying you don't need to jump through a series of stages, like a poodle in a circus going through flaming hoops to get to the right time to stage your revolt. What you really need is to realise that you're at the stage now where you need to start fighting back. That doesn't mean that revolution is going to happen on Tuesday, starting at 9pm sharp. We all know that revolutions require a massive confluence of historical circumstances.

But it's because of this very early and very radical challenge to gender, race, colonialism, and imperialism that the anarchist movement made some incredible penetrations into parts of the world that Marxism doesn't even reach until much later, in the 1920s in fact. The Profintern [the Red International of Trade Unions] then had to come knocking at the doors of the syndicalist trade unions, saying “Please, may we have a few workers? We don't really have any of our own. We need a couple to pretend that we have an International”. Sorry, I'm being rude.

It's probably unknown that there was a syndicalist survival in Southern Rhodesia, what is now Zimbabwe, up into the 1950s. That [pictured in Bulawayo, 1930] is Masotsha Ndhlovu, who in the 1930s was the leader of the Industrial and Commercial Union of Rhodesia. This union had suffered defeat in South Africa in the 1920s, but in what became Zimbabwe, it continued into the 1950s. It had been founded roughly on IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] principles, even if it wasn’t a pure syndicalist union, and I'm hoping that many of you know who the IWW are because it is a significant part of Canadian labour history. It's an incredibly powerful model that spread around the world.

The Korean movement [pictured: members of the Korean Anarchist Federation in Manchuria, 1929] is generated primarily by the invasion of Japan in 1910. This generates a whole range of different responses, including syndicalist trade unions in port cities like Wonsan. But eventually a lot of the militants are forced out into exile, and they consolidate just across the border in this broad river valley, ringed by mountains, called the Shinmin Prefecture.

And in Shinmin, during the period of 1929 to 1931, they establish this autonomous zone in which peasants, workers, and revolutionaries essentially run their own lives. This is the rather unknown anarchist Manchurian Revolution, driven by the response to Japanese imperialist aggression. It was destroyed in that place, that particular geographical experience, by the Japanese invasion proper, which happened a couple of years later. The curious thing about the Korean movement is that its finest hours really occurred outside of its own national territory, in defence, originally, of their own national freedom, but eventually in defence of Chinese freedom as well.

But also, the [East Asian] movement is barely disrupted by the Second World War, because these guys had been fighting since 1910. For a lot of Western movements, and you could even look at your conventional trade unions, the rise of the Nazis and of Fascism in Europe was quite a breaking point. But in the Far East you find this continuous arc of struggle which is completely uninterrupted by the War because these guys had been fighting their war since 1910. And this movement continues with significant power right into the 1950s.

Johannesburg, my hometown [pictured: Industrial Workers of Africa strike, Johannesburg, 1918]. The Industrial Workers of Africa: established in 1917 on IWW lines – very explicitly industrial, revolutionary trade union lines. What happened in South Africa is that the IWW had gone in there and established itself in 1910 in an environment that was kind of similar to Canada at that time in that so-called “white labourism” dominated. This was essentially white working class people saying “we're protecting our own asses”, against capital and against other workers, without seeing the obvious: that an injury to one is an injury to all, right?

The IWW came in with an entirely different program that was anti-racist. They organised on the trams in Johannesburg, and railways in Pretoria, and in the port city of Durban. At first they failed to break through the colour bar, but they established a generation of militancy that was further radicalized by the anti-war movement during the First World War, and eventually in 1917 established the Industrial Workers of Africa. And in fact they adopted the IWW constitution, lock stock and barrel. They based themselves squarely on the IWW. That's the irony – the Transvaal Native Congress – the movement was so significant in that period that several leading members of the highveld [inland high plateau] branch of what is today the ruling party of the country, what became the African National Congress, were very influenced by syndicalism in this period.

And just to show that we're not all talking about history, [pictured: poster of the Spanish Confederación General del Trabajo, 1999]. Here are the descendents of the historic Spanish CNT who fought the Spanish Revolution (there are several factions, as some of you no doubt know, and this is the largest faction), they are currently representing 2 million workers.

Osugi Sakae, [pictured with Ito Noe and the editors of Rodo Undo, Tokyo, 1921]. The Japanese labour movement, a small movement in a country that certainly in the period between the wars, didn't develop much of an industrial base. Many of the shops and plants were very small. But a very significant, radical, egalitarian trade union movement developed there. It was anarcho-syndicalist, and included (again, shocking the bourgeois sensibility) very strong women leaders, many of whom would be murdered for their opposition to the state. The Japanese trade unions, worked alongside Korean trade unions, who again were working within the heart of the beast which was the developing Japanese Empire, sliding into militarism.

Shin Ch’aeho, [pictured] a leading Korean anarchist theorist. His Korean Revolution Manifesto of 1923 really united all of the disparate anti-Japanese revolutionary forces, some of them within the Korean Anarchist Federation, some of them within the Korean Anarchist-Communist Federation, some of them within the Revolutionist Federation, basically all of them anarchist, but working alongside nationalists and communists to try to beat back the Japanese. He died in a Japanese jail in fact in '36.

Lala Har Dayal [pictured], the primary Indian revolutionary of his age. You guys probably know about Mohandas Gandhi. Why the hell do you know about Mohandas Gandhi, and not about Lala Har Dayal? The reason is because you're learning your history from the bourgeoisie. You're being fed this shit; you're being fed this pacifism, right? You're being fed all of this lame stuff. What this guy did (and he was also influenced by the IWW), he was a worker, an Indian chap working in San Francisco. He became the secretary of the San Francisco branch of the IWW. He became a convinced anarchist, a hardliner, a Bakuninist. He believed that you needed a specific organisation to maintain clarity, but that organisation has to live, eat, sleep, and breathe within the class – within mass class organisations – and acts as that organisation's historical memory, tactical toolbox, and first line of defence. In other words, they will put their bodies on the line.

This guy's party, the Ghadar [“Mutiny”] Party, established in 1913, established branches in the United States, Canada, British-occupied East Africa, and many other parts of the world where Indian exiles [and migrants] found themselves. Crucially they establish bases within India itself, in Punjab and Hindustan, and launch an armed uprising in 1915. What is interesting is the social base of the Ghadar Party in India is primarily made up of peasants and of returning British army veterans who know how to fight, but suddenly realised, “What the heck! We fought for this British Empire, but we've been treated like second class citizens in our own country!”

The last traces of this movement that we've managed to discover (and of course, the records are not entirely complete) are in East Africa [in the 1940s] and in Afghanistan in 1938. What is interesting for those of you in the room who might be communists is that those particular regions in which the Ghadar Party was organised in India, were the most trenchant regions of peasant resistance, and the seed-beds of the later radical grassroots communist parties of the 1940s and ’50s. So we are kind of cousins after all, right?

Also, crucially, we need to bear in mind that this idea (and not only the idea, but the mass organisational practice of anarchism) did not die on the barricades of Barcelona in 1939 [when the Spanish Revolution fell]. I believe, based on what I've studied (and the book has taken us ten years to write so far), that if there is a “dark ages” of the anarchist movement, which to a degree means if there is a dark ages of working class knowledge and understanding of the class's own fighting history (not that the anarchist movement represents the entire fighting history, that is false; but I think the anarchist movement has been a key repository of those fighting techniques), that dark ages is in fact the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is when a lot of the organisational memory that had been transmitted for decades since the 1860s, by generation after generation of militants – many of whom who died on the barricades, died on the gallows, succumbed to tuberculosis, gone down into the grave early because of the strain of their fight – was lost. There is a reason that a lot of North American movements don't have the faintest clue what happened in their own countries in the 1970s, and don't even know what their own ideological antecedents were as little as three decades ago. Instead we're all looking back to the 1920s and saying “It must have been great back then!”

The period of the 1940s and 1950s poses a huge set of challenges to the proletariat as a whole, and to the anarchist movement that works within that proletariat. Quite clearly, the history of the Second World War and Fascism is well known, as is the rise of nationalism, which as I said earlier had locked down so many people's minds in so many countries into a very narrow paradigm of what it meant to be free. But when you look at, for example, a year like 1956, you have the Cuban Revolution underway (I mean the real one); the syndicalist dockworkers in Argentina embark on what is still to this day the largest ever general strike; in Chile, the dictator, Paco Ibañez, is forced into a position where he basically hands over the power to the syndicalist and communist unions. He says “Enough already! Just take the country! You've won!” Sadly, in one of the dumbest moves ever, the communists break ranks and that collapses. But what I'm saying is that we have these mass working class movements, these peaks of struggle occurring in Latin America, in a period when, if you read the standard histories, it's all McCarthyism, grim and grey, Stalinism, the Cold War, and nothing is happening – everyone is defeated. But it's not so. I think maybe it's my generation, or maybe the people slightly before me who were defeated, and we've forgotten our own history.

Mikhail Gerdzhikov [pictured], Bulgaria. He becomes one of the leading lights in the Bulgarian Anarchist-Communist Federation, established in 1919. What's interesting about them is that they're very pluralistic. They are a very diverse organisation. They have an industrial base, a very strong syndicalist industrial base. To be fair, they are the third-largest force on the left, after the agrarians and the communists in Bulgaria in the 1920s. But they are strong and coherent – they have their issues, like everybody else – but they have this really interesting and diverse movement. They organise amongst students, intellectual workers. They have their armed detachments.

They learnt through this guy [Gerdzhikov] that you've got to defend your gains, physically, by force, in an organised fashion. He earned his chops fighting against the Ottoman Turks in the 1903 Macedonian Uprising. A huge section of the Bulgarian anarchist movement basically learned how to fight by fighting on behalf of someone else's freedom in 1903 [this is principled internationalist anti-imperialism, from below!]. About 60 of these Bulgarian anarchists lost their lives in Macedonia – a relatively small skirmish in the bigger picture of things. But in that period they established free communes that replicated the Cantonalist Communes – the cities which the anarchists had run in 1873 in Spain – [plus] Lyon, Paris, those sort of examples, from a few years earlier as well.

The fact that this movement was so diverse, but at the same time coherent, enabled them to fight off two fascist coups d'etat, one in 1923 and one in 1934. Eventually, they had to fight the Red Army itself in 1948, because the Red Army had allied with the indigenous fascists to form the so-called Fatherland Front, to try to impose a disciplined dictatorship – no doubt “of the proletariat”! – on the Bulgarian people. And it's remarkable that Bulgaria, almost alone of all nations, did not allow a single train to go to the death camps – despite the fact that they were a Nazi ally, on the bourgeois level.

Moving a little bit forward in time, the late Wilstar Choongo [pictured at left with members of the Socialist Caucus, Lusaka, 1998], who I befriended a little while ago, in Zambia. These movements are often, particularly in my part of the world in Africa, ephemeral. They rise up, and then they die. Very difficult circumstances in Africa, and yet when you look at the history of the anarchist movement, the anarchist movement was built by bitterly poor people in extreme conditions of poverty, oppression, and prejudice, and yet they were able to build mass movements.

When you take a look at Argentina, which in 1900 was actually, based on its meat exports – certainly for the bourgeoisie, they were smiling – it was the fourth wealthiest nation by some measures in the world at that stage, but everybody who produced that wealth was excluded. It was very tiny elite that even had the bourgeois vote. If you look at that world, the anarchist movement that develops in those conditions becomes so strong that eventually the two main labour federations in the country by 1919 are two slightly tactically, slightly ideologically different anarchist trade union federations. The debate within the organised labour movement is a tactical and strategic debate between anarchists – in rather significant numbers; mass organisations built across race lines, and certainly across gender lines, at a time of incredible duress.

And the women who come out of these movements are a force to be reckoned with. In Latin America alone, we can look at people like Juana Belém Gutiérrez de Mendoza in Mexico. She manages to establish a feminist newspaper called Vespa. This paper survives and publishes for 36 years, despite the fact that she's continually in and out of jail. She wasn't a pushover.

Kanno Sugako [pictured] in Japan. There were lots of manufactured plots against the Emperor but she really was guilty; she really did plan to take out the Emperor, to prove that he wasn't a living god; to prove that the god in our heads could in fact be killed; to sever that mental link that the oppressed majority had with their oppressors.

Juana Rouco Buela of Argentina, and Virginia Bolten of Uruguay – they set up probably one of the earliest feminist journals in the world in Argentina. They get quite a bit of flack originally from the men. The men say “You're dividing the movement!”. But they hold out, and they establish a line of thought that is still transmitted today in the Latin American movement. I'm really glad to see you have Maria Lacerda de Moura on your wall over there. This is one of the ways in which Francophone and Hispanophone movements are superior to English-speaking movements – there is a much deeper appreciation of history and theory. She was Brazilian, and she was the premier labour educator of her age. She would go on speaking tours right across Latin America, as far up as Mexico. She preached rationalist education – reason against an education system [dominated by the Catholic Church] that taught mysticism and respect for one's abusers.

Petronilla Infantes [pictured, third from the left in front, with the Sindicato de Culinaria, La Paz, 1935]. Here's a young woman heading up the [anarcho-syndicalist] culinary workers’ syndicate in Bolivia in 1935. She becomes the leading labour leader in Bolivia right into the 1950s. If you go into the streets in Bolivia right until today, they will know her name. And we can go on. We can look at Luisa Capetillo in Puerto Rico, who dared to wear pants. And boy did she ever wear them! She led the trade union movement in Puerto Rico. We can look at Maroussia Nikiforova leading the Makhnovist detachments fighting the White armies in the Ukraine during the Ukrainian Revolution, eventually being executed in 1919 in Sevastopol. The list goes on and on.

There was Spain [pictured: CNT-FAI collectivised tram, Barcelona, 1936], which wasn't exactly all that insignificant, but really in context, proportionately, by head of population, the anarchist movement in nearby Portugal was much more powerful than in Spain. It was much more integrated into daily life generally across the country than in Spain, where it was more located in certain regions, such as Catalonia. The Iberian anarchists ran daily newspapers which were as large in circulation as your city newspapers today. Certainly as large as the mainstream newspapers that I as a journalist have worked for. I can only wish that we had radical newspapers of that kind of reach, but maybe we'll build that again.

Mexico in '68, [pictured: mass demonstration shortly before the Ttatelolco Massacre, Mexico City, 1968] again jumping forward in time. You're probably aware that my country is about to host the FIFA Soccer World Cup, and there are massive contradictions in our being able to spend billions building beautiful gleaming football stadiums when we supposedly cannot build houses for the poor. This massacre occurred just prior to the World Cup in Mexico in 1968. And what the student leaders were asking, many, many decades after the Mexican Revolution, was “Was the anarchist revolutionary leader Ricardo Flores Magón wrong? Did he misunderstand what we were all about? Did he misunderstand the solution?” And 50,000 voices shouted back, “No! He was not wrong. He understood. We understand”. And then the troops opened fire.

Our own small little effort [pictured: the anarchist-founded Phambili Motsoaledi Community Library, Soweto, 2005]. We're part of a much bigger story, and South Africa is not an easy environment to work within. The working class is lured by all sorts of promises of pie-in-the-sky from all sorts of religious and political elites. And this is what we can do to walk alongside them and help them keep connected, help them keep their eye on the prize. This is developing class consciousness, solidarity, and building popular organisations of counter-power. We build that counter-power, by which I mean structures, directly democratic structures, organisations.

But those organisations become impossible if you don't have a counter-culture that goes along with them. And what I mean by counter-culture, I don't mean a particularly weird shade of green in your hair, or a piercing on a part of your body. By counter-culture, I mean a fundamental oppositional working-class culture, which means when you're walking downtown and you need to purchase something urgently at the chain store and there's a picket there, you know – it’s in your bone marrow and blood – that you would never cross a picket line. You've got that working class culture engraved in your skin. It is a part of you.

That is our biggest challenge. That is where we need to start to rebuild, by changing consciousness in order to create the mental space in which to build counter-hegemonic institutions; by building organisations that are of the class, by the class, and for the class. And I think I'll just stop there and leave it open for questions.

Michael Schmidt

Related Link:
Indian revolutionary anarchist Lala Har Dayal of the Ghadar Party, which staged an uprising against Britain in 1915, survived in Afghanistan into at least 1938 and East Africa into the 1940s.
Indian revolutionary anarchist Lala Har Dayal of the Ghadar Party, which staged an uprising against Britain in 1915, survived in Afghanistan into at least 1938 and East Africa into the 1940s.
Masotsha Ndhlovu, general secretary of the Marcus Garveyite/quasi-syndicalist Industrial and Commercial Union in Rhodesia, 1930. The ICU-R lasted into the 1950s.
Masotsha Ndhlovu, general secretary of the Marcus Garveyite/quasi-syndicalist Industrial and Commercial Union in Rhodesia, 1930. The ICU-R lasted into the 1950s.

Africa's Purchase of the French Presidency

categorywest africa | imperialism / war | opinion / analysisauthor Friday April 20, 2012 17:55author by Michael Schmidt - ex-ZACFReport this post to the editors

The first round of French presidential elections will take place on 22 April. Socialist candidate François Hollande is expected to have the edge on incumbent Gaullist President Nicolas Sarkozy, but will likely not earn a majority, which would then set the scene for a run-off in May. But behind the scenes, few French voters are aware of the half-century-long secret system of la valise, “the suitcase” system whereby African dictators send millions of francs to corrupt the European political process - by literally buying the French Presidency. [Français]


We have seen several curious reversals of the usual pecking order in world affairs regarding Africa’s status of late, not least of which have been the spectacle of Portugal begging for aid from its former colony Angola, and of European citizens relocating back to their former colonies, fleeing economic crisis in Europe for poorly-paid jobs in the African hinterland (1).

But there is a longer-lived and more secret relationship between Africa and Europe that overturns the conventional view of African presidents being corrupted by European aid-with-strings-attached; this is the phenomenon of la valise, “the suitcase” system of millions of francs sent over decades by African dictators to corrupt the European political process.

The first round of French presidential elections will take place on 22 April. Socialist candidate François Hollande is expected to have the edge on incumbent Gaullist President Nicolas Sarkozy, but will likely not earn a majority, which would then set the scene for a run-off in May. Seeing as how language differences divide common understanding between Francophone Africa and Anglophone Africa, the two largest colonial-language blocs, it is worth us here in the English-speaking part of the continent to examine this phenomenon so entrenched in Francophone African affairs – and now apparently spreading. The Center for French and Francophone Studies at Duke University in North Carolina hosted a debate on la valise on 5 October 2011 called “The Colonies Pay Back: Culture and Corruption in Franco-African Relations,” and this article comprises extracts from that debate.

Post-Colonial France, the “Suitcase Republic”

Philippe Bernard, the outgoing Le Monde correspondent for Africa, initiated the debate by noting that Robert Bourgi (2), Sarkozy’s unofficial advisor, had in September 2011 accused former socialist President Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who were in power from 1995-2007, of having received enormous bribes in the form of suitcases stuffed with cash, from five West and Central African states – the Congo, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Gabon – to fund Chirac’s campaign. In a later interview with Canal+, Bourgi claimed that the 1988 campaign of far-right candidate Jean-Marie le Pen of the National Front, had also been partly funded by the valise. Chirac and de Villepin have denied Bourgi’s claims.

According to the Telegraph’s retelling of the tale (3), Bourgi claimed in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche that he had personally “transported ‘tens of millions of francs’ each year, with the amounts going up in the run-up to French presidential elections – an intimation the cash was used to fund Mr Chirac's political campaigns. ‘I saw Chirac and Villepin count the money in front of me,’ he said. He alleged he regularly passed on bank notes from five African presidents: Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal [in power 2000-2012]; Blaise Campaoré of Burkina Faso [1987-today]; Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast [2000-2011]; Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congo [1997-today] and Omar Bongo of Gabon [1967-2009], whom Mr Bourgi called ‘Papa’. Together, he alleged they contributed £6.2-million to Mr Chirac's successful 2002 presidential campaign. A sixth leader, President Obiang N’Guema of Equatorial Guinea [1979-today] allegedly was the last member to join the cash donor club,” until, Bourgi claimed, a nervous de Villepin brought the system to a halt in 2005. Bourgi claimed he had personally run the valise system for 25 years and in exchange, the African dictators were granted huge reductions in their debt to France once their sponsored candidate attained office in the Elysée.

Bernard said he believed the system had arisen out of the notion of “France-Afrique, the confusion of French and African interests. It has been a public secret since [African] liberation in the 1960s: in 1960/61, deals were signed that France will use its power to defend the [African] regimes and France will have exclusive access to African raw materials and the right of France to intervene militarily in case of threats to African national security. In the 1980s, the Gaullists [then in opposition against François Mitterand’s Socialist government] were similarly accused – that a percentage of Gabonese oil revenues were allegedly used to finance their campaigns – but proof and public testimony was lacking.”

Professor Stephen Smith, former Africa editor of Libération, and Bernard’s predecessor at Le Monde, recalled rumours that “money smuggled in by Africans to the French Prime Minister’s office in djembe drums. The office has no air-conditioning, so the thought of him standing there with his sleeves rolled up counting it all is amusing.” On a serious note, however, Smith recalled that in 1971, at the very start of a reign that only ended in 1993, it was said that the first President of Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, had donated “bags of money” to the conservative Georges Pompidou government. There was, Smith said, “a long contuinuity of the practice from the Gaullists [Charles de Gaulle was in power 1959-1969] to [the rightist Republican Valéry] Giscard d’Estaing [1974-1981], a continuity of conservative governments,” who had been propped up by la valise: “This amounts to a post-colonial ‘informal state,’ not on paper, but in practice.”

Remember that this period – the Fifth French Republic – was brought into being in 1958 by the crisis in France precipitated by the Algerian Liberation War. So we have half a century of African dictators, installed and propped up by French military power, who in turn propped up with African oil and other revenue, a string of conservative sister regimes in France – although Smith said that the valise system in the six countries also worked via French companies working in parallel in the former colonies: one paid the French conservative Gaullists; the other paid the French socialists and communists. Given France’s strategic position within Europe, its influence only matched by Germany and Britain, anyone able to buy the French Presidency in effect purchases huge influence in Europe itself – so progressive politics on both continents appear to have been bedeviled by these secret transactions.

Smith said that his first newspaper scoop on the secret practice regarding the shadowy character of Bourgi, was in 1995 for Libération when he wrote about the unprocedural write-off of Zaïrean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s debts: Mobutu “raised his little staff and I was afraid he would hit me! Robert Bourgi earned €600,000 from Mobuto to put out the fire – and he earned €1-million to stop a book that I was writing.”

Bourgi’s “accounting is pristine; he deals only in cash, so there is little to prove.” The bribe money was later deposited in South African or Lebanese bank accounts, Smith claimed. The reach of Bourgi’s unofficial power was considerable: Smith claimed that when Sarkozy wanted a rare photo-opportunity with South Africa’s now-reclusive and elderly Nelson Mandela, Bourgi simply phoned up “Papa,” Gabonese President Omar Bongo, who persuaded the old man to agree to fly to Paris for the meeting in 2007.

The Suitcase System Expands

Prof Achille Membe, a specialist in post-colonial Africa, responded that the valise system was one of “mutual corruption” that has “shackled France and Africa for decades”: “The relationship is not only corrupt in terms of money… It’s a deeper form of cultural corruption that has emasculated somewhat African civil societies. In terms of the future, France still has military bases in Africa and can kick out a Gbagbo. But when France has to pay a heavy price [for intervention], it will think twice.”

Bernard said that as France’s grip on the African continent started to be eclipsed militarily by the USA in particular (4), in terms of the Francophone African CFA currency which is linked to the embattled Euro, in terms of French companies losing their exclusive relationships with African regimes as the International Monetary Fund took the reins in many countries and as Chinese, Brazilian and Indian investment poured into the continent, Sarkozy wanted the “network of go-betweens” such as Bourgi, who had “operated as a parallel diplomat,” to end.

Smith agreed that France now made more money from its relations with Anglophone Africa – South Africa and Kenya in particular – than it did from its former colonies, but warned that “now you’ve got a multiplication of the French exceptionalist models: China’s Africa relationship is as corrupt as the French; the French preserve and privilege has now become globalised.” Membe added that in his view, the waning of the French star in Africa – despite French remaining a dominant African language, and despite the existence of an African Diaspora literati in France – was that France itself “has entered a process of re-provincialising,” of monocultural conservatism and retreat from world affairs.

Membe said that “Robert Bourgi’s ‘revelations’ weren’t revelations in Africa. In Francophone Africa, this hasn’t been perceived as a scandal” because the prevailing cynicism about Franco-African relations was underscored by a long-term trend of the decline of the importance of France to its former colonies: “Geography is no longer centred on Paris… Robert Bourgi and others are the last spasms of a dead proposition, something that is on its knees, no longer historical but anecdotal… France will become a parenthesis.”

But it is very far from clear whether the valise system has indeed come to an end and lost its ability to shape African history. Smith said that Sarkozy’s own reputation was in doubt as he had written off 40% of the debts of Congo and of Gabon – whereas Chirac had capped the write-offs at only 8%, so suspected payments to Sarkozy would have been “a good investment by African leaders.” If Sarkozy is also involved, then Bourgi’s end-game in speaking out about the valise system after 25 years – and claiming it ended with Chirac – is clearly not aimed at tarnishing Chirac, who is a dying man and a spent political force, but rather to threaten Sarkozy while he is still President, forcing him to allow Bourgi to retire smoothly, without fear of prosecution, aged 67, to his newly-purchased mansion in Corsica.

Smith said the roots of the system lay in the fact that “when Europeans came to Africa, they ‘unbuttoned’ themselves,” initiating the corrupt relationship. But it takes two to tango, so what of the agency of African leaders themselves? “If I was an African leader today,” Smith admitted, “I’d still ‘invest’ in France because the United Nations, IMF etc will turn to France when they need assistance in Africa – despite it having lost leverage as a one-stop centre – so African leaders’ choices will still count.”

It is clear the suitcase system will continue, although likely spreading to include several newly invested powers – the USA, China, Brazil, India and South Africa – and ironically, with continental growth at 5.5%, peripheral Africa’s ability to influence and corrupt political affairs in the metropole may well even increase.


1) An example these tales of return is at
2) Born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1945 to a French Lebanese family, Bourgi was admitted at the Paris Bar as a lawyer. A former adviser to Chirac and de Villepin, Sarkozy awarded him the Legion d’honneur in 2007.
4) In the 1960s, there were 20,000 French soldiers stationed in Africa, now there are less than 5,000 – although their technical capacity today is far greater. However, in Mali, which has just experienced a coup d’etat, there is a significant American military presence, whereas the French have indicated they will not intervene as was their practice in the past; Sarkozy had reopened the mothballed French military base in Ivory Coast, but France’s 2011 intervention in Ivory Coast only occurred under United Nations mandate.

The Wallpaper War: the United States a decade after 9/11

categoryinternational | imperialism / war | featureauthor Thursday June 14, 2012 19:10author by Michael Schmidt - ex-ZACFReport this post to the editors
The United States a Decade After 9/11
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Uncle Sam gets stuck in

As the US enters yet another election cycle (though it is hard to say whether the US is ever not in election mode these days), it is worth interrogating the current state of the world’s unipolar hyperpower – and of the foreign policy, red in tooth and claw, that affects us all.

The first thing that is important to recognise about the foreign policy of the United States of America is that it has a very specific history, or rather a national mythology that distinguishes it from other countries by the explicit nature of its revolutionary aims. The Revolutionary War established a unique republican state in the West, a reflection in part of the values of the French Revolution, but, isolated by the vast Atlantic, destined to pursue a path of its own. It is thus useful to consider the US state as an explicitly revolutionary state (albeit institutionalised in the Mexican sense of the word), with a national mythology which endows it with a sense of mission in the world. Comparable, though very different, states with expansionist missions driven by revolutionary myths would include Revolutionary France, the Soviet Union until its collapse, Nazi Germany, and post-apartheid South Africa today, with a ruling party explicitly dedicated to a “National Democratic Revolution”. The foreign policy and thus warmaking of Britain and the Netherlands, in contrast, despite having possessed globe-spanning pre-war empires, were never guided by anything similar to such political myths.

The Wallpaper War

The United States a Decade After 9/11

Introduction: A Dispatch from the Hyperpower

As the US enters yet another election cycle (though it is hard to say whether the US is ever not in election mode these days), it is worth interrogating the current state of the world’s unipolar hyperpower – and of the foreign policy, red in tooth and claw, that affects us all.

I arrived in the USA on the eve of the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, spent just over a month there, and left just after visiting the Occupy Wall Street sit-in on Columbus Day. Book-ended by these two great, emotive American commemorations, my visit to the US was the first I had made there in 27 years and I was very curious to see how things had changed since the Wild West heyday of Reaganomics.

Visiting as a teenager, albeit one from the side aligned with the West against the Soviet Bloc, I had been overwhelmed by the brash displays of American consumerism. I was, after all, visiting from the grey, razorwire-snarled frontlines, from a place not dissimilar, strangely enough, to East Germany (with their granite faces, black Hombergs and black suits with red lapel carnations, there was little visible or visceral difference between Erich Honecker and PW Botha). Accustomed to austerity, I was offended by Western waste, and by the hollow ostentation of what we would now call the “bling”.

But the Wall had long fallen and the world and I had changed unalterably. Born into war – the 1961 formation of the ANC’s armed wing having preceded my birth by five years – and having expected peace with the end of that misnamed “Cold War” in which South African conscripts like myself had fought a hot war, partly a US proxy war, against Cuban, East German and Soviet-supplied armor in Angola, I had hoped the fall of apartheid and of the bipolar superpower world of which it was a relic to bring peace.

But the world of 2011 was a world of permanent warfare – and the USA was the prime progenitor, in thrall to the ascendancy of what had once been accurately identified by warmongering US President Lyndon B Johnson as “the military-industrial complex,” a useful shorthand for the agglomeration of corporations based on the oil and defence industries which often drive US foreign policy in a protectionist and sabre-rattling fashion.

As the days passed into weeks, I was impressed by the repeated references in the domestic media to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and to ongoing terrorism trials – references which, apart from a lone notice of the combat death in Helmand of a 22-year-old Marine from Asheville, in the mountains of North Carolina, seemed remote from the apparent calm of everyday American life, a wallpaper war that served as a frequently-referenced, but never quite real backdrop to daily dramas.

That calm proved deceptive, as demonstrated in particular by the internal wars being fought over cultural issues such as the profiling of Muslim Americans as automatic terrorist threats, President Barack Obama’s reversal of the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy on gays in the military, and Alabama’s harsh new law on undocumented immigrants. This article will interrogate that dynamic tension, between a country perpetually at war abroad – and a voting populace at home who enable that warmaking in a context in which they are largely untouched by its effects.

The Ghosts of Wars Past

The first thing that is important to recognise about the foreign policy of the United States of America is that it has a very specific history, or rather a national mythology that distinguishes it from other countries by the explicit nature of its revolutionary aims. The Revolutionary War established a unique republican state in the West, a reflection in part of the values of the French Revolution, but, isolated by the vast Atlantic, destined to pursue a path of its own. It is thus useful to consider the US state as an explicitly revolutionary state (albeit institutionalised in the Mexican sense of the word), with a national mythology which endows it with a sense of mission in the world. Comparable, though very different, states with expansionist missions driven by revolutionary myths would include Revolutionary France, the Soviet Union until its collapse, Nazi Germany, and post-apartheid South Africa today, with a ruling party explicitly dedicated to a “National Democratic Revolution”. The foreign policy and thus warmaking of Britain and the Netherlands, in contrast, despite having possessed globe-spanning pre-war empires, were never guided by anything similar to such political myths.

And because the US national institutional-revolutionary myth is rooted in an armed defence of its version of democratic values, its missionary zeal comes armed; in colonial times this would have meant Bible and black-powder; but now it involves Hollywood/Madison Avenue and US Air Force/CIA-operated Reaper hunter-killer drones. Despite its institutional-revolutionary sense of mission, my term describes the USA at the federal, collective level, and it is important to recognise that there remain significant, deep, historically-rooted regional differences between blocs of individual States – and not merely between the Old North and Old South, or between the East Coast and West Coast (1).

Wherever one goes in the US, one finds evocations of the ghosts of wars past. There are innumerable Revolutionary War statues of alert musket-toting Minutemen, and unashamed tributes in the Southern States to the Confederate Army (the chapel at Duke University in North Carolina has statues of Confederate generals guarding its portico (2)). Less in evidence, unless one looks at the US Marine Corps Museum in Washington DC, are remembrances of American armed interventions in half of the developing world, though a current USMC recruiting pamphlet that I found on the Duke campus boasts: “More than two centuries of winning battles”.

But ubiquitous in the form of public memorials, is World War II which for the Baby-Boomer generation of US presidents prior to Obama was the revolutionary myth updated for the modern era: the shining democratic torch putting evil Nazism to flame and banishing it from the world stage.

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans is an intriguing installation whose curators are clearly trying to grapple honestly with an uncomfortable set of facts. In attempting to redress the imbalances of the past, displays examine the anti-Japanese racism of the US military alongside Japanese anti-Americanism, and sombrely examine the fire-bombing of Tokyo and the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – but stop short of describing these latter as the actual crimes against humanity they were, for it is, I assume, considered morally impossible for an institutional-revolutionary democracy to admit to having committed genocide.

Vietnam is of course the other war that is indelibly imprinted on the modern American conscience, though for very different reasons: there, the enemy was evil Communism, but the torch of democracy sputtered and died in Saigon, a failure that continues to define the Left and haunt the Right. A 10 October New York Times op-ed piece called Vietnam a ghost that dogged Obama’s war policy; meanwhile the “Wall of Healing” Vietnam Memorial – a mobile miniature of the long black marble wall inscribed with names of the dead at The Mall in Washington – travelled the country, affording far-flung veterans the opportunity to mourn their lost youth.

The Globalisation of War Today

Any commentator on American affairs worth their salt has noted the echoes in the American psyche of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in the 2001 “9/11” attacks in New York City and Washington: both were rare, massive attacks on US soil that shook a complacent, inward-looking populace to its core and forced them to re-examine the world outside. Conspiracy theorists claim that Pearl Harbour’s “day that will live in infamy” had in fact not proven so long-lived, had faded in the public mind, and that a cynical cabal within the military-industrial complex orchestrated 9/11 as a pro-war motivational spectacular. I’m not going to pronounce on that – aside from noting that the abysmal pseudo-documentary Zeitgeist, so beloved of the Left, in fact clearly originates with the paranoid American Right. What is true, however, is that the direct effect of 9/11 was to breathe new life into the American institutional-revolutionary mission abroad.

Recognisable chunks of the aircraft engines and landing gear debris from 9/11 are displayed in shafts of light as holy relics at the Newseum in Washington, the centerpiece of a sort of stations-of-the-cross hagiography of the FBI’s role in American internal affairs. That very day, the nation’s front-page news in just about every newspaper celebrated the killing by Reaper drone of alleged Al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, Abu Ali Al-Harithi. The socio-political aftermath of 9/11 was ever-present.

I walked to the 9/11 Ground Zero memorial building site in New York City – which is still partly a big construction site, a decade after the event – and took photographs in a local diner of a score of firemen who had lost their lives that day, a reminder of the intimate, emotional drivers behind the Iraqi and Afghan Wars; the widening ripples of the seemingly perpetual “War on Terror”:
  • Pakistan: I visited the US Navy Memorial in Washington which lauds the SEALs whose Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden last year. Interestingly enough, former Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had admitted at a talk that I attended at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that the SEALs had gone into Pakistan with orders to kill not capture and bring to trial Osama bin Laden, in line with the Nuremburg principles which the US had such a leading role in establishing. This embrace of extrajudicial action is more than adequately demonstrated by the “extraordinary renditions” (kidnapping) of terror suspects to Guantanamo and other detention facilities – and their treatment once there, something that Obama promised and failed to rectify.

  • Iraq: I listened to former CBS Iraq correspondent turned Associated Press intelligence writer Kimberly Dozier, who was seriously injured in a car-bombing in Baghdad in 2006 which killed her driver and the US serviceman she was travelling with, speak on how investigative journalists in the wake of 9/11 navigate the disinformation minefields laid by intelligence agents. With the very reasons for the Iraq War incontrovertibly shown to be bogus, investigative journalists were increasingly called on to negotiate these minefields on behalf of a public that prefers its information stripped down to near-meaningless sound-bites and tweets.

  • And back home in America: a visit to the Washington Post was notable for my guide, the Ombudsman, talking about how the newspaper had been forced to adopt a sophisticated mail-handling system to neutralise anthrax, or other attacks by mail; in some respects, the chickens had come home to roost. Later, I visited the colourful yet calm Occupy Wall Street sit-in in New York City on the on the contested anniversary of “Columbus Day”, a foundational part of the American myth, with its prevailing anti-war sentiment, where a former US Marine made a name for himself on television by defending protestors attacked by the police, saying that he had not fought abroad to defend police brutality at home. But the characterisation by so many people I spoke to of the Occupy Movement as “revolutionary” shows how far removed from reality is their understanding of the balance of forces in their own society.
It is clear to me that Americans, being unaccustomed to protest that does more than merely “speak truth to power,” with their organised working class long since domesticated and integrated into the relative benefits of the system (even though it is largely the poor and working class that forms the bulk of its footsoldiers (3)), have no real notion of how to grasp the nettle of power much beyond the ritual of voting or abstaining. So, despite this marginal domestic dissent, with the “borders” of the US now considered strategically to be located at the frontlines in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Colombia, Jamaica and elsewhere, the war has clearly been successfully globalised by the military-industrial complex. So the question then, was: what was the effect of being perpetually at war with the world mean to the American people themselves?

Homegrown Hate

It would be disingenuous to suggest that America’s threats all originated with foreign devils; after all, the 1995 Oklahoma Bombing was clearly a homegrown affair, committed by outriders of the persistent ultra-Right tendency within the American body politic which on the one hand takes America’s founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its early Amendments (including the right to bear arms) literally as the word of God, interpreted in a racial-nativist manner, while on the other hand seditiously attempts to strip the American Revolution of its ossified aspects (including federal institutions such as the Federal Reserve Bank), desiring a return to a presumed purer, original Revolution in which the county sheriff is the highest authority, taxation is abolished, and a rugged autonomous individualism prevails (4).

In order to understand domestic terrorism, in New Orleans, I listened to Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) intelligence project director Heidi Beirich speak on the demographic and economic drivers behind the rise of domestic hate groups. The SPLC was founded in 1981 and has carved out a niche for itself as a key provider of intelligence on, and interdictor of, hate groups ranging from Neo-Nazis and the Klan, to the Nation of Islam and Radical Traditional Catholics, though two-thirds of them are white-supremacist, with 602 white nationalist groups in 2000, rising to more than 1,000 today.

Beirich said there was a “frightening” proliferation of hate groups over the past decade, since 9/11, and especially since Obama’s election: while the FBI claimed about 800 hate crimes were committed each year; the Bureau of Justice Statistics put the figure at 200,000/year.

Few hate groups are specifically anti-gay, and yet the reversal of the “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy on gays in the military erupted into the mainstream during my visit, with Republican politicians in a TV debate totally ignoring a question posed by an openly gay soldier via video-feed from Afghanistan – despite the fact that he was clearly serving his country on the frontline – while in North Carolina, legislative opposition to gay marriage was the big culture-war issue of the day. And although few hate groups are focused exclusively on the anti-immigration cause, the drastically changed ethnic demography of the US was a clear driver of hate: in 1970, Beirich said, the US population was 83% white; but that figure had dropped to 66% today; and by 2050, the white population was predicted to fall under 50%.

Fears of being culturally overwhelmed by assimilation-resistant non-whites lay behind the controversial new immigration law, passed in Alabama while I was there, which made it a criminal offence to be found to be an undocumented immigrant in the state. The law was passed despite the fact that it was targeted at a tiny population of only 130,000 out of 4,7-million Alabama residents. The day it was passed, weird scenes unfolded as scores of immigrant families fled the state, leaving keys to homes with sympathetic neigbours and hungry dogs roaming the streets.

A second key driver of hate was the parlous state of the economy after the sub-prime housing boom imploded and the banks responsible were bailed out by the taxpayer victims; this, against a backdrop of longer-term deindustrialisation which has seen factory capacity relocate to under-unionised developing countries, leaving former industrial cities such as Detroit transformed into eerie wastelands, with vacant lots, boarded hotels, looted doctors’ surgeries, vandalised concert halls, and abandoned apartments with food rotting in the fridges (5).

And lastly, the election of the first black president – an initially successful attempt by the US oligarchy to divert attention from the bailout of the banks – provoked an ultra-Right backlash that resonated beyond its usual backwoods militia bunkers: grade-schoolers on an Oklahoma bus were reported recently to have chanted “Assassinate Obama!”

And yet, Beirich noted, Muslims rather than the domestic ultra-Right have borne the brunt of investigations. An example of this Islamophobia was an instructor at the FBI base at Quantico, Virginia, who told his trainees that if a citizen was Muslim and religious, they were automatically suspect, and that the Qu’ran had come to Mohammed in an epileptic fit; trainees complained, the instructor was removed and all FBI training materials on religion and culture are currently under review. To interrogate this further, I attended debate at Duke on “the Radicalisation of Muslims in America.”

Muslims in America

Setting the scene by saying that the profiling of Muslims was out of proportion to the actual threat they represented, Prof Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina, said: “About 20 individuals per year are suspects, with no identifiable ethnic or citizenship profile. Most plots are disrupted before they acquire their materials or select their targets – and one this year was a Shi’ite planning an attack on a Sunni mosque. There have been only 35 murders [in the US] associated with Muslims since 9/11 – out of 150,000 murders a year. Since 2008, there have been 700,000 murders world-wide of which only 15,000 deaths have been associated with Muslim terrorism – excluding Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The world is safer from terrorism than at any time since the 1970s.”

Kurzman went on to quote two recent surveys of public opinion in America, the one on Islam, in which half the respondents had positive attitudes, and the other on Muslims, in which 66% had positive attitudes. This, he said, indicated that while most Americans were ambivalent about the religion, most were also warmly disposed towards “real, living people,” their Muslim neighbours.

Prof David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, an institute with direct intelligence community involvement, responded in similar vein, saying that the sample of home-soil American Muslim terror threats was “so small that it is difficult to do retroactive causal analysis. The fairest answer to why Muslims are radicalising is: we don’t know. There is no profile of the ‘homegrown terrorist’.” The claim that religiosity drove radicalism was “not true, and discredited by many studies: out of the 188 individuals in the data-set, some never became pious at all; one’s grievance was related to an uncle killed in an American drone attack,” he said, hinting that the intimate impact of US foreign policy was a factor. Kurzman said that in recent “Homeland Security closed sessions,” it had been noted that many radical bloggers had, in fact, little knowledge of Islam.

Schanzer referred to a 2008 debate in the New York Times between Dr Marc Sageman who stressed “self-radicalising individuals” and Bruce Hoffman who stressed organised recruitment by terrorists in the US (6), saying “There are many pathways to radicalisation.” Asked whether he thought mental illness played any role, Kurzman said: “Many of these individuals are isolated from their communities; these lone wolves are not weeded out. But recruited terrorists weed out psychotics because they are considered too unstable to be effective.”

Imam Abdullah Antepli, the Duke Muslim Chaplain, a fiery yet moderate Muslim of Turkish extraction who conducts theological training for young imams in Afghanistan, laid the blame directly at the door of the US’s creation of proxy armed forces abroad: “The historical roots of this lie in Afghanistan in the 1980s. I remember the US back then idealising the same people we are chasing now. Our tax money played an extensive role in creating this cancer; we created this monster by our support for the Mujaheddin and we can trace the ideological hotbed of US Muslim extremism to our relationship to the Saudi regime… Religious money is exporting poison.” Kurzman responded, however, that “in the US, only a handful of suspects are connected to Saudi- or Middle East-funded outfits; terrorist attacks are cheap and you don’t need Saudi money.”

In terms of Muslim voting patterns, especially in the swing states of Florida, Ohio and Michigan, where there are concentrations of Muslim voters: studies showed a total US Muslim population, mostly Sunni, of 2.75-million – 45% of whom had entered the US in the past 25 years – of whom about 1,5-million were of voting age; although they tended to vote 70% Democrat, 11% Republican, and the rest Independent, there was no “Muslim vote” per se as the putative “community” was fractured by race, ethnicity, class and country of origin and they tended to vote in synch with their neighbours.

So while cultural wars over gays and immigrants, homegrown hate, and Muslim terrorism vexes Homeland Security, they should weigh very little in the scales – and yet are accorded disproportional importance as a threat partly justifying US gunboat diplomacy.

The Shape of Future War

What will a future American-lead perpetual war look like? If the Republicans can be believed, when (for it is only a matter of time) they reacquire the Oval Office, it seems we are in for “Intervention Lite,” a return to a form of 1930s isolationism, but with very targeted penetrations abroad – not unlike, perhaps the (failed) 1927-1932 combat in Nicaragua against Augusto Sandino’s “Light and Truth” liberated zone.

According to Prof Charles Hermann, of the conservative Bush School of Government and Public Service in Texas (7), the ideal “over-the-horizon” military policy of a future Republican administration (and thus of NATO as well) involved strategic support for regimes that were prepared to hold regular elections, in order to prevent them spiraling downwards into failed states. Hermann asked whether the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, nominally to prevent human rights abuses against the rebels by the regime, had not been its last hurrah, suggesting that if British and French defence spending continued at current levels, those two US allies would be unable to stage a repeat of Libya.

But the US, despite itself being hit by financial crisis, recession and a soaring national debt at 90% of GDP, driven by the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the Department of Defence’s $675-billion/year budget had ballooned by 80% since 9/11. Hermann said that some of this defence spending was given flight by scare-mongering over the intentions of China, North Korea and Iran, but he felt that these were overstated: “I see this as a management problem, as they are running countries and are interested in staying in power.”

Hermann quoted Robert Gates, former Defense Secretary under President George W Bush and now Dean of the Bush School, saying that “fractured or failing states are the main security threat of our times,” adding that Oxford economist Prof Paul Collier noted that there was a remarkable overlap between failed states and the “bottom billion” of the world’s poor, resulting in bad governments and recurrent coups (Mali in West Africa, which has recently experienced a coup as I write this, is the third-poorest nation on earth).

So how would a Republican-run military-industrial complex wage war, via NATO in particular? Hermann recommended an “over-the-horizon” support role: “We’re not trying to overthrow bad governments [à-la Iraqi “regime change”]; we’re providing security for good governments – the reverse of [NATO policy in] Bosnia-Herzegovina – if you develop and allow free and fair elections.” So the bottom billion will be left to rot, but what would NATO do about bad governments like Syria? “If they don’t get on board, we leave them alone. I don’t think we have the resources, and to be honest, the political will, to overthrow the bad guys.” On the other hand, support for “good governments,” based on contracts with client states which would involve grooming the younger, upwardly-mobile middle officer castes, could embrace African states such as Nigeria and Kenya – to prevent the spread of the Arab Spring south of the Sahara, Hermann said.

Precisely what impact the global economic crisis will have on American military strategy in future is far from clear, however. Take, for instance, the remarkable way in which the Pentagon views itself. I managed to secure access to this enormous complex of 23,500 workers (top-heavy with brass: 70% of the military staff are officers) with its Humvee-wide corridors and its courtyard Ground Zero Café above which any future enemy ICBMs would detonate dead-centre, having recognised the building’s unique geometry incoming from space, as a journalist, not a civilian, which perhaps explains the following.

Bryan Whitman, the Principal Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (8), had just expounded on how the US military operated globally, across all time-zones, underscoring the unusual degree of personal latitude allowed by the Pentagon to its regional commanders, whose six regional combatant commands divide the Earth like segments of a giant orange: “We plan centrally and operate decentrally, so the field commanders have a lot of autonomy. The ambassadors [under the State Department] focus on their own country [of posting] but the commanders [under the Pentagon] look at regional security (9).”

I responded that seeing as how the US military had this enormous 24-hour global presence, with its own state-like infrastructure (housing, engineering, social services, etc), massive staff and facilities (some ZIP codes are those floating cities called aircraft carriers), and heavily-armed semi-autonomous regional forces, and given that the military officer caste was largely unaffected by changes in whichever political party rotated through the White House and therefore could devise longer-term strategies than the State Department whose foreign policy was bound to the incumbent Presidency – given all that, was the US military not in fact a parallel world government?

Whitman gave me a long, penetrating look, and then said “I think you have answered your own question” – which to me was a remarkably frank admission from the senior ranks about how the military-industrial complex viewed itself superior to the elected Presidency (10).

The implication of this in Africa, was implied by Pentagon spokesman and legal expert David Oten who said direct military-to-military co-operation was often one of the best ways for the US to engage diplomatically “because often the [African] military is the only centre of national power – there is no strong legislature, etc.”

In sum, I suspect that the Whitmans of the Pentagon will prevail over the Hermanns or whoevers of the forseeable-future White House. But it would be a mistake to cartoon the Whitmans as boorish hawks committed to bombing-for-profit; on the contrary, his caste are sophisticated navigators of the brave new world: “Just because CNN, etcetera asks me a question, how should I rank that against a guy who runs a blog in Bolivia that covers all of Latin America and that everyone reads?”

Lieutenant-Colonel Todd Breasseale, former spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) and now the Pentagon spokesperson on Western Hemisphere policy, detainee affairs (including Guantanamo) and US Southern Command (Mexico-to-Antarctica), was even more disarming, describing ex-Marine turned Al Jazeera journalist Josh Rushing who resigned from the military after being ordered by the Pentagon not to speak to the media about his experiences managing information flow during the Iraq War, as “a revolutionary, a young, thinking officer who was engaging at a time of war. The Marines froze him out and treated him so poorly; he quit on principle – a very valid principle – and now runs the brilliant show Front Lines,” which covers the impact of US foreign policy in the Americas. “Now the Marine Corps has him speak to them about their mistakes. That’s progress.”

I had met Rushing the day before and he was honestly described. But before we are too charmed, here is that language again: the institutional-revolutionary mission of America in waging war abroad.

Conclusion: Perpetual Institutional-Revolutionary War?

So, what to make of a country where the home front is so apparently placid that walls around homes are a rarity, and car crashes rate high on state-wide news programmes – and yet which wages war across a globe it considers its own? For one thing, the 1823 Monroe Doctrine that treated Latin America as the back-yard of the US, providing the rationale for interventions everywhere from Argentina to Cuba, has clearly long been updated to embrace the whole post-Soviet world.

Regarding the American public’s investment in this vision, Breasseale estimated that “less than 1% have some involvement with the military, but the American people spend a lot of money on defence. Every time we lose someone in combat, we put out a press release, because we don’t want to ever hide the true cost – in blood.”

That’s all very well, but it implies a deep level of disconnection between where and why American blood is spilled, and the populace who politically enable their youth to go off and fight obscure battles. And I’m not sure I agree with Breasseale: the presence of the military is hard to avoid in American civilian life. From the National Guard recruiting at the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual conference – of all things! – to the almost unquestioned presence on college campuses of students in uniform and of Reserve Officer Training Corps recruiters (the 1970 Kent State Shootings are a distant memory), from a Medal of Honor recipient opening the New York Stock Exchange, to the returnees greeted at airports by girls wearing military-groupie T-shirts, from the steady trickle of bodies coming home through the giant military morgue at Dover, to the veteran-themed country fairs, it is obvious that the military is a permanent yet strangely under-recognised feature of American civilian consciousness.

The US just doesn’t feel like a country at war. And yet, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert “Disaster Bob” Ditchey, a Secretary of Defense spokesman who holds the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) portfolio for the US, Canada and Mexico, co-ordinating DHS, US Northern Command (US and Canada), and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD, the joint US-Canadian aerospace defence system), told me that on Obama’s initiative, 1,200 National Guardsmen were now helping police the border with Mexico; clearly even the Obama regime had felt the need to respond militarily to the widespread domestic fears of illegal immigration run out of control. Clearly, whether Republican or Democrat, “keeping things down on the farm” by force of arms is still considered a domestic political necessity.

It also needs to be stressed that the supposedly kinder, gentler Obama regime (in 2007, before attaining office, Obama renounced the first-strike use of nuclear weapons) has also embarked on the largest-ever refurbishment and expansion of America’s nuclear warfare capacity, a programme that will run for several decades after Obama retires (11). This is clear evidence of an incumbent president serving the longer-range interests of the military-industrial complex rather than even his own party’s medium-term interests.

When I visited the US last, it was the year 1984 and many people were throwing parties mocking George Orwell’s great dystopian novel 1984, saying smugly to each other, “see how wrong he was?” But they missed the point: the totalitarian hyperpower Oceania of Orwell’s tale draws its legitimacy from its geopolitical backdrop: a far-off, possibly fake, yet endless war with their seamlessly alternating enemies, Eurasia and Eastasia. I had the eerie sense on this visit, 27 years later, that a substantial part of the US citizenry themselves had become pilotless drones, operating against a backdrop of a far-off war that, like the citizenry of Oceania, left them physically unaffected – but which yet required their ideological acquiescence.

The great French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1840 in his landmark work Democracy in America: “No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country… it must invariably and immeasurably increase the powers of civil government, it must compulsorily concentrate the direction of all men and the management of all things in the hands of the administration. If it does not lead to despotism by sudden violence, it prepares men for it more gently by their habits.”

A unipolar hyperpower, its citizenry gently prepared by a perpetual war that is more wallpaper to their daily habits than painful first-hand experience, for the concentration not of the powers of civil government – but of the powers of a military-industrial caste erudite yet far more seditious of elected democracy than any on the political fringes, armed with world-ending weaponry and a messianic sense of revolutionary right and unassailable mission, such a power has as much potential to be a long-term destabilising, as well as stabilising, factor on the world stage.

Michael Schmidt


1) An erudite examination of the shifts in these regional dynamics since the height of the Vietnam War is given in Jeremy Black, Altered States: America since the Sixties, Reaktion Books, London, UK, 2006.

2) It is 150 years since the North’s still-controversial “Restoration” of the South following the Civil War, which critics call the imposition by force of alien values on Southerners, and an argument was raging during my visit in one North Carolina town about whether to restore to its place of public prominence a Confederate statue damaged in a van accident.

3) A great cultural reference for the desperation that drives the poor into the US military, which offers them not only employment but the chance to get bursaries to study, is the harrowing film Winter’s Bone, starring Jennifer Lawrence, directed by Debra Granik, screenplay by Granik and Anne Rosellini, USA, 2010.

4) A good exposition of the root elements and flowering of this ultra-Right is James Coates, Armed and Dangerous: the Rise of the Survivalist Right, Hill and Wang, New York City, USA, 1995. Coats repeatedly mentions, but seemingly fails to appreciate, the poverty which drove many of those he describes into extremism; perhaps this is why many ultra-Right themes in America are shared by the ultra-Left. Given that Coates’s book is outdated, being a reprint of a 1987 text, an update on the religious ultra-Right is provided by Chris Hedges, American Fascists: the Christian Right and the War on America, Vintage, London, UK, 2008. There was a restricted gathering of such ultra-Right groups in the Appalachian Mountains during my trip.

5) For a chilling photographic essay on Detroit’s decline, take a look at Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s work online at Detroit was where the alleged “Underwear Bomber” stood trial during my visit, while Michigan state was home to a man arrested for planning to fly radio-controlled model aircraft armed with bombs into the Pentagon and the US Capitol.

6) Sageman is a former CIA operative based in Pakistan in 1987-1989, now anti-terrorism consultant, and author of Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, USA, 2008. Hoffman is Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, a specialist in terrorism and counter-insurgency, editor-in-chief of Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, and the series editor of Columbia Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare. Their debate is outlined in "A Not Very Private Feud Over Terrorism":

7) Why focus on the Republicans only here? We know how a Democrat regime currently wages war and we can expect more of the same if Obama wins; while the recession has clearly altered Republican objectives since the Bush era. I also met with representatives of the American constructivist far Right, and constructivist far Left, by which I distinguish them from the demolitionist terrorist ultras of both stripes: the Libertarian Party on the Right is minimum-state, minimum-war capitalist; the North-Eastern Federation of Anarchist Communists (NEFAC) on the Left argued for an anti-war decentralist community control of the economy. The Libertarian Party has a marginal electoral showing (4% in the 2008 Presidential elections) and NEFAC had just split into revolutionary and moderate projects. But despite the intriguing arguments both sides could mount, they are both too far from the levers of power in America to have any impact on how, let alone whether, the US wages war.

8) Whitman’s official bio is online at

9) For instance, the new Africa Command (Africom) has now calved off European Command (Eucom), which covers Europe and North Africa, because Sub-Saharan Africa is geopolitically detached from North Africa and Europe. Africom is still headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, and has yet to find a home in Africa, though Ghana and South Africa are contenders. Africom is the aegis for the Africa-dedicated components of the US Air Force, US Marine Corps, and Special Operations (based in Germany), US Navy and US Army (based in Italy), and the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (based at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti).

10) Beyond the Presidency’s considerable powers, including the President’s as commander-in-chief of all US armed forces, there exist three large, yet less visible and mostly unaccountable and unelected centres of power in the US: firstly the military-industrial complex itself; secondly the state bureaucracy, one of the world’s largest and most powerful, which, like the military-industrial complex, has its own strategic foreign interests separate to those of the incumbent Presidency and which because it is likewise unelected has longer tenure in office and thus longer-range objectives than incumbent parties; and lastly the plutocracy, the wealthy old-boys’ club of lobbyists from Washington, Silicon Valley, Houston and elsewhere who push their own private agenda, including the US-supremacist “Project for an American Century.”

11) See Darwin Bond-Graham, "Obama’s Worst Sell-out?", Counter-punch, USA, September 23-25, 2011.

Internet & Ideology

categoryinternational | miscellaneous | debateauthor Friday May 31, 2013 19:19author by Michael Schmidt - ex-ZACFReport this post to the editors
Against the Nationalist Fragmentation of Cyberspace & Against “Astroturf Activism”
The Arab Spring redrew the battle-lines between over the control of information between the statist/capitalist elites and the popular classes – raising questions of increased restriction and surveillance, and of the limits of cyber-activism. In some ways this battle is often mischaracterised as being a narrow debate between cool intellectual property technocrats and wild-eyed free-use pirates, or as being a political dispute between authoritarian regimes and free speech activists, with no wider relevance to society. But it is clear that what is at stake is the global ideology (and exploitative practice) of corporatist enclosure versus that of the creative commons; in other words, it is more even than a universalist human rights concern, but is rather an asymmetrical war between the parasitic and productive classes over a terrain of power/wealth-generation known as the knowledge economy.

Internet & Ideology

Against the Nationalist Fragmentation of Cyberspace & Against “Astroturf Activism”

The Arab Spring redrew the battle-lines between over the control of information between the statist/capitalist elites and the popular classes – raising questions of increased restriction and surveillance, and of the limits of cyber-activism. In some ways this battle is often mischaracterised as being a narrow debate between cool intellectual property technocrats and wild-eyed free-use pirates, or as being a political dispute between authoritarian regimes and free speech activists, with no wider relevance to society. But it is clear that what is at stake is the global ideology (and exploitative practice) of corporatist enclosure versus that of the creative commons; in other words, it is more even than a universalist human rights concern, but is rather an asymmetrical war between the parasitic and productive classes over a terrain of power/wealth-generation known as the knowledge economy.
A gathering of journalists, media development experts, and online activists (among others) at the Highway Africa media and technology conference in Grahamstown, South Africa, in September 2012 grappled with the paranoid responses of many states to the supposedly social media-driven Arab Spring, but failed to grasp the nettle of the class nature of the statist/capitalist threat.

Nationalist fragmentation in Russia?

One of the keynote speakers was young Alexey Sidorenko of Russian website Teplitsa and author of “New Media Tools for Digital Activists” who spoke about the sea-change that had taken place in Russian cyberspace before the Arab Spring. Before 2011, he said, the old state-controlled legacy media was being bypassed as an information source by the “free blogosphere,” citing the fact that the audience of the website had outgrown that of the leading TV station, Channel 1.

This reflected a shift in trust from the legacy media to the internet, especially among 12 to 34-year-olds, 96% of whom were connected today, making Russia the second-most connected European nation after Germany.

Before the Arab Spring, the Russian authorities, whether retread “communists,” robber barons, or neo-liberals, had viewed the internet with suspicion, but had largely restricted their assaults to the harassment of bloggers (largely by the hacking of their sites, or by swamping the sites with requests in order to stall them – DDoS attacks).

Worryingly, however, they had not only been covertly running “deep-packet inspection” (DPI) surveillance of online content, but had also begun overt prosecutions of internet “extremism” which, Sidorenko said, outlawed the dissemination of some 1,500 prohibited works, including classic 19th Century texts on Islam, or radical thinkers of socialism (including anarchists of course), or nationalism – “but which includes literary and oppositional works”.

In the Arab Spring era, although electoral fraud to the Russian national parliament, the Duma, had continued at similar levels to the 2008/9 period, internet-based evidence of this fraud had rocketed, with the result that sites such as Karta Narusheniy (Map of Violations) and 23 other anti-corruption sites became so popular that they were frozen by DDoS attacks, presumably originating from the state.

Internet activists responded, however, by mirroring the websites’ content and in December 2011, a 23-year-old activist managed to mobilise demonstrations of tens of thousands of protestors against the cyber-attacks, protests which lasted well into May this year.

The state in turn responded with a three-pronged counter-attack: firstly, they put criminal libel – only decriminalised in 2011 – back on the statute books; secondly, they introduced the blacklisting of internet service-providers (ISPs) whose users posted content the censors found unacceptable; and lastly, they cynically foregrounded child protection as a major issue to be addressed online, creating the possibility that state agents by planting a single item of child porn on an oppositional site could threaten to shut down the entire ISP – and so forcing many ISPs to protect themselves by actively censoring user content.

Sidorenko said there were worrying signs at the international level too, where there were several proposals by the likes of Iran to create and police “national sovereignty in national internet sectors” – which, he feared, could “create isolated, hermetic net islands,” in other words, the replication across the world of the amputated model employed in Belarus or China currently.

“This will lead to an erosion of internet integrity and global interconnectedness, the result of a push by authoritarian regimes who will suppress free speech online as they do in traditional media. My question is how we as media activists can prevent this colonisation, this fragmentation, of the internet.”

Sanctions against authoritarian regimes who embarked on online and mobile truncation would not work, however, he said, citing the case of the Belarus dictatorship, an ossified Stalinist regime, which had purchased surveillance software through a third party despite sanctions: “Sanctions can’t keep up with technological innovation.”
Sidorenko predicted that the big internet companies would readily kowtow to such proposals: we presumably all know about the “Google Wall of China,” whereby the internet giant struck a deal with the red corporatist state to restrict the socio-political functionality of the internet. But what are conditions like in China currently?

Nationalist fragmentation in China

Where there is a will, there is a way, and journalists and activists in China have laboured in Kafkaesque conditions to work around the hermetic status of their cyber-island – where internet penetration stands at a population-proportionately whopping 38% (compared to 13% in Africa).

Professor Yuen Ying Chan, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, sketched a similar picture of digital ascendancy as in Russia, with some online writers having more followers than the multi-million readership of the largest Chinese daily newspapers.

The authorities, apart from creating their own policed versions of Western social media such as Weibo (the “Chinese twitter”), had both human and mechanical censors which trawled Weibo and other internet content for outlawed content.

Ironically, this data-mining was now being used by journalists and activists themselves. For example, Yuen said though the state had outlawed political reportage on rising “communist” leader Bo Xilai who was axed from his post, journalists used data-mining to map his business relationships in Hong Kong and further afield – because there is a loophole in the legislation on business reportage (and in “communist” China, the convergence between party power and business interests is intense, with the media sector being the third-largest tax revenue earner for the regime).

Still, the lesson is obvious: not only is a “hermetic island” very tough terrain for social, economic and political activists to operate in, but the exact same data-mining processes used by activists can and will be turned on activists themselves by the authorities to gather information sometimes deemed treasonable and punishable by death.

As Niels ten Oever, a fiery Dutch freedom of expression activist who has worked on projects in some very tough regions – Ethiopia, ex-Somalia, and Afghanistan – warned, social media has transformed us into “communications exhibitionists, standing naked at the window, exposing ourselves without knowing who is looking.”

The Arab Spring & “Astroturf Activism”

Of course, on the rare occasion that it goes down to the wire, as it has in Syria, one wants the whole world to be watching as the sheer deluge of publicity offers some degree of protection or at least of validation of one’s war against the parasitic elite (not that class war is the entire Syrian story).

But, sub-Saharan African activists warned, that cut-and-paste social media solutions, even from the Arab Spring, might not work in other contexts. Abiye Teklemariam, a Reuters institute fellow from Ethiopia, said an oft-repeated question of why there had been no echo of the Arab Spring in sub-Saharan Africa usually ignored the fact that all the North African regimes had been complascent before a Tunisian vegetable-seller set himself on fire, so similar uprisings could perhaps occur in the south; objective conditions in several southern dictatorships made it possible.

But, he warned, sub-Saharan political activists had often totally misunderstood the use of social media in North Africa as a tool to organise, quietly and for perhaps at least a decade before the uprisings – rather than as a tool to merely mobilise demonstrations in the short-term. In Egypt, for example, facebook was only used to mobilise the first Tahrir Square protest; the authorities shut it down the next day; from then on, the people organised the protests on the ground.

“There was a perception of facebook as a magic tool to create revolutions; [sub-Saharan African] activists started overpromising on this basis, and this led to a decline in the public’s trust in activists when they failed to deliver,” Taklemariam said.

“There has also been a rise of Astroturf activism. The original social media was linked through networks of trust, but governments and political parties started creating Astroturf groups and started calling actions, but people soon realised these groups were fake, which had the effect that mistrust started bleeding into the real groups.”

I need to add that the failure of South African political activist groups to understand the necessity to prepare the groundwork by organising within poor communities for years – as the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) of South Africa has done – rather than relying on ersatz internet mobilisations was what lead to the embarrassing displays of Astroturf activism in attempts to mimic (without real grassroots organising) the Northern “Occupy” movements at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and in Cape Town.

As in Russia, before the Arab Spring in Africa, statist repression was offline only; even if bloggers were targeted, they were targeted by physical assault, rather than by cyberwar. Earlier last year, I met young Egyptian blogger-dissident Kareem Amer and his girlfriend, Egyptian nude blogger-dissident Aliaa Maghda El-Mahdy. Amer said that it was ironic that, having been jailed for four years for blogging against the Mubarak regime, it was only after the regime was toppled that he and Aliaa had had been forced to flee into exile by the insecure conditions of the Arab Spring itself. So even within the Arab Spring countries, repression had merely shifted form.

Admire Mare, an activist, researcher and the director of the Zimbabwe Youth Empowerment and Information Dissemination Trust, who blogs at “Scribbles from the House of Stones,” also asked whether social media could be used for change in southern Africa as it had in Moldova, the Philippines, Indonesia, Iran and Spain – as well as North Africa and Syria: “Is such a revolution possible here?”

He said the battle-lines had been clearly drawn between the partisans of the “technology of surveillance and repression” and the “technology of freedom” – but he warned that social media can’t be automatically assumed to be a democratic space as it was “a profit-driven project,” vulnerable to hostile data-mining, and owned by digital elites: “We need to look at how activists can creatively appropriate this technology. Cut-and-paste models can’t be applied; we need to adapt to local contexts.”