Category Archives: Pluto Press

Islam and Anarchism with Mohamed Abdou

Islam and Anarchism with Mohamed Abdou

Book cover of "Islam and Anarchism" featuring Arabic writing and the words "TFSR 10-02-2022"
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This week, Scott spoke with Mohamed Abdou, a North African-Egyptian Muslim anarchist activist-scholar who is currently a Visiting Scholar at Cornell University and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the American University of Cairo. Mohamed is the author of the recent book, Islam and Anarchism: Relationships and Resonances published by Pluto Press in 2022.

For nearly 2 hours, Scott and Mohamed speak about Mohamed’s experience of the Tahrir Square uprising of 2011 and the western media coverage of it, current unrest in Iran, Orientalism, decolonial education, Islam, Settler Colonialism, anarchism and a lot more.

You can follow Mohamed on Twitter at @minuetInGMinor or on facebook at @MohammadAbdou2020

Upcoming

Stay tuned next week for a chat with the organizers of the 2022 Atlanta Radical Bookfair and another surprise topic. For patreon supporters, pretty soon we should be sharing early releases of conversations with Robert Graham about his 2015 book “We Don’t Fear Anarchy, We Invoke It” and with Matthew Lyons on far right christian movements and other chats. More on how to support us at tfsr.wtf/support.

Announcements

And now a few brief announcements

Asheville Survival Program Benefit

For listeners in the Asheville area, you’re invited to an outdoor Movie Night benefit for Asheville Survival Program halloweeny season double feature on Saturday October 8th at 6pm at the Static Age River Spot. There’ll be food, music and merch. To find out more sbout the venue, you can contact Asheville Survival via their email or social media, found at linktr.ee/avlsurvival

Atlanta Radical Bookfair

If you’re in the southeast of Turtle Island, consider visiting so-called Atlanta on Saturday, October 15th where from noon to 6pm you’ll find the Atlanta Radical Bookfair at The Auburn Avenue Research Library on African-American Culture and History in Georgia. There’ll be speakers and many tables, including us!

Hurricane Ian Relief

If you want to offer support to folks in Florida around Hurricane Ian, one place to start could be with Central Florida Mutual Aid. They have tons of ways to plug in remotely or on the ground for what is likely to be a long and arduous cleanup and repair effort. You can learn more about them at linktr.ee/CFLMutualAid

Also, Firestorm books is collecting donations of emergency goods at their storefront in Asheville.

A image of text that reads: MUTUAL AID DISASTER RELIEF: A grass-roots donation drive to help families affected by Hurricane lan in Florida. EMERGENCY RELIEF DRIVE - Critically Needed Supplies CLEANUP: • heavy duty storage totes • heavy duty tarps • gas and gas cans glasses • generators • roofing nails • wire brushes • trash bags • brooms • mops • crowbars/prybars/hammers • chainsaws • moisture sensors • dehumidifiers • box fans • 5 gal buckets • respirators and n-95 cartridges • 2x4s • bleach PERSONAL NEEDS: • baby formula • coolers • dollar store water • gatorade • sweets/candies/comfort items/kids snacks • laundry detergent • washboards • mosquito spray • toilet paper • solar charging items and battery banks • apple cider vinegar • diapers • baby wipes To donate supplies, drop them at Firestorm Books 610 Haywood Rd. Asheville, NC anytime the bookstore is open For more information on how you can help, visit mutualaiddisasterrelief.org

Prisons in the Wake of Ian

We’ve regrettably missed the opportunity to promote the phone zap campaigns to raise awareness of prisoners in the path of Hurricane Ian before the storm hit, but suggest that folk check out FightToxicPrisons.Wordpress.Com to learn more about efforts to press public officials to heed the calls to protect prisoners during storms like this rather than follow the path of inertia and cheapness that leads to unnecessary deaths of folks behind bars.

#ShutDownADOC2022

There is currently a prison strike within the Alabama Department of Urgent Phone Zap On 9/29, Robert Earl Council (aka Kinetic Justice) was assaulted by guards and placed in solitary confinement at Limestone Correctional Facility as retaliation for his exposing the ADOC and participating in the Alabama prison strike Call Warden William Streeter at (256) 233-4600 Call Commisioner John Hamm at (334) 353-3883 -DEMAND Robert Earl Council be released from solitary -DEMAND no more retaliation -DEMAND all prisoner demands be met #shutdownADOC2022 UTIONSCorrections known by the hashtag #ShutDown ADOC2022. Campaigners have organized a call-in campaign to demand an end to retaliation against Kinetic Justice (s/n Robert Earl Council) who has been assaulted by guards on September 29th and placed in solitary confinement as well as retaliation of any prisoners participating, Kinetic’s release from solitary and the meeting of prisoners demands. Supporters are asking folks to call Warden William Streeter at (256) 233-4600 or Commissioner John Hamm at (334) 353-3883. You can find a recent interview with Kinetic at Unicorn Riot, as well as more on the prison strike at UnicornRiot.Ninja

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Featured Tracks:

Strategies For Ecological Revolution From Below with Peter Gelderloos

Strategies For Ecological Revolution From Below with Peter Gelderloos

"The Solutions are Already Here Strategies of Ecological Revolution from Below" book cover featuring a green shovel
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This week on The Final Straw, we’re featuring a recent conversation with anarchist author and activist, Peter Gelderloos about his latest book, “The Solutions Are Already Here: Strategies For Ecological Revolution From Below”, published by Pluto Press in 2022. For the hour we speak about critiques of science and Western Civilization that Peter levels, as well as the centrality of struggling on the ground we stand on, creating autonomous infrastructure, resisting colonial extractivism and the need for imagination and care as we tear down this ecocidal system.

Peter has prior authored such books as “Anarchy Works”, “How Non-Violence Protects The State”, and “Worshiping Power”, and you can find a number of his essays up on TheAnarchistLibrary.Org. You can also hear your interviews with Peter here: https://thefinalstrawradio.noblogs.org/post/category/peter-gelderloos/

Related Interviews:

Announcements

Call In For Eric King continues

Anarchist and antifascist political prisoner, Eric King, has been transferred from Grady County Jail (where we spoke to him from for our April 3rd episode) to USP Lee in southwestern Virginia where he and his loved ones are afraid he will be put into solitary and attacked where there will be no witnesses. This comes directly after he won a trial against the federal Bureau of Prisons showing that he had been set up and punished for false reasons, subjected to obvious acts of petty and not so petty vengeance by the corrections officers, and in spite of the fact that his security level should have him at a medium security facility rather than a high security like Lee. There is a continued call-in campaign that his supporters are asking y’all to participate in. You can find more information in the show notes or at SupperEricKing.org as well as on the twitter, facebook and instagram pages for the under the name @SupportEricKing.

May Day

May Day is coming up real quick, y’all. The first of May has been known as a festival of spring bounty from pagan times in Europe, and has been celebrated by anarchists, socialists, communists and labor activists to commemorate the 1886 struggle for the power of workers against the capitalists and state and the remember the Haymarket Martyrs. We have a couple of episodes featuring content about May Day that we’ll link here, but this is just a quick note to find other comrades and fellow travelers this May Day, there may be something going on in your area. And if there isn’t, maybe you can organize an event with you friends!

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Featured Track

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Transcription

TFSR: So I’m very happy to be speaking with anarchist author Peter Gelderloos. Peter’s latest book, The Solutions are Already Here: Strategies for Ecological Revolution from Below is just out from Pluto Press, I just got my copy in the mail. Super stoked to get it. But welcome back to the show, Peter.

Peter Gelderloos: Thanks for inviting me, again.

TFSR: Facing the challenges of increasing climate chaos and its impact on life on Earth, feels really, really fucking daunting. Without thinking through the idea of like some centralized grand and technocratic response – which is kind of how I feel like I’ve been trained to think about big problems as big solutions – and not that that seems likely when countries at the industrial core aren’t even able to hold themselves to, you know, self imposed limits of cutting back on producing greenhouse gases, or even coordinating and distributing free vaccines to stop a pandemic.

So I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s head is kind of spinning when I try to think about the looming and existent climate disaster. How does this book kind of help to challenge that framework and mindset of expecting big centralized solutions to the problems that we face?

PG: Well, when you look at the history of how states have been dealing with ecological crisis, first of all, they’re very reductionist. They reduce a complex, multifaceted ecological crisis, which ties into so many problems – social and environmental – they tend to reduce it to emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, only to climate change. And they do that in large part not only because they don’t want to recognize many of these other problems, but also because technocrats need to simplify problems in order to reduce it to data that can be plugged into their machine, right?

So even though they’re they’re reducing it just to climate and they’ve been aware of the danger of climate change – like the US government recognized it as a national security problem already back in the 1960’s – their responses have been militarizing borders and increasing the deployment of militaries for, you know, so called disasters, natural disasters, and things of that nature. And then also making big agreements that have done exactly nothing to slow down greenhouse gas emissions.

So even within their reductionism, they don’t do a good job of dealing with the one part of the problem. And the other part of the problem that they recognize is actually bad for us: increasing militaries, militarizing borders and all that. So they are viewing the problem with interests that are diametrically opposed to the interests of living beings like ourselves. The larger part of it they have to ignore, and then of the part that they look at, half of it they don’t get right, and the other half they deal with in a way that that actively harms us.

We’ve also seen in a lot of these so called “natural disasters”, that the most effective responses for saving lives are responses that happen on the ground. It’s not the militaries, its neighbors, its regular people organizing themselves spontaneously with the logic of mutual aid. That’s what saves the most lives, we’ve seen that time and time and time again.

And absolutely, we are totally conditioned to rely on on the government to solve things for us, or, you know, major corporations, techno wizards like Elon Musk, or whatever. And that’s in large part because we’re forced into a situation of dependency and passivity and immobilization. Which is a very depressing position to be in normally, and it’s an even more depressing position to be in when we see the world dying around us. And so it’s completely coherent and consistent with that forced dependency and forced immobility to just either look the other way, or cross your fingers and hope and pray that, you know, some big godlike figure will come along and solve it for us. But it’s this big godlike figure that caused the problem and that is continuing to aggravate the problem.

So, actually, you get more intelligent solutions to problems from people who have on the ground knowledge, from people who are familiar with their territory, know that the resources they have. And it’s equally global, it’s just coming from the territory, it’s coming from below, rather than coming from either you know, boardrooms or situation rooms, where they’re not looking at the territory, they’re looking at maps. And they’re above all looking at their own interests of maintaining control. Because their ability to do anything in response to the problem is, in fact, predicated on our immobility, on our dependence, and our enforced passivity.

TFSR: So there’s almost like a sort of Stockholm syndrome that a lot of us – through the socialization from the state – have where we identify the the methods and the impulses of government in scary situations as being somehow salvatory, as opposed to sort of counterinsurgency constantly being operated for the continued extraction of resources.

PG: Absolutely. And I’m glad that you brought up counterinsurgency because that is one of the most important theoretical lenses to use to understand both ecological crisis and government, corporate and NGO responses to that crisis.

TFSR: A thing that kind of refreshing about this book is the radical critique of Western civilization as the vehicle for many of the woes that we experienced today. I appreciate that you attempted to undercut the misconception, right off the bat, that human nature is the cause for the destruction that we’re experiencing around us, or that there are too many of us or too many of certain kinds of us on the planet. Can you talk about the ideas of the Anthropocene or arguments around overpopulation, and why they present kind of a misdirection when seeking causes of anthropogenic climate change and resolutions of finding balance with the world?

PG: Yeah. Human beings have been around for a really long time, depending on you know, when exactly you identify the beginning of anatomically-modern human beings, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of years. Hominids with similar capabilities for longer. And the problems of destroying the ecological basis for life on this planet, for a great many species is a recent problem. And even the problem of causing ecological collapse in just one bio region is, in the broader timeline, a recent problem with maybe like four thousand years old, some of the earliest examples. And, again, some people – because we’re taught to view human history in this way that ends up being very white supremacist but focusing on the history of States – some people take that to mean “Oh, well, for the last four thousand years human beings have been destroying the environment. So you know, that’s what’s relevant.” No, for the last four thousand years humans have not been destroying the environment. A very small number of human beings have been doing that in a very small part of our overall territory until much more recently. And all across the world people fought against getting forcibly included in this new western model of being human. We do have examples of non-western cultures also destroying their soil or destroying their forests, destroying their ecosystem, but they weren’t nearly as good at it as Western civilization is, and that’s the dominant model, that’s the most relevant one to talk about.

So you know, that other question is relevant for the theoretical exercise of like, “okay, what exactly are the more destructive, or the healthier, forms of social organization?” but in the current media environment most people will bring up this kind of somewhat trivial fact at this point that maybe two thousand years ago, or one thousand years ago on another continent, a completely non-western society also caused major erosion. And that’s just an instance of deflection away from the fact that the problem that’s currently killing us is Western civilization.

So, you know, there are works that, for example: Fredy Perlman’s Against Leviathan that try to define what the problem is more broadly, but in the situation where we’re in right now, where species are going extinct at an accelerating rate, where millions of of humans are already dying every year because of the effects of this ecological crisis, and so many people are losing their homes, losing their land, losing their access to healthy food. The problem is the civilization, the modern state, the capitalist system that arose – centered in Europe – but also simultaneous to this process of mass enslavement in Africa and mass invasion, colonization and genocide in the Americas, in Africa and in Asia and Australia. That’s the problem.

If you take any criteria beyond just greenhouse gas emissions, it becomes very clear what’s the social model that is putting us all at danger. And even if you reduce it just to greenhouse gas emissions, you kind of avoid looking at the historical roots of the social machine that’s causing so much death and destruction. But it’s still very clear that Western civilization and the economic model that it forcibly imposed on the rest of the globe is the problem.

TFSR: So, one thing in the book you also say is that it’s necessary for us to critique science because it’s so shaped by those institutions who wield it, fund it and command it. Can you talk about this and how it differs from an anti-rational rejections of science for the sake of faith structures, or antimodernist frames of some anti-civ perspectives? And maybe speak about how you’ve observed our movements, or movements that you find inspiring in this framework, how they’ve been making and imagining their own science?

PG: Yeah, I mean, first off, maybe this is more semantical but like, I do think a critique of rationalism as a worldview is important. But then again, different people would mean very different things with that.

So just to focus on your question: in practice, in the real world, the scientific method cannot be divorced from the scientific institutions that currently control or manage the vast majority of knowledge production via the scientific method in this world that we inhabit. You know, I love science fiction, we can imagine other worlds but that’s the case in the one that we inhabit.

One thing that I think is important to recognize is that the scientific method is a very valid method for knowledge production, for falsifiable objective data. I think it’s also important to recognize that that’s not the only kind of knowledge. That there are many other kinds of knowledge that cannot be produced by the scientific method and that we run into… First of all there’s been no social system in the history of the world that I’m aware of that has ever relied only on that kind of knowledge. And our current “rationalist” society – speaking about rationalism as a sort of mythical worldview – uses a great deal of like non-falsifiable and subjective information, but they pretend that they don’t as part of this mythology. Which is very, very important to certain people, academics and whatnot.

So it’s important recognize, I think, that that’s not the only form of knowledge. And like, so a brief example of this: we can even see this when we get beyond the importance of, for example, emotional knowledge. How to deal with people, with other people in groups, how to take care of people, you know, this is something that’s actually incredibly important. And it’s amazing how easily it can be dropped by the wayside because it’s not reduced to numbers.

But for example we can look at health care. So there are forms of healthcare that are much easier to evaluate using the scientific method. And there are forms of healthcare that are much harder to evaluate using the scientific method. Finding out what happens when you dump some drug in a human body is much easier to evaluate, because the person who’s administering the drug doesn’t need to know anything about it. And they don’t need to know anything, or barely anything, about the person that they’re administering it’s to. And that’s sort of like the point of that whole methodology of treatment. Whereas other forms of treatment require much more subjective approach, a much more modeled approach, to the specifics of the person who’s being treated and they require a much more developed skill set to be able to deliver the therapy in an effective way.

So that’s not the fault of the therapy, that it can’t be evaluated as well by the scientific method. That’s a limitation or fault in scientific method. But we live in a society that’s so mechanized and that loves to be able to have – it’s in fact built up on – knowledge forums that can be plugged into the machine, and spit out the numbers. So it’s a society very much based on mechanical reproduction. That kind of society is going to favor the treatments that can be evaluated by the scientific method, and it’s going to disfavor or discourage or hide the treatments that can’t. And a year does not go by without us finding out about how damaging some form of medication was, or how damaging this blindness towards certain forms of therapy and care were.

And that doesn’t that doesn’t invalidate scientific knowledge production, but it does certainly speak to the question of social machinery. That it goes beyond just the question of, like, “Can we test this? Is it valid or not?” It’s that in fact, in practice, we can’t separate it from the question of social machinery.

What does that have to do with the ecological crisis? I already mentioned the reductionism of a multifaceted, very broad, very complex ecological crisis to climate change. That’s symptomatic of what I’m talking about. Climate change is something that’s more easy to quantify. We can measure it in temperature, we can measure it in parts per million carbon dioxide, we can measure it in emissions. Whereas things like what I know about the place where I live, what I know about the health of the soil in the place where I’ve lived for the past seven or eight years, is not something that I can quantify. But I know it, I think much better than someone who might come by and take a sample from a laboratory and test it but then not have any further relationship with the land. Someone who’s not out there taking care of these olive trees or planting a garden, year after year, and wondering when the rain is going to come and feeling it in their bones how this territory is desiccating. And how we actually need to start doing things now and fast as this climate becomes more of a desert. Because there are dead deserts, and they’re living deserts. And this land right here, where I live is going to become one or the other depending on what we do.

And the people in the laboratories are way behind the game and they have a lot less to offer. They do have things to offer, like there are certainly moments in which my gardening and other people’s gardening can be complemented by having access to that chemical test from the laboratory. And you know, that would be great to have that kind of complementarity, to have even solidarity at that level. But usually you don’t have that because our systems of knowledge are gaslit, we’re excluded from the resources that we would need to be able to access that and the people in laboratories generally have no idea what they’re talking about and think that they have access to some absolute, an all encompassing truth. And that’s problematic.

So yeah, there’s absolutely a possibility – I mean there should be a great deal of dialogue between different kinds of knowledge, including knowledge that’s produced through the scientific method – but we don’t have a lot of that now. And when you we look at how history has actually unfolding, the data produced by powerful scientific institutions regarding climate change has not been wrong, per se – the broad strokes of it have been correct, like for a while now they’ve been predicting what’s going to be happening, and it’s been happening – but it’s been quite conservative. Time and time again they’ve been way too optimistic in their predictions, and the kind of red lines or warning marks or benchmarks or whatever that they set are getting exceeded, they’re getting past years and decades in advance of their particular predictions.

So in terms of the precision of their predictions, they have high precision predictions. Like, me looking at the soil and the rain clouds or you know, someone who’s actually lived there their whole life and has access a lot more ancestral knowledge that I don’t have access to, they’re not going to be able to come up with like a high precise prediction of like “Okay in 20 years this is going to happen” but I think they will get a much more accurate prediction. Whereas the scientific institutions have had high precision and low accuracy. So they’ve actually been wrong in a dangerous way again and again and again. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence, given their proximity to and affinity with the institutions that are most directly responsible for the destruction of the current global ecosystem.

TFSR: So yeah, I guess that’s a good clarification is like systems of knowledge rather than sciences. And as you say that seems like the need from the Western civilization, or the organizations that are working within it, to have crunch-able numbers and quantities that they can put into their figures. Seems like it would also not only would it limit the output information but it probably blinds the people that are making the measurements, even if they’re trying to make the right measurements to see the actual outcomes.

The approach of looking systemically and trying to say that, in fact, all of these systems and how they correlate to each other can fall under one umbrella that we call “Civilization” and its colonial impulse, or “Western Civilization” and its colonial impulse, when people see a critique that is that large, oftentimes people will say, “Ah, but there are things that we have gotten from this system”, they will say that. They will say that capitalism has driven innovation and the creation of certain kinds of knowledge or certain kinds of technology that have benefited human life in a lot of ways. For instance one thing that they can point to is around medical science. And as you said, there are some treatments that have proven to be not so much treatments as poisons. It’s not a like an assured thing that medical science will resolve issues, but there are a lot of technologies that have been developed and applied over the centuries that are positive. And I could see someone saying, “well do I choose between the current structure and like small reforms within it, or supporting a sort of revolutionary alteration in the productive models, the distribution of resources and capacity to produce these technologies that are saving my life, or making it so that I can be mobile, or extending life” for folks that have very serious medical issues for instance?

There has been critique, for instance, of criticisms of modern civilization that came out of Earth First at its beginnings, or other pro-ecological movements that look at not human beings as the problem necessarily, but technological development as being – and the sciences and the knowledges that come out of that, not to say that they’re just produced from that, but that are applied there. Saying “if the government fails, for instance, or if the economy scales back, I’m not going to be able to get my medication and I may die”. Can you talk a little bit about the sort of reticence that someone would have of trying to approach a degrowth of the economy and the government, because they’re afraid that what safety nets exist for them currently would no longer be there, and they wouldn’t survive it?

PG: Yeah, that’s definitely a very legitimate way to address questions of social change. And I think it’s actually super important when we inhabit our own bodies, our own experiences and needs when we’re talking about proposals of widespread social transformation, and struggle, generally.

I think it helps to primarily consider two different things. One is that if we break out of an individual’s framework – which, like I said, that concern that you’re posing is very important, there’s also an iteration of that concern which is very dangerous. Because if we make a critique of Western Civilization on the basis of how many people it’s killing, how many millions of people are starving to death because of this model, all of the forests and ecosystems that are getting destroyed, it can be dangerous. You definitely don’t want to go into a framework of “it’s us or them, someone has to die in this situation”.

So first off, I think we need to break out of any kind of individualist or competitive conception of this problem. And if we look more systemically, or if we look at health as a collective good, the healthiest possibilities for human society are ones in which people have a healthy reciprocal relationship with their environment. They have access to the commons, they have access to a very diverse and healthy diet that is locally adapted. And that is, in fact, based on brilliant technologies that were thousands of years in the making, that existed in every territory before colonialism, which is a technology without whirring gadgets and lights and bells and whistles but it’s the technology of how we build up our survival mutually with the other organisms around us, with the other living beings around us. Many of those technologies still exist. And so without colonialism, with access to that commons, with access to that kind of rooted, territorial, popular and ecological technology, that is the best hope that a human community has for health. For the healthiest lives possible for all their members. So that’s one thing that I think is really necessary to acknowledge. That we live in a system that produces a disease, that produces death and that’s a huge problem that we can’t sweep under the carpet.

The other good thing is that when we destroy governments and capitalism, everything that they own, everything that they think is theirs, everything that they blackmail us with – because they control access to it and we have to spend our lives working to try to get a small piece of it – it’ll be ours. And so once all the rich people are gone, and once all the cops and all the politicians are gone, all of that will be ours. And we can decide to get rid of it, we can decide to keep it, we can decide to make it ourselves in under much better circumstances. So things like medicine we’ll obviously keep making and we’ll find ways to make it that are healthier, we’ll find productive processes that are less damaging for the environment. And we’ll also be changing our living conditions so as few people as possible need access to those technologies, but those who do need that access will get it.

And then we’re also forced to deal with other other technologies, like nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs that the state has saddled us sadly with the necessity to mediate those in the best way possible, because they’re not going away for, you know, forever. Some of those radioactive substances will be around for billions of years, so “thank you, government!” But we will do a better job of handling that than they do. Because we care about us. And because we’re actually good at organization when we get the chance. In the US every single nuclear waste storage facility has leaked at one time or another. So they’re crap at it and they’re also to blame for it. On my worst days, I definitely fantasize about, you know, locking them all in the nuclear storage facility, there’d be certain poetic justice to that.

But thinking about it more realistically, and in the question of our needs, all of it will belong to us for better and for worse, and we’ll figure out how to take care of us. And we’ll do a much better. Even though lately in our movements, it’s pretty depressing, because we’re I think learning a bit too much from the system we live in, and we’re doing, frankly, often a pretty terrible job of taking care of us. But we can do much better than the state or capitalism ever could.

TFSR: Yeah, and they’ve had the opportunity to prove that already. And there’s tons of people that, you know, in as far as distribution of treatment methods for things, or COVID vaccines, or whatever, like, they have proven that it is not in their interest, it is actually in their interest to deny large swaths of the population any number of these things so that they can mark up the price and make more money off of less.

PG: Yes.

TFSR: So some of the most inspiring parts of the book, for me, were the examples of resistance to mega projects, to the expansion of colonial extractivism as well as to some of the alternative movement experiments and infrastructures that you highlight and that you get voices from, which is great. Were there any that you wanted to include but you just didn’t have time to fit that you might share with the audience?

PG: Um, there are definitely some. There are some cases where I was looking for interviews and I wasn’t able to get in touch with the comrades who would be able to speak from personal experience about those struggles, or I was able to get in touch but they were in the end too busy to do interviews, because things are pretty difficult. And so I can name some of those, maybe for people to look at the more, but I won’t go into them precisely because I wasn’t able to learn enough about them.

So, for example, in the movement in Kurdistan, an ecological focus is a large part of the analysis. And it’s a territory that’s been very damaged by war, by desertification, by forced impoverishment coming from the various countries, the various states, that control Kurdistan. And so I know, in fact yeah some friends helped put out a book about some of the experiences in trying to helped make that desert bloom. But yeah, the comrades, it’s been, of course, a rough time over there so the comrades weren’t able to give an interview about that. So that didn’t make it into the book.

Let’s see… There are many, many very interesting struggles in India. I mentioned some of them on the basis of already published research, but I wasn’t able to arrange any interviews with comrades there. India’s interesting because there are very, very different experiences of reforestation, that demonstrates, again, just how we can’t really trust the media, how we can’t trust governments when they talk about this. Because reforestation means completely different things depending on on who’s saying it, and a lot of forms of reforestation are very, very bad for the environment. They’re basically things that, say, like a government like Chile will do to be able to get counted as like a negative carbon emission country, so then they can make money with carbon trading. When, like, in Chile the reforestation is very much an industrial activity which is which is bad for the environment, very bad for the soil, bad for the water table. And it’s very much a colonial activity, because it’s taking place on the lands of Indigenous peoples who are in the process of trying to recover their lands. And a huge part of that process is trying to win back their food autonomy.

So forests are important. And forests can also be edible forests. These pine plantations, these mono-crop pine and eucalyptus plantations that are being planted by the official institutions, are definitely not food forests. No one can feed themselves off of them. But also agricultural fields are important for a lot of people’s to feed them selves. And the official reforestation happening in Chile is often used as a weapon against Indigenous struggle, against the struggle, for example, of the Mapuche for food autonomy, for getting their land back and being able to feed themselves off of their land using traditional technologies and whatever modern or Western technologies that they feel like adapting. That’s up to them. And to the extent that they can do that, to the extent that they have food autonomy, they have a vastly increased ability to fight back against the colonizing state because they’re no longer dependent on global capitalism. And they’re no longer dependent on the state that they colonizes them.

And so in India there’s some really great examples that really contrast how ineffective and also how damaging state-led efforts for mass reforestation are, how they just respond to this technocratic impulse to produce numbers on paper – when on the ground it’s a completely different story – versus communities, many of them Indigenous communities, that have been undergoing very, very effective, large scale forms of reforestation that improve soil health, that increase the possibilities for food autonomy, the increased quality of living, and that, you know, helped create more robust ecosystems with habitat for other species and in addition to just humans. So I would love to one day meet comrades who are participating in that because there’s some really powerful struggles happening there.

TFSR: Well, you do put the invite in the book for a longer extended, like, sequel if folks had more stuff inspired along those lines. So if any listeners are out there and want to write that book, I would love to read it.

Over the years, we conducted a couple of interviews with Anne Peterman from a group called “No GE Trees”, who was talking about that struggle in Wallmapu and – because they were similarly trying to build solidarity with resistance to that sort of mono crop forestation that damages the soil, that depletes the water tables, that denudes the landscape of the vitality and the variation that’s required for native species to exist in it throughout actually the US South – so people were protesting in the Asheville area in solidarity with not only resisting GE Tree plantations in the southeast, but also in Chile.

And a lot of those trees, they’re not good for a lot of things, they’re not good for making lumber out of, especially eucalyptus. Growing up on the West Coast…they’re not good for windbreaks, they got planted for windbreaks, they’re not good for railroad ties, that’s what they got planted for at one point, but they get chopped up after a couple of years of growing, so not even creating a mature forest, and processed down into wood pellets, and then sent to Europe so that European governments can claim that they’re using a renewable source of energy production. It’s just this game of shells with carbon and basically pollution and degradation. It’s a continuation of the extractivism of neocolonialism.

PG: Absolutely.

TFSR: We’ve already seen a measurable connection between climate change, the disruption of food production, exacerbating conflicts, and being used as a weapon against Indigenous communities as you’ve noted, and resulting in increased refugee movements and displacement. As a result, right wing tendencies have welcomed an escalation of conflict and inequality, the building and buttressing of physical and metaphorical walls, and the acceleration of fossil fuel extraction to suck out every drop of profit that can be withdrawn before it’s too late. And to be fair, I say, “right wing”, this also goes for centrist neoliberal regimes as well but the rhetoric looks more actively genocidal oftentimes, and facilitates extraparliamentary violence when it comes from the far right, usually.

Would you talk a bit about the importance of the increasingly, in some ways, difficult project of fostering internationalism and inner communalism against this, nationalist tendency as the climate heats up?

PG: Yeah, obviously the far right, and neoliberal centrist more so, have a lot of advantages because they have access to resources, they get a lot more attention. They’re taken seriously. So even a lot of centrist media that pay attention to the far right in a disapproving way still help them out more than the way that they treat like truly radical transformative revolutionary movements by just ignoring them. Because we’re kept in this in this permanent place of either not existing or being infantilized and we have, as you pointed out, we have a lot of work to do on this front.

And we can also talk about forms of internationalism that are very damaging. This is a kind of internationalism, which is completely under the thumb of, you know, colonial or neocolonial institutions. It’s this worldwide recruitment that takes place, largely through universities of – sometimes in a limited fashion it’s been analyzed as a Brain Drain, but I think it goes beyond that. Basically training and recruiting people from all over the world to participate in this system – whether it’s under the auspices of the United Nations, or under the auspices of some prestigious university in the Global North – to create an internationalism which is a completely monistic, technocratic, simplified worldview that builds consensus about what the world looks like, what the problems look like, and what the solutions are, within elite institutions that are completely cut off from all of the various territories of the world, even as those institutions increase their recruitment to a global scale. So that they have representatives or spokespeople from all the different continents from all over the world but they’re brought together in a sort of epistemological, technocratic space, which is completely a reproduction of colonialism, and makes it flexible but furthers the dominance of Western civilization, of white supremacist civilization.

And so that’s the kind of internationalism, which is very, very present, and it has access to a great deal of resources. And on the other hand, in the Global North, we’re not doing a nearly good enough job to create a very, very different and subversive kind of internationalism. And the comrades who are doing the best job of that tends to be migrant comrades, comrades who have who have migrated, who have crossed borders. I think a lot of folks who grow up with the privilege of citizenship in the Global North, if they do travel, if they do try to get like a more global perspective, it’s often still done in this individualist way that has a lot more to do with tourist vacations than with the needs of revolutionary struggle. And so we don’t have – I mean we don’t really have communities in the Global North, because the triumph of capitalism is so complete – but we don’t have radical groups that are attempting to be communities that pool resources in order to intentionally create global relationships of solidarity with communities and with struggles in the Global South that they could actually be supporting, and that they could actually be creating dialogue with to develop the rich, detailed, global perspectives that we actually need, as well as the possibility for global solidarity.

So, yeah, in the book, towards the end, I do this exercise of imagining what if we’re actually able to do what I’m talking about. Or what I’m trying to argue in the book is like a real model for a revolutionary transformative response to the ecological crisis. And so since I’m talking about the need to root ourselves in our territory, I imagine “Okay, here we are in Catalunya, what does this look like over the next few decades?” And one of the first things is in Barcelona and Tarragona we have these big ports with these big old ships that are currently moving merchandise all around the world. And that’s something that on the one hand it needs to stop because of how much that’s based on fossil fuels and on unnecessary consumption and all the rest. And the later timeline, in that chapter of the book is, you know, maybe much more beautiful and romantic, imagining there’s no more borders and people can traverse the world in sailboats, which are sailboats that have been expropriated from from the wealthy, who of course no longer exist. And and I think that’s a beautiful thing to imagine.

It’s really nice to think about a world that we’re actually allowed to live in, and that people all over the world can travel and go where they want. But right now we have the ugliness to deal with. And so in those ports, there are fuel reserves that have already been dredged up from the earth and there are these big ocean-going cargo ships. So there’s a part that talks about expropriating those cargo ships, getting in touch with revolutionary comrades in the Global South that we already have a relationship with and finding out what they need.

There’s the example of early on in the pandemic, both in Catalunya and another territories, workers taking the initiative to re-purpose their factories to make parts for respirators in a way that was faster and more agile than the capitalist were able to do. So kind of taking a cue from that I imagine this process of, okay, instead of sending merchandise, which is just furthering a relationship of dependency – I was speaking with this one comrade from Venezuela, other comrades from from Brazil, like a major thing is their economies and their material environments have been intentionally structured in a way so they don’t have a lot of very basic things that they need, that in Europe or North America would be easier to find. So for example, like basic machine parts for the machines that would be needed to process food. Not even talking about some hyper industrial and unnecessary endeavor, but basic things like harvesting, threshing, and milling grains, for example. So instead of, you know, a relationship of dependence, where this really fertile territory, like Venezuela, gets grain imports of European grains that Indigenous and Afro Indigenous populations have not been traditionally consuming and that are certainly less healthy – so, basically supermarket food. Instead of importing supermarket food, this short term process of exporting those cargo ships, re-purposing factories from the automotive industry to make some of these simple machine parts, and then using the existing fuel reserves to send off these cargo expropriated cargo ships, so that in these other territories that are colonized, neocolonized territories, that we have a relationship and solidarity with, they can create their own material autonomy and break that dependence once and for all. And then we’re also not just navel gazing and thinking “how are we going to survive the climate apocalypse and making sure that our bunkers are well stocked?” But we’re actually thinking about collective survival in a way that is solidaristic, in a way that is realistic, in a way that is global, and in a way that recognizes our responsibilities, given the past and present of colonialism and white supremacy.

TFSR: Yeah and I would say that the one group that I’m familiar with that really has continued doing a good job on the subject of building or continuing solidarity across the borders is Zapatista structures. In the US there is still, despite the fact that the Zapatista revolution happened 30 years ago, and there are still active, six declaration Otra Compaña groups or whatever that are around all sorts of parts of Anglo dominated North America, Turtle Island. Like, it’s just astounding, and I wish – but people did it really well during that period of time. And I think that that’s something that’s been lost is these clear lines of communication, and the building of inspiration, the sharing of knowledge, of experience across that border to the south of the nation state that I live within the borders of. There’s so many overlaps, and labor struggles that happen. There’s so much cross border transit of goods and I have so much more in common with people across that border than I do who fucking run those corporations here.

PG: Yup.

TFSR: Another point that I really liked in the book – and you approach this in a number of different ways, or I read this in a number of different places – talking about the importance of territorialization. And maybe that’s the wrong term, but being rooted in the land base that you’re in, listening to it, trying to understand what it teaches and how to live with it. Recognize how other people have done that, and like rooting your struggle in a sense of place. And this is one of the reasons that some of these anticolonial and anticapitalist resistance movements in different places around the world look so different is because they’re rooted in different legacies and practices, religions, languages, and experiences of colonization. And I really appreciate the fact that you point this out and you say, “Look, don’t expect everyone around the world to circle their A’s, or to use the term ‘autonomy’ necessarily for what they’re doing. But just recognize similar traits among people that you can have solidarity with in the struggle against global capitalism and colonization”. Can you talk a little bit about some of these similar traits, how you kind of identify these like versatile strategies?

PG: Yeah. So yeah, I think I do use the word “territorialization” or “territorialized” and that’s largely coming from Catalan and Spanish. In English “territorial” tends to be an ugly word because it’s associated with possessiveness, with drawing borders. I find it a very useful concept that’s used here so I just started using it in English. I would just encourage people to look at the roots of that word, “terra” or “tierra”, like the earth. A relationship with the earth not as like this big, abstract blue planet floating in the void but the earth under our feet.

So it’s interesting because you’re asking about similarities – oh god this is gonna sound like some cliched bumper sticker or something like that – but my first response is to say that the similarity is in the difference. Because in an act of war against this world of supermarkets and Amazon and smartphone screens which impose this secretly white supremacist homogeneity, when you territorialize you are becoming part of a long historical tradition that is so so so specific to the exact place where you live and nowhere else. So that means eating different food, cooking it in a different way, pruning different trees, it means speaking a different dialect of a different language. It means things that at first glance are maybe more defined or marked by their difference, but when you when you see like gatherings of peasants from different countries around the world, or gatherings of gardeners, gatherings of revolutionaries who very much believe in being territorial in this sense that I’m trying to talk about it, who believe in having their roots in the ground beneath their feet, and fighting from that relationship and understanding themselves within that relationship…

One thing that strikes me is how much pleasure there is in sharing “This is how you do it? This is how we do it. Oh, this is what you eat? This is what we eat.” And so even on the face of it, the color of that, the texture of that seems to be bringing out differences but I think that really what’s the conversation that happens there – and it feels this way to me like insofar as I’m this alienated exsuburbanite who is engaging in relatively later in my life, to a limited extent has felt this way – that like, beneath the words, there’s the sort of language of love which is completely an exercise in sameness. Not the sameness of homogeneity, but the sameness of “We’re living beings in this earth and we love the Earth, it gives us our lives, we love the other living beings around us.” And so really people all across the world who are living in autonomy and calling it different things and using very, very different technologies and eating very different foods, and all the rest, are on a deeper level doing the same thing, and I think can often recognize ourselves in one another.

TFSR: I guess jumping back to a reference that you made a little bit ago, I was very moved by your chapter, A Very Different Future, where you were describing – this isn’t the primary part of it, the first part of it at least you were describing – an alternative view of where we might be if we go down this path and sort of a best case scenario of how reframing and healing the world could look. I feel like though there is a lot, lot of doing needed to change the course that we as a species are on – or that we who live under the civilization, are forced to live another civilization live in… One of the primary challenges that we face is one of imagination. Because imagination feeds the soul, it’s a playful creativity, it’s a necessary part of, I think, what it is to be alive. Can you speak about this, and sort of point to any projects or movements or people that you think listeners might appreciate in terms of having a radical imagination, and being brave enough to share that out with other people?

PG: Huh. Yeah, I’d start off underscoring how important I think imagination is, like you said. I think it’s, I don’t know, maybe I think it’s more important than hope. Sometimes it’s just really not possible to access hope. But it’s nice, even in those moments, to be able to look out your window or look at the street and see a completely different world filling up that space, even if you don’t think you’ll ever live to see it. So that I think is extremely important. And I don’t think that we can, I mean, obviously the world that we create is going to surprise us. It’ll be born and dialogue with us and it will also insist on certain things and impose itself in certain ways. But at the same time, I don’t think we can create a society that we’re unable to imagine. Even though the caveat that I was trying to trying to communicate is that it will still be different from how we imagine in, but the imagining it is a hugely important part of creating it.

And I think it’s extremely, extremely important to make a very, very clear analytical and strategic distinction between imaginings and blueprints. Creating blueprints is just a furtherance of the war against the planet. It is an extremely colonial act to impose a blueprint on the world. And actually, this reticence towards imagination is probably the biggest criticism I’ve ever had of insurrectionary anarchism. Like this general refusal to imagine. Which isn’t even really well supported by the theoretical bases of insurrectionary anarchism. I think it’s just more often manifests as a fear, like an insistence of focusing on the present, which has some important strategic elements to that insistence. Like we’re gonna focus on the present. But then there’s also I think this fear of actually going beyond that.

Who is doing a good job of sharing these imaginings, these imaginations? So okay, there’s this one group that I interviewed in the US for the book. I keep their location anonymous, but basically they get funds and divert theirs, or they take advantage of some financing that’s intended for other purposes. Basically it’s intended to help large scale industrial farmers buy trees for windbreaks and whatnot. And this is a radical anticapitalist group that buys massive amounts of trees, like tens of thousands of trees in order to help neighborhoods move towards food autonomy. And I haven’t seen them do anything that’s explicitly propagandistic works of imagination. Like “we can imagine this area that we live in being an abundant orchard, where you can grow our own healthly food and not rely on wage labor to get low quality food”. But I think on the material level, there’s a great deal of imagination in what they do.

And I think also a lot of it refers back to peasant and Indigenous imagination from Latin America, because a lot of the neighborhoods where what they do is most effective are neighborhoods with with a large number of Central American migrants who have a lot of experience with growing their own food and with combining residential and agricultural spaces in a way that is generally not done in the Global North. And so if not on the level of like written propaganda, at the very least on the material level, there is a thriving imaginary in that project of neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, working class neighborhoods that increase their quality of life by growing healthy food. And this is one small group that’s doing this, if this were done across the US, then you’d be creating like an atmospherically significant amount of carbon reduction, of carbon being brought down from the air by reforestation. It’s done in a complex healthy way and not in like a mono cropping, genetically engineered way, and it also gives working class neighborhoods access to healthy food.

Also, most of the trees that they’re planning are autochthonous, how do you say that in English? They’re native, they’re native species, most of which have been neglected by industrial agriculture because industrial agriculture imposes a lot of needs, that are divorced from the needs of human and environmental health. Like transportability: apples are great because they can be they can be hard, they can be harvested early, and then they can be shipped around the world. Pawpaws, for example, are a very, very important native tree food from North America they’re kind of too mushy, they don’t work so well being transported so they don’t work so well as a supermarket food. And so it’s a very healthy food, which is a part of Indigenous cultures, Indigenous histories, Indigenous technology, which is just removed from the equation by how it’s done. And so it’s it’s really awesome to see a group that’s bringing back a lot of those native species and increasing biodiversity and increasing human health in working class neighborhoods.

Aside from more material projects, there’s something very, very important that anarchists have actually been doing for a long time, and that is experiencing a very, very exciting rebirth, which is anarchists speculative fiction. Whether science fiction or fantasy, there is increasing attention being being paid to some of the greats from the recent past, like Octavia Butler who’s a radical, not an anarchist but someone I’ve learned a lot from, someone that, it doesn’t matter that she’s not an anarchist, she’s a really great writer and really great thinker. So yeah, Octavia Butler, Ursula K Le Guin, over here [in Spain and Catalunya], for example, they’ve even been republishing and reprinting some of the anarchists who are engaging in some speculative fiction from out of the workers movement in the late 19th century. And then you also have a lot of current writers who are putting out anarchist speculative fiction, and that’s something that we really need to support and we need to try to spread beyond just the movement. Get it into our libraries, get it into our local bookstores, because that’s generally more effective in spreading anarchist ideas and anarchist imaginaries then, you know, then a lot of our nonfiction writing.

TFSR: Yeah, plus, it’s fun.

PG: Oh, yeah.

TFSR: [giggles] I’ve seen warnings on social media and in some recently published books such as Climate Leviathan – which honestly, I have not finished yet, just haven’t had time – but of ideas of eco-Leninism, or eco-Maoism, an ostensibly leftist authoritarian state response to climate destabilization, then I’ve got a feeling that it’s not just about Derek Jensen anymore. Can you talk a little bit about this tendency, and if you see this as an actual threat with actual adherence, like an actual threat to liberty?

PG: Yeah. Probably most significantly Andreas Malm took it into a new territory, well beyond, for example, like Derek Jensen, with that group. And so this is something that is getting us lot of attention in anticapitalist academic circles. I’ve never seen anywhere where it has any implantation on the ground, like directly in real struggles or in social movements. So from that perspective, it would seem just like a very out of touch, elite, making kind of wild arguments that are fairly ridiculous and irrelevant. Except I think we’ve seen dynamics before, where when the official centrist practices and ideologies flounder, and are unable to produce solutions that the system needs in order to correct and survive – and that’s definitely, we are entering that that period of history right now- where authoritarian elements in social movements that seem to be very, very tiny and not very relevant, all of a sudden go really big, really fast.

That happened in a huge way in the Spanish Civil War, where the authoritarian Communists were completely irrelevant and tiny, and the anarchists had so much influence in the revolutionary movement. And then in less than a year, because of outside funding and because of elite power structures making alliances of convenience, all of a sudden authoritarian revolution – supposedly revolutionary methodology because in fact the Stalinist were quite explicit in saying that they weren’t trying to fight the revolution in Spain – where those authoritarian currents gain ground really, really, really rapidly. And so we need to learn from history, we need to prepare ourselves for that eventuality or inevitability, and we need to be making the arguments now about how these authoritarian ways of looking at the problem are completely detached from people’s needs and the needs of actual ecosystems, and how they are completely unrealistic given the nature of the problem.

That also means being more vociferous about talking about our methodologies, our solutions, and the victories or partial victories that we have. In the case of Andreas Malm, he made it a little bit easier to beginning with some pretty obviously racist, anti-Indigenous statements that he made. I mean he’s very much… he has trouble seeing past the needs of the reproduction of Global North white supremacist society. But I think later iterations of that kind of authoritarian, Eco-Leninist thinking are going to be more sophisticated and they’re going to do a better job at hiding their colonial and white supremacist dynamics. And so I think we need to, yeah, we need to be conscious of that danger while it’s still small.

TFSR: Does it seems strange to you that AK Press just published a book by him last year? How to Blow up a Pipeline.

PG: Um I mean, yeah. There are anarchists publishers that take the approach of only publishing books that they feel affinity with, and I think some really, really important literature that is not commercially viable has gotten circulated that way and that’s really important. And then there are other other radical publishers, like AK that take the approach of being a very broad platform. And there’s some things that AK publishes that I wouldn’t have found out about or gotten access to that both have a broader appeal or like a less radical appeal, and that are also exactly the things that anarchist, especially in North America, need to be thinking about that address things that we historically ignore and do a terrible job of. And then there are things that AK or similar publishers have published that I wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole, or that I would touch to burn maybe?

TFSR: [chuckles] Yeah, and I’m not meaning to put AK Press on the spot specifically, but like, that book, and then like, Nick Estes-

PG: The same thing applies, like PM, like all these larger platform publishers. I think I as a person would tend more – just because of I don’t know, my personality, or whatever – would tend more to the sort of small affinity kind of oriented model. But I’m also able to recognize that the way a broader publisher does things has advantages, and it puts us in contact with texts and ideas that we really need to be in dialogue with, and that if we’re just focusing on affinity we’ll never get out of our little echo chamber.

So, yeah, and then some of the Marxists who I respect who are closer to anarchism, say that Andreas Malm’s earlier, big seminal book was important and useful. Like about climate capitalism, about looking at the intersections between climate change and capitalisms earlier development. So, you know, evidently he’s put out things that are theoretically useful, but I think he’s kind of a clown when it comes to direct action. Like he’s coming from this highly privileged, Scandinavian social democratic vantage point where he can talk about his flirtation with direct action from a few years ago without the risk of going into prison, which is [laughing] another planet for the rest of us. And then he, with How to Blow Up a Pipeline, it just seems so like vapid and fatuous. Like this highly privileged academic talking really tough about “yeah, we’re gonna take this thing down” when he really has no idea what he’s talking about and he tends to talk about it in very irresponsible and unrealistic ways.

TFSR: Available at a bookstore near you…

PG: [laughs]

TFSR: [laughing] So, one of my favorite answers to the question of “How can listeners offer solidarity from where they’re at?” that I’ve asked guests in the past, one of the best answers that I’ve gotten consistently from people that are doing anti-megaproject work, or blocking pipelines – megaproject I guess – anticolonial struggles, is to do that work where we’re at, against the oppressive dynamics here to destabilize the capitalist core, so that autonomy can flourish here, as well as at the peripheries. And I feel like that was really echoed in the conclusion of your book. What would you tell people a good next step is after reading the book? [laughs] Leading question?

PG: I mean, in tandem with developing a global perspective, that’s real, that’s based in actual relationships of solidarity with the people and with struggles in other parts of the world, I would say that taking steps, at least baby steps towards food autonomy, is something that can be done anywhere, needs to be done anywhere. And that it’s also an interesting exercise or an interesting line of attack, because it can kind of give us new perspectives on what are the structures that get in the way of our survival? You know, what are the structures that really need to be identified as enemies? And sharing food is is a really powerful activity on every level. And so moving beyond more superficial practices of affinity, towards practices of solidarity with people who are, you know, don’t think the same way as us, as a step towards actually creating like a community worthy of the name, food is extremely important. Being able to share food, being able to decrease dependence on capitalism, that aspect. If I had to give a shorter answer I would highlight that for special attention.

TFSR: So start a garden. You heard it here first.

[both crack up together]

PG: Housing! Housing is really important.

TFSR: Totally.

PG: Taking over housing, anyways, yeah. To answer properly you’d have to talk about so many different things.

TFSR: I guess intervene where you can and have some imagination. I really liked the fact that a couple times in the book that you challenged the the readership to “no, really, stop reading. Please take a moment, close your eyes or look out the window and just do some thinking”. Yeah, that’s good.

Peter, are you working on anything else right now or just kind of like, taking care of business between between books?

PG: Uhhhhh, right now just trying to stay alive and yeah. I think we’re doing a very bad job generally in our movements of taking care of ourselves and taking care of each other. And so I’m trying to look at that more. Yeah, trying to get off my ass to actually plant my garden once it’s spring. And yeah, we’re still working on the infrastructures gatherings, anarchists infrastructures gatherings here in Catalunya. Whenever I find the motivation to start working on the next book, the next one will probably be a critique of democracy, both representative and direct. And then I’d also love to get to this research project about the invention of whiteness in the Spanish colonial experience, since it’s been mostly studied in the English experience of the invention of whiteness through through colonialism.

TFSR: Cool. Well, thanks for this lovely book. I really enjoyed the read and thank you for taking the time to talk.

PG: Thank you. Thank you for taking the time to talk and thanks for, thanks for reading, thanks for the conversation and, yeah. Thanks for being in touch.

TFSR: Of course.

“For Trans Liberation, Capitalism Must Be Abolished”

“For Trans Liberation, Capitalism Must Be Abolished”

"Transgender Marxism" book cover with a trans flag color scheme of pink, white and blue and a transgender symbol mixing male & female iconography
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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:

Sean Swain #A243205
OSP Youngstown
878 Coitsville-Hubbard Rd
Youngstown, OH 44505

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.

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Featured Tracks:

  • Gemini (instrumental) by Princess Nokia from Everything Is Beautiful

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Transcription

TFSR: This is The Final Straw Radio and we’re excited get to talk to an editor and a contributor to this new really, exciting volume Transgender Marxism which is published by Pluto Press. I wanted to first ask you to introduce yourself with your names, pronouns, any affiliation that you would like the listeners to know about.

Jules Gleeson: Hi. I’m Jules Gleeson, and I am one of the co-editors of Transgender Marxism, the new collection we’re here to chat about. My pronouns are she and I am only very loosely affiliated to things at the moment. I’m very happy to be joining you today.

Michelle O’Brien: Hello, my name is Michelle O’Brien and I am a contributor to the volume chapter on trans work and experiences of trans people in employment, both formal and informal. That chapter I wrote draws heavily from the New York City Trans Oral History Project that I worked with for some years. I write communist theory, teach Queer Studies at Gallatin, and work as a psychoanalyst. And my pronouns are she and her.

TFSR: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I’m really excited, I did a deep reading of the book, it was really helped me think through my own positionality in the world. So I’m excited to dive into a lot of the ideas in there. Starting off, right away, one thing that keeps coming up in the book throughout different contributors’ pieces is the question of how transness might be useful for Capital. And this is being posed after this “transgender tipping point” where there’s more visibility, specifically, I think, for trans women and more understanding of transness, I guess, in mainstream worlds, although that might be questionable. So to start the discussion, what do you think are relative or limited, or positive gains made by trans people as a result of this increase in visibility?

JG: Yeah, I’m happy to pick up on that. So for those of you listening at home, who are not familiar with the “transgender tipping point,” was a phase around, I suppose, 2014 to 2015. Most notably, this famous Time’s cover of Laverne Cox, the star of Orange Is the New Black appearing on Time. And the transgender tipping point is pretty loosely this moment when suddenly there was an increase, a surge of popular familiarity, let’s say, with transgender culture and transgender experiences. After which – to me, the most obvious difference is – trans people seem to become a lot more numerous, which is measurable in everything from people applying to become patients of gender identity clinics to transgender-specific communities seeming to swell in size, and there are all kinds of ways we can talk about the measurement. But, clearly at this point somewhere around 2013 to 2015, things transformed pretty rapidly and seemingly permanently towards what had been a cluster of different subcultural circles, becoming something more like a mass culture. That’s my own reading. I think both myself and Michelle, this wasn’t our point of departure into transgender circles or transgender discussions, however, clearly the transgender question, I suppose, transformed thereafter. And the work of this collection is very much following on in the wake of that, and in the confusion that follows and is continuing to follow on from that.

MO: So I’ll say a bit. In the far queer and trans left in New York City, there’s a pretty well-developed critique of the trans tipping point that centers around a number of points. One is this discrepancy between popular media attention on trans people and the actual material conditions, social service infrastructure, material well-being, violence against trans people. And so there’s certainly a disjunction between the two and where there might be a lot of progress made in the symbolic popular media realm, that only occasionally corresponds to any material progress made in the lives of working-class people. And even when we’re talking about sort of material progress, I think there’s been a lot of good thinking around how, for example, anti-discrimination legislation that we recently won in New York City, a few years ago, doesn’t actually protect people very effectively against being highly marginalized in the employment market because of the dynamics of “at will” employment and the sort of broader forces of oppression and racism in society. And so we can recognize the limits of both liberal equality and liberal celebration, liberal recognition. And I think people are very right to point out and call attention to the trans liberation, trans well-being, trans life has to be something more than getting on magazine covers and having famous people mention the existence of trans people.

I will also say that I think that the increased visibility has had dramatic and substantial benefits. And one of the stark ones Jules mentioned is the increase in the numbers of trans people, that part of the dynamics of trans life is at any given time, there are probably a lot of people out there who have internally and privately a trans experience that they are not yet able to act on in the world, to come out, to transition, to find other trans people, to talk about their experience. In my work as an analyst, I certainly encounter a lot of people in this situation. And the level of increased visibility just has dramatic implications of enabling a lot more people to find each other and to build a life together in ways that I think are very powerful. And then the other is, I think there actually has been a dramatic and substantial increase in trans organizing and trans movement-building that’s happened concurrently and that has taken Black trans leadership and communities very seriously in some ways. I think the Black Lives Matter Movement is one of the most substantially trans-inclusive political struggles I’ve ever seen, more inclusive than, I would say, most LGBT rights organizations and organizing. And I think that Black Lives Matter has been very powerful in moving money, attention, and support to Black trans-led movements, and helped them a lot in gaining political grounds in a variety of ways: whether that means money or specific policy reforms, or much broader level of attention and infrastructure. Which, obviously, we have quite a long ways to go, but we’re out in the streets and then struggle together and the tipping point has been a dimension of this political process unfolding that has dangers, that has backlash, a backlash that has, in the words of one anthology, a trapdoor, but also has some really quite powerful opportunities in advances.

TFSR: Yeah, thanks for mapping that out. First, that historical moment that we’re in the wake of and then the complexities of visibility, how that can bring good things and also cause some harm. I also think it’s really important, as you noted, to talk about the Black trans leadership we see in movements – that’s a different kind of visibility than the media or TV show kind of visibility the tipping point refers to.

There’s one thing that, Jules, you and your co-editor Elle O’Rourke write in the introduction, “if trans life can’t be eradicated, it can be normalized and disciplined.” So I’m interested in this… I don’t know if you have more to say about this kind of double-edged sword where there are these gains, but there’s also maybe a risk of what we saw with gay liberation becoming a movement for marriage equality. I wondered what either or both of you had to say about this as a potential moment of capture by capital, by the state? Can we be distracted in the way that transness can be stylized and then normalized, and then sold back to us? Or is there also hope for the resistance to that capture?

JG: Yeah, I’m happy to talk about this and the introduction. Sadly, Elle couldn’t join us today, but this was the introduction that we cowrote together. I suppose just to say one more word on Black Lives Matter does: what the introduction is trying to capture is at once we have these remarkable and unpredictable breakthroughs, breakthroughs that sometimes are quite hard to keep track of and last summer, when Black Lives Matter was in full swing, was definitely one of these cases. This is one of the moments we touch upon, the cleaning-of-the-house moment that bought around the Black Trans Lives Matter rally in Brooklyn. And this is the optimistic aspect of it: all of these insurgent, intersectional connections, which are just being put into motion rather than just theorized, I think, like Michelle was saying, we’re just getting out onto the streets some of the time. But the other aspect is there needs to also be a realistic assessment of what’s standing in our way. And what you’re flagging up here as a section where we talk about the family, about private households. And this is, I think, still an intractable and still probably – I don’t know if it’s the majority of the harm that trans people encounter – but definitely any group of trans people you meet, if you talk to them about their relationships with those parents, extended families, even the friendship circles they’ve grown up with, I think maybe a minority will have had fortunate or blessed experiences, if you know what I mean.

So this is this passage which you’re flagging up that the repression and disciplining, and to drawback to what Michelle was just saying, it’s the privatization of transgender experiences where many people are allowed to furtively and secretly live out the lives they want to live, but then among the people maybe who raised them, the people who they grew up around, they have to don another face, don another attire. I think that’s something which there’s no reason to believe that is going to transform anytime soon. Maybe Michelle would want to say some more about it. Specifically, what we’re trying to do in this introduction is address the family, address private life as part of political life, which is a familiar concern for anyone, especially anyone who’s read feminist history. But we use a particular framework drawn from Angela Mitropoulos, who writes about Oikonomia / Economia, the binding and normative rules that appear in these private households. And that’s one way which we’re trying to approach this broader question, which is then returned to, in many different ways, throughout the rest of the collection. There’s basically this question of how can it be that exactly what’s supposed to be apolitical or de-political safe haven from political and capitalism – the household, our upbringings, our private lives – how can it be that those places are what any trans politics has to work through before it even exists? Before we can even take to the streets openly? That’s what this introduction is trying to cut up. I’m sure Michelle has some stuff to say as well.

MO: In the introduction, Jules’ reference substantively engages this question of the family. And you have another question, Scott, around thinking about family and family abolition. Family abolition is a very powerful way of trying to think through these pieces alongside each other, both thinking about the overall circuits of labor markets and capitalist society that the family plays a really integral role in. And then thinking about how, nested within that, the violence and tyranny and brutality that trans people face within so many structures of family. And part of the dynamics of the privacy of the family, is that it’s very difficult to make inroads in there. People are able to constitute a level of family or a form of family that’s protected against a certain kind of outside scrutiny, attention, a certain space of political struggle, and that a lot of our political movements are oriented to the state, perhaps to employers, the civil society, and it becomes much more difficult to think in political terms about what it takes to transform families. Like some of the dynamics of the workplace or some of the dynamics of the state, I think this is a real limit for contemporary social movements, that we are sort of trying to figure out how to politicize and transform these spaces that are that have deep structural dynamics in the reproduction of collective life. And it’s part of what leads a lot of trans people to be interested in science-fiction, in revolutionary politics in a more dramatic sense, in thinking about what could it mean to actually come up against and move beyond these limits.

TFSR: The experience of being trans within this bourgeois ideal of a white family that is still upheld, even though it contradicts the reality of what people are experiencing… Actually, there’s one way that you put it in the introduction, talking about how the families serves, not only in a moral sense, that is the way that is often talked about, but also in an economic sense as the project of neoliberal debt imperialism. Like allowing the state to continue to throw people into dispensable situations and somehow maintain itself while doing less and less. My question is about how this historical point we’re in, where there’s like more and more trans people, there’s still this relic of the family, but the family is not doing what it’s supposed to be doing. How does transness come in as a way to disrupt that? How can we use that increased visibility, the increased trans struggle to continue to work against that stranglehold of the family, not simply morally but also economically, politically?

JG: That’s a great question. In terms of us addressing the bourgeois family, obviously, the abolition of the bourgeois family is something that is not specific to radical trans theory or anything like that. It also appears in the Communist Manifesto, obviously, and this was something which various figures in the First International were committed to and published about in the writing in various ways. What’s being talked about at this point is the bourgeois family as in this type of household which brings up the new generation, but also transfers wealth and assets and fixed capital from one generation to the next one. So when the introduction is talking about this contemporary phase, very much what we’re drawing from is these extensive decades of work, now, that’s been done looking at the New Right where through the political framework, the New Right had envisioned was not only about the strong state but also about strong families. And this is still very much evident today. If you tune into Tucker Carlson, he’s not only talking about how the police need to be given powers to put down Black Lives Matter, last time I tuned in, he’s also complaining about how today your kid’s probably a stoner cause weed is legal, so your kid’s got bloodshot eyes over the dinner table and stuff like that. This is still a part of the Right Wing imaginary, part of the Right Wing horizon is that families need to be strengthened up and there needs to be more authority against generations and pure disruption of that. One of the things he said, though obviously, Marx didn’t really talk about white families, and I suppose this is saying which more came on to the abolitionist horizon from work like Hortense Spillers’ black feminist critique which is identifying how, specifically in the American context, what’s being transferred across generations for Black families through much of US history is not wealth and not fixed assets, but exactly legal dispossession. Being un-personed and so on is exactly what’s being transferred from one generation to the next. I’ve run out of things to say at this point. But the reason I suppose that this is the family abolitionist politics has been of relevance to me and several other people in the collection, is exactly because there is this moment where you feel like a lot of the existing left has strayed from the First International in ways which I think are a shame and ways which we consider to reunite with these questions of gender and household oppression quite easily. That’s my own project.

MO: I’m writing a book on family abolition for Pluto at the moment, and it’s in full swing, as Jules and other people know. I have just an enormous amount to say about all of this. I don’t want to take up our podcast time talking about it too much at length, but a few points… One is, in the introduction, Jules referenced the family as the site of privatized social reproduction. It’s very helpful to think about the family not just in terms of a sort of normative ideal that’s imposed through policy, that’s aspired to by people, an ideological form that exists on the right and in culturally conservative sections of the left, but also the family just concretely: who do you live with? Who do you share whatever limited resources you have available? If you’re not able to work, who are you dependent on that you actually know? Who do you cook for? Who cooks for you? These questions are really concrete social reproduction that can be done entirely in the market to some extent, could hypothetically be done in various historical times and for specific strata through a welfare structure or a state structure, but overwhelmingly are done through forming relationships of care, dependency, coercion, intimacy with specific people in our lives, and that the vast majority of children are raised in this kind of structure. People have these privatized households, and there are all sorts of political implications for that. One of those political implications is that it’s a total growing up as a queer trans youth, as a gender nonconforming child, if you are unlucky enough to end up in an extremely unsupportive household, things are bad, and there are very few opportunities for collective intervention in how to change that. It’s insulated from a certain kind of struggle and collective transformation, which is a tremendous problem for liberatory movements, and how we think about them.

In terms of race and white supremacy, Jules mentioned Hortense Spillers, I’ve been very inspired by the work of Tiffany Lethabo King, who rereads Hortense Spillers and Afro-pessimism and thinks about race and gender in terms of family abolitionism. And I think there’s a way of reading about the history of enslavement and the history of the pathologization of Black families in the United States in terms of an imposition of a white norm that demonizes and pathologizes the certain kinds of kinship structures coupled to an actual apparatus of state violence, of economic violence, of historically slavery…. really fragmenting kin relationships. And that there is a dynamic dialectic in the history of anti-racist, anti-capitalist struggle in the United States, between really seeing a white bourgeois family norm as something to aspire to and pursue versus thinking that we could do something very different and better. What would it mean to actually care for each other? And that there’s a wonderful, long legacy of people trying to form a chosen family, trying to depend on extended family, trying to depend on neighborhood and community, and that these are both inspiring and to be celebrated and defended, but also run into all these contradictions that have to do with what it means to try to constitute a household in the capitalist society. And uneven access to work, to resources, to public space, and the way it structures power dynamics internally. And we can point to the bourgeois white family as an extreme or particularly horrific example of that, or the Christian fundamentalist family. But that even in chosen family structures, the broader dynamics of trying to survive and reproduce ourselves in a capitalist society are going to torque those relationships, to distort those relationships and make it very difficult to figure out how to treat each other well. Anytime we are dependent on people, there’s an element, a dynamic of coercion that becomes a part of that, that we have to sort through and we have to sort it through politically and collectively in a way that the family as a structure ends up opposing.

TFSR: Thanks for that. And I’m also very excited to read the work on family abolition because I’m also super interested in that. Maybe we can talk about that when it comes out. Going back to Spillers, because both of you mentioned that at the end of Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe, Spillers says that the violent experience of women in chattel slavery made sort of ungendered is how she ends up talking about it, and she points to it as a place for rethinking and a resistant understanding and reframing of feminism from that experience. Maybe this is what you were referring to, is the dialectic with changing the impact of the state and economic violence that creates the situation of oppression into a place where you can start framing liberation. And I see that also that gets paralleled in the 60s-70s, gay liberation movement and feminism where the places that are excluded and marginalized are also places to form a resistance. And I wonder, to what extent do you think the trans experience within these structures is also actually the threat to the social order that the right-wing would claim it to be? I guess this could get back into that question of capture because it could also be domesticated in a way. But I wonder if you have thoughts on how trans experience could be liberatory in that way.

MO: I’m most attentive to the substantial intersection between transness and poverty. This is particularly true of trans people from working-class and poor backgrounds. It’s particularly true of trans people of color. It’s particularly true of trans women. Employment discrimination is quite widespread, is quite prevalent. And one of the things I tried to do in my piece is thinking about how coming out as trans, how transitioning, if you’re not able to be very stealth and very closeted and very lucky in pulling that off – and for lots of trans people being stealth is not a realistic goal – that’s going to have a huge impact on your employment trajectory, a huge impact on how you’re able to reproduce your class position, a huge impact on your economic chances. And that that’s true across the board. So you see a downward shift in class position for lots and lots of trans people. And then there’s a huge host of trans people from poor and working-class backgrounds for whom that shift pushes you entirely out of formal employment. Getting access to formal wage labor is extremely difficult. And so you see lots and lots of trans people, trans women, particularly working-class trans women and trans women of color, but it’s actually quite a widespread experience for trans women to spend extended periods of time engaging in sex work of various sorts, engaging in criminalized economies, in hustles. And then you see these little pockets of employment niches where trans people are able to reproduce themselves with some visibility, and that is most closely tied to the world of sex work and criminalized economies. I’d put HIV services, a lot of ex-sex workers or current sex workers end up doing HIV prevention services, and trans social services tied up with the world of HIV services. So, you have all these weird dynamics in fundraising and public health administration and biopolitical surveillance and criminalization tied up with this nonprofit nexus that people might use as a way of exiting out of sex work into like a lower risk, but also much lower-paying job, often with some stability. And in the Trans Oral History Project, they interviewed several former sex workers working in HIV services now and the dynamic of that trajectory.

But you have a few other pockets and those are growing. I’m certainly attentive to social work, there’s a presence of trans women in tech. As changes open up, the spaces of employment expand, but by and large, the experience of trans life is one of significant economic precarity. And so long as that’s true, and there’s a lot of reasons to think it could be mostly true for a long time to come, that has a dramatic impact on people’s politics. Being highly economically marginalized in a situation of a disappearing welfare state, of hostility and lack of support from your families of origin, of very little safety net, puts you in a position where you are relying on friends, on your own ability to engage in criminalized hustles, and makes it very clear that the world is a nightmare that needs to be overcome and destroyed. That’s not a universal response by any means. But the economic experience of economic precarity helps me make sense of why so many trans people end up in political struggles, in organizing, end up with anti-capitalist politics of a wide variety, and helps me make sense of under what hypothetical future conditions are trans people likely to be on the left or to be far-left. The circumstances of our political inclusion – obviously, a stratum of trans people could be politically included quite quickly – but really it depends on the question of employment and economic stability.

JG: There’s a few different chapters of the book that deal with this question of work, I suppose, as you’d expect from a Marxist collection. I feel like Michelle and Kate Doyle Griffiths’ piece, both addressing this question of how trans people managed to exist as workers. I think, as Michelle was alluding to, it’s also that any understanding of trans work has to understand the experience of being out of work long-term and unemployment relying on state resources or perhaps family and friend networks and so on. There’s also Zoe Belinsky’s essay, which is called “Transgender and Disabled Bodies – Between Pain and the Imaginary” and in another way, Anja Flower’s “Cosmos Against Nature in the Class Struggle of Proletarian Trans Women”, which is more using this framework of direct market mediation and the indirect in terms of the reproductive labor. So there’s a bunch of different perspectives addressing this question of both what it means to exist and make it in a workplace as a trans person and also the very commonplace realities that a lot of the time, that’s not really where we end up. Where we end up as more in the industrial reserve army of labor. You’re proletarians insofar as you’re stripped from the means of production, but not proletarians, insofar as you actually have a source of exploited toil, which you’re reliably committed to. Like Michelle, I definitely consider us spending so much time in the underbelly of capital and its reproduction a huge part of why it’s such a commonplace to find communist trans people, or leftist, anti-capitalist, whatever you want to call it.

TSFR: Or even anarchist trans people, which is the enclave I inhabit.

I like the narrative that Michelle poses away that a trans person could become politicized in a particular way. One of the things that the book in multiple essays grapples with is the extent of trying to survive under these conditions in a way that’s at least somewhat bearable versus having even the energy or the ability to fight the conditions that create that form of deathly oppression. A lot of the essays do a really good job of trying to talk about how we can create situations to survive and then also think about where we can fight against them. One of the most important things for me reading this whole book and reading everyone’s pieces is how it intervenes within the discussion of social reproduction and thinking about trans life through care work. This is something we keep mentioning, but I want to dive more directly into that. If either of you wanted to talk a little bit about how you think the transgender Marxism wreath frames social reproduction because there’s a feminist version of that, and I think that you’re building on that in here, but doing something different with specific trans experience. And specifically also talking about the transition through this lens. Maybe we can just start with understanding what a trans analysis of social reproduction might be.

JG: Yeah, that’s an exciting question, because social reproduction comes up in this collection in a bunch of different ways. Social reproduction appears on several different registers across the course of this collection. The first one is in the very first essay by Noah Zazanis, which is called “Social Reproduction and Social Cognition”, brings that Marxist feminist framework into dialogue with some more mainstream psych kind of approaches to how people develop their identities from a very young age. I guess the different approaches taken in this collection speak to the pretty broad set of approaches that Marxist feminism has increasingly come to deploy. And it’s worth mentioning that social reproduction is not actually a framework that every Marxist theorist or even every Marxist feminist is really committed to. So it’s not exclusively an SRT collection. However, I suppose that the reason which I first came to this framework of social reproduction that is focusing on workforces, what come to the workforces in the first place, how people come to the laborers and sustain themselves as laborers… The point at which I came to this, I suppose was exactly in the wake, as I was saying before, of the tipping point, and as part of my frustration that so few people really were providing any explanation as to why this was happening. And I actually found it to be very prevalent on the right, the right-wing accounts of these things were just depicted as some mysterious degeneration, or perhaps an ideological mania. But I also was finding that a lot of social theorists didn’t really seem to provide any satisfying or even helpful attempts at working out what was going on.

So social reproduction was the thing which I personally was pretty committed to around 2016. And I would say a lot of the collection is taking that meaning of the time and that avenue of inquiry, which is specifically looking at communities and subcultures, if you will, but I would rather say these reproductive circles, in whatever form they take, which provide people collectively with the means of making themselves transgender. Which has been discussed, primarily means surviving as a transgender proletarian, although it’s not the only variation, as we all know. That’s the primary meaning which I’ve been interested in and invested in. But as I say, this isn’t a settled question. And this is an ongoing discussion within Marxist feminist theory, what are the best terms to use and the best frameworks and understanding. I’m happy to say a lot more about that. Probably both myself and Michelle could talk all day about this one.

MO: I would distinguish three registers that I think of social reproduction as having a really huge impact on trans life. And I think Jules to some extent referenced each of these. One is thinking about the mutual aid networks, communities of support, that when somebody thinks they might be trans or gender questioning or knows with confidence that they are trans, they might go out and seek connections with other people to be able to help them think through both their gender identity and way of thinking about themselves, the concrete steps around transition. And this is I think, partially why we’ve seen just a giant increase in the numbers of trans people coming out with a steadily increasing access to the internet. People on the internet are able to find these communities. And why there are have been particular pockets of trans people for many, many generations, who are demographically numerous in highly specific social settings.

Like when I came out as trans in 2000, shortly after getting out of college, I looked around, I was in a kind of queer punk scene where there were a lot of trans masculine people and very few trans feminine people. And I looked around the country and I found three or four other punk trans feminine, trans women. And then I moved to Philadelphia and met like 300 black trans women my age who were the first trans women of my age I ever met. And it’s because they had this highly developed scene around balls and houses where they really figured out how to enable each other’s transitions. That certainly wasn’t available in the Women’s Studies Department, right? In my much more privileged background on some level, I was really lacking this supportive space and community. And I had various internet-based communities to try to figure out how to do this that have since really flourished and are much bigger. So that’s one meaning of social reproduction.

Another meaning is the violence and tyranny that we might experience in our homes, the dynamics of our family of origin, household as this private space of reproduction. And so social reproduction has been really key to thinking about anti-trans violence.

And then another register of social reproduction is that, depending on how you parse it, many people identify various formal wage labor sectors as being really integral to social reproduction. Nurses, teachers, daycare workers, elder care attendants – all these different people that are reproducing humans capable of participating in the labor market and society. And I think for various reasons, you see a lot of gender-nonconforming people in these sectors. These are feminized sectors, they are sectors that historically have had lots of women and queer people of various genders. I think there are different historical dynamics that have brought a fair number of trans people into working in these realms. And that these are realms of intense labor struggle, currently, and that some of the dynamics of de-industrialization and the shift to a late service economy, that these are not sectors that are easily automated, so that the need for labor isn’t easily reduced. So you really have a growing section, in the Global North, of people working in these labor sectors, and that these labor sectors have a lot of potential for uniting and connecting different sectors, strata of the working class, and bringing people together in different and complex and rich ways as part of their struggle for working conditions.

 

JG: Oh, just one more thing, quickly on the connection, I really appreciated that three-part breakdown from Michelle. I suppose one more thing in the collection, one way it appears is there’s this primarily historical essay by Nat Raha which looks at exactly the kind of movement struggles which brought what we now call social reproduction theory into being and she looks at one of these lesser-known groups, a British collective called Wages Due Lesbians, which was a counterpart of the much better-known Wages For Housework. That was operating in the context of the British New Right. And that looks at some overlaps that she perceives between this group and the much better-known STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in New York City. That’s another approach that you can find in the collection. There’s at once a range of different social reproduction theory type outlooks, and also people who see social reproduction theory as a thing to talk about other terms.

TFSR: That was already helpful to think about what transgender Marxist perspective on social reproduction COULD look like in different ways. The last point that you made, Michelle, was talking about another possible place for politicization, given that trans people and non-binary people or gender non-conforming people would be working in specific situations for a potential radicalization. That was interesting to me as another reframing of that inherent liberatory perspective that sometimes gets through and around and to me, seems often like a very liberal feeling, just being trans in itself is somehow resistance. But you discuss more explicitly how that actually works through the work that trans people do in the care work that they do for other people.

One thing I might do to follow up. That visibility in the mainstream, the idea of transition often becomes individualized, like there’s a particular internal experience that needs to be brought out through transition. The liberal perspective will get brought into the nuclear family that somehow unchanged by the fact of a transgender child, when there’s a focus on a supportive family, but the thing that the book really brought out in me, a way more explicit to me that I personally experienced through transition is how much of this is done through community and, as you said, Michelle, mutual aid. We see that also in the pandemic, just like with hormones, when there’s a supply chain break, people are sharing hormones, for example. So, I wonder if you wanted to talk more about that actual work of transition, because that’s something that gets brought up a lot in this book, and I thought it was also a major contribution by a lot of the writers in here to think about the process of transition this way, rather than the transgender individual who somehow exists. I can ask more detailed questions, but if you want to, if you have something to jump in right there, I’ll leave it open to you.

MO: This is something that other contributors and other people have thought a lot more about. I said a little bit about it, in terms of thinking about mutual aid support, but I don’t have a lot more to add.

 

LG: In my essay, I guess this is one that tried to address this question. It’s called “How Do Gender Transitions Happen?” I think that simultaneously, you can’t do away with either the personal narrative, the personal process, the very self-directed, individualized labor which people go through, or the community working. But I think it’s interesting that these things appear to be at odds, or they appear as distinctive to each other and yet, from another view, they always unfold at the same time. You’re always drawing from collective resources, or at other times, as Michelle was saying, there’s a lot of parallel development, there’s a lot of different communities which are attempting much the same thing, much the same process of transition in very different contexts and with very different styles. The point which the essay is trying to address is how people will tend to switch between these different registers of approaching transition either as something which is a set of encounters that is continuously happening as you try and negotiate your way through the world or through the community rewriting and renarrativizing. Just the specific stuff which actual circles of transgender people can do together.

 

TFSR: There’s the passage in your introduction that really stuck out to me, that “transition must come to be understood by revolutionaries as a response to its own form of hunger. The longings that drive so many to reforge lives for ourselves that leave us thoroughly proletarianized, or cast out rendered surplus”. I like this statement because I think it leaves behind the gender as a social construction versus essential gender as not even something worth spending a lot of time on at this point, and focuses on the act of transition as politicized, political, and I think it gets articulated also as ethical. But one thing that came up for me reading this is how do we… I guess there’s this personal / political divide. I could see this being dismissed as a lifestylism or self-chosen marginalization. Subcultures often get dismissed, like anarchists or punks. The thing that I really want to pull out of here is the trans desire, and also how that position of surplus in capitalism and the state, which is historically needed for capitalism to function the way it does, but how that can we rethink that place as a set of insurrection?

MO: I’ll just briefly say that I think desire is really an underappreciated category in liberation movements and the far-left. Desire is both far beyond the question of individual choice or individual preference, or how we think about market options that I think in some transphobic, conservative left discourse, there’s this idea of people choosing genders in a free way, like a neoliberal subject chooses consumer items. And that, I think, is a profound trivialization of how deep, how powerful, how transformative, and how uncertain desire is. Desire is very much what sets us in motion, in unfolding processes of personal and collective transformation, desire for survival, desire for dignity, desire for recognition. These desires are not, they’re not trivial things, they are things that are not easily satisfied, they are things that set us on trajectories that we don’t know where we’re going to end up. And that brings us into alignment and into connection with each other. And that’s just a whole realm, a whole dimension of political struggle, that I think trans people, precisely because often most trans people have made a set of personal decisions around changing their gender, that was significantly at odds with major sections of our social world, our families, our jobs, whatever that is, and had some clarity that we had a certain, one could say, truth that we were trying to think through or trying to grapple with, that might not be an essential gender, or a kind of inner gender, but a certain kind of desire in the world. And that opens up some space for thinking about how the desire functions in terms of the entire working class, in terms of the struggle for the abolition of class society, in terms of the desire to destroy and remake the world. We need to spend a lot of time listening to that and thinking much harder about that, and thinking beyond these categories of individual choice versus structural determinants.

JG: So, I suppose we talked about desire and, talking about things in terms of hunger. This is a part of the introduction where we are talking about Georges Bataille, the French theorist, pornographic writer, very heterodox political economist, call him what you will. And Bataille exactly counter-poses this effort of previous anti-imperialists prior to Marx, who were trying to elevate things and talk in terms of eagles and surpassing things. This is his critique of surrealism, by the way. It’s a very eccentric essay. But his point is that Marx is more about the old mole, it’s more about the subterranean, and specifically he talks about the hunger of the proletarian bellies being central to what Marx was trying to do or the indispensable feature of that. The stuff you’re alluding to exactly, people are dismissing this stuff as questions of lifestyle, or marginalization or whatever. This is what I feel needs to be addressed. But even if they’re rarely spoken about in the political field, transitions are the consequences of cravings, breakdowns, powerful emotions that make themselves central to the decisions we make and to the things we depart on. So you use the word ethical and that’s exactly right, a transition is always going to be about reshaping your life, taking steps, and in some way engaging in activities that transform who you are, how you’re perceived, how you’re apprehended, how you apprehend yourself. Any approach to trying to do… Whatever trans theory that doesn’t include that is bound to failure. But also, I don’t necessarily see this as something we have to choose between. We know that people seem to be living lives that are filled with desperation and breakdowns and then they get hold of these endocrinological interventions, like they got a hold of sex hormones and this transforms the lives substantially, maybe doesn’t solve all their problems, of course, it never does. But it transforms the course of their life. That doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to do the political economy of sex hormones. I’ve actually been trying to look it up, but I can’t find it. Was it you, Michelle, who wrote this piece on the trajectory of sex hormones that’s going across work? I remember I was reading this in one of these trans studies collections. But this would be an essay from a long time ago, but I can’t remember if it was you or I was just reading this.

 

MO: Yes, in 2004, I wrote an essay about capitalism and pharmaceutical companies and hormones, that got reproduced many years later in the second Routledge Transgender Studies Reader. A very long time ago.

JG: So it was the second one.

MO:Tracing This Body” is its name.

JG: Yeah, a lot of it’s kind of talking about the shipping process and the way that these things move across continents. It’s 2004, so people have been working on this for a long time. This is exactly what I mean. But there’s no reason that we can’t look at these things in a way that applies an internationalist framework, which looks at how the actual ways that pharmaceutical companies interact with transition, not the conspiracy theory version where for some reason, pharmaceutical companies are trying to profit off incredibly cheap, low-cost medical treatments. There’s no reason that we have to say, “Oh there are all of these passionate sensations. And there’s been this political economy, and we have to look at one or the other”. But it’s exactly Marx’s kind of materialism that we don’t accept that as a choice, right? These are things that are continuously interacting, people are always trying to sort out their own lives on a very basic level, but then they run into this stuff, then they run into the reality of having a landlord and having a doctor. And all of these other lopsided social relations, which they have to work through. That’s what the point about hunger is, because as you say, I think this is a difficult argument to win. But also it’s like the most important one in a way.

TFSR: Thanks. Both of these are beautiful answers. What you just said, Jules, brings up for me, there’s the experience of the relationship of a trans person to the medical and pharmaceutical industry, I am trans and also chronically ill. And you’ll get leftists who will make this argument that your existence for either of these reasons could not persist post revolution, whatever vision of a revolution they have, because, in some way, you’re so reliant on these capital systems of production and shipping, etc. And I know that’s an interesting dynamic to see the ways that those genocidal ideas play out within a leftist circle. I don’t know if you have more to say about that. And maybe Michelle, that’s something that you were talking about in that earlier text.

MO: Thankfully, there are a lot of people thinking about this and speaking on it. I wrote a piece for Commune magazine called “Junkie Communism”. And I, in some ways wrote it, you wouldn’t be able to tell this reading essay, it’s a discussion of the Young Lords and them doing syringe exchange work in a detox in the South Bronx during the occupation at Lincoln hospital, and how that helped shape harm reduction today. And I wrote that essay, in my head, as a direct response to a really vicious and very ableist genocidal framework that I saw amongst Tiqqunists and some other anarchist strains in the United States, of like, “after the revolution, all these disabled people are going to die.” And like that gets referenced one way or another. I think it’s an “Introduction to Civil War” that they say that diabetics are objectively counter-revolutionary and I think that’s a current in the American far-left or in the international far-left. So it really has to be directly combated and there are various ways that we can challenge that and various ways we can critique it, and the one that I go to is a form of radical communist humanism on some level. A fundamental political principle has to be taking each other’s lives seriously and taking the profound preciousness of lives that are treated as disposable. A part of our political paths as communists or as revolutionaries, is to really cultivate an ethic of caring for each other, of defending each other’s lives, of treating the subtitle in the piece I wrote on Communism, “No One Is Disposable.” They’re really not participating in the kind of a ranking of the value of life. The trend obviously comes pretty directly out of my experience as a trans person and thinking about trans life as being treated as disposable on all these different social registers in the world.

JG: I definitely recommend people check out “Junkie Communism” as well. In the collection, there is an essay on disability, which I’ve already mentioned by Zoe Belinsky, who is also a diabetic in reference to the Tiqqun bit. This essay’s approach to this question of disability is pretty phenomenological, it’s looking at the philosophy of experience. And the main framework which Zoe was using is talking about disability in terms of this sensation of “I cannot”. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who is this communist philosopher Zoe’s mostly responding to, talked about things in terms of experience and our way through the world in terms of “I can”, so you encounter things and you think, “Well, I can rotate this square 90 degrees”, and that lets you understand the square. So Zoe’s always a social account here, looking at exactly where disability arises, where you think, “Well, I can’t do that”. I’m really glad that this essay is in there. I’m looking forward to seeing what people think of it because needless to say, a lot of our contributors are chronically ill, I certainly am. I feel like it never quite works out, it’s not just additional to being transgender, it always overlaps and interacts with it and these things mesh in interesting ways.

But strangely, I feel like actual extended pieces about disability in my circles are unusual. There’s a lot of contributors who don’t talk about their experiences with chronic conditions, chronic illnesses in this collection, who’ve definitely been through that. So I’m hoping that between the essays we’ve talked about… I’m hoping that this stuff appears in the near future because it’s definitely a thing which is increasingly, on my mind, I felt like if you don’t really have an account of disability and the way in which it interacts with people that are preparing themselves for the workforce, then why not? This is obviously something that not only brings people into these struggles and says that people have to work through in order to survive but it’s also something that has been the site of so much organizing across so many different national contexts. It’s an ongoing point of crisis, definitely, in Britain I come from. I can’t see why people would leave this out of consideration. Other than maybe in Tiqqun’s case, I think it’s just edgy flourishes, I feel like they just don’t care very much, so they just put the stuff in to show that bad-ass insurrectionists or whatever. But I think we can do a lot better than that, an honest account of the people who become communists especially is going to include a lot of reflection on the stuff and how it impacts our lives.

TFSR: I appreciated that putting the “I can’t” as the primary experience. Other people who often make these arguments are like primitivist anarchists, and to frame that as the original experience of being a human rethinks that idea of there’s Essential or Integral Health before domestication, civilization, whatever you want to call it. I’m glad you brought that piece, too, because I think that’s really important.

I did want to go back to the question of desire and bringing us to the relationship between a trans liberation movement to the earlier gay liberation movement. One of the things I appreciate in the book is that there’s an argument against separating gender and sexuality as if there are two separate fields, which in academic discourse, became a thing for a while that gender and sexuality have to be thought of separately. But as both of you have emphasized, the desire inherent in the transgender experience, and also connecting it to these other readers like Bataille makes me think of Guy Hocqenghem talking about Fourier as a way to rethink Marx through the desire within an economy. So, we’re past the end of gay liberation and the ways that it had been co-opted. And we’re in a new era of uprising and resistance. How does the trans liberation still theorize desire as revolutionary without getting trapped in the ways that it can be enclosed into a liberal understanding of life choices as you put it, Michelle? And I had originally written some questions about earlier theorists like Guy Hocqenghem, Mario Mieli thinking about homosexuality or transsexuality as the horizon of liberation and as providing the means towards it. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these ideas and what we can inherit from that older tradition of gay liberation.

JG: Well, I actually have an essay published in the magazine, which Michelle is a founding member of, PinkoMag, which deals with Mario Mieli specifically. The essay is a sketch of what they want to work on in the future. Mieli is the Italian gay communist thinker, whose work is mostly from the early 70s. His / their work definitely uses this term transsexuality underlying the homosexual experience and specifically that what triggers homophobia, what sets it off, is that there is this base level of transsexuality, that cross-dressing, male-male desire, and so on. All these things can cause the precondition of civilization like transsexuality to peek out. I love that stuff. I think it’s 1972. By all means, check out that piece on Pinko if you want to know anything about him.

But in terms of desire, which is what you began with, I feel probably what’s the most interesting thing is why would people want to do away with desire? Why would you want to think politics without our desires and needs? That is the thing that I feel needs to justify itself. The reason I come back to Marxism all the time is that exactly what Marxism seems to provide, for me, is an account which is happy to begin with the commodity. This is what Marx begins Capital One with, what he starts with the commodity, he says, “the commodities are a strange or curious or queer thing, he says “verdächt.So the commodity is this inscrutable object. And the reason it’s so strange, and the reason you look at it, and then you look at it again, see something different, is because commodities are, on the one hand, very straightforward, very simple things. Like you want to have a snack – you buy a pack of peanuts. There we go, what could be simpler than that? And yet, when you consider them several different times, we find that it is connected to the supersensual thing which is beyond our immediate experience. Like we were saying earlier, with sex hormones, they are something you need for your satisfaction, and yet that is also something which has been shipped from another country, fabricated probably in another continent, and it’s being prescribed to you by someone in an authoritative social position.

I felt like this is sort of the way with desire. Why do we need to lose it? Why do we need to not talk about these palpable feelings that seem to drive us and lead us around? Why have we got to put those in the cupboard? I’m not going to say the closet. Why have we got to get rid of them? And that’s increasingly what I’m not convinced about, I don’t think that we need to. That’s why I was putting together a Marxist collection. I hope that the different perspectives we’ve put together mean that you don’t need to do that. You can look at things psychoanalytically at one point, and you can even look at things historically and look at different movements. Or you can try and do several things at once. Why not? Just see what works.

MO: I don’t have a lot to say. But I think this has been a really central concern at Pinko that we’re really interested in trying to think through and to think hard about the legacy of gay liberation. Gay liberationism both has some really quite extraordinary and very powerful potentials and currents and has more or less been a catastrophic failure in a lot of ways for thinking about our current moment. And to think those alongside each other in a way that really tries to draw out, to reload what could be relevant for understanding our era, for understanding sexual and gender life today, I think Jules’ pieces are a very powerful example of our efforts of trying to do that as a collective and as a journal.

I think this question of the separation of sexual orientation and gender is largely relatively unhelpful. It belongs to – even though it was pioneered in circles dominated by continental philosophy – it really kind of reeks of an analytic attempt at separating out things in[to] distinct categories that you then can isolate their divisions. While, really it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of homosexual desire abstracted from gender difference was ludicrous, it is an invention of advanced capitalist society in the 20th century and hasn’t yet permeated lots of places. You look back on the history of sodomy, and a huge amount of it involved people that were gender non-conforming in a wide variety of ways. I have some problems with it, but I think Andrea Long Chu is very interesting for talking about transitioning as being very tied up with scopic desire, with the desire of what one sees, and what one wants to become, that I think some of our efforts at avoiding some transphobic discourse around this thing prevents trans people from spending as much time talking about or thinking about as might be helpful. But the question of sexual desire and sexual yearning and gender identity has always been deeply bound up. And separating them is an elaborate artificial conceptual edifice that we should question.

TFSR: I’m glad you brought up that last thing about the ways that people try to avoid the transphobic discourse to the extent that they end up maybe repeating or leaving those distinctions in place. Winding it down, I want to ask my anarchistic question, because you’ve framed this as a Transgender Marxism and one of the classical resistance between anarchists and a version of Marxism is this historical determinism or these ideas of blueprints and stages? I’m totally open to that being a misreading of Marx, it’s played out within authoritarian communist parties. And I think historically, we could see gay liberation, the historical gay liberation movement of the 60s and 70s being a reaction to some of those versions of authoritarian communism. So I appreciated that this book didn’t play along those authoritarian lines and also made a lot of space for historical contingency. So I’m wondering how you might frame this materialist account – all of the pieces really ground their analysis from a materialist perspective – how do we bring that into relation with unknown historical contingencies, the future solidarity is that we might need to elaborate and in the particular context of trans struggle? To me, this often is a place to think of anarchism as an intervention, but I’m wondering what you have to say about that.

JG: I was really looking forward to this question, because it is a juicy one. I suppose the very short answer is that I have always found the sectarian divide between communists of the kind I get along with, communists who are my comrades and anarchists to be very flimsy, even spurious. And communism, when I use the term, and anarchist positions are remarkably similar and definitely have significantly more common ground than they have divergences. And the divergences that do exist are primarily cultural scene history stuff. That’s how I put it. That’s the very short answer.

The longer answer is, I think, Marxist communist politics of the kind I affiliate myself with, of the kind I feel connected to, have always been implacably anti-state and had a position towards the state which considers its greatest strength to also be the things that make it the most threatening and most indispensable for capitalists. The state does things that no individual capitalist is able to do and brings capitalist society into existence, one generation after the next. That’s my position. I also feel like this is becoming a much more common position among Marxist theoreticians like David Nally really recently had a series about the state, which was basically saying what I just said in a much longer way. Michel Heinrich just had an appearance on the Antifada podcast where he’s talking about how the second part of his autobiography, which is across several books, is gonna focus heavily on Bakunin and in this much misunderstood, antagonistic relationship, which Marx and Bakunin had with each other, an antagonistic relationship that exactly was over the narcissism of small differences in many cases. Increasingly, this is the turn things are taking. Obviously, there is an enormous amount of bad blood between Marxist and anarchist traditions but in many cases, I think this is overstated in its substance. Any kind of Marxist perspective which I would associate myself with is fully aware of that.

Getting back to the transgender stuff, as we must, it’s really remarkable to me how in 2013 Nevada, this novel by Imogen Binnie, it’s intuitive that the protagonist, Maria, is into anarchism. I feel like today she’d probably be a commie. I don’t know. I feel like that’s something that has changed over the past five years. And I really don’t know why. They’re obviously still a lot of transgender anarchists out there. But I feel like now the meme is that we’re all communists. So if anyone has any answers to that one, please send me a postcard.

MO: There are various ways of parsing the distinction between Marxism and anarchism, and I think most of them are silly and somewhat unhelpful. But I define and understand communism as the need to overcome class society, as the yearning, the pursuit, the real movement that abolishes the existing order of things, and Marxism is an effort to make sense of how capitalism functions. The statist Marxism, statist Communism, this idea of the consolidation of authoritarian ownership-based states that control society through violence and wage labor as somehow a transition to Communism, hopefully, it was a historical blip that we will move past and not have to deal with. And I mostly don’t spend a lot of time in an anarchist tradition, however great my hostility is towards states, just because I see the dynamics of capital and political economy as so central to driving the dynamics of human societies, state violence, state policy, police brutality, I find talking about the production of surplus populations as really an essential starting point that happens through the dynamics of capitalist wage labor markets over time. So that’s my lens of Marxism, less of statist versus anti-statist, but instead, the starting point of trying to think through the world and what we have to destroy is the dynamics of capitalism. And if an anarchist thinks that, we have a lot to talk about.

TFSR: To bring it back to the book, maybe a final question, unless you have more that you want to bring up… I appreciate the fact that this book isn’t only an academic text. It’s connected to academic work, and there are people writing in this book who are potentially employed by academic institutions, although maybe not comfortably, especially when you’re out and trans, which is something I’ve experienced, making me more and more precarious. Marxism often gets lodged in the academy in a way that’s maybe not helpful. So I just wonder about the formation of the book and how it may have come out of solidarity struggle work, or how you think it could tie back into on-the-ground movement struggle work, instead of being set off into the realms of the theory that don’t connect on the ground as much.

JG: Speaking about how academic the book is, I actually have tried to count up… it’s a bit hard to keep track off. But I think out of the 16 contributors, we’ve got 15 chapters, a total of 16 people who wrote for it, including myself and Elle. Out of those, I think about a quarter of the book [contributors] are active university lecturers. One contributor, which is Jordy Rosenberg, who wrote the afterword, has tenure. So I would say it’s primarily not an academic book. But of course, this is only part of the picture. Obviously, it’s informed by academic discourses, and a lot of academics are reading it and teaching it. That’s not especially surprising to me. The academics we do have contributing in the main body, other than the afterword, are primarily not people in the most secure or lasting positions, like come back in five years’ time…

I think that this is actually remarkably similar to the way that things look in trans healthcare, which is that there is an enormous number of people who have some relevant training, whether it’s bioresearchers, registered nurses, and so on, but very few MDs who are transgender, and this is the reason why it’s all… Who are the people with the not only the security, the partners or parents to bankroll you through down years or whatever, but also the connections that would get you through medical school, that would get you onto a tenured job, and so on. Exactly all of those connections and those healthy inter-generational bourgeois relationships are what transition is very likely to rupture. There are, of course, exceptions. There’s probably more to be said about trans studies, which is, of course, something much more expensive than this collection, and probably has a kind of uneasy relationship in some ways. But that’s what I would say. Academia has a very specific set of like demands and requirements, for people who are ready to exist for that, and that’s a very competitive environment or you’re not going to be paid reliably for quite a long time. I feel like that’s probably not going to change very quickly. And who knows if it would even be a good thing if it did.

MO: Academic life seems a deathtrap in some ways. I am one of many more or less failed academics trying to write and think in the world. If people are able to make a living there, that’s great. But it’s extremely clear that we need to create revolutionary and left spaces of thinking and study and debate and analysis, that are outside of academic spaces, academic constraints.

JG: Samuel Delany actually recounts in his shorter essays collection… he is primarily a sci-fi author, but he talks about how in the later 20th century, he got into academia on the basis that he wanted a steady income, to supplement his sci-fi career. I really struggled to imagine anyone doing that these days.

TFSR: I started teaching in the area where he was, which is also where Jordy Rosenberg is and U-Mass. He was publishing pornographic novels and at the same time… Anyway, I feel like we covered a lot and went for a long time. Is there anything that you feel like we’ve missed? There’s so much in this book, obviously, we missed a lot. But there’s anything that you would like to put on the table or bring into this discussion?

JG: I feel really satisfied. And I felt like this is gonna give a good account of the book and hopefully entice your listeners who haven’t bought a copy yet to do that title. How about you, Michelle?

MO: This is great. I already talked about far too much that extends way beyond the book. But it’s a beautiful collection and a really magnificent set of writers and authors. Jules and Elle just did an excellent job editig it. It’s a great honor to be in it. And I think I highly recommend people being interested, on the one hand, gender struggles, gender theory, trans liberation, and on the other hand, anyone wrapped up in thinking about capitalism: to buy a copy, read it and talk about it and to share about it.

TFSR: Thank both of you so much for giving so much breadth to the conversation and so much analysis of the structures. I really appreciate thinking about transness through this lens which often gets left out in the mainstream discussion of it. And even in trans studies, I find that is often disappointing, so this politicization of it is really important. And connecting it to care work and the labor experiences of trans people. I appreciate your time and the book. Is there any place that you would want to direct, beyond buying the book which you can get from Pluto press, to direct people to follow you or hear more of your work?

JG: You can follow me on Twitter @SocialRepro and I also have a https://www.patreon.com/QueerComm. That’s everything from me.

MO: I am @GenderHorizon on Twitter, https://www.patreon.com/meobrien on Patreon.

Palestine and Challenging Settler Colonial Imaginaries

Palestine and Challenging Settler Colonial Imaginaries

Photo by Yousef Natsha
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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 noblankslates@riseup.net [00:24:05]

Also, Sean Swain on aparthied [00:01:48]

No Blank Slates: A Discussion of Utopia, Queer Identity, and Settler Colonialism

Presenter(s)

Scott Branson, E Ornelas, Kai Rajala

Abstract

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.

Description:

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.

Bios

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]

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Transcription

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, Palestinian Christians. 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 copresenters, 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 ofthere’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꞉ka land, 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 antiacademic, 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 radicalparticularly anarchist, social movement organizingand 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, right before, 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 instead it’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 thereby has left behind some of the more destructive and dangerous impulses of gay liberationlike the movementwhich 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 overall she 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 to Chitty, 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 identity as 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 resources but 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 colonized quality, 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 proposeI 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 law code 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 nationhoodwhich 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 Trudeaus 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 state by 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 postTrump 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

Social Justice and Struggle in Lebanon and Syria: Joey Ayoub and Leila Al-Shami

Photo taken from Al Jumhuriya

Download This Episode

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.

Joey Ayoub is a Lebanese-Palestinian writer, editor and researcher. He publishes frequently on https://joeyayoub.com/ as well as on the blog https://hummusforthought.com/ and the related podcast by the same title.

Leila Al-Shami is a British-Syrian activist and co-author of ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War‘, a founder of the international solidarity site, TahrirICN and writes on http://leilashami.wordpress.com/ .

Below are links to some resources that Joey and Leila suggest interested listeners check out to for perspectives by folks on the ground in the region:

Lebanon links:

Syria Links:

Timestamps:

  • Sean Swain [00:02:32 – 00:09:34]
  • Intro to Lebanon & Syria [00:09:34 – 00:21:35]
  • 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]

Announcements

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.

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Playlist

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Transcription

The Final Straw: I’m very happy to be joined by Leila al-Shami and Joey Ayoub. Joey is a Lebanese-Palestinian writer, editor, and researcher; he was the Middle East and North Africa editor at both Global Voices and IFEX until recently, and is co-editor of the book Enab Baladi: Citizen Chronicles of the Syrian Uprising. Currently he is doing a PhD at the University of Zurich on postwar Lebanese society. Leila is a British-Syrian activist and the coauthor of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.

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 BaladiJoey 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 Sourceagain, 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.

LS: Thank you for inviting us.

JA: Thanks a lot.