“For Trans Liberation, Capitalism Must Be Abolished”
This week we’re sharing a chat that Scott Branson had about Transgender Marxism (2021, Pluto Press) with Jules Gleeson (co-Editor, Contributor) and M.E. O’Brien (contributor). Transgender Marxism brings together Transgender Studies and Marxist theory, exploring Transgender lives and movements and surviving as Trans under Capitalism. In the end, the claim of the book is that for Trans Liberation, Capitalism must be abolished. In this interview we talk about the: collective, material process of transition; trans visibility, assimilation and liberation; the history of Gay Liberation and Trans movements; being Trans in the workplace; care work and family abolition; and Trans solidarities against Capitalism and the State.
Jules Joanne Gleeson is a writer, comedian and historian. She has published essays in outlets including Viewpoint Magazine, Invert Journal and VICE, and performed internationally at a wide range of communist and queer cultural events. She can be found on Twitter at @SocialRepro and Patreon (QueerCom). Check out her awesome interview with Judith Butler that the GuardianUK censored due to critiques of TERFs, found in full at IllWill.Com.
M.E. O’Brien writes at the intersection of communist theory, trans liberation, LGBTQ social movement studies and feminism. Michelle is a co-editor of Pinko, and her writing has appeared in Social Movement Studies, Work, Employment & Society, Commune, Homintern, Endnotes and Invert. Found on Twitter at @GenderHorizon & on Patreon (MEOBrien).
Update on Sean Swain
This week, instead of words from anarchist prisoner, Sean Swain, I’d just like to share the info that Sean has been transferred back to Ohio, his state of capture, from Virginia where he was held at a Medium security facility for the last 2.5 years. It’s assumed that he’s back at the Supermax, OSP Youngstown for 2 weeks of quarantine and determination of status to decide what prison he will go to inside Ohio from there. When he was leaving Ohio for Virginia, he was close to graduating to a lower security, medium level, than where he was held and has not had any serious breeches of conduct since his transfer, so hopefully he’ll be heading to an easier and more comfortable facility.
For the moment you can write him at his old address where I’m sure he’d love some kind words or some books, posted in our shownotes and at SeanSwain.org:
You can donate to his legal case to challenge his denied parole by sending money via cashapp to $Swainiac1969 and you can follow @Swainiac1969 for info on the upcomnig online raffle to help fundraise for Sean’s legal fees. To donate items for raffle, also contact the instagram mentioned above and keep an eye out for more info. As an update to prior mentions of Swainiac-fest, it was a success but is only a step on the way to covering his legal fees to get him the best legal defense possible. And remember, you can fundraise toward the $12,500 needed by the lawyer on your own or in community and if you want to send it to the TFSR venmo or paypal or a money order made out to us via our PO Box, feel free to do so and make sure you note Sean’s defense in the comment.
Palestine and Challenging Settler Colonial Imaginaries
This week on the show, we’re airing a portion of our 2018 interview with filmmaker and activist Yousef Natsha about his film about his hometown, Hebron, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. We invite you to check out our full interview with him from March 25, 2018, linked in our show notes and we’re choosing to air this right now because of the flare up in violent evictions, home destruction and the assassination of around 100 Palestinian residents of Gaza by the “Israeli Defense Forces”. [00:10:24]
Then, we’ll be sharing a panel from the 2021 UNC Queer Studies Conference called “No Blank Slates: A Discussion of Utopia, Queer Identity, and Settler Colonialism” featuring occasional Final Straw host, Scott Bransen alongside E. Ornelas and Kai Rajala. This audio first aired on Queercorps, on CKUT radio in Montreal. If you’d like to engage in this project, reach out to email@example.com [00:24:05]
No Blank Slates: A Discussion of Utopia, Queer Identity, and Settler Colonialism
Scott Branson, E Ornelas, Kai Rajala
Under the neoliberal regime of multiculturalism, the settler colonial project has relied on the assimilation of certain subaltern communities into its project for the effective dispossession and control of indigenous lands. This discussion will present ideas from a book project we are collaborating on in order to invite conversation around the intersection and tension around ideas of liberation and forms of appropriation and oppression. Our main challenge for radical queers is to rethink the kinds of futures we try to include ourselves in, and how our liberatory work can subtly replay exclusion and erasure. How do neoliberal utopian gay politics perpetuate settler colonial erasure and genocide? How do politics that seek inclusion and representation–in other words assimilation–disavow the work by indigenous self-determination movements, which are also poised on the frontlines of planetary self-defense? The workshop will be divided up into short presentations by each writer, followed by a structured discussion facilitated by the presenters.
The utopian project that underwrote the Canadian/American settler colonial states that still exist today was eventually transmuted into a neoliberal utopian sense of identity. The entire concept of space and self that we inherit is imbued with utopian longing for a time and place that we can fully be ourselves. This kind of rhetoric is largely at play in mainstream identity-based movements, like gay rights. But this longing often works in favor of the regime of violence and dominance perpetrated by the modern nation state. We can see how the attempt at inclusive representation of queer cultures leads to assimilation and appropriation. What gets included in regimes of representation ends up mimicking the norms of straight/cisgender heteronormativity, in terms of class aspirations, behaviors, and family structures. This therefore contributes to systematic erasure of Black and Brown queer folks, who are still the most targeted “identities” for state violence and its civilian deputies. With images of diversity that appeal to bourgeois urban gays, businesses and governments can pinkwash their violence.
A radical queer politics that relies on unquestioned utopian and dystopian visions risks aligning itself with a settler colonial imaginary of terra nullius or “blank slate” space. On the one hand, dystopian and apocalyptic visions perpetuate the unquestioned assumption that a societal collapse is impending, as if the continual degradation of human and more-than-human communities has not already arrived. Particularly dangerous in this assumption is the kind of crisis rhetoric that fosters opportunities for settler colonial sentiments of insecurity and, in the face of this insecurity, assertions of belonging and sovereignty in land and lifeways. Furthermore, visions of radical utopias as-yet-to-be-realized (or, as-yet-to-be-colonized) discount the ongoing presence of Indigenous alternatives to the current settler colonial dystopian reality, and instead preserves a view of geographic and social space as blank and ready to be “improved” with a “new” model.
Here we have a problem of erasure of the oppressions and resistances that have been ongoing in different iterations, in favor of the blank space of the utopian frontier. We argue against these linear progression narratives of societal and environmental collapse which promise to bring about a future idealized world of rainbow-diverse identities. Instead, we propose ways for radical politics, particularly those espoused by non-Indigenous people, to disavow such settler colonial mindsets. There are a few ways to offer a glimpse into the lived realities—what we might still call utopian moments—that make up the non-alienated, revolutionary life: queer and indigenous histories of resistance, rituals and moment of community care and mutual aid, and science fiction revisions of the world. We argue that this other world does in fact exist—has existed and has not stopped existing—if only in the interstices or true moments of communing and inhabiting the land alongside friends and family.
This is not an argument in favor of utopia, but one that seeks to bypass the utopian/dystopian divide. The world we inhabit is clearly dystopian for most, and utopian for some, and in many estimations, constantly on the verge of ending. The disaster scenarios, repeating the puritanical eschatology that helped settle the colonies in America, perpetuates the history of erasure of ways of life that aren’t in fact gunning for that disaster. We still argue that the purpose of dreaming, of envisioning alternatives, is to make action possible today, through recognition of the power we do already hold. Our discussion will interrogate the settler-utopian impulses that get hidden within apparently liberatory movements, such as radical queers and strands of environmentalism, as well as the way these identities and politics are represented in narratives of liberation that rely on the same logic they claim to oppose.
E Ornelas (no pronouns or they/them) is a Feminist Studies PhD candidate in the Department of Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies. As the descendant of a survivor of the Sherman Institute, a Native boarding school in Riverside, California—and therefore robbed of cultural, linguistic, and tribal identity—E’s research interests focus on the continued survivance and futurity of BIPOC communities, particularly through the use of literature. E’s dissertation illuminates community-based, abolitionist-informed, alternative models of redress for gendered, racialized, and colonial violence by analyzing Black and Indigenous speculative fiction. When not on campus, E can be found reading feminist sci-fi, making music, baking vegan sweets, and walking their dog. [00:45:06]
Kai Rajala (pronounced RYE-ah-la) is a queer, nonbinary, white-settler of Finnish and mixed European descent. They are a writer, and an anarchist anti-academic working and living on the unceded territories of the Kanien’kehá:ka peoples on the island colonially referred to as Montréal, and known otherwise as Tiohtià:ke. They are currently pursuing studies as an independent researcher and are interested in sites outside of the university where knowledge production occurs. You can find Kai on twitter at @anarcho_thembo or on instagram at @they4pay. [00:57:28]
Scott Branson is queer trans Jewish anarchist who teaches, writes, translates, and does other things in Western so-called North Carolina. Their translation of Jacques Lesage De la Haye’s The Abolition of Prison is coming out with AK Press this summer. Their translation of Guy Hocquenghem’s second book, Gay Liberation After May 68, is due out next year with Duke University Press. They edited a volume of abolitionist queer writings based on two iterations of the UNC Asheville queer studies conference, due out with PM Press next year. They are currently working on a book on daily anarchism for Pluto Press and researching a book on the institutionalization of queerness in the academy. They also make books of poems and artwork. You can find Scott on Instagram @scottbransonblurredwords or check out sjbranson.com for more of their work or on twitter at @sjbranson1. [00:30:41]
Yousef Natsha: My name is Yousef Natsha, I am from Palestine from a city called Hebron. And Hebron is part of West Bank that’s under that Israeli military occupation. I did start my professional work mainly with human rights organizations on the field and start documenting what my community is facing from the Israeli government. Since that till now I’m doing this awareness for the other communities to know what’s going on in my community. I have been working on it for no less than two years, it is a long process of footaging these terrifying moments.
The documentary mainly focused on human rights violation that’s the Palestinian community is facing from the Israeli military, they are occupying West Bank and Gaza Strip for sure. And when I started the process of making the documentary, I start saying, “should I go to the, you know, the the history part of what has happened and how this is ended up being existed till this moment”, the issue that I ended up going back to the time to like 1917, when like things actually did start, and how the colonization system did begin on Palestine and ended up bleeding into what we’re having right now. So I ended up actually, after a lot of thinking, I ended up just doing it about human rights abuses. And I saw that my community, my family, my friends are not treated as humans. And from there, I ended up just taking my community voice into this documentary to explain the suffering. It took me a while to understand what is actually going on, “Is this normal to face? Should I just live my normal life in terms of just going to the college and finish that and then find, you know, a job to be occupied with all the time, having a family building a house”, and so on.
So it has been a long process for me after the age of 18, specifically, of what I actually have to do, which path I should take. And after a year or so spending it on studying accounting in one of the colleges and Hebron, I just said, “This is not my place, I can’t see myself eight hours sitting behind the desk.” That’s the moment that I ended up pushing that college door with my foot and saying, “I am going down on the ground.” I started filming with my phone. And I didn’t know that these footages would not go anywhere, but at least I felt that I’m doing something for my community. Afterwards, I ended up having a media scholarship. And after that I became more familiar with filming and photography and so on, and I worked with different local radio stations, and international filmmakers, and at the same time journalists. And on the age of 20, I ended up knowing this human rights organization based in Chicago called the Christians Peacemaker team that I did start working with them on the field. And I can say that gives me in some extent, the ability of moving around under the protection of an international organization in some extent, a lot of people had the question of how I was able to take these footages, how I was able to move around soldiers. Some people do have an idea how much it is difficult to be around Israeli military, specifically on the field and documenting these abuses.
I can say that one of the things that did help me first is English. I used English to talk with the soldiers when they come to try to turn me back to not allow me to film I use English because if the Israeli military somehow if I spoke to them in Arabic, which I can say that they can tell from my face, obviously, but at the same time using English that in some extent, let them think of, you know, it seems like he is not Palestinian at least. Does not mean that I have not been facing harassment from the Israeli military. I have been pushed away, being arrested, being interrogated within the work that I have been doing on the ground.
So I can say that the process has been super difficult but at the same time, I did succeed in making my community comfortable and me being around in terms of, you know, if they are facing harassment from the Israeli military, they will say “okay, well let’s call Yousef”. So with the years I ended up having my phone number with my community members and they will give me a call when the Israeli military is making a, you know, house search or a body search for one of the community members in the old city of Hebron, specifically.
So I can say that the footages has been taking during the process of two years or two yearsish but it does not mean that the footage is that I have to it is not repeating itself and happening now. That’s one of the things that people have to take in consideration that “Oh, with this kind of an old footage, why we need to see it?” Well, actually, it is not, it is happening daily. It shows that struggle that the Palestinians are facing in other places. As a Palestinian and a person that grew up in an environment that does not believe in government — for sure, I don’t — seeing the impact of power on my community, for sure, I don’t believe in that. And I am seeing it first as a way of using the suffering for collecting money. And that’s why I feel like I for sure will not believe in any kind of government power that’s mainly using the struggle of my community for funding, for resources and saying that “we’re going to use it for building houses”, and that’s for sure it’s not happening. And a lot of money that has been directed for the Palestinian authority that Palestinians don’t see it. The only thing that we do see is armed Palestinian police, that they don’t have authority on anything, the Israeli government controlling even the Palestinian authority.
In terms of the history about Palestine and what has been sent abroad for the international media about my community struggle. It became super tricky about how we’re going to name this struggle, how we can finish it, how we can focus on a something, you know, a anything, to try to solve this issue. And my community did resist this occupation, we have used different way of resistance to try to take this occupation down. And unfortunately, the international media did play a big role of sending the wrong image, to the extent that the Palestinians being called “terrorists” for whatever we are doing. Us naturally as human beings, we have to resist against a racist armed power to control us. That natural resistance became titled as violent, it became titled as a terrorist act. That’s one of the reasons why I actually focused about human rights and the documentary because unfortunately, that’s the only language that’s being accepted in the international community to talk about the Palestinian suffering and the Palestinian struggle.
And I can say, through the screenings that I had, so far, I have been seeing a lot of people being engaged with the conversation and saying that “yeah, it is completely terrible that Palestinians are not treated as humans”, which to be honest with you I didn’t see that reaction when I just spoke to the people about the struggle itself without showing them a documentary or the language that’s internationally being used. The history is repeating itself, some people will say they are from Saudi Arabia, or from Jordan or from Syria or whatever, I can say that they are Indigenous community.
Other thing that people don’t recognize, sometime when we say Palestinian, they will think that we are just only Muslims, and that’s wrong. The Indigenous Palestinian community are Palestinian Muslims, Palestinians Jews, PalestinianChristians. There is different ways to make a direct action to go marching down the streets, you know, for people to recognize that there is a community, an Indigenous community, that they are suffering from an armed military occupation, and their struggle needs to be ended before the time being too late, as the history have told us about other Indigenous community around the world. About how they have been suffered from their voices not being heared, their resources being taken, their history being being colonized, it is completely a colonization system, an apartheid system, and it needs to be stopped and my dream, really my dream is to see people marching all over the world about this struggle. One of the things that I do keep repeat all the time: first, our fight is not with a religion. Our fight is simply connected with an armed power coming to our houses, to our lands and saying that “it is not yours anymore”. Palestinians refugees, most of them still have keys for their houses. They are still having it. They are still hoping one day they will go back and having the right of being returned.
Scott Branson:I’m Scott Branson, they/them. I live in western North Carolina, and I’ve been part of organizing this conference for this session, this one and the last one, which is where I met my co–presenters, collaborators, E and Kai, and we started working on this project together. I’m a teacher, writer, translator, etc. Just as my background.
E Ornellas: My name is E Ornellas, I prefer E, so no pronouns is great, but they it’s also fine. Yeah, I also met Scott and Kai at the last Queer Studies conference that was in person, and so I’m happy to be back with y’all, but in a digital space. And yeah, I don’t really know what to say about myself. I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota and I currently reside on Ojibwe and Dakota land, although that’s kind of…there’s a really long, complicated history of that, those claims to land. And, you know, it’s now called Duluth, Minnesota. And I have a lot of feelings about land acknowledgments, but I feel like it’s important to at least name — as someone who is not Indigenous to this land, my ancestors were Indigenous to what is now central Mexico, as well as Canada, settlers from Southern Europe — I feel like it’s important, at least to say, you know, as a visitor to this space, whose land I’m on. Yeah, and I think I’ll pause for now and pass to Kai, just in the interest of time, and we can get into more stuff about land acknowledgments and who we are and all that hopefully soon. Pass.
Kai Rajala:All right, thank you E. I’m Kai, they pronouns. I am joining you from Kanienʼkehá꞉kaland, colloquially known as Montreal, also referred to by many as the island of Osheaga. I am originally from unceded Coast Salish territory, in what is commonly known as Vancouver, British Columbia. I met E and Scott at a conference in Asheville a few years ago and I’m happy to still be collaborating with them on this project. I’m a bit of the anti–academic, though I did do a BA in French language and studied with Glen Coulthard at the University of British Columbia in the Indigenous Studies Department. So a lot of my work is very referential to Glen’s work. Yeah, and we’ll talk more about the project.
E: I like that name drop, very jealous of that connection.
K: *laughs* I mean, it’s there, right? So name it.
SB: So we started working together, cuz we had overlapping interests in terms of working on like utopian vision within radical — particularly anarchist,social movement organizing — and the way that utopian ideas are entangled with colonial and settler colonial visions. So we had all done our own sort of work and were trying to figure out how we could collaborate on a larger potential book project, and this, so today is going to be one sort of installation of that ongoing project that we’re building. And we’ve each prepared like a little bit of where we’re coming from, to read. We also talked a little bit, before we open the session, we’re talking about land acknowledgments and I just wanted to also add that like, we’re in a university setting, and part of the stuff that we’re talking about is how the implications of settler colonialism get invisiblized and many of the institutions that we are working within are, you know, have profited off the theft of land grant institutions. We were talking about that a little bit, rightbefore, and land acknowledgments have been used even by these institutions as a way to kind of show some kind of like, performative solidarity that has nothing to do with, like, any material follow up, right? So like, it’s a thing that gets used but it’s also we thought worth acknowledging, you know, that we are not Indigenous to the land that we’re speaking from.
K: So I think what’s interesting to note is our project and actually start out as anything really queer related, we’re all queer, and for the purpose of this conference we decided to shape what we’re working on to fit kind of the lens of Queer Studies and, you know, queer experience. It actually started with a few things. I ran into E and Scott in Atlanta at an anarchist conference two years ago and then that’s kind of where this conversation really began, the ball started rolling. But one of the things that started with was a critique of sustainability politics and the kind of sustainability movement, which I think is like this liberal, kind of like nonviolent politic, which refuses to surrender settler agency or control over territories, and insteadit’s kind of focusing on preserving settlement and attempting to reduce the ecological imprint that the settler State has on the planet. And so you know, it’s kind of naively asking like, “how can we delicately tap the earth of its resources? How can we like politely remove indigenous people from their land? And you know, if the current practice of capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession are destroying the waters? Like, how can we make the colony sustainable?” It started with that. And we’re also looking at ways in which as Scott was mentioning, in the beginning, more radical parts of our settler movements are actually reinforcing the settler state and the colony, and queerness.
EO: My starting point is usually from fiction. You know, I sort of blend maybe some of the more science and climate change stuff that Kai was just talking about, but with like, you know, a science fiction lens, and how like apocalypse, and climate change, and dystopia and utopia show up in speculative. And so that’s sort of my general subject area or interest. But yeah, I will explain shortly, I definitely made it queer for this. But I think generally, kind of radical politics, the whole, and how it takes up a lot of these narratives is what I’m concerned with.
So I’m definitely excited to work on this project. And I am excited to hear also people’s responses or questions as we’re sort of shaping this larger project we’re working on, we would like to make it some sort of tangible thing, a book or whatever out in the world. So feedback is very much encouraged throughout this, so that we can sort of be in conversation and not just like talking or writing at people. I really, very much want to welcome like, yeah, conversation.
SB: Yeah, even maybe inviting, like, collaborators too. Because like, another thing that we’re trying to do is envision projects that aren’t like single author ownership based. So but I guess let’s go into the reading of our prepared statements, and then go into the discussion so we have more time to unpack those things. So I’m going to start out with grounding in in the kind of like, questions about queer movements. I’m going to start reading.
Today’s radical queers are stuck in terms of figuring out how to inherit the legacy of gay liberation over against the more recent legacy of gay rights or assimilation. And I think that this dialectic between liberation and assimilation is a little bit misleading. And from like, retrospect, we can see the cooptation is like the goal. I mean, that’s a kind of pessimistic narrative, but it’s the thing that keeps happening. Often, this stuckness produces a nostaligia for the time of general militancy and rebellion across different groups experiencing domination, a time that ultimately splintered through hierarchy, liberal identitarianism, counterinsurgency, murder, incarceration and incorporation into the dying liberal bourgeois state.
And yet, today we see a proliferation what at least previously were deviant genders and sexualities, especially among younger people, while acknowledging an easier terrain for older people to come out and a culture that replays images of queer criminality, liberationist slogans, and apparent subscription to the radical claims of those movements. And when I said like a “dying bourgeois state”, I don’t mean that in like a good way, because something worse might be coming, right? Um, some kind of neofeudalism or whatever.
Theoretically, a major issue in inheriting this legacy of queer liberation or gay liberation has been how to deal with a liberationist ideology that sees queerness, or more precisely, homosexuality, or even more precisely sex between men, as somehow inherently revolutionary, spelling the eventual doom of cis-hetero patriarchy and racial capitalism. Like if men fuck each other than the world will fall apart. If only for the reason that that efflorescence of public queerness via the movements didn’t actually produce this liberation right — that didn’t happen — but instead various backlashes on public sex and cross class contact over against recognitions of certain rites, we might discard the idea that queerness is radical. Of course, we still would have to contend with the way that HIV AIDS forced gay movements to combat the state and scientific communities for the very lives of those who are dying. But I think we can also get to the understanding of the limits of gay liberation theoretically, simply in the idea of the homosexual.
One version of this is the transgressive or even criminal, that category tends to rely upon the normative for its power. So it can always be absorbed. And this has been talked about by like, lots of people like Bataille or Judith Butler. For us, this absorption has already taken place, because gay now means a specific consumer niche.
Another version of this like paradox inherent in gayness is articulated in the early days of so called queer theory by Eve Sedgwick in her reading of Billy Budd, as what she called “the crucial question of a potentially utopian politics”. And this is what she asks, “Is men’s desire for other men the great preservative of the masculinist hierarchies of Western culture, or is it among the most potent threats against them?” I’ve been, like, sitting with this question for a really long time. For Sedgwick, this ambivalence is tied up with a “definitional incoherence” — that’s what she calls it — that plagues modern attempts to classify homosexuality. Is it a minority group, an identifiable class of person, or is it a universalizing tendency that represents a possibility across classes and types and also, like, nations?
The modern gay rights movement has strategically employed the minoritarian response in a bid for recognition and incorporation, and therebyhas left behind some of the more destructive and dangerous impulses of gay liberation — like the movement — which often call for general homosexual realization of culture, or transgendering everyone, so that society, like a capitalist society, and all its norms of oppression would be destroyed.
Sedgwick certainly looked fondly on the liberationist tendencies, but overallshe operated within the typically academic Foucaultian framework that came to displace ideas of liberation, especially in Anglo queer theory. This framework sees the invention of homosexuality as a modern phenomenon occurring through the biopolitical intersection of criminal, medical and even literary discourse. The theoretical approach that is dominant, then, sticks to incoherence in homosexuality and this paradox without deciding to resolve it towards liberation, right, like it doesn’t take an ethical stance often.
Now I’ve been really, like, this new recently released book by Christopher Chitty, Sexual Hegemony — it was a posthumously edited volume by a friend Max Fox —has really been reframing some of the ways I think I’m thinking about this. Chitty supplies Foucault’s discursive production of homosexuality with a class analysis of various nodal points of capitalist development. Ultimately, Chitty shows another picture of the ambivalence of same sex practices and communities with the practice could signal both the potential of proletarian unrest, and also the punishment that enforce social norms across classes on top of the oppressive economic and material conditions, creating the condition for the possibility for these sexual cultures to blossom in the first place.
The biggest threat overall tended to be seen in public sex, which reinterpreted urban space outside of bourgeois hegemony, and created cross class connections which threaten the state. In this way, the policing of sodomy, according to Chitty, gets looped in with criminalizing vagrancy and sex work. So these categories all kind of go together. Chitty’s work reinscribes the political ambivalence of queerness for it’s no longer that homosexuality is simply a threat to hegemony but actually plays a role in statecraft and state consolidation, and historicall. Chitty offers a different definition of queer, and I’m quoting now, “as a social category queer would then describe the morbid cultural forms by which the normative logics of gender and sexuality become irreparably damaged, desperately reasserted and perversely renaturalized within a generalized social crisis, rather than marketing some utopian release from these logics in the pursuit of self transformative play”. So this kind of, again, is a way of getting rid of the utopian possibilities inherent and queerness. What remains of the liberationist drive was ultimately tied into a liberal bourgeois idea of identity subject to it in progress. The modern queer identity that we have today is just as much a product of bourgeois ideology, despite its intermittent threat to social order, or its intermittent use as a targeted police force, which then creates a community under siege and looking for reprieve.
Not only is it a product of capitalism, but also colonialism, as colonial outposts historically did and still do provide areas of sexual license for bourgeois European American men. And similarly, the experience of settlers in the US on the frontier were propitious for same sex encounters and love between men, but that was inextricably bound with a project of removal, replacement, genocide, and settler colonialism.
One of the things that Chitty brings up that I think is worth further developing, that doesn’t get developed in the book, is that we could boil down all the contradictions of homosexuality as well as heterosexuality to questions of consent and the deployment of power. Along with the extraction, displacement and erasure of different life ways and colonized lands, the European proletarian cultures of sex and even sexual identity were eventually displaced by a bourgeois homosexual identity that’s still overdetermines our understanding of sexuality today. And the theory and science that this gay identity produced also created an industry of history and knowledge that tried to trace the universal aspects of same sex love and gender deviation across times and cultures. These gay myths and origin stories could mine colonized and genocided cultures for proof of the biological minoritarian naturalness of gayness or transness, while not analyzing the power dynamics that produce this Eurocentric gaze on other ways of doing sex and gender outside of bourgeois sexual hegemony.
And so, like, you know, in the 19th century anthropological discourse there is this like fascination with the berdache as, like, a third gender and that idea that some people claim for a kind of naturalness of trans identity that we see in our modern, like, settler colonial state is, like, coopting, appropriating and also misunderstanding something, and it is all part of the process of the kind of binary gendering of colonization.
If we follow the association of homosexuality with nodes of capital development and crisis, then we can’t collapse these other cultural life forms into something that we know in the same way, except as appropriation, extraction, colonization, erasure. In the end, it turns out that the good part — I’m arguing — that the good parts of gay liberation, I mean, besides the pleasure of cruising, of public sex and creating possibilities of contact, were in fact versions of militant anticapitalism, antiracism, and decolonialism. The gay identity that ultimately won recognition and military inclusion and marriage rights reworks the utopian lines of liberatory thought into a utopia of identity, which is ultimately a white utopia purchasable by certain norms. And this function also largely minimizes and forgets the ongoing HIV AIDS crisis worldwide.
For example, we have queer conferences at universities and support for queer students and perhaps visibly queer professors, but that hasn’t changed the institution itself, which trades in an empty promise of upward mobility for life of debt peonage, not to mention its entanglement in the legacy of chattel slavery and the ongoing project of settler colonialism. The joke is that this respectability politics came at the same time with a deeper crisis in capitalism and so arguably queerness itself is an artifact that we might want to discard. For it’s perhaps nothing but a scrap of meat thrown to another marginalized group to get them to consent to being ruled. So one thing that, again, going back toChitty, he deflates the utopian impulses and gay liberation and rights using Benedict Anderson’s concept of an imagined community to describe this universalizing attempt at, like, global solidarity. Not to resist state violence but to gain recognition. But this queer imagined communities only imaginable through coordinates of a bourgeois him to hegemony of interiority, subjectivity and identity. If gayness is an identity is already colonized, and colonizing, whitewashed and recoupable.
Early gay liberation thinkers like Guy Hocquenghem, someone I work on, were committed to a decolonial, feminist, anti racist, anti capitalist division of liberation. And they said this even at the beginning of the gay liberation movement Hocquenghem pronounce the end of gay liberation within a year or two of the opening of the of the movement and his involvement in the Frente Homosexual de Acción Revolucionaire, not just because the gay liberation movement was splintering along lines of misogyny and moralism. Hocquenghem demanded that as soon as homosexuality was one it has to be given up or else you just serve the purpose of being a token fag or professional revolutionary. In this spirit, I want to point to a different way of thinking of the possibilities of radical queerness liberation and utopia that don’t work through erasure of settlement, terra nullius, or liberal forms of identity and sameness.
I’m influenced by theories developed from study of anarchism, abolition, Indigenous knowledge and Black radical tradition, and ideas like fugitivity flight, the undercommons and marronage. But as a settler, as a white person, my position has to be taken up critically, dispossessed settlers, as well as arrivants on the American continents have long sought ways to escape the dominant forms of colonial identity, the demands and allegiances that became codified as race, gender and sexuality. In fact, these notifications often happen from on high in order to root out cross class, cross race, same sex affiliations that could never fully be controlled by criminalization. And yet the legacies of these laws have become written on our bodies, and the discipline runs the gamut from parental pressure to police murder, or perpetual incarceration.
I’m gonna skip over this, but I was talking about like the ways that sort of racial codes came through controlling sex and reproduction. And also through these complex alliances between people who were keen to be defined as Black and white settlers against Indigenous populations. All these things are densely complex, and they have different relationships with eventual strategies of state formation, through parceling up of identities and accumulation, extraction and dispossession. But another side that we could think of through queer history of like escape, and maroons is thinking about how these histories are modeled counter hegemonic, counter institutional, counter powers and the fissures of capitalism’s ever constant crises. These histories that don’t often get told or those of communities who lived in uninhabitable places which, by which I mean like undeveloped, or undevelopable, often across racial lines. And these histories aren’t utopian, they can’t serve as a salvific function of escape for white queers. Instead, they point to the alternative and living organizations that still happen today outside of the nation state across identity markers that could be continued in explicitly decolonial struggle. To join that struggle white queers would have to put their own status on the line, no longer to help to clear the land but to give possession up, along with queerness too and identityas we understand it. The whole reason queer liberation has ceased to be a problem is that is no longer generally a threat to the bourgeois status to be gay.
Or on the flip side, the relative sexual freedom that has become hegemonic is coincident with a crisis in capitalism and the dissolution of the bourgeoisie as a moral enforcer, may be on the way to this new neofeudalism. And yet here we all are, every one of us imperiled in our attempts to survive in the system that exists. And that identity is packaged as race, gender, sexuality and class marks certain populations out for easy disposability.
So just to kind of sum up, settlers have to give up queerness along with whiteness to reenvision the relation to the land, we have to give up utopia both in our identities and in our methods, since it is a concept steeped in the processes of racialization, settler colonialism, the production of the human through genocide and enslavement. Our relation to the land can’t romanticize past life ways and must promote self determination and some sort of coexistence outside of the hegemony of European knowledge production. So my question to like, go into the discussion, and I’ll reiterate it when we do that is whether there’s a need for queer liberation movement right now? And if so, why would it be called that and not something else?
EO: Thanks so much, Scott. I’m going to pick up some of what Scott brings up at the end there and expand on it in my remarks. And yeah, I also have some questions and things I’d love to discuss. But again, I’d love to hear other folks thoughts. So I’m going to give some, like, definitions just to start us off in a place, so we’re all kind of on the same page, starting with settler colonialism. So Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice defines settler colonialism as quote “distinguished from the more traditional ideas of colonialism, wherein invaders claim resourcesbut then return home. By emphasizing the settler population to creation of a new social order, that depends in part on the ongoing oppression and displacement of Indigenous peoples” end quote. So this is what Patrick Wolfe also calls the elimination of the native.
This oppression, displacement, and elimination is always ongoing. It’s not just a one time thing, it’s continually happening even now, and it’s always gendered and sexualized. So that is to say, settlers, demonize, punish and violate Indigenous peoples along the lines of gender and sexuality, and simultaneously, settlers seek to replace diverse native views, practices, identities, lifeways, with a homogenous, Western, cis-hetero patriarchal system that ensures the future of a white settler population. So my main challenge, our main challenge here, and this is for radical queers to rethink the kinds of futures we try to include ourselves in, and how our liberatory work can suddenly replay exclusion and erasure. So specifically, I’m going to grapple with the questions: how does utopianism show up in radical queer and feminist discourse? How does this perpetuate the settler colonial imperative of terra nullius, erasure, genocide, etc, through utopian ideals? And how do radical queer politics romanticize Indigenous knowledge and modes of living to motivate utopia? And then I’m going to end with a question sort of everybody, what other forms of futurity and speculation resist the settler colonial imperatives of a terra nullius utopia?
So one of the obvious examples of utopian thinking is the sort of assimilative drive within mainstream liberal LGBT movements and cultural productions, sort of this desire for acceptance, the promise of protection and homo normative procreative future that is the ability to keep living, but within the dictate of the US nation state. So borrowing from Jasbir Puar’s term “homonationalism”, which indicates that certain queer bodies — often read as white and white passing — are reconstituted as worthy of recognition and protection. Scott Lauria Morgenson says that “settler homonationalism is the product of the sexual colonization of Indigenous peoples insofar as queer subject hood and queer pride becomes tied to a sense of modernity, rather than a “primitive” quote unquote “Indigeneity” and indebtedness to a supposedly progressive nation. With this normative gay pride perhaps best visualized by “love is love” yard signs rainbow striped us flags, and Rue Pall singing “I am an American just like you too”, is easily dismissed by more radical queer activists. Or is it?
With the recent rise of media such as the Brown sisters podcast “How to Survive the End of the World” as well as Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff’s edited collection The Feminist Utopid Project: 57 Visions a Wildly Better Future, there’s been a noticeable uptake and interest on the left in the construction of a wildly better future, in spite of a supposedly impending end of the world. I’d like to challenge the radical queer feminist urges to create these utopian visions of a society based on the apocalyptic crumbling of the present. A radical queer politics that relies on unquestioned utopian and dystopian visions, risks aligning itself with a settler colonial imaginary of terra nullius, or blank slate space.
So on the one hand, dystopian and apocalyptic visions perpetuate the unquestioned assumption that a societal collapse is impending, right? As if the continual degradation of human and more than human communities has not already arrived. So in an article on science, and science fiction narratives of Indigeneity and climate change, Pottawatomie scholar Kyle White reminds us that quote, “the hardships many non-Indigenous people dread most of the climate crisis are ones that Indigenous peoples have already endured, due to different forms of colonialism. Such as ecosystem collapse, species loss, economic crash, drastic relocation and cultural disintegration” end quote. This critique could certainly be extended beyond the climate crisis to other hardships that Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, also known as North America, have endured, such as the continued murder or disappearance, dispossession, removal, forced assimilation under resourcing, and what elsewhere I have called “phenomenological ignorance”.
So when I hear fellow radical queer activists and scholars lamenting the current social, political and meteorological conditions were weathering, who balk that this is anything new, let alone impending. To accept that it is, I think, would be to erase the experiences of my and many others Indigenous ancestors. Particularly dangerous in this assumption is the kind of crisis rhetoric that fosters opportunities for settler colonial sentiments of insecurity, and in the face of this insecurity, assertions of belonging and sovereignty in land and lifeways. So I think Emily Potter succinctly summarizes this, quote, “the non-Indigenous fear of dispossession or exile manifests in the need to defend their jurisdiction over land” end quote. So this implicitly creeps into radical queer discourse when settler queers faced with very real contemporary issues, such as anti-Black legal and extra legal violence, neofascism, militarized policing, etc, attempt to construct autonomous or occupied zones, buy up land, houses and property, some kind of, you know, maybe manifestation of radical prepping, or in other ways individualize and privatized their survival. So Additionally, painting disruptive phenomenon as “apocalypses” belies the human made, in fact, settler made, emergence of these crises.
April Ansan, shows how quote “settler apocalypticism” end quote, obscures colonialism, and its attendant, disaster capitalism, as the true culprit of quote “racial and environmental contraction.” end quote. Therefore, if settler queers insist on using the language of dystopia and apocalypse, they also work to veil their own complicity in these processes. So one apparent amelioration to this could be found in the call for radical queers to quote, “learn from Indigenous peoples”. But this could also easily fall into a trap of what Jean O’Brian calls lasting, or the idea that Indigenous peoples are the last of a nearly decimated group, whose wisdom belongs to bygone eras, yet can still help settlers avoid their own potential extinction. This assumes that to return to Kyle White, quote, “Indigenous peoples are communities who primarily reside in the Holocene, and over time have been gradually deteriorating to the point that the plight of the modern era threatened to kill them off permanently” end quote.
So instead, right, so I would ask radical queer, non-Indigenous accomplices to see Indigenous peoples as of this time, and not monolithic, right? And not to covet these knowledges. And then in thinking about our utopias, rather than dystopias, I do worry that that sort of notion of the future as this mysterious open space and having this sort of as yet to be realized, or as yet to be colonizedquality, creates then another terra nullius space.
To be forever looking towards this horizon, as the space of resistance as a space of resistance like finally realized, and safety finally secured for queer and trans people, I think, one: makes it seem like we can’t create this in the present and that many Indigenous and other queer, trans, two-spirit folks aren’t already creating this in the present. And two: I think this reinscribes yet another, “other”, quote unquote, space that is not yet “ours”, and also ours is in quotes. But it will be one day, right? We can colonize it, we can be there one day, we can claim that one day. Hence mirroring the settler colonial imperative of elimination replacement and what E. Tuck and K. Wayne Yang tell us is the intention of making a new home on the land, homemaking, insists on settler sovereignty over all things in their new domain. This would be the domain of the future utopia. So this discounts the ongoing presence of Indigenous alternatives to the current settler colonial dystopian reality, and instead preserves a view of geographic and social space as blank and ready to be improved with a new model. Again, here we have a problem of erasure, of the oppressions and resistances that have been ongoing in different durations in favor of the blank space of the utopian frontier.
In other words, radical queer politics romanticizes Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies to create a future utopia for themselves, and potentially “altruistically” quote, unquote, for others. I therefore argue against any linear progression of societal environmental collapse, which then promises to bring about this future idealized world of rainbow diverse identities. Instead, I propose — I think we propose together — ways for radical politics, particularly those espoused by non-Indigenous people, to disavow such settler colonial mindsets. And then again, to end, I’ll reiterate this later, I opened with the question to everyone “what other forms of futurity and speculation might be imagined that resists the settler colonial imperatives of terra nullius”?
KR:Thanks E, I guess it’s me. Okay, so I’m going to begin by positioning today’s discussion within the larger body of my work, thinking and research. I’m currently interested as a mixed European white settler predominantly of Finnish descent in the ways in which Finnish immigrants have contributed to the expansion of the Canadian project of settler colonial occupation. Finns traditionally settled in Thunder Bay, Ontario in Canada, elsewhere around the Great Lakes in the United States and the Midwest, including Minnesota and Michigan, and are revered amongst leftist historians as being important to the labor movement in Canada. This contribution was not only through the overt methods of settling and primitive accumulation, which included work as loggers clearing land for settlement, and as pioneer homesteaders, but also his workers involved in union organizing.
Written above the Finnish labor temple in Thunder Bay, Ontario is the Latin phrase “Labor Omnia Vincit”, which translates to “hard work conquers all”. This can be read many ways, namely, that if one works hard upon arriving in these lands, one will be promised the bounty of the Canadian dream, property ownership and middle class prosperity. But the word “conquer” is perhaps the most important part, and interpreted through a lens that challenges settler colonialism, really hones in on the role of the Finnish worker in the nation building, as being the soldier of conquest able to tame the wild Canadian frontier. Finns and also Russians would attempt to establish utopian colonies on the west coast of Canada, which included Finnish Slough in Richmond BC and Sointula Village on Malcolm Island.
So, right, there’s this anti-Indigenous idea of terra nullius, which the three of us are bringing up, that this land is somehow empty and it is not already utopic or to European standards, it is empty and needs to be transformed. This research — namely how ethno cultural utopian and socialist settler movements were important in the construction of the settler political imaginary and essential to the structure of the Canadian settler state — will represent the bulk of my contribution to our ongoing collaboration, which we hope to turn into a book project titled No Blank Slates.
In the realm of queerness, and settler colonialism much of my research and writing for the past few years has been on the history of the so called gay liberation movement in Canada. The ways in which it has differed from that of the United States and how gay and lesbian settlers and their pursuit of rights throughout the later half of the 20th century helped to strengthen both the image and the political power of Canada as a supposedly inclusive, multicultural and progressive nation state. In the 1960s, there was a pivot in both the direction of settler governance and the modes of control over Indigenous nations. Canada’s natural governing parties, the Liberals, under the leadership of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who many of you will recognize as Justin Trudeau’s father, was promoting the idea of a just society, which sought to incorporate those once outside the Canadian body politic. And here I quote “the just society will be one in which the rights of minorities will be safe from the whims of intolerant majorities. The just society will be one in which our Indian and Innuit populations will be encouraged to assume the full rights of citizenship through policies, which will give them both greater responsibility for their own future, and more meaningful equality of opportunity.”
Aspects of this strategy were to be achieved through the criminal law Amendment Act Bill C 150, which drew inspiration from the criminal lawcode reforms going on at the same time in England, as well as the proposed 1969 white paper. During their transformative era of the 1960s Canadian government actors were retiring the overtly genocidal tactics of segregation, starvation and eradication that their predecessors had employed against Indigenous peoples, opting instead for more covert ways of dealing with sovereignty claims, by way of legislation, which would effectively attempt to trade title to land for Canadian citizenship. The white paper introduced by Pierre Trudeau government and then Minister of Indian Affairs John Chrétien sought to eliminate Aboriginal title and treaty to lands by abolishing the Indian act as it stood, and to assimilate Indigenous people into Canadian society, but was ultimately rejected through the organizing of Indigenous leaders and activists.
Settler colonialism is not only a social and psychological project, however, it operates primarily in a material way relying on access to land and resources in order to continue the process of capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession. Indigenous nations stood in the way of Canada’s access to land. The growing Red Power movement was not one of identity, but instead centered on self determination, and was a result of Indigenous peoples refusal of the insulting tactics of Trudeau government and the Canadian state.
At the same time, the Canadian gay liberation movement emerged as a response to 1969s Criminal Law Amendment Act, which effectively decriminalized aspects of homosexual sex between consenting adults in private. Queers demanded increased rights and accommodation from the state, encouraged by the Stonewall riots in the United States, and by the olive branch Canada had extended with its progressive reforms. At this historical moment, there was certainly room for radical potential of settlers and Indigenous people uniting against the assimilatory actions that Pierre Trudeau’s government attempted to enact towards each group, but no coalition materialized.
For upwardly mobile gays and lesbian settlers, those that desired recognition from the state and representation amongst the high ranks of its governance structure, the Canadian state becomes a utopic vision. The incorporation of productive white homosexual men into the folds of nationhood — which began with reforms to the criminal law code — was a decision that ensured the Canadian state could expand the viability of its capitalist economy, and maintain its assumed authority and legitimacy in the minds of those it subjugates. It is also something that of course necessitates private property. As Jasbir Puar reminds us settler colonialism has a long history of articulating its violence through the protection of serviceable figures, such as women and children and now the homosexual. In this historical process, so called gay liberation, presumably from hetero patriarchal norms, transmutes into gay assimilation into the nation’s body politic. White homosexual men were, in fact, so eager to penetrate into Canada’s body politic, that they named the first Canadian gay periodical, The Body Politic after it.
What was lost in this moment of assimilation was the radical potential of a combined movement — between those organizing around gay liberation and gay rights — with the burgeoning Red Power movement at the time. While the gay movement in Canada throughout the later half of the 20th century shifted their focus to the pursuit of rights and recognition from the settler state, Indigenous people, for the most part, continue to refuse Canada’s attempts at assimilation, and instead to reaffirm their rights and titles to land which had not yet been seated. The 21st century saw a new marriage of sorts between queers and the Canadian colonial project. For queer settlers the promise of recognition in the eyes of the progressive state did not end with the passing of the Civil Marriage Act in 2005.
In the US that followed Justin Trudeau’s election assimilationist gays, lesbians and transgender settlers, who already desired upward mobility within the capitalist order were offered even more fruits from the state. In his role as Prime Minister, Trudeau marched with his family at the head of a slew of pride celebrations, from 2016 to 2019, emphasizing the importance of family values. In response to the violent repression that queers had endured at the hands of Canadian policing, Trudeau performed a very public and very emotional apology. In March of 2019, when President Donald Trump moved to ban transgender troops from the US military, the Canadian Armed Forces, the CAF, overhauled its existing policy to extend an arm and welcome Canadians of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Like the US military under Barack Obama’s presidency, the revised policy incentivize transgender Canadians to enlist in the army, offering support services for those who wish to medically transition as well as insisting that the CAF would create an environment where transgender members were free from harassment and discrimination. This served to only widen the Gulf that existed between those fighting for self determination in Canada and gay, lesbian and transgender settlers.
And again, though we can only speculate on the radical potential the combined forces of gay liberation and the Red Power movement as they emerge simultaneously in the 1960s and 70s Canada, a queer anticolonialism exists today amongst the queer, trans and two-spirit youth on the frontlines of resistance against the Canadian state. The current generation is leading the Shutdown Canada and Land Back movements, as well as the efforts to abolish the Canadian colonial police force the Royal Canadian Mountain Police, RCMP, and defund municipal police bodies in major Canadian cities. A radical political analysis rooted in a necessity for Indigenous sovereignty has been growing momentum as radical, queer and anarchist organizers continue to learn alongside and build relationships of solidarity with Indigenous peoples and nations. As Canada moves to secure land for resource extraction amidst a global pandemic, and pacify conversations around repatriation and abolishing the police, all settlers, but especially queers, must commit to pushing back against their own government structure, which will continue to erase voices of resistance and mount its own narrative of the benevolence.
In his book Red Skin White Mask, Glen Coultard applies the theoretical concept of the politics of recognition to post 1969 Canadian society. Expanding upon Franz Fanon ideas surrounding the shift from the overt violence of colonial control, over colonized subjects, towards recognition and accommodation as a form of state management. Coulthard concludes that because rights and permissions are distributed by the state, the cycle of colonization continues and the rights must be rejected. He extends the strategy of rejecting state management to “other subaltern groups, not just the colonized” and which is a quote, which would include the working class, people of color and gender and sexual minorities. Because the Canadian state privileges the treatment of respectable and middle class gay, lesbian and transgender settlers at the expense of Indigenous people, it makes sense for queers to turn this recognition and accommodation provided by Canada on its head.
Theoretically speaking, this extension of Coulthards call to reject recognition and the gifts of the settler stateby marginalized groups other than Indigenous people has not yet been taken up. The project of queer refusal of the settler colonial project is not an ideological attainment or position, but instead an ongoing commitment to the disruption of settlement and the economies which sustain it. Radical queer settlers who choose to align ourselves with Indigenous peoples and nations whose land we continue to occupy, and whose stolen wealth we continue to benefit from must start by refusing the recognition and the gifts that the nation state offers us, as well as actively disrupting the ways in which our identities are used to advance Canada’s myth of progress. Armed with the lessons of the past, we must help to enact decolonization in its fullest, most literal sense, moving beyond the perfunctory gestures of acknowledgement, and towards outcomes that are material.
This project is one that destabilizes queer utopian ideals and settler agency in imagining alternatives to capitalism and colonial governance, and instead centers the repatriation of lands and the reclamation of laws, Indigenous governance structures, and Indigenous economies that have been suppressed. It is a commitment to action and relationship building, to solidarity and learning.
A few weeks ago in a talk given at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, Susan Stryker signaled that in a post–Trump era, Biden certainly embraced liberal inclusive model of recognizing trans rights. She continued and emphasized that — and I’m paraphrasing here — the laws are not going to save us, the institutional power is not going to save us. We have to become a new body politic moving beyond the state. With the return to liberal inclusion politics in the US, I want to signal a potential area for collaborative prefiguration between radicals living in both nation states to challenge the ways in which both of these settler states weaponize queerness and building off of the proposal of Coulthard and in response to the remarks put forward by Stryker. I would also like to suggest the imperative task of taking up the project of queer refusal in a serious manner, and then instead of a new body politic, a disembodied politic of sorts that rejects the narrative of queer progress, and challenges the very nature of queer identity formation be pursued instead. The greatest threat to the settler state, then, should not be seen as the radical queers lifestyle or rejection of heterosexist society, and social and sexual reproductive norms, but the rejection of state power and capitalist accumulation.
So to end, the question that I had for the discussion is, where do we go from here? How do queer movements engage with the state? How do they build relationships with Indigenous movements? And one thing that I wanted to add is that some of these sites of refusal have already begun. In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Criminal Law code Reforms, Canada announced it would issue a commemorative dollar coin, quite literally a token of gay capitalism. Beyond mere pinkwashing, Trudeau was in more ways than one continuing this project of assimilation, the fabled construction of the “justice society” that his father had begun in the late 60s. And amongst several disruptions, myself and other queer activists and academics, gathered in Ottawa in March of 2019, for the Anti 69 conference — and that’s anti 1969 as in the Criminal Law Code Reforms, not anti 69 is in the sexual act *laughs* — to trouble the mythology of the Omnibus criminal code reform bill and to shed light on the Canadian states ongoing crimes on Indigenous people within Canada and abroad.
Social Justice and Struggle in Lebanon and Syria: Joey Ayoub and Leila Al-Shami
This week on The Final Straw we’re featuring a chat with Joey Ayoub and Leila Al-Shami. In this conversation, Joey tells us of some of the history of Lebanon, since the civil war that ended in 1990 and up to the current demonstrations against the clientelist warlords in power in that country. Intertwined with this, Leila speaks about the sparking of the resistance to Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, the tumult of the civil war, and the state of anti-authoritarian and social justice organizing and media work in that country. Then the two talk about the experience of countering disinformation, conspiracy thinking and poor solidarity in the so-called Left in the West and ways to combat ignorance.
This is another long conversation, covering a lot of the last 30 years in these two neighboring nations. The guests proposed speaking about the interrelations across that border because of the similarities, differences, and shared experiences between the two places. Lebanon has Syrian refugees, it was occupied by Syria until 2005. Both spaces share Palestinian refugees, experienced war with Israel, are politically influenced from Hezbollah, mostly speak Arabic and even the flames of the recent wildfires that ignited anti-regime sentiment in Lebanon last fall crossed the border between Lebanon and Syria. We hope to have future chats that play with borders in this way to explore ways we can bridge these borders in our understanding in hopes of increased solidarity.
Lebanese Protests of 2015 & 2019 [00:21:35 – 00:31:40]
Syrian Revolution to Civil War [00:31:40 – 00:41:34]
Current Social Justice Struggle in Syria [00:41:46 – 00:45:56]
Daesh / ISIS and Syrian Civil War [00:45:56 – 00:49:56]
Solidarity with Syrians in Lebanese Protests [00:49:56 – 01:05:38]
Leila on Tahrir-ICN [01:05:50 – 01:09:18]
Educating Ourselves on Syria and Lebanon [01:09:18 – 01:23:07]
White Helmets and other Conspiracy Theories [01:23:07 – 01:32:59]
Syrian Diaspora and Western Left [01:32:59 – 01:37:19]
Rojava and the Syrian Revolution [01:37:19 – 01:41:56]
Better Practice in Solidarity with people in Syria and Lebanon [01:41:56 – 01:53:38]
Michael Kimble Benefit
Last week we announced a fundraiser for Michael Kimble. Because of issues with the platforms, the fundraiser for Michael Kimble’s legal benefit to help raise money for his fight to get him released from prison has been moved. Now you can find it at ActionNetwork.org/Fundraising/Support-Michael-Kimble . Because the fundraiser had to be moved a couple of times, some of the initial push to get word out and initial donations may be irreplaceable. So, folks are asking for an extra push to help rasie this money to get our comrade out and organizing on the outside after 33 years behind bars.
BADNews February 2020 (#31)
This month, the A-Radio Network released it’s monthly, international English-language podcast featuring voices from anarchist and anti-authoritarian radio shows, pirate stations and podcasts from around the world. The episode is up at A-Radio-Network.org by clicking the B(A)DNews. If you’re interested in joining the network or learning more, info’s up on that site.
Thank you both very much for taking the time to chat with me.
Leila al-Shami: Thank you.
Joey Ayoub: Thank you.
FS: I thought we could talk about anti-authoritarian aspects of popular movements against the regimes in both Lebanon and Syria and for new ways of living, and what solidarity can look like, within that region and from outside, with those popular anti-authoritarian movements. This is a really big conversation, and I’m very excited for the information that y’all are going to present.
First can y’all lay out a thumbnail of the post-colonial development in the respective countries—in Syria and Lebanon—including a bit about the interrelation between those neighboring countries, at least up until those anti-corruption and anti-authoritarian protests known as the Arab Spring?
JA: The primary thing to remember when it comes to the relationship between Syria and Lebanon is that historically they are the same region, “Greater Syria.” With regard to contemporary events, what’s important to understand from a Lebanese perspective is that the Syrian regime was one of two military occupiers of Lebanon—the other being Israel—between 1976 and 2005, when it was essentially forced out after a popular uprising.
Since then, the relationship between the two countries is extremely complicated, to say the least. On the one hand there is a major Lebanese political party that is active in supporting the Assad regime in Syria—I’m talking about Hezbollah. On the other hand, when we speak of Syrians in Lebanon we have to differentiate between the Syrian regime and Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees are effectively powerless and living in pretty bad conditions—I’m phrasing this lightly. It is really bad these days. They are often the victims of scapegoating by xenophobic sectarian parties that have played the same card against Palestinian refugees in the past—they are just using it against Syrian refugees today.
Any relationship is very complicated; there are historical links, but there are activist links as well. But other than that, the two countries are fairly separated due to this power dynamic.
LS: From my side, I think it’s important to understand how the Syrian regime, the current regime, came to power. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party came to power in 1963 through a military coup, and it was founded upon an ideology which incorporated elements of Arab nationalism and Arab socialism, both of which were witnessing popular resurgence in the wave of decolonization. Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970 through an internal coup within the Ba’ath Party. It was under him that the totalitarian police state was built, which repressed all political freedom. Any opposition or dissidents were dealt with very severely under Hafez al-Assad, and what became known as the ‘Kingdom of Silence’ was built. People were not able to express themselves politically.
Bashar inherited the dictatorship from his father in 2000, and when he came to power, Syrians were hoping for an opening—that they would have more rights and freedoms. But really he continued the policies of his father in terms of political repression, and the prisons were full of Muslim Brotherhood members, Kurdish opposition activists, leftist activists, and human rights activists. And there was also a very desperate socioeconomic situation: a wave of liberalization of the economy under Bashar which really consolidated the wealth in the hands of crony capitalists who were loyal to or related to the president, meanwhile subsidies and welfare that the poor relied on were dismantled.
It was these two factors, both the political repression and the very desperate socioeconomic situation, which led to the uprising which broke out in 2011—which of course arrived in the context of this transnational revolutionary wave that was sweeping the region.
FS: I think a lot of people in the West get confused with the term socialist in the expression of Ba’athists, and don’t have a specific understanding of what that term means in that instance. Can you break it down for those of us who are confused about what socialism refers to in terms of Ba’athism?
LS: The Ba’ath Party advocated socialist economics, but rejected the Marxist conception of class struggle. The Ba’ath believed that all classes among the Arabs were united in opposing capitalist domination by imperial powers, proposing that nations themselves, rather than social groups within and across nations, constituted the real subjects of struggle against domination.
So when they came to power, they pursued top-down socialist economic planning based on the Soviet model. They nationalized major industries, and engaged in large infrastructural modernization to contribute to this nation-state building enterprise: redistributing land, erasing the land-owning class, and improving rural conditions. It was these kinds of populist policies which brought the party a measure of cross-sectarian public support.
But at the same time, leftists were purged from the Ba’ath Party right at the beginning. Hafez al-Assad’s coup within the Ba’ath Party was against the leftwing faction. And later, all left opposition was either co-opted or crushed. Independent associations of workers, students, and producers were repressed, and para-statal organizations said to represent their interests emerged—a kind of corporatist model.
And like I said, under Bashar there was an increasing liberalization of the economy; it really moved away from any kind of socialist economic model towards a model which created a great deal of wealth disparity within the population.
FS: Joey, I wonder if you could set up how, after the civil war and occupation in Lebanon, power was distributed through the state structure there.
JA: It’s been thirty years since the end of the civil war. The postwar era, as we call it, started in 1990, when the civil war officially ended with the signing of the Taif agreement—Taif being the city in Saudi Arabia where they signed it. So it’s been almost exactly three decades since then.
The postwar era is defined by a number of things. The primary two components relevant to what is happening today are the format in which this so-called peace happened, and what happened after that. The format can be symbolized through an amnesty law that was passed in early 1991, which pardoned most crimes which were committed during the war—the only exception being the killing of other important people. If you had assassinated a prime minister or something like that, you might be exempted from the amnesty law. Other than that—if you were involved in kidnappings, enforced disappearances, torture, murder, all of these things—all of your crimes were wiped clean overnight.
Warlords who made their names during the war became the warlords who entered government in the nineties. They removed their military uniforms, put on their business suits, and became the government. The people we’re dealing with today for the most part are the exact same people who were the warlords during the civil war. The two very easy examples I can give are the current president, Michel Aoun, who was a warlord in the eighties, and the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, who was also a warlord in the eighties.
These people have each created clientelist networks—we call it wasta in Arabic—and the result is we don’t really have one state. We do in theory—but that state is subsumed within these sectarian networks.
The second thing that happened in the postwar era which is also important is what you might describe as actually-existing neoliberalism. There was a rabid form of capitalism, the “shock doctrine” scenario that Naomi Klein famously coined in her book, wherein all the ruins of the war were further demolished. The most symbolic example of that is downtown Beirut, which saw a lot of the violence. Large parts of it were completely demolished instead of being renovated and public spaces being made accessible again, and everything was privatized.
Fast forward three decades: what we’ve been seeing since October 17, 2019, this symbolic date when the current uprisings started, are attempts by a number of protesters to reclaim this public space that has been privatized, and to reclaim a sense of identity that transcends these sectarian limits which were implemented in the postwar era.
They were always there—they have been part of Lebanon’s de facto legal reality. Sectarianism is institutionalized. Political confessionalism is the official term for it. In the postwar era there have been quite a lot of protest movements trying to move beyond sectarianism, calling for some kind of secularism, some kind of trans-sectarian identity, with the knowledge that sectarianism isn’t just a social ill in itself (as in, it’s bad to be sectarian) but also understanding that sectarianism is used in a specific way in Lebanon that benefits those who are already at the top.
That’s a simplistic summary, of course, but that’s essentially what we’ve been seeing since October 17. And this time there is a momentum that is explicitly anti-sectarian, and an awareness that as soon as sectarianism wins, the movement immediately loses. There’s an extreme sensibility towards remaining anti-sectarian.
FS: Would you mind talking a little bit about how the clientelism and expectations of social infrastructure, and the lack of following through on these expectations, led to the October protests, and how clientelism stands in opposition to the idea of a social contract?
JA: It is very difficult in Lebanon to do anything unless you have the connections. Education, healthcare, basic services like electricity and water—people tend to rely on private networks for all these things. I went through a private education. Most people in Lebanon have to pay two electricity bills, one private and one public, because the public one is not 24/7. For water, technically you pay three different bills, because there’s public and private running water, and separately there is bottled water because the tap water is not potable. This is a small example of how the clientelism functions in Lebanon.
It really precedes the civil war, and going all the way into that would require a different kind of analysis which I’m not the most capable of giving. But what we saw in October—and in the months and years preceding October 17—was this lack of social contract becoming even more painful. Before then, there was always a way for a percentage of the population—I can’t even say for sure it’s a majority—to sort of get by. There was always a way to make ends meet, so to speak, one way or another. Living conditions were never extremely good, but they were decent enough for you to have an okay life. Especially, obviously, if you’re middle class. That has declined in the last decade or so.
The 2011 uprisings had an impact on Lebanon. Cutting off Syria economically from Lebanon impacted business locally. It also reduced significantly any kind of Gulf investment, which had been reliable up until 2011-12. That’s what has been breaking down slowly in the last decade, and that’s part of the spark that led to October 17, 2019. But that week, that same week, there were very bad wildfires that ravaged through the country and even reached parts of Syria; it was over forty-eight hours before they were fought off through a combination of luck—it started raining—and airplanes that were donated by foreign governments.
And just a day later, the government decided to impose a tax on WhatsApp calls, which are obviously free and used by virtually all Lebanese because actual phonecalls are so expensive due to the corruption and clientelism. That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
On the night of 17 October, the day the WhatsApp tax was proposed, people spontaneously went to Beirut, to Nabatiyeh in the south, to Tripoli in the north—people went out in cities across Lebanon. In the first couple of weeks, the momentum was so overwhelming. It was on all levels across all regions of Lebanon, with almost no exceptions, touching all socioeconomic classes (there were even protests where I live; this has never happened before), and there was a very explicit anti-sectarian component.
This is remarkable because sectarianism in Lebanon has created a reality where it is virtually impossible—in practice it just never happens—that if you are from a certain region and you’re just used to seeing people from a certain sect (with the exception of the big cities like Beirut), you don’t really know much about other parts of the country where a different sect has a majority. If you come from Mount Lebanon you don’t necessarily know much about the south or the north, unless you have family connections.
That’s been our reality for three decades. And nonetheless in the first month or so, it was very common to see people in Tripoli (the Sunni-majority city in the north) sending their solidarity to Nabatiyeh (the Shia-majority area in the south) and vice versa. In Jounieh (which is Christian majority) and Beirut (which is very mixed) and Mount Lebanon (which is Druze majority), there were always explicit statements of solidarity from one region to another, from one sect to another, saying, essentially: we have this thing that unites us beyond our sectarian allegiances.
The other extremely important component is summarized by the chant kelon ya’neh kelon, which means “All of them means all of them.” It’s very simple. Every single politician that has participated in this postwar status quo has to go. It’s a complete rejection of every single political leader of the postwar era, basically, whether they are currently in government or not.
That’s very important, because there have been a number of sectarian parties that were previously in the government and currently are less so—they still have MPs but they are not the ruling parties—that have been trying to ride the wave of the revolution by presenting themselves as opposition parties, trying to play with the binary that is the March 8 and March 14 movements.
What are these two? March 8 and March 14 are the names of two coalitions that were formed on those dates in 2005. Following the assassination of then-prime minister Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005, there were mass mobilizations on these two dates with different orientations towards the Syrian regime. On March 8 was the pro-Syrian regime protest, led by Hezbollah and Amal at the time. On March 14 was the anti-Syrian regime protest, led by the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces, the Phalangists, and the Progressive Socialist Party and other parties. Since then they have created a power-sharing agreement following the model of the postwar era, where it’s one coalition or the other that’s ruling, always fighting with each other but always finding more things in common than things that distinguish them—especially when there are independents trying to run against both of them, that’s when they close ranks.
Because the current government, for various reasons, is a March 8 government—Hezbollah, Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement—there are parties that were traditionally associated with March 14—the Future Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Lebanese Forces, and the Phalangists—that have been trying to place themselves in the position of opposition against the March 8-led government.
The protesters are rejecting that. No. All of them means all of them; you will not be able to ride the wave of the revolution. In five days it will be the four-month anniversary of these protests, and the momentum has changed, but it is still firmly anti-sectarian.
FS: Let’s turn and rejoin Leila in the chronology of how anti-corruption movements had been developing in Syria and then come back to anti-corruption in Lebanon. Leila, Joey had mentioned Syrian refugees being present and the way the forest fires crossed the border; these two countries have had a lot of interaction between each other. I’m wondering if you could talk about how the anti-corruption and reform movements and revolutionary movements of the Arab Spring effected and impacted Syria, with the Syrian revolution and subsequent civil war.
LS: People in Syria were generally quietly against the regime prior to 2000. The last major uprising had been at the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties, and started off as a broad-based movement against the regime but ended up becoming very dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood due to the severe repression of those who were participating in it. It culminated in the massacre of Hama, when thousands of people were killed and much of the old city of Hama was destroyed by Assad’s forces. In addition to that, thousands of people disappeared into regime detention; many of them were never seen again. This experience of such brutal repression had kept Syrians quiet since that time.
But when the Arab Spring, as it came to be known in the West, emerged in 2010-11, people in Syria were seeing what was happening in Egypt, what was happening in Tunisia, and the governments being brought down there, and they began to ask, “Why not us?” This gave people—a new generation that hadn’t directly experienced the repression that had occurred before—the strength to go out onto the streets and start demonstrating themselves. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, though, people in Syria didn’t go out into the streets calling for the fall of the regime, initially. What they were calling for was reforms: things like a multi-party system, the release of political prisoners, a free press.
These were demands which had been taken up in 2000 when Bashar first came to power, and people thought there was an opening for change. There was a small movement—it wasn’t a popular broad-based movement like we saw in 2011, but it was a movement among intellectuals and human rights activists that started to call for reforms when Bashar came to power. That movement, again, was severely repressed, and all hope for change under Bashar died at that point—until 2011, when what happened in Tunisia and Egypt really reignited the hopes of a new generation.
So they came out onto the streets calling for reform, but the brutality of the response by the state—which immediately began meeting peaceful, unarmed pro-democracy protesters with gunfire, massive waves of detention, and repression—radicalized the movement. It caused it to spread rapidly across the country, and it encouraged people to start calling for the fall of the regime and even for the execution of the president. It was the regime’s repression which really catalyzed the movement’s spreading and becoming a revolutionary movement.
I think it’s very important to recognize that when this happened in 2011, it was a broad-based, inclusive movement. It included many women from all different backgrounds, a diversity of Syria’s religious groups and ethnic groups, all united around the demands for freedom, for democracy, and for social justice. The social justice element is often not focused on very much in the West. But it was a large component of the revolutionary demands.
Many people went out on the streets and chanted against the crony capitalists who had amassed a great deal of wealth under the current regime. For example, Rami Makhlouf, who is Assad’s maternal cousin, was estimated prior to 2011 to control some sixty percent of the Syrian economy through his business interests—in real estate, mobile telephone companies, etcetera. There were large chants against him on the streets and against other crony capitalists.
There was a strong element of awareness and strong social and economic demands as part of the revolutionary movement, but those were not focused on very much in Western reporting.
FS: In your book Burning Country that you coauthored, y’all made a point of saying when people took up arms to defend themselves against the government, the inclusivity of the popular movement started to dissipate. That’s how I remember reading it, at least. Can you talk about what the integration of armed struggle into the movement against the government did to the dynamic of the revolution, and how it became a civil war?
LS: Taking up arms was a response to the massive repression by the state against peaceful protesters. At the beginning it was still inclusive—this wasn’t an organized military or army. This was people taking up weapons in their communities to defend their communities and their families from assault. People were being taken from their homes and detained; there was also a mass rape campaign carried out in oppositional communities by Assad-affiliated militias. So people took up arms to defend themselves in loosely-coordinated defense brigades.
By the summer of 2012, we started to see the Free Army label being used. Now, the Free Army was never really an organized army; it was never centrally controlled or centrally funded, although there were failed attempts to do so. It was an umbrella which different groups and different militias could come under with two main aims: one was the fall of the regime, to force Assad out of power, and the other was to see some kind of democratic transition take place. The people who signed up to the Free Army label were people who were united behind those aims.
But as time went by, the armed opposition became more and more fragmented, due to external pressures on them. They couldn’t get the weapons that they needed to really defend themselves and their communities from regime assaults. There were light weapons going in, but the anti-aircraft missiles which people desperately needed were not being provided. Aerial assaults were the main cause of destruction and main cause of death, and it was Assad who was controlling the skies—later alongside his Russian ally.
We also saw, around December 2013, an increasing Islamization among armed groups in Syria. The main reason for that was the failure of the democrats of the Free Army to attract funding and support from the Western states that they were reaching out to. Some brigades started Islamizing their rhetoric in order to attract support from Gulf donors specifically.
So there was an increasing Islamization of the opposition groups, and an increasing fragmentation of armed opposition groups. There were so many different armed brigades that were present at that time, and we see now that most of the armed groups operating in Syria do have an Islamist leaning and have eclipsed in strength the democrats of the Free Army.
But while there was this fragmentation of the armed opposition—which was due in large part to this competing struggle for weapons, competing struggles for military dominance and political dominance in areas they were controlling—there was also, in parallel, a continuing civil movement which was committed to the original goals of the revolutionary struggle and remained an inclusive and diverse movement.
FS: Fast-forwarding now into what has been nine years of one of the most deadly civil wars of the twenty-first century so far, I’m sure what a lot of people are experiencing on the ground in opposition areas at this point is simply a struggle for survival against this genocidal regime. But can you say anything about what exists, as far as you’re aware, of democratic movements for social justice in Syria?
LS: There are plenty of Syrians who are still committed to those ideals of the revolution, and there are plenty of Syrians working today within their communities trying to keep things functioning; plenty of civil society organizations that are continuing to do media work, continuing to assist the displaced, trying to keep hospitals functioning. But it has become a matter of survival, a struggle for survival. Today the main area which is outside Assad regime control, or still in the control of rebel groups, is Idlib. Idlib today is facing an absolutely relentless assault, a war of extermination against the civilian population there.
Since the assault on Idlib began in April 2019, over a million people have been displaced, nearly 700,000 since December alone—just gone. There have been massive attacks on civilian infrastructure; dozens of hospitals put out of action. People are fleeing for their lives. It’s very hard in such circumstances to talk about any kind of organized movement, because people are really just struggling to survive. People are fleeing outside of Idlib city or to the north of Idlib, and there’s no place left to go, no remaining safe haven for people. Many of these people had already been displaced multiple times, when their communities came under attack or were forced to surrender and recaptured by regime forces. And the borders are not open. The situation on the ground today in Syria is completely desperate.
In areas that have come back under regime control, whether we’re talking about Dera’a in the south or the Ghouta around Damascas, there have been massive waves of repression against the population who stayed. Anyone who is seen to have been in any way affiliated with the opposition has been arrested and detained. Young men have been rounded up and sent to the front lines to fight, basically on missions from which they are not going to return.
But we have also seen that resistance has continued. There have been waves of protests happening in Dera’a. Extremely courageous people in regime-controlled areas have still been protesting, calling for things like the release of prisoners, protesting against the desperate economic situation. Just in the last couple of weeks in Sweida, which is a Druze-majority area, people have been out on the streets protesting against a very desperate economic situation, protesting against the corruption they’re seeing.
In Dera’a, we’re seeing waves of assassinations against regime forces as well. So while the organized resistance movement and organized civil society has been very much crushed over recent months as the regime has taken control, we see that those desires for freedom, for justice, for this regime to end, have not gone away. And when others have a chance to organize, they’re still trying to organize—they’re very clear that they’re not going to accept this regime. There’s no life for people under this regime.
FS: This is a subject that I’m sure gets brought up a lot in conversations about Syria with Westerners, but it seems like the democratic social movement had a few different fronts on which they were being attacked, including with the uprising of Daesh as a movement across Iraq and Syria. In your experience, is Daesh still a threat against social movements, or has it been crushed, as it’s been presented in the Western media?
LS: Daesh hasn’t been crushed. There’s this idea that you can defeat an ideology militarily when the conditions that fed that ideology are still very preset, when the chaos which allows such extremist groups to thrive is still there. Daesh has certainly lost a lot of its organized power, but it has the ability to regroup and re-form—we’ve seen that in Iraq, and in attacks that have been carried out in Syria in recent months.
It’s not just Daesh which is a threat. If we look at Idlib—I said that Idlib was the main province still under rebel control. The group in control of a large part of Idlib is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly al-Nusra, which is a very extremist Islamist militia. They have repeatedly tried to wrest power away from the democratic opposition structures which were established in Idlib following the liberation from the regime, and have tried to impose their own extremely authoritarian religious strictures upon a population which overwhelmingly rejects them.
This is something which is not spoken about much in the West. People often say Idlib is an “al-Qaeda enclave” because this group HTS was formerly affiliated to al-Qaeda. What they’re overlooking is all the people protesting against the group. We’ve seen continuous demonstrations in Idlib, up until now, people calling for HTS to leave their communities and hand over power to democratic opposition structures.
So yes, Syrians have had a battle on two fronts. They’ve had a battle against this fascist tyrannical regime which is committing genocide against a population which demanded freedom, and a struggle against extremist Islamist groups such as Daesh and HTS and others.
The third battle, of course, has been against people in the West, often people who identify as being on the left, who have continuously slandered revolutionary Syrians, have equated revolutionary Syrians with groups like al-Qaeda, and have in fact thrown their support behind the Assad regime. Free Syrians have found that they have very few friends. But they retain their desire for freedom, and they continue to maintain that they are not going to accept one tyranny being followed by another.
FS: Joey, on an episode of the Arab Tyrant Manual from November 2019, you and another guest, Timour Azhari, were talking about calls for solidarity with the Syrian people that were coming up in the chants of Lebanese protesters, and I wonder if you, or both of you, could talk a little bit about solidarity against authoritarian structures across that border, between Lebanon and Syria, and between the popular mobilizations against sectarianism that you’ve seen.
JA: The anti-sectarian component of the protest movements in Lebanon essentially appeals to some kind of national identity. It’s one thing to have my religion as a Christian, as a Shia, as a Sunni, as a Druze, and that’s fine, but there should be something that unites us further than that—we’re all Lebanese. Of course that’s a double-edged sword: nationalism can unite people across sects within one nation-state, and it can also otherize people who are not Lebanese.
That’s a very common thing, and it’s a reality that anti-authoritarians, progressives, radicals, lefties, and others in Lebanon have to contend with: the overwhelming presence of xenophobia. Much of it was created during the civil war; the Syrian regime was an occupier, so many Lebanese, especially those of the older generation, equate Syrians with the Assad regime. This is very ironic and self-defeating, because obviously Syrian refugees in Lebanon are fleeing a conflict that was started by the Assad regime; there could have been opportunities for cooperation and unity. But what is happening is xenophobia and nationalism.
In the same way as in Hong Kong, where there is a segment of the population which is anti-China in the ethnic sense rather than being anti-Chinese-government, there is in Lebanon a segment of the protesters that is anti-Syrian, not just anti-Syrian regime. There are even Lebanese who oppose the Syrian regime, who oppose Hezbollah, who still share the same xenophobic, racist attitudes towards Syrian refugees.
And this power dynamic is worsened by the fact that the economic situation in Lebanon is already shit. It’s really bad. It creates the opportunity for scapegoating Syrian refugees, modeled after the scapegoating of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon since the Nakba: they faced this type of attitude, especially during the civil war because there was an armed Palestinian faction, but that’s a different story.
To try and counter that, there is a segment of Lebanese protesters, most notably the feminists, who are trying to create a movement that is more inclusive. They are openly intersectional and speak about class struggle, and about gender equality beyond the confines of citizenship—which is already very restrictive in Lebanon. You cannot become Lebanese other than by marrying a Lebanese citizen or inheriting it—and even then it is only passed on by a man. You can inherit citizenship if your father is Lebanese, but you cannot inherit it if only your mother is Lebanese. So there is a percentage of the population in Lebanon that are “not even Lebanese” but who are in fact Lebanese. What the progressives are saying is that if someone can be Lebanese and not Lebanese at the same time, we can also accept that there might be more than one way of being Lebanese. This is why I insist on calling myself Lebanese-Palestinian, to refuse to relinquish my grandfather’s identity. It’s not even considered something that can be a reality. You’re either one or the other, and that’s it.
Something being called a “revolution” or having revolutionary momentum does not automatically mean that everyone participating in that uprising has the best politics in the world. Even in Syria in 2011-12, there were conservatives who would take part in the protests. That’s completely normal. There’s more than one way of expressing opposition to illegitimate authority. If we’re talking about the Assad regime, there are multiple ways of opposing it. There are even Islamists who oppose the Assad regime. As a progressive who would not want to have an Islamist regime either, you still can’t automatically reject everyone who doesn’t share every single one of your politics. It’s complicated.
In Lebanon it’s complicated in different ways. In the beginning, there were sectarian people participating in the protests. There were members of Hezbollah, members of the Lebanese Forces, and members of other sectarian political parties among us. Even to this day, there still are, but to a lesser extent. They were in fact going against their own parties, without renouncing their parties. What happens in that space, within that momentum, is a sort of negotiation. Chanting kelon ya’neh kelon made lots of people uncomfortable. Calling out certain specific politicians by name made certain people uncomfortable. That alienated some people, whereas other stuck around. Some people were “converted.” Other people still participate without chanting these specific chants.
So there’s an ideal: kelon ya’neh kelon, anti-sectarianism, a vision of a fair society. And within that ideal, there are multiple ways of negotiating, because at the end of the day, if I want a society that is better than the current society, I have to face the contradictions of that society. Those contradictions, whether we’re talking about sectarianism, xenophobia, nationalism—all of these things exist everywhere in Lebanon. They exist within your own family, within your community networks. It is very difficult just to say, “Screw all of you, I am going to create something without all of you.”
FS: Leila, the reason I first heard your name besides Burning Country was in reference to Tahrir-ICN coming up in the 2010s. Can you talk a little bit about that project and what became of it, how it developed, and what impacts you saw it have?
LS: Tahrir-ICN was an attempt to address the issue of a lack of knowledge of anti-authoritarian struggles in the region, outside of it. A group of activists came together, myself included, with the idea to build this network among anti-authoritarian activists in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. It had two components to it. The first was an information-sharing platform, establishing a blog and social media accounts. The second was to build a physical network where we could work on practical actions and build solidarity together, sharing experiences.
The first aspect of it was quite successful. It started in 2012, just after the revolutions in the region broke out. Different collectives from across the region and in Europe started sharing information of what was happening in their country. This was a time when there were lots of uprisings across the region and also in Greece and in Spain: the Occupy movement, a lot of exciting things were happening. It didn’t have one vision. It was trying to learn from a wide variety of experiences and struggles loosely labeled anti-authoritarian. We had quite a wide readership for our blog, and I think it was very useful for people outside, in Europe or in America, to find out more about anti-authoritarian struggles in the Middle East and North Africa, and vice-versa..
The second aspect, building a physical network—we had a number of discussions about having an event to bring people together. There was certainly a lot of interest in that. But then the counterrevolutions broke out very strongly. People became very bogged down in what was happening in their countries. People started losing a lot of energy, and the network kind of fizzled out. I myself decided that I had to prioritize what was happening in Syria due to my connections with Syria. People got very caught up in their own stuff, and it kind of died out. But I think that for the time when it was operative, it provided a useful source of information to learn about each other and to see the wide variety of struggles that were occurring.
FS: For the sake of us staying informed and educated about what’s actually going on in this region of the world, can y’all talk about maybe some resources that we have, particularly in English, that we could be relying on to get a better grasp? And also maybe some resources that you think are trash and we should avoid? That would be very helpful.
LS: I would encourage people to look for resources which are produced by people who are living in or connected to the regions themselves. It’s very important to try to go to native sources where possible, to people who have a very real understanding of the issues because they’re directly affected by them. We’ve been very privileged that there is so much information available in English. There are so many activists who are very active on social media across the region who we can connect with on Twitter, on Facebook, who are telling their stories. From Syria, there are so many great independent media initiatives. There is Enab Baladi—Joey worked on producing a book of some of their texts—which was established by women in one of the main revolutionary towns known as Daraya. There were some amazing experiences of self-organization in that town. There is al-Jumhuriya, which was established by Syrians, which is great for analysis of the region.
I would encourage people to find out a bit more and to go to these sources, and to try to educate themselves. The first and most important aspect of solidarity is correcting the information. There is so much disinformation circulating about what is happening in the region. It’s so exhausting for activists who have much more important struggles than focusing on correcting the narrative. It would be great if some of that work could be done from the outside. It would certainly free up Syrian activists to focus on other more practical things that they need to address.
JA: On the Lebanon side of things, I can start by recommending a podcast that’s called The Lebanese Politics Podcast. Starting with the episode which was released just after the October 17 revolution started, they’ve put out about an episode a week, in English, in which they go back to the events of that week and interpret them and talk about them. It is as objective as you can get, from an archival perspective. Both of them are on the left and are analyzing from the anti-sectarian angle.
Other than that, most good media in Lebanon is in Arabic. Recently, especially since 2015 when there was another uprising—which was not as successful but laid the groundwork for what was to come—there were things like Megaphone News, which is mostly in Arabic but sometimes has English stuff; they are really good. There is the Public Source—again, these are mostly in Arabic but occasionally have some English stuff.
A lot of the voices of anti-authoritarian Syrians are present in mainstream Anglo media. Just recently there was For Sama, the documentary that was nominated for an Oscar and won many film festival awards. There was the White Helmets documentary from 2017. There are a bunch of really good war-related but more personal-narrative documentaries popping up. All of these are available with English subtitles, and are very easy to find these days.
The main thing to challenge, really, is disinformation. The decision is whether people want to believe what they are seeing with their own eyes. For Sama is literally just footage put together to tell a story. You can think whatever you want, but if you’re starting to doubt what you see with your own eyes, the bombing that you’re literally seeing in front of you, then we’re entering a world that has not just implications for Syrians and Palestinians and Lebanese and others, but indeed implications for everyone else.
The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote and the so-called wave of far-right populism (which is a nice euphemism for fascism a lot of the time) didn’t really surprise a lot of us who live on this side of the world and have been involved with anti-authoritarian politics. Some of the signs that we were going into a dangerous international moment were already present in Syria as early as 2013, with the chemical massacre in Eastern Ghouta, among other things. The reactions to that started signaling that we’re slowly moving towards a normalization of blatant violence against civilian bodies.
What progressives in Lebanon are trying to do right now is create a different media landscape outside the norms, a counternarrative to the dominant narratives in Lebanon, because they are very influenced by the sectarian status quo. Many of them are owned by the sectarian parties. With Syria it was very different at first, because there wasn’t really any independent media before 2011. But an explosion of creativity came after 2011 (Enab Baladi, the project I worked on, is one of the examples of that), so now it is very easy to get very decent, advanced, sophisticated information. The question is how much energy people are willing to put into it.
It’s always good to inform yourself as much as possible about what’s happening in the rest of the world, just as a general rule, and there tends to be enough information these days. But the other thing is calling out disinformation when you see it online. To do that convincingly, you do need to arm yourself with quite a lot of knowledge, because the disinformation campaigns, especially since Russia decided to intervene militarily in Syria, have been pretty extraordinary. We’re not just dealing with RT and Sputnik. There are horrific takes being taken for granted which if they were on Palestine would be the abode of the far right, but for some reason when it comes to Syria, lots of lefties repeat basically the same things that rightwing Zionists would repeat on Palestine—the same takes! They just go with that narrative instead of looking at the facts on the ground and reading the books by Syrians who have been writing for decades now, many of whom are translated into English.
Information is power, and it can be used for good. But we have to deal with all of the disinformation around us. It’s been exhausting. Many of us have experienced months of burnout. Most activists I know, including those who were in Aleppo until recently, or in Ghouta or in Idlib or in the south or wherever, have completely given up on trying to challenge anyone online, or are just working locally. Some still spend entire days sometimes arguing with mostly Westerners online about their own country and their own homes that they just had to leave.
Westerners are not going through fascism in the same sense that Syrians are. There is definitely that threat, especially these days, but it’s still not at the level of the Assad regime controlling everything and dropping barrel bombs, and having foreign militaries invited into your country. I don’t know how to say this, but privilege is a responsibility. Having privilege means you should do something with it. Use the access to knowledge that you have and inform yourself on what’s been happening in Syria, especially since 2011, or since 1982 with the Hama massacre as Leila mentioned, or wherever you want to start, instead of just getting stuck in these echo chambers which have been so common, unfortunately, with the Western left.
FS: I’m wondering if either of you have the energy to talk really briefly about that or touch on some of the conspiracy theories we need to challenge? You don’t have to answer if you don’t have the energy.
LS: Very briefly, the White Helmets are volunteer first responders, men and women, people who are often the first on the scene to assist victims of Assad and Russia’s aerial bombardment, taking bodies from the rubble, taking people to makeshift hospitals for treatment. I think it’s because they are first on the scene to record and witness these state crimes that they have come under vicious attack. A lot of the assault on the White Helmets does originate in Russian state media; the Russian state has carried out a massive disinformation campaign against the White Helmets. We’ve seen them being accused of being al-Qaeda operatives; we’ve seen them being accused of being behind chemical weapons massacres. There have even been reports that they are engaged in organ harvesting. All sorts of horrendous and malicious accusations have been thrown at them.
The problem is that a lot of these accusations, which are starting in Russian or Syrian state media, are then being propagated and spread by people who identify as being on the left. We’ve seen a lot of these disinformation campaigns carried out by purportedly leftist activists, and these kinds of conspiracies also find their way into the mainstream. It’s very difficult now to even mention the White Helmets. I spend quite a lot of my time traveling and giving talks about Syria, trying to build solidarity for Syria, and even when I come across people who are generally sympathetic to what I’m saying—they’re not supportive in any way of the Assad regime; they seem to want to stand in solidarity with free Syrians—they’ll come up to me at the end of the talk and say, “Well, what about these White Helmets? We’ve heard this, we’ve heard that.” So this campaign of disinformation has been very successful in polluting the public space in such a way that really makes any kind of practical solidarity with revolutionary Syrians almost impossible.
It’s so dangerous at the moment in a place like Idlib, where international aid agencies have all pulled out. We’re seeing massive targeting of residential infrastructure and survival infrastructure—hospitals, schools, water supplies. It’s the White Helmets who are there, who can provide any kind of lifeline to people who are facing that kind of assault. They are maligned and slandered, when they are really the people who we should be standing behind and supporting—they are in desperate need of funding to continue their work. It’s very difficult to constantly face these kinds of attacks.
JA: Russia’s online disinformation campaigns have been widely studied by now. The discourse that Russia appeals to, or that pro-Assad or pro-Hezbollah folks appeal to, is identical to the War on Terror narrative that was popularized by George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. The whole “You’re either with us or the enemy” mentality was literally almost quoted verbatim by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, just a few weeks ago. This discourse has been reinforced and rendered hegemonic in some circles of the broader left, especially (but not just) the Western left. Russia has an obvious interest in people believing that the White Helmets are terrorists, because under the War on Terror, terrorists are fair game. You can shoot them. It’s really that simple.
The Russian embassies on Twitter (some particular embassies, like the one in South Africa, have a particular notoriety for some reason) post disinformation against the White Helmets, and against the documentary about the White Helmets—they posted a photo of Osama bin Laden receiving the Oscar. All of these things are Islamophobic smears that have been widespread especially since the aftermath of 9/11. Russia has utilized this in the past, in Chechnya. Chechnya is particularly important to mention here because one of the Russian embassies also tweeted at one point some years ago, during the fall of Aleppo, a before-and-after picture of Grozny—eradicated by Putin and rebuilt—and the message was, “This could be Aleppo.”
If those among us who call ourselves anti-authoritarians do not understand the consequences or the connotations of this, then we’re basically saying that we do not really care about groups of people that are vulnerable in our own societies, let alone in other societies or in the wider world, including Syrians in this case. The disinformation campaigns don’t just tell you something—they also tell you what not to think. Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. It’s that sort of mentality. It stays in the back of your mind, it just festers there, and that alone is enough to reduce any momentum towards solidarity. What it does is discourage people from looking further.
That is the success of the disinformation. You pollute the media sphere. If you just google the White Helmets, on the first pages you will find a lot of horrible things being said. If you go on Twitter it’s dominated by Russian disinformation campaigns. When I say Russian disinformation I don’t just mean RT and Sputnik, but anyone who hovers around that world. That is extremely dangerous in a situation where these people are literally being murdered as we speak. They have even been targeted by al-Qaeda. Calling them al-Qaeda is not just a horrific, racist, Islamophobic smear—it actually puts their lives in danger.
FS: We haven’t really touched on the Syrian diaspora. I didn’t think about how a lot of this conspiracy theory stuff plays into the rightwing xenophobic rhetoric about people escaping the civil war there or escaping war in Libya or other parts of the world that the West often views through an orientalist and Islamophobic lens: that they are bringing this contagion of terrorism with them or whatever.
JA: Leila’s coauthor Robin Yassin-Kassab observed that before Syrians arrived on the shores of Fortress Europe and were being demonized by the far right as terrorists and demographic threats and all of these slurs, they were already being demonized and treated with hostility by large segments of the left. That scapegoating was already there—it’s not just that suddenly Syrians started appearing in Europe and there was massive reaction against them by the right. Of course there was that as well. But the stories of Syrians arriving in Europe (most are not in Europe, obviously; they are in Lebanon and Turkey and Jordan and so on) were canceled, deleted, smeared, and demonized in advance, accelerating the process of dehumanization.
Understanding what’s happening, the context of a country, especially one in “conflict” like Syria, also means supporting the refugees that come to your shores.
FS: A lot of the coverage that this show has done on war in Syria has been specifically focusing on the struggles in northern Syria, particularly as relates to the Kurdish-majority areas and the PYD and the PKK-affiliated Kurdish movement. This is partly because there’s a better infrastructure for communication and discourse in the West, but also a lot of anarchists and leftists have been for a long time in very active solidarity with PKK-related struggles.
Leila, as someone who’s covered the war in Syria and the revolution before that, could you talk a little bit about how the PYD has related to that?
LS: That struggle has certainly gained much more solidarity in the West, and you touched on the reasons for that: the Kurdish diaspora in Europe and the US has been there for a long time and has been able to build solidarity networks that take a long time to build, and Syrians living in other parts of the country had not had that. They didn’t have so much connection with the West. It’s very difficult, obviously. Even prior to the revolution it was difficult for Syrians to travel, to get visas, to be outside. So there wasn’t that much exchange built up for people to know what was happening in other areas.
Some of it also comes down to a Western orientalism that often likes to focus on minority groups as being the most persecuted, combined with Islamophobic racism towards Sunni majorities in Syria and elsewhere. This does tend to have a disproportionate impact on the way minority groups are able to attract solidarity.
That said, there are lots of very inspiring things happening within the Kurdish movement in northern Syria which are directly attractive to anti-authoritarians and anarchists in the West, and I see why there’s an appeal. But there have also been plenty of very inspiring things happening in other parts of Syria. One of the untold stories of the Syrian revolution is how in the absence of the state, when the state collapsed or was pushed out of the majority of the country, people came together and began to build alternative structures for self-organization within those areas.
For example, when the state withdrew and pulled out services, people realized that they needed to build forums to keep their communities functioning. The model that they looked to was developed by a Syrian anarchist called Omar Aziz, who advocated for the establishment of local councils, grassroots forums in which people could come together to discuss the needs in their community and self-organize to keep services functioning, such as electricity supply, hospitals, water supply systems, education systems. That model spread throughout Syria, leading to the establishment of hundreds of local councils throughout the country.
These experiences of self-organization and autonomous politics that happened as a direct result of the Syrian revolution should have been something that people outside were looking at and learning from, and that was a missed opportunity. Possibly some of that was on us, on our inability to communicate effectively what was happening. But also we had a lot of other priorities. It should have been people on the outside looking at what was happening inside Syria and seeing how they could find access to better information.
FS: To close, where do you think the people’s more democratic movements in these two venues are going? Are there any things to keep an eye on? Any direct ways, other than countering disinformation, that folks in the listening audience can support people who are struggling for autonomy and to uplift their dignity in Syria and Lebanon?
LS: I would love to talk about all the opportunities for political solidarity, to build the free Syria that we all want to see. But Syrians are facing a war of extermination right now. The situation on the ground is so absolutely desperate in places like Idlib that any immediate call has to be a purely humanitarian call, to try to pressure a ceasefire, to stop the assault by Russia and the regime on residential communities, to stop this humanitarian crisis from spiraling absolutely out of control, which it is doing at the moment.
I would encourage people to look at some of the Syrian-led organizations which are providing support to these internally displaced people on the ground. The Molham Volunteering Team is a wonderful organization doing wonderful work. Violet Organization, Kids Paradise—the immediate needs for survival take precedence over any other call I think of right now.
And then I’ll reiterate what we’ve been saying about being more informed—there are still many Syrians working to try to hold this regime accountable, to try to keep going with their desire to live in a free country. I encourage people to find out who they are and to see which ways they can stand in solidarity with them.
JA: As for Lebanon, what’s been happening in the past almost four months is often described as a rebirth. There is a lot of very new momentum. Some of the media outlets that I mentioned before were literally launched in the past few weeks. A few of them are the offspring of the 2015 movement, but others are really much newer than that. There are websites that only have half a dozen articles and they are just building on that.
That’s the exciting part. We’re having an emergence. There is an emergence of a civic-society mentality—though that has a lot of limitations. Sometimes it’s limited by a liberal paradigm. But it creates a space. It’s a moment to push for ideas that are more progressive. That’s what folks like me are trying to do. I am just a writer. Other people are doing much more direct work on the ground. There are soup kitchens that have popped up in places like Beirut and Tripoli. There are independent unions being formed because the current unions are either co-opted or useless. There are independent media workers—while there are good people working within mainstream outlets, they tend to be limited by those outlets’ priorities.
At the same time, in the same way as in Syria, there has been an outburst of creativity. Arts and music genres that hadn’t been explored before are now being explored, like metal and rap and hip-hop. Lebanon is freer than Syria as a society, there are fewer restrictions. There is a lot of self-censorship, but not as much of the overt censorship that there is in Syria. You can pretty much say whatever you want, within some limits sometimes, and that has allowed us a little bit more breathing space compared with what Syrians have had, to create some of this infrastructure that is now booming. Currents like environmentalism, feminism, queer rights, and so on are also finding momentum in the ongoing revolutionary upheavals.
The only limitation so far is refugee rights, and migrant domestic worker rights. The revolution hasn’t really addressed these issues as much as it should. But hopefully the more we continue and the more progressives and others manage to steer the revolution in a certain direction rather than in a nationalist direction, that might be possible in the near future. I personally think it’s going to be extremely difficult, but there is hope in that matter.
LS: One other area that I’d like to draw attention to is the prisoners’ struggle. The prisoner issue is something that everybody should be supporting. There are thousands of Syrians in prison, and we know the horror stories of how widely practiced torture is within regime detention. Those are our people. Those are the peaceful pro-democracy activists who were struggling against this regime. They are the people who are inside prison who we should be supporting.
There are some fantastic organizations that people can get behind. Families for Freedom is a women-led movement set up by Syrian women: the mothers, wives, sisters of political prisoners. It is a movement that was inspired by Argentina’s Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, and by a similar women-led movement looking for the disappeared in Lebanon. They’re doing as much work as they can trying to keep the issue of prisoners on the international agenda, calling for the release of not only those detained in regime prisons but also those detained in prisons by Islamist groups.
That’s something that everybody should be getting behind and finding out about and seeing how they can support, because it’s never on the agenda even though for every Syrian, it’s one of the most important issues because we all have family members or friends who have disappeared in regime detention.
We spoke a lot about how exhausted and traumatized Syrian activists are right now because of the strength of the counterrevolution and what they’ve gone through over the past few years. But one thing that has given us so much hope and strength and inspiration is seeing the protests happening in Lebanon. Also in Iraq, where people have been out on the streets and going through extremely challenging circumstances—this is also very inspirational in the way they are using anti-sectarian slogans. Also what’s happening in Iran with the protest movement there. All these movement have given us a lot of hope and courage.
Syria has been used to silence people across the region as a kind of bogeyman: if you raise your voice and demand freedom, this is what’s going to happen to you. You’re going to end up like Syria. The revolutions and uprisings that happened in 2010-11 have been crushed, they’re over. But they haven’t been crushed. This is part of a long term process. Although each country has its own specific situation, there are a lot of similarities: the authoritarian regimes, the corruption, the bad socioeconomic situation. And people are not being silenced. Something changed in 2011, and despite the massive repression these protest movements have faced, something has changed within people. That’s going to have a massive impact on the future. There’s going to be a lot of change happening in the region, and we’re only at the start of that process.
FS: Thank you so much for having this conversation, I really appreciate it.