- Headlines for February 16, 2018
- Trump Blames Mental Illness for Parkland Shooting, Ignores Easy Gun Access & Loose Background Checks
- White Supremacy, Patriarchy and Guns: FL Shooter Had Record of Death Threats, Violence Against Women
- Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa's New President, Known for Moving Profits to Offshore Tax Havens
- Headlines for February 14, 2018
- Two Reuters Journalists Face 14 Years in Burmese Prison After Exposing Massacre of Rohingya Muslims
- Rep. Pramila Jayapal: Trump's Immoral Budget Punishes the Poor, Sick & Elderly
- As Lawmakers Debate Future of DACA, What Will It Take for Democrats to Protect DREAMers?
- As Porter Domestic Violence Scandal Roils WH, Lawmakers Demand Kelly’s Ouster & Trump’s Impeachment
- V-Day: Global Movement to Stop Violence Against Women and Girls Marks 20th Anniversary
- Headlines for February 12, 2018
- Ravi Ragbir: Immigrant Leaders Are Surveilled & Targeted for Speaking Out About Trump's Deportations
- Judges Across U.S. Are Halting Trump's Mass Deportations & Ruling Immigrants Have Due Process Rights
- Remembering the Extraordinary Life of Pakistani Human Rights Lawyer & Activist Asma Jahangir
- Headlines for February 08, 2018
- Black Lives Matter Activist Muhiyidin d'Baha, Who Grabbed Confederate Flag, Shot Dead in New Orleans
- Directorate S: Steve Coll on the CIA & America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan & Pakistan
- Headlines for February 07, 2018
- NYC Taxi Driver Kills Himself at City Hall after Condemning Uber & Politicians for Financial Ruin
- "They were Both Cops & Robbers": Baltimore Police Scandal Exposes Theft, Cover-Ups & Drug Peddling
- NAACP vs. Trump: Racial Discrimination Suit Filed to Block Deportations of Haitians with TPS
- Bresha Meadows, Teenage Girl Who Killed Her Abusive Father, Finally Freed After 10 Months in Jail
- Headlines for February 05, 2018
- Head of Nobel Peace Prize-Winning Group: Trump's Nuclear Policy "Puts Us on Path Toward Nuclear War"
- As Paul Ryan Touts a Secretary's $1.50 Weekly Pay Hike, Koch Bros. Reap $1.4B from GOP Tax Plan
- 17 Arrested Outside Super Bowl, Capping NFL Season of Racial Justice Protests On and Off Field
“That he was still alive at the time, though in comparative retirement, makes that neglect even sadder.” So wrote Ambalavaner Sivanandan in 1980, commenting on the lack of acknowledgement by black political movements of the 1960s in the United States of the immense contribution and influence of Paul Robeson. Sivanandan pointed out that although they rightly honoured Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, they failed to acknowledge the struggles and sacrifices of Robeson that preceded them.
These words echo the sentiment felt by activists, scholars and communities involved in the anti-racist movement in Britain with the recent passing of A. Sivanandan* himself, whose neglect by today’s generation is both disappointing and shameful. He was, for four decades, the Director of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), and the founding editor of its journal Race & Class, which has had contributions from the likes of Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Walter Rodney, Aijaz Ahmad, Chris Searle, Manning Marable, Cedric Robinson, Ilan Pappe, Basil Davidson, John Berger, Eqbal Ahmad, Angela Davis and John Newsinger.
Sivanandan was in a class of his own as a thinker, writer and speaker. His deliberations on the issues of racism, immigration, capitalism and imperialism were a particular beacon of hope for activists and communities during the bleak Thatcher years of the 1980s. He was a visionary whose insights were original and whose ideas still remain relevant today, yet his name – with few honourable exceptions – is seldom, if ever, cited by the British left. Simply put, Sivanandan’s influence upon those involved in the anti-racist movement – whether they are aware of it or not – is monumental.
Sivanandan was very conscious of how racism evolved – especially with changes in the economy and how reduced demand for labour consequently affected immigration policy. His landmark 1976 essay Race, Class and the State was the first serious and radical explanation of the political economy of race and immigration in post-World War Two Britain, and set the benchmark for all future analysis.
Over the years he documented and explained the ‘rationale’ for the racism that was weaponised by the state and the popular press against black peoples (using the term in the political sense; i.e. those deemed outside of ‘whiteness’), including refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers. There was, according to Sivanandan, “The racism that discriminates and the racism that kills.” He mostly concerned himself with the latter, focusing on its primary victims: the working class and those catching hell on the streets, rather than the middle-class woes of well-to-do ethnic minorities.
Often mischaracterised by the liberal-left, bourgeois academics and middle-class minorities alike as an out-dated relic from the past, it was clear to anyone who read and reflected upon Sivanandan’s writings or listened to him speak that, in fact, it was they who were being left behind by reality – a failure to ‘catch history on the wing’, as he put it. Take, for example, the continued inability of some elements of the left to incorporate race into their analysis of class. The latest and most notable illustration of this is the ‘Lexit’ brigade, who (mis) calculated that they could hijack the ‘Brexit’ narrative from the long-term clutches of the right – a mouse riding the back of a tiger, as one commentator astutely put it.
In his final public statement, writing the foreword for a report by the IRR on the spike in post-referendum racial violence, Sivanandan referred to the entire Brexit façade as being “born of fortuitous circumstances” and “lacking programme or policy” – the only discernible plan subsequently agreed upon by the government being the tactical weapon of racism and a reactionary ideology of nativism. He also blamed the government for reducing racial violence to the status of ‘hate crime’, achieving the dual outcome of reducing the former into an individualised issue of law and order, and thus, secondly, absolving itself of its own responsibility in implementing racist policies and creating a toxic environment. Asked about his political thought and the work of the IRR in a 2013 interview, Sivanandan’s words, though reflections, appear as a forewarning in light of Brexit and its cheerleaders amongst the left:
“We contested the Marxist orthodoxy that the race struggle should be subsumed to the class struggle because once the class struggle was won, racism would disappear. That did not speak to the lived experience of the black working class. Racism had its own dynamic. ‘Black and White unite’ is a goal to strive for, not the reality on the ground and therefore required that White and Black workers had to traverse their own autonomous routes to the common rendezvous… We have fought the idea that racism was an aspect of fascism – our take was that racism was fascism’s breeding ground.”
There were few, if any, contemporary intellectuals who wrote with such lucidity and poetry on the intersection of race and class. Sivanandan was as at ease quoting T.S. Eliot, Keats and Oscar Wilde as he was citing Marx, Fanon and Cabral. However, unlike some intellectuals that name-drop for their egos and obfuscate pretentiously at their audiences, every sentence of Sivanandan’s was both intelligible and purposeful. He would often reaffirm, “The people we are writing for are the people we are fighting for.”
He produced neither full-length works nor complex academic treatises. Instead, Sivanandan wrote complex-yet-digestible essays of a prophetic nature for those at the barricades of the struggle, enabling those at the grassroots to see the wood from the trees. Some of these writings were subsequently compiled into separate anthologies on three occasions: A Different Hunger (Pluto Press, 1982); Communities of Resistance (Verso, 1990); and the most recent collection, Catching History on the Wing (Pluto Press, 2008).
Experiencing racism in Ceylon
Sivanandan was born on 20 December 1923 in Colombo, then capital of the British colony of Ceylon (later ‘Sri Lanka’). He was from an ethnic Tamil background, his family originally from Jaffna – the cultural capital of the Tamil people, who are predominantly found in the North-East of the island. Though there were already tensions lingering under the surface, when the country gained independence in 1948 it rapidly began to disintegrate along ethnic lines. This was no accident: as Sivanandan later summarised British colonial rule with his trademark simplicity, “It divided in order to rule what it integrated in order to exploit.”
Politicians from the majority Sinhalese ethnic group – helped by the growing clout of the fascist-minded Buddhist clergy – used racism as a tactic in order to achieve a ready-made political majority at the expense of the numerically fewer Tamils. Their first crime upon independence was to render stateless, and then disenfranchise, the Tamils of the central hill-country, who were amongst the most militant workers on the island. These people were descendants of indentured labourers brought over from South India by the British in the mid-nineteenth century to toil on their lucrative tea plantations, which Sivanandan later described as a “colony within a colony.” The ruling elites next focused their efforts on the ‘indigenous’ Tamils.
Sivanandan witnessed the total bankruptcy and betrayal of the Sinhalese left as they subsequently chose an exclusionary racial ‘solidarity’ over a united class struggle, eventually collaborating with the government. Though the means used were initially discriminatory legislation – orchestrated by the state through the avenues of language, education and employment – they soon evolved into targeted racial violence against Tamils, led by Sinhalese ‘Buddhist’ monks and goon squads.
After surviving the 1958 anti-Tamil pogroms in Colombo, Sivanandan fled to London, where he walked straight into another episode of racial violence – this time the attacks on the black community in Notting Hill. Directly experiencing these two horrific incidents of violence convinced Sivanandan that he could not stand on the sidelines any longer, that he needed to study the root causes of racism in order to fight against it.
The Empire Strikes Back
When Sivanandan obtained work as a librarian at the Institute of Race Relations in 1964, it was a government orientated think tank used by British foreign policy planners in order to serve the corporate interests of its multi-national funders. After the so-called ‘race riots’ of 1958, the IRR began to focus more attention on domestic ‘race relations’ – as opposed to combating racism itself.
Sivanandan and other more radical members of staff began to question the ethical responsibility of the IRR, clashing with management over their right to scrutinise government policy on race and question the racist frameworks of its policy-orientated research. With the rise of fascist politics in Britain, along with racist anti-immigration legislation controls (starting with the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act), which the Labour Party also capitulated to, the seeds of revolt were planted. As Sivanandan was to later summarise, “What Enoch Powell says today, the Conservative Party says tomorrow, and the Labour Party legislates on the day after.”
By 1972, the contradictions within the institute had reached a point of no return. That year, Sivanandan led a dramatic and gruelling struggle by the staff and took control of the IRR from its council, supported by a democratic mandate from its membership. The organisation immediately lost its wealthy funders and was thus transformed. Its journal, Race, was renamed Race & Class, its aim now dedicated to ”Black and Third World liberation.” Sivanandan described the IRR’s new function as “a think-in-order-to-do-tank for Black and Third World peoples” and a “servicing station for oppressed peoples on their way to liberation.”
Black British history and education
In her obituary of Sivanandan, Liz Fekete, current Director of the IRR, made a point of mentioning his recent concern that younger generations of British anti-racist activists were ignorant of their own history, tending to focus solely on American movements such as the Black Panther Party for inspiration and guidance. However, Sivanandan articulated previously unknown stories of how black peoples had resisted on this side of the Atlantic, even when solidarity from their white comrades was rather lacking.
His 1981 essay From Resistance to Rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean Struggles in Britain is one of the best examples of this alternative, history-from-below. It is an electrifying piece of writing – its opening lines encapsulating Sivanandan’s gift of joining the dots from the colonies to the mother country. The introduction begins in 1940, with Udham Singh’s hanging in London after his revenge shooting of ‘Sir’ Michael O’Dwyer – the man responsible for the 1919 Amritsar Massacre – but ends with the former’s lesser-known involvement in setting up the Indian Workers’ Association during his stay in England.
The essay made a massive impact upon its first publication and, decades on, there are still numerous stories told by activists recounting how they would copy and distribute multiple copies of it everywhere.
By incorporating and transmitting the unwritten racial dimension within the historical class struggle – something the orthodox white British left, including such luminaries as E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm (and today’s pale imitations Ken Loach, Owen Jones et al) have generally failed to do – Sivanandan inspired others to do likewise. His legacy can be seen, for instance, in the works of Satnam Virdee, Anandi Ramamurthy and Arun Kundnani; as well as the recent commemorations of the epic Grunwick Strike of 1976-78 – a struggle that was led by Asian women and had lasted longer than the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.
Sivanandan also had a pedagogical impact through an influential series of educational booklets published by the IRR in the 1980s that attempted to address the absence of black history in schools, particularly racism and its connection to imperialism. There were four booklets in total: Roots of Racism; Patterns of Racism; How Racism Came to Britain; and The Fight Against Racism – the latter two focused on the British context, whereas the earlier books were more general in emphasis. How Racism Came to Britain was especially explosive in its impact, resulting in a sustained witch-hunt led by the right against the IRR, and even attempts by the Secretary of State for Education to ban the books from schools.
This initiative can be seen as a precursor to some of the more recent campaigns of our times, many currently being fought at several universities throughout the country, such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and, in particular, ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ and ‘Decolonising Our Minds’. Sivanandan would certainly support such initiatives, though he would surely warn the more liberal-minded of these students against merely settling for redistribution of quotas or greater diversity (e.g. more non-white thinkers included in philosophy courses/modules). In one of the forewords he wrote for the IRR series, Sivanandan critiqued multi-cultural education for its limitations, namely for only emphasising differences between cultures; he stressed (below) that a critical re-evaluation – and thus, transformation – of entire institutions and orthodoxies was required to truly ensure a radical change in such a racist society:
“Our concern is not centrally with multi-cultural multi-ethnic education but with anti-racist education (which by its very nature would include the study of other cultures). Just to learn about other people’s cultures, though, is not to learn about the racism of one’s own. To learn about the racism of one’s own culture, on the other hand, is to approach other cultures objectively.”
“We are here because you were there”
Whereas some on the left retained their endless faith in trade union agitation in social democracies, harking back to some Keynesian ‘golden era’, Sivanandan refused to go along with religious orthodoxies and rigid dogmatism. He forewarned of the massive changes taking place as developed countries within the capitalist metropolis evolved from industrial to information-based economies. These themes were brilliantly analysed and anticipated in essays such as Imperialism and Disorganic Development in the Silicon Age, written in 1979, and in New Circuits of Imperialism (1989). Sivanandan pointed out that labour in the west was so preoccupied with emancipating itself from capital, that it had not been able to prepare for the opposite scenario: with the development of technology, capital had been able to emancipate itself from labour, leaving the working class in the metropolitan countries paralysed, with no economic – and therefore political – clout.
However, Sivanandan reserved sharp criticism for those who declared the class struggle – even within the imperial centre – as redundant or futile, consistently citing the crucial role of part-time, temporary or migrant labour, such as security guards, fast-food chain workers, porters, cleaners, etc. He described their precarious existence as, “rightless, rootless, peripatetic and temporary,” and without whose labour “post-industrial society cannot run”. However, as recently demonstrated by the long and arduous struggle of the cleaners at SOAS – predominantly women workers from ‘Latin’ America – even the toughest battles can be won by the most marginalised and exploited.
With his holistic view of the world, Sivanandan stood in sharp contrast to the dogmatic Eurocentric Marxists who have dominated the discourse of the left (or what’s left of the left). Unlike them, he positioned his analysis of capitalism (i.e. ‘the system’) around imperialism (i.e. “the project”) and its devastating effects – via globalisation (i.e. “the process”) – upon the peoples at the periphery of the world economic system. Sivanandan would always demonstrate cause and effect, describing the economic policies (e.g. Structural Adjustment Programmes) of transnational organisations (e.g. the EU, the IMF, the World Bank, etc) and multi-national corporations, as well as their political and military agents, whether in the form of nation-states or through collective alliances such as NATO. He would explain how the actions of these entities caused the forced migration of people from the Third World – often as a direct consequence of war and poverty – on a mass scale into the metropolitan countries of the West, where upon arrival they would often meet new racisms and oppressions.
Journalist Phil Miller is the author of two groundbreaking reports that investigate Sri Lanka’s intimate post-independence relationship with its former colonial power. His research has exposed how Britain provided high-level counterinsurgency assistance to the Sri Lankan state in its genocidal war against Tamils. Miller also demonstrates in his writings how the Home Office uses repressive policies against those same people when they seek refuge here in the UK. When asked to describe the political impact of Sivanandan upon his work, Miller stated, “Sivanandan’s aphorism ‘We are here because you were there’ informed my approach to writing about Tamil asylum cases. It also prompted me to research British foreign and colonial policy towards Sri Lanka/Ceylon to gain a deeper understanding of how Britain was partly responsible for the displacement of Tamils from their homeland.”
Identity politics and ‘New Times’
Though critical of economic determinism, Sivanandan cautioned against the potential excesses of the politics of identity. In RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle, written in 1985, he delivered a scathing indictment of the US-imported ‘racism awareness training’, which removed state and institutional responsibility for racism, instead turning it into a ‘natural’ social phenomenon independent of material conditions, a ‘white disease’. This type of approach is perhaps best exemplified by the ‘calling-out’ culture of social media, and the rise of the politically limited and intellectually lazy discourse centred on personal ‘privilege’. Today’s Twitter generation often prioritise the issue of who retains cultural rights instead of fighting for the right for an inclusive political culture, i.e. within the context of class. For Sivanandan, the concept of ‘the personal is political’ only concerns what is owed to one by society, whereas its inversion – ‘the political is personal’ – concerns what is owed to society by one.
He was sceptical of identity politics as a means to liberation, referring to it as an “inward-looking, naval-gazing exercise” that stemmed from the individual. But the self is also found within the world, pointed out Sivanandan. By focusing instead on grassroots struggles, such as migrant worker rights, addressing deaths in custody or stopping deportations of asylum-seekers – which are inherently community-orientated and organic – one begins to change the field of play, rather than merely changing the goal-posts. Throughout his work and life, he repeatedly stressed, “Who you are is what you do.”
Sivanandan’s prescient analysis (below) in 1990 (before ‘intersectionality’ became the favourite buzzword of humanities and social sciences departments and the blogosphere) still reverberates today with regard to the potential pitfalls of a politics of identity bereft of class, which leads to a harmonious accommodation with capitalism and liberalism. A women’s movement that does not factor in the poorest and most marginalised women; or a Green movement that does not consider the ecological devastation caused by Western capitalism in the Third World; or a Peace movement that cares only for preventing nuclear catastrophe at home but not stopping the arms industry from fuelling wars and genocide abroad, wrote Sivanandan, becomes narrow in focus, elitist and reformist at best – and ultimately permits capitalism to continue thriving via imperialism. Class is not simply another ‘identity’ but is, rather, an objective reality and the modality through which identities must be perceived. Oppression goes in tandem with exploitation, and vice versa. As Sivanandan put it:
“If these issues are fought in terms of the specific, particularistic oppressions of women qua women, blacks qua blacks and so on, without being opened out to and informed by other oppressions, they lose their claim to that universality which was their particular contribution to socialism in the first place. And they, further, fall into the error of a new sectarianism – as between blacks versus women, Asians versus Afro-Caribbeans, gays versus blacks and so on – which pulls rank, this time, not on the basis of belief but of suffering: not who is the true believer but who is the most oppressed. Which then sets out the basis on which demands are made for more equal opportunities for greater and more compound oppressions in terms of quotas and proportions and that type of numbers game. That is not to say that there should be no attempt to redress the balance of racial, sexual and gender discrimination, but that these solutions deal not with the politics of discrimination but its arithmetic – giving more weightage to women here and blacks there and so rearranging the distribution of inequality as not to alter the structures of inequality themselves. In the process, these new social movements tend to replace one sort of sectarianism with another and one sort of sectional interest for another when their native thrust and genius was against sectarianism and for a plurality of interests.”
The essay The Hokum of New Times, where most of the aforementioned criticisms of identity politics is found, has become more notorious for other reasons. Sivanandan, out of comradely love and intellectual honesty, ruthlessly eviscerated the arguments of, amongst others, his friend Stuart Hall in a scintillating polemic. Hall had outlined in the pages of influential magazine Marxism Today how the industrial age was giving way to ‘New Times’ – a rapidly accelerating information age, whereby, in the process, “Our own identities, our sense of self, our own subjectivities are being transformed.”
The Marxism Today collective were terrified of allowing Thatcher, and the right, to consolidate their own ideas within the increasingly alienated and disillusioned general public. The solution, according to the disciples of ‘New Times’, was that one should begin to resist through the vehicle of identity and culture – as opposed to linking them to, let alone changing, the economic base. Hall, in particular, consequently focused much of his intellectual work on the superstructure politics of culture and ideology, rather than the politics of economy: a total inversion of Marxist methodology. “Philosophers have interpreted the world,” Marx famously said, but instead of seeking to change it, added Sivanandan, referring to the intellectuals of Marxism Today, now they sought to “change the interpretation.”
Stuart Hall was also rebuked for overlooking in his analysis the masses of workers throughout the Third World, upon whose exploitation these Eurocentric ‘New Times’ would be owed to and built upon. In fact, Hall had, in 1986, used the previous year’s hugely popular ‘Live Aid’ concert of Bob Geldof – Bono’s predecessor as musician-turned-missionary – as ‘proof’ of the changing political climate in Thatcher’s Britain. Sivanandan had no time for such liberal window-dressing, castigating Hall for changing the discourse of anti-imperialism into one of Western humanism and charity.
Sivanandan ‘s The Hokum of New Times essay can also be interpreted as a prologue to the left’s capitulation under Thatcher; its submission to her mantra of ‘There is no alternative’ (TINA). He infamously characterised the political conclusions of ‘New Times’ as ‘Thatcherism in drag’ – an especially sharp denunciation since it was Hall himself who had initially coined the term ‘Thatcherism’, arguing many years ago that she was not ‘just another’ Tory. With his relentless critique, Sivanandan in some ways projected how the Marxism Today collective’s attempts to fight Thatcherism perhaps unwittingly led them to midwife the birth of New Labour and the ‘Third Way’ ideology of its intellectual guru, Anthony Giddens.
Marxism Today’s editor Martin Jacques went on to found New Labour-supporting think-tank Demos with Geoff Mulgan, a regular writer for MT who later became a key policy adviser for yet another former contributor: none other than Tony Blair. Indeed, when asked years later, Thatcher is said to have cited her greatest achievement as New Labour. Stuart Hall, who had briefly befriended Blair in the 1990s, eventually conceded what Sivanandan had had the foresight to warn against, complaining to the Observer in 1997, “All he [Blair] seems to be offering is Thatcherism with a human face.”
Sivanandan was also far-sighted enough to warn communities of being the unwitting victims of the age-old British tactic of divide-and-rule. In the Scarman report of 1981, which was in response to the Brixton riots of the same year, the response of the state was to co-opt and buy-off black struggle – as opposed to suppressing it as it had always done before. Rather than admitting to state and institutional racism, the Scarman report had concluded that different ethnic groups had different needs (or ‘racial disadvantages’) that must be accommodated (i.e. compromised) by the state – whether by grants or through positive discrimination. Sivanandan later described the latter as akin to “breaking our legs and giving us crutches.”
The logical conclusion of this new government policy was the rise of a multitude of ethnicities, self-appointed leaders and cherry-picked representatives coming to the fore, disaggregating the previously militant black working class. Sivanandan had warned about the flight of race from class in 1983, telling communities, “We don’t need a cultural identity for its own sake, but to make use of the positive aspects of our culture to forge correct alliances and fight the correct battles.” It is important to note, however, that his earlier criticisms of multi-culturalism were specifically about the post-1981 state policy of divide-and-rule; he later defended organic, community-led multi-culturalism – so long as it was infused with anti-racism. This was in light of attacks upon this brief era of relative progress from nativists and advocates of ‘British values’ after the 2001 race riots in northern England, and the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks.
When memory dies, a people die
In terms of his birthplace, Sivanandan’s lasting legacy is his epic historical novel When Memory Dies – probably the most ambitious and significant piece of literature written about Sri Lanka in the last century. It is his first and only novel, published in 1997 when he was in his early 70s, and, tellingly, took him around two decades to write. The novel tells, in three different parts, the history of the island: from colonial British rule, to the newly independent Ceylon and, finally, to the ethnocracy that rebranded itself in 1972 as ‘Sri Lanka’.
When Memory Dies is a story told not from the point of view of authoritarian presidents and prime ministers, nor that of jingoistic army commanders or bigoted religious leaders, but from the viewpoint of the subaltern – the ordinary people. It threads together various features of colonial rule in Ceylon, addressing issues such as the wretched conditions of the workers that plucked the tea for the imperialists; the hegemony of the English language over the natives; and debates between characters arguing reform versus revolution when deliberating over what form the class and anti-colonial struggles should take.
Readers familiar with Sivanandan’s better-known essays on racism will stumble across many of his political aphorisms and poetic language throughout the novel. “If you read my political stuff you’ll find it is creative – I hope my creative writing is political – I don’t separate the two,” he once declared. To understand Sivanandan the man; what events formed his personal character and political principles, and the struggles of the people of the island, especially his fellow Tamils – massacred in their tens of thousands by the Sri Lankan state in 2009 – this novel is fundamental reading. Indeed, he once told this writer, “My book is my gift to my country and my people.”
In 2016 students at SOAS were asked to submit a list of key figures important to decolonisation for artists to commemorate in a series of murals. The-then president of the Tamil Society at the university, Bava Dharani, proposed that Sivanandan’s image should be included. When asked to elaborate upon her reasons for choosing him, she explained
“I think Sivanandan’s work on race was not only critical but also provided a different perspective on decolonisation, race, etc. Given his background, being a Tamil forced to flee from Sri Lanka and finding himself in the UK, his writing had a lot of heart – especially When Memory Dies. I remember being moved by and relating to so many parts of that book. And this quote – it stayed with me because it highlighted how important it is to write our own history. That is exactly what I think SOAS is trying to achieve with all these movements towards decolonising the syllabus. It just made sense for him to be up there.”
Alas, thus it came to pass: those frequently in the area may have noticed a painting of Sivanandan’s face – accompanied by the quote in question (picture in the photo at the top of the essay) from his novel – in the students’ union bar at SOAS. It is fitting that Sivanandan, whose funeral took place exactly forty-two years to the day that his hero Paul Robeson died, is honoured at SOAS – the institution where Robeson himself once studied and was later immortalised with a building named in his honour.
Now, more than ever, it is time for those who tremble with indignation at injustice to acquaint ourselves with the writings of A. Sivanandan to help guide us for the battles ahead – to be proactive rather than reactive in the struggle for economic, political and social justice, both home and abroad. We must catch history on the wing.*In traditional Tamil culture – though this practice is declining particularly in the diaspora – one’s father’s initial or name is used as a prefix. Ambalavaner is, therefore, the name of Sivanandan’s father. American missionary Robert W. Holmes (1997: 107) explains in his ethnographical study Jaffna (Sri Lanka) 1980: “The usual method of naming children in Jaffna is to give them their own name by which they will be known throughout life, with their father’s name as an initial. So Mr. Kandasamy’s children will be K. Nadarajah, K. Kandiah and K. Saraswathi. His friends and neighbours are expected to know these names and never to forget them, so they are not confused by the system as foreigners so often are. However, not all Jaffnese follow the Tamil system. Some, particularly Christians, keep the family name for generation after generation as is common in the West.”
Hakim Bey’s TAZ is a well-known manifesto of anti-capitalism, providing a model for alternative living. Yet Bey’s work has been criticised for neglecting the critique of capitalism. In the fourth and fifth parts of the series, I aim to show that Bey has an astute, unusual analysis of the structure of the dominant system. This fourth part explores the view of the dominant system as a ‘Spectacle’, the theory of alienation, and the history and contemporary forms of the state.
Bey’s work is thoroughly anti-capitalist. Critics sometimes miss this fact because of Bey’s unusual terminology. He rarely talks about ‘capitalism’. Nevertheless, his theory is clearly directed at a more-or-less unitary adversary, identifiable as capitalism or modern society. Bey seeks to challenge the whole system, rather than be distracted by any particular issue. He does not see power as localised, diffuse, or irrelevant. In this column and elsewhere, I’ve generally paraphrased Bey using the words ‘system’ and ‘Spectacle’. In fact, Bey tends not to talk about the system in such general terms. He assumes it in the background of his theory. When he names it at all, he uses terms like ‘consensus reality’, ‘scarcity’, and ‘images’. Sometimes, Bey uses the Hegelian term ‘Totality‘ to refer to what he considers the false consensus expressed on behalf of society. He also sometimes uses the term Spectacle, derived from Situationism. Other times, Bey refers to the Planetary Work Machine (from P.M.’s Bolo’Bolo), or to Empire (from Hardt and Negri. While these terms don’t necessarily connote a dominant system for some readers, they are used in a way which clearly refers to a systemic structure. In a related discussion, Sellars suggests that Bey’s view of the system is basically Debord’s.
Bey’s theory of capitalism draws heavily on the Situationist idea of the Spectacle. This approach sees capitalism as a type of life mediated by images. Bey similarly sees the system as a regime in which images dominate life. If someone is within ‘consensus thought’, they accept the dominant beliefs of the current system. For example, they only recognise the existence of things that are represented, not those that are present. Representing something (within the Spectacle) makes it ‘semiotically richer but existentially impoverished’. This process gives something a more symbolic meaning, but a less emotional or lived meaning. A represented thing becomes a potential commodity. This, in turn, destroys the existential meaning of objects, especially those which produce altered consciousness. Take an example such as dance music. As part of a rave, it is hard to represent. At the same time, it generates intense energy, such as ecstatic experiences and collective bonding. Now suppose the same music is recorded, sold, and classified. It gains symbolic meaning. It becomes easier to name, categorise and compare with other things. But it loses some of its emotional meaning. It is no longer part of the context of intense practice.
The Spectacle is also a system of scarcity. Like many eco-anarchists, Bey contrasts the system of scarcity with an ethos of abundance in indigenous societies. Modern cultures, and agricultural indigenous cultures, often symbolise scarcity as a loss or fall. A familiar example is the story of the fall from Eden. For Wilson (in Ploughing the Clouds), this type of story symbolises the loss of original anarchy and autonomy. In the passage to modern life, intimacy with nature is replaced by separation from it. Abundance is replaced by scarcity. Gift economies are replaced by commodity economies. ‘Polymorphous co-sensuality’ in sexual relations is lost to kinship and marriage structures.
If something went wrong in modern history – and Wilson/Bey is sure it did – then it must have happened in the imaginal realm. He thinks that humanity’s main historical mistake was to lose the experience of the imaginal realm. Modern humans have lost the experience of intimacy with the cosmos. Most of us can no longer attain altered consciousness. In Shower of Stars, he adds that every society produces an excess, which it needs to squander. There are different ways to do this. Wealth can be squandered in rituals of consumption, such as potlatch. It can be consumed by a large ‘idle’ population, such as monks. It can be consumed in carnivals. Or it can be managed through the artificial production of scarcity. Capitalism opts for the last of these options. This is not a good way to deal with excess. Seen from an altered state of consciousness, he adds in Riverpeople, authoritarianism and conventional morality come to seem like a disease.
Bey also endorses most of the standard objections to capitalism. The system is objectionable for a whole range of familiar reasons. Wealth is too concentrated. Financial capitalism separates money from production. The media enclose meaning in a limited sphere. Capitalism leads to securitisation, repression, and ecological destruction. The benefits of civilisation are only ever available to an elite of about 10%. The system, or Empire, brings with it murder, famine, war and greed, all of which are effects of the triumph of death over life.
Bey claims to be ‘personally at war‘ with each of these facts because ‘they violate my desires and deny me my pleasures’. In other words, Bey is an anti-capitalist, but his grounds for anti-capitalism are largely Stirnerian. He objects to capitalism because it blocks self-actualisation and the personal production of meaning. He embraces the Marxist critique of alienation, but not Marxist collectivism. Capitalism is emptiness – what Bey in a poem terms a ‘lukewarm necromantic vacuum of dephlogisticated corpse breath’. It is figured archetypally as death, rather than life or joy. For instance, the dead were the first to get privatised space and to invest in futures.
Much of Bey’s theory focused on the question of alienation – though he prefers the less ‘lofty’ term ‘loneliness’ – and he theorises the system in such terms. Capitalism involves both sameness and separation. In Riverpeople, he portrays capitalism as a form of monoculture. Property is a type of ‘spectral alienation’, as opposed to the ‘mutualism of usufruct’ (a Proudhonian term for temporary ownership based on use). The problem with modern society is ‘civilisation‘, not culture or technology. In other words, Bey identifies the main social problem as a certain kind of social system, based on alienation. Civilisation reproduces itself through alienation, negation, and unfulfilment. It offers the appearance of fulfilment from which one always awakes unhappy. The Totality renders people isolated and powerless. It offers only illusory forms of self-expression. Alienation is a ‘demonic democracy‘, everything equal but valueless. It is a ‘bad mood in which every day is the same’. In his ‘Esoteric Interpretation of the IWW Preamble‘, Bey argues that alienation is psychological as well as economic. He argues for a political orientation to all of those affected by alienation, not only industrial workers.
Alienation functions partly through the disruption of horizontal social relations. In the essay ‘Immediatism versus Capitalism‘, Bey argues that capitalism only supports or enables, or even allows, particular kinds of groups. It promotes groups based on production (such as work colleagues), consumption (such as self-help groups) or reproduction (such as nuclear families). Capitalism is organised to prevent conviviality in Bey’s sense – or coming together for purposes of play, life, or mutual enhancement. Bey argues that pressures on people’s time and energy from work, consumption and reproduction are today a bigger force in oppressing people than things like police repression and unjust laws. The structure of social life, which really makes everyone miserable, goes unnoticed.
Conviviality is possible within small affinity-groups – in Bey’s terms, bees or tongs. However, capitalism subtly disrupts such groups. Affinity-groups come up against barriers such as the ‘busy‘ lives of members, the need to earn money, or difficulties which seem like bad luck. Today capitalism has fragmented people to an extraordinary degree. Most people are caught in ‘involution‘ (shrinkage, or production through their own inverse) with the media. Small groups are also isolated from each other. Neoliberal capitalism is based on isolating people to an increasing extent. Forms of ‘combination’, or life in common, have been destroyed or turned into simulations. Poverty, terror, mediation and alienation all contribute to this process of isolation. Hence, while Bey rejects collectivism, he also opposes standard types of individualism. The ego, as much as the group, can be a Stirnerian ‘spook’, or false essence. People can be subordinated and captured through their own appearance – for example, through self-branding.
Recuperation through representation is identified by Bey as the main problem facing dissent. The system captures and redirects everything simply by representing it, and changing its context. It can even pre-empt opposition through simulation. In earlier works such as TAZ, Bey argues that opposition is open to recuperation, as it gets converted into post-revolutionary normality. Each generation’s dream becomes the next generation’s parlour decor. People construct artificial outer images of themselves, known as personae. They succumb to a kind of generalised common sense or ‘consensus-perception‘ which filters out much of what exists. The global crisis does not in fact result from scarcity, but from the ideology of scarcity. The world doesn’t run out of resources. Rather, it runs out of imagination, or creative energy. Today there is too little, too thinly spread.
Bey sometimes goes as far as to see power as mainly an image. In ‘The Information War’, he argues that the state is now a ‘disembodied patterning of information’ rather than a force in its own right. There is no ‘power’ today, but instead a complete and false totality which contains all discourse through commodification and mediation. Individuals always remain outside of this, but as something pathetic and meaningless. One cannot appear in the media with one’s true subjectivity, but only disappear in representation. The system’s power does not stem from a solid structure – a possibility precluded by Bey’s insistence on the primacy of chaos. In Immedistism, Bey repeats his view that any order, except that arising from existential freedom, is illusory. However, illusions can kill. Only desire creates values. Civilisation is based on the denial of desire. In other words, it is a kind of upside-down value which values its own denial. Knowledge has also been alienated today. It is replaced by a simulation – the same ‘data’, but in a dead form. It is alienating because it fails to interact with the body, or with imagination. The illusions created by finance capital have become consensus reality, but remain illusions. Bey seeks to recover the call of a submerged reality accessible only rarely – the reality of intensity.
The persistence of this system offers a kind of de-intensified, meaningless experience. We’re at the end of history, götterdämmerung, and yet it’s also ‘goddam dull’. In one poem in Black Fez Manifesto, he suggests that we hide in ‘squatted character armor’ which is not our own, like hermit crabs. In another poem (this time in Ec(o)logues), Wilson discusses his native New Jersey. Modern agriculture is associated with death. It is opposed by ‘secret ludic economies’ connected with meadows, woods and wild spaces. Today, the system tries to force people into mediation. Today, unmediated pleasures are nearly always illegal. Even simple enjoyments like outdoor barbecues often violate bylaws. Pleasure becomes too stressful and people retreat into the world of television.
The media play a central role in Bey’s theory of capitalist power. In ‘Media Creed for the Fin de Siécle‘, Wilson argues that the term ‘media’ should refer mainly to those media which claim objectivity. Subjective media tend to resist mediation. Books, for instance, have become an intimate or subjective medium because anyone can write one. The mass media constructs an image of false subjectivity by blurring the boundary between objective and subjective. It sells an illusion that each of us has expressed her/himself by buying a lifestyle or appearing within representation. The system still had ‘glitches’ in the 1960s because the media failed to convince. War appeared as Hell, not glorious; the counterculture appeared exciting, not evil. This led to cognitive dissonance, or a gap between experience and representation. When the system is able to produce experiences in line with its discourses, it eliminates virtually all cognitive dissonance. The 1960s movement saw and exploited the glitch, but fell into the trap of seeking to seize the media, and thus becoming images and commodities themselves. In any case, these tactics are no longer viable. However, in ‘Utopian Blues‘, Bey argues that the ‘con’ of alienated civilisation is wearing thin to the point of transparency. Capitalism is threatened by a ‘mass arousal from the media-trance of inattention’.
The State and the Rise of Alienation
Bey discusses the state as a central aspect of alienation. In Bey’s historical theory, the rise of the dominant system is an effect of increasing alienation and mediation. In other words, lived, immediate, intense symbolism and imagery are gradually replaced by increasingly abstract, emotionally empty symbols. These symbols are in turn captured and monopolised by dominant institutions, which are effectively accumulations of such symbols. Law, writing, money, and computer coding are all examples of extremely abstract symbolism with only an attenuated relation to their original, imaginary basis. This contrasts with indigenous symbolism such as shamanism, origin narratives (‘myths’), symbolic exchange, and wampum. These all involve a close connection between imagery, social use, and emotional or existential significance. Bey seeks alternatives to capitalism, of a certain type. He seeks to recover more intense, less mediated types of imagery and symbolism.
Bey rejects the view that either capital or the state is a determinant, final instance of alienation. Oppressive, alienating institutions are not reducible to a single matrix. There are a number of different sources of alienation. Money (or Capital) and the State are distinct institutions, although they are sometimes allied. Authoritarian religion is a third, distinct force. The emergence of the state seems to have been a revolution when seen from the longue durée of historical time. But it is more gradual in human terms. The rise of the state is the rise of separation and hierarchy. The early State had to coexist with social forms – such as rights and customs – which resisted it. An absolute State or ‘free’ market was inconceivable, as it violated reciprocity. Only in modern times are there absolutist States or ‘free’ money. Although distinct from capital, the state always remains mired in production. In contrast, money can escape production as pure symbolisation.
The emergence of the state requires the emergence of statist images. The state has to ‘invent’ surplus and scarcity to disrupt indigenous bands, which are based on abundance. The rise of the state must have been a result of human actions (not for instance population growth or climate change), since the state is a social relation. Bey suggests the rise of the state must have involved a revolt by one or another group differentiated by role. Maybe chiefs, shamans, or warriors revolted, or of men revolted against women. The resultant structure is still with us. In some ways, we are still within the Roman Empire. The Roman form of the state, law, and property are still fundamental to modern power.
As we shall see later, Bey sees indigenous social forms as a type of social ‘machine’ which includes a gift economy, shamanism, and diffuse power as theorised by Clastres. The state had to defeat this social machine to take power. Why was it defeated? What ‘went wrong’? Wilson suggests in E(c)logues that excess production may have given the temple political power, and metal-smithing may have strengthened warriors. A new ideology of human sacrifice was created to replace the old religions. The state was based on an elite, which captured the social surplus. This elite then focused on war instead of food production. War already existed as an aspect of indigenous diffuse power. However, it changed with the rise of the state. The new, ‘classical‘ (rather than indigenous) form of war was a means to capture wealth and slaves. Corresponding to this process, land was privatised. Originally, myths and institutions existed which warded off the state – for instance, shamanism. Something went wrong somewhere, and the founding myths are now those of alienation. The State is founded on symbolisation as mediation and alienation. It thus has a magical basis, in writing as ‘action at a distance’. It also rests on the monopolisation of violence. Violence originally belonged to everyone. It was monopolised by the state. The state might even have started off as a scapegoat, carrying off blood-guilt.
The state is also based on homogenisation. Planned statist cities are designed as gridworks, whereas grottos associated with mysticism are shapeless and meandering. Medieval cities are similar to grottos. In statist systems, a single worldview and value-system is locked in place. This is true of Christianity, and also of capitalism since the collapse of Stalinism. This single worldview reshapes language. Linguistic categories are a secondary structure used to interpret incoming chaotic flows. Modernity is unusual in insisting on only a single structure. Bey suggests that any map (or language) will fit any territory (or experience), given enough violence. Capitalism seeks to fit the whole world into a single conceptual language. This contrasts with the hermeticist and indigenous views of multiplicity, in which many worldviews contain part of the truth of a world based on difference. The hegemony of a single image of the world obstructs the circulation of images and undermines the expression of difference. Instead, the same discourse is endlessly recycled or reproduced.
However, the state has also changed in the neoliberal period. With the rise of the Spectacle, the function of law has changed. In Nietzsche’s day, law still appeared as the oppressor’s arsenal of tools, which is useful in providing something to struggle against. Today it is less an edged weapon than a ‘viral ooze’, operating through the Spectacle and ‘cop culture’ which become indistinguishable from real power. The law should still be used as ‘an edge to sharpen our lives‘. However, law has mutated from a tool of oppressors to the self-image of the spectacle. Law simulates power, while offering and denying the utopia of justice. Anything which provides unmediated experience is a threat to the Spectacle and at risk of being banned.
In some pieces, Bey argues that the law is a useful stimulus for the subversive effects of dissent. Paradoxically, a liberal regime can disempower dissent by making it safe. In ‘Against Legalisation‘, Bey argues that dissident media is impossible without censorship. American-style free speech absorbs or co-opts dissent as images, thus rendering it ineffectual. Today, reform is impossible, because partial victories are always absorbed as commodity relations. For example, Bey suggests that legalisation would absorb drugs as a ‘new means of control’. It could be used, for instance, to control drug research more effectively, as the underground would disappear. The 10% of the world economy which is ‘grey’ or quasi-criminal is a new frontier for capital to recuperate. This article shows clearly Bey’s emphasis on recuperation as a greater danger than repression.
The Contemporary State
Today, the state is undergoing a process of decline marked by its current death-spasms of apocalyptic violence. Hence there are periodic ‘spasms of control-by-terror’ directed at perceived enemies, such as hackers. ‘Robocop‘, or the automation of war, is the last interface between power and its others. Bey portrays the state as simultaneously liquefying and petrifying – its outer rigidity marking its emptiness. Bey likens these spasms of repression to medieval public executions, intended to terrorise and paralyse rebels. This is simulated justice, or terror, as opposed to systematic repression. This pattern of repression makes publicity a bad tactic and clandestinity a good one.
Another aspect of the contemporary state is its use of ‘depletion‘ as social control. The old liberal approach sought to assimilate marginal groups. Today’s approach instead relies on repression and isolation in zones of depletion. In this context, immigration is really a problem for global capitalism. Undergoing decay, capitalism practices social triage. It lets go of areas (and classes, races, etc) which fall below a certain level of participation in the Spectacle. This leads to no-go-zones where control is mostly simulated. Officially these zones remain state-controlled. They are not allowed political autonomy, and spasms of spectacular terror are sometimes unleashed against them. The Spectacle still tries to destroy any threat to its monopoly on spectacular authority. In theory, everyone is represented. In practice, however, most people are sacrificed. They cannot enter the deathly world of virtual reality or Cyber-Gnosis. There is thus a process of polarisation between included and excluded. Bey thinks this process will speed up, and even parts of America will be affected. Triage will occur even within the zones assigned to supposedly ‘safe’ subjects with rights. However, this creates possibilities through the occupation of zones of depletion, or NoGoZones.
Corresponding to its creation of zones of depletion, capital actually retreats on a spatial level. A philosophy of risk-management and protection is accompanied by a process of withdrawal into fortress-like spaces such as gated communities and malls. This corresponds to the disappearance of certain zones into virtual reality, and the consignment of others as zones of depletion. Most people are left behind in the resultant ‘social triage’, even if they remain media-entranced. There is also a clever control strategy in which the system threatens something very extreme, and when it falls short, people are relieved and find it tolerable. The surveillance state creates a danger of ‘information totality’ in which the map finally covers the whole territory. Such a regime would amount to unchallenged terror and the triumph of order and death. Our hopes in such a system are computer glitches and venal human controllers.
In an earlier paper, Bey argued that the right-wing need an enemy. In the absence of communism, they worry about the UN, or Arabs, or drugs. This is partly because they cannot theorise the current regime of rule by virtual capital. Elsewhere, he argues that both right and left are caught up in identifying symptoms and enemies. These enemies actually stem from the political subconscious, which is affected by neoliberalism and the resulting dissatisfaction. Some symptoms are noticed from the right, others from the left, but both are searching for a scapegoat for the general malaise. This leads to a society which is waging war on itself. In Sacred Drift, Wilson notes that the west has rediscovered ‘its ancient Other’. He cites Marx’s dictum that history repeats first as tragedy, then as farce. Today’s Islamophobia is a farcical re-enactment of medieval conflicts.
One of the more unusual aspects of Bey’s theory of the state is his relative preference for monarchical and single-leader states over mass culture and modern regimes. The only regimes which exist at an archetypal level – in dreams, for example – are anarchy and monarchy. Both are rooted in sovereignty and will. Monarchy is objectionable for cruelty and capriciousness. But it is closer to anarchy than modern regime-types. Monarchs at least are human in their flaws. Today’s rulers barely even exist aside from the Ideas, or spooks, they serve. Such people are functionaries, not archetypes. Bey suggests that anarchism is actually a mutation of monarchy, in which each person becomes sovereign in a creative sphere.
For the other essays in the series, please visit the In Theory column page.
Editor’s note: With regards to Hakim Bey’s controversial personal stances, these will be discussed in Part 10 of this series. In the meantime, please read our ‘Note to readers’ at the end of the introductory essay of the series.
- Headlines for February 02, 2018
- "Mr. Boston": Meet the Man Who Secretly Helped Daniel Ellsberg Leak Pentagon Papers to the Press
- "They Repress Us Because We're Poor": Immigrant Rights Activist Speaks from Sanctuary in Colorado
Wed, 31st January — It’s 10.40pm on Wednesday evening and I start writing because it’s all I can think to do. It is helping, in a way, to distract me from thinking about where Michael* is. His phone has been off for the last two hours.
He might already be on the plane. He might be on the coach waiting to get on the plane. He might even be restrained in a body belt, although I don’t imagine he resisted them. Either way, he will be sitting and waiting, with tens of other people being forcibly expelled to West Africa.
I met Michael through work I was doing with detainees, and I connected with him because he grew up in Manchester. He is 22, a few years my junior, and he grew up a few streets down from where my mum did, four decades earlier.
Michael arrived in the UK when he was nine years old, in 2004, and has lived in Manchester ever since. The Immigration Rules state that if a person under 25 has spent over half of their life in the UK, they should qualify for regularisation – so long as they have a clean record and can prove ‘continuous residence’.
It was the ‘continuous residence’ part that caught Michael out. He visited Nigeria when he was 11, for a few weeks over the summer holidays. That fateful trip, and the fact he had re-entered the UK with a new visa, meant the clock was re-started again. And so, eleven years later, Michael was detained. He was kept in prison-like conditions for nearly a year. Last night, he was deported.
I visited him twice in detention. It was only twice and now I wish it’d been more. Or maybe not. We spoke about the area of Manchester where my mum grew up, about the street where he lived. We worked out that the two were just a few blocks away.
We spoke about the barbers we both knew in Old Trafford, about school, immigration control, detention, my PhD and about music. He had been listening to Sade the night before on his stereo, which I thought was cool, and had spent the morning in the gym. He did not elaborate on his mental health, but intimated that detention had worn him down, had changed him.
At this stage, I still thought he might get out.
Michael did not have a criminal record, not that he would have been less deserving if he had. ‘Overstayers’ and ‘criminals’ are juridical categories, products of the state’s power to classify us; and to enforce these classifications with (extra)ordinary violence. But his not being ‘a criminal’ did mean I thought he’d get out.
A lot could be said about Michael’s deportation and what it reveals about the UK’s immigration regime. Firstly, the fact that he was ineligible for ‘Leave to Remain’, despite having lived in the UK since he was in primary school, reflects how draconian the system has become. Michael fell foul of the ‘continuous residence’ rules, and this is a widespread problem. Simply proving your continuous residence – i.e. that you have lived in Britain continuously, every month of every year – is incredibly difficult. This is the story for those Caribbean migrants (if they can still be called migrants) who have lived in the UK for decades yet now face the threat of removal.
Michael’s case also reveals that non-citizens cannot access justice. He would probably have been able to avoid deportation if a decent lawyer had taken his case on a couple of years ago. But legal aid has been decimated, and he ended up with a lawyer who made bad, lazy decisions, which made things much harder later on.
It is not only legal aid but the slashing of appeal rights that makes these cases hard to win. The Home Office has become very good at preventing people from lodging appeals. After all, appeals frustrate removal. For example, Michael was not given flight directions in advance. Instead, he was given a three-month removal window, so that, at any stage in those three months, the Home Office could put him on a flight without warning. This makes organising your legal defence, and your thoughts and emotions, impossible. In early January, Michael was getting hopeful because his removal window was nearly up, and he planned to apply to be released on bail. But the Home Office simply extended the window — no doubt because a charter flight had been scheduled.
Immigration control is defined by controls over temporality – over how long you can stay and how long you need to be resident before you can regularise. Illegality is experienced as an ‘enforced orientation to the present…the revocability of the promise of the future’. Time goes slowly for those waiting for Home Office decisions, and then speeds up when they are detained. Time might slow down again once a person is locked up, and then suddenly speed up in the days leading up to removal, when there is no longer enough time. This is deliberate. And it is torture.
There is so much more that could be said about Michael’s deportation. We could talk about how charter flights are the immigration system’s most brutal and terrifying instrument. About how they rely on enforcement sweeps in the weeks leading up to flights, with tens of people detained while dutifully signing at reporting centres. After all, charter flights are expensive. Seats need to be filled.
We should definitely talk about the neo-colonial bilateral relations on which these charter flights depend.** We could talk about the British government funding a prison wing in Lagos so that ‘foreign criminals’ can be deported ‘back home’ earlier. We could talk about prisoner transfer agreements reached with Ghana. When the UK says that such agreements work because of the countries’ ‘similar legal systems and practices’, we see that deportation relies on and reproduces a suffocating colonial amnesia. Asking the simple question, ‘who built these prisons’ might be the starting point for a different analysis.
But right now, all I can think about is how much I like Michael. How I sort of imagined seeing him in Manchester when all this was done and he had his leave to remain. How he would be a person I had helped, sort of, to not get deported – to not be another young man I came to know in the context of the catastrophe that is deportation: the banishment, forced separation and isolation.
There are others, tens of others, flying with Michael right now. None of them want to leave the UK, and their families and their communities, behind. None of them want to “return” to Nigeria or to Ghana, countries where some of them know nobody at all.
There was a charter flight to Nigeria and Ghana two months ago. There will be another one in two months. There will be further charter flights to Albania, Pakistan, and Jamaica in the coming weeks.*** I won’t know anyone on those flights. But as with Michael, each deportation will do unknowable, unthinkable damage in the lives of individuals and families.
There are many ways to destroy people – individuals, families, communities – and racism is one concept we use to capture that violence. How can these deportations not be connected to race? We know why the policies are popular. We know why Nigerians move to the UK and not the other way around. We know why they are unwanted here. We know why tens of West Africans restrained and forced onto planes feels uncomfortable. And we know that deportation means expulsion from home rather than a return to one.
A couple of months ago, I really thought Michael would get out. I thought he would be able to stay with his mum, his brothers, his friends; with his memories, his home, his place.
I thought him staying would help me deal with the fact that most people in his situation do not.
I was wrong. And so now I am writing. It is ten past midnight and Michael is in the air, on his way to Nigeria. And I am just so sorry.* Not his real name ** And I will do so in another piece soon. *** It is important to note that most people are removed from the UK on commercial flights.
- Headlines for February 01, 2018
- Marcy Wheeler on Showdown over Nunes Memo, Mueller Probe & Reauthorization of Mass Surveillance
- 16 Years of War: Trump Joins Obama & Bush in Using SOTU to Hail "Progress" in Afghan War
- Johann Hari on How the "Junk Values" of Neoliberalism Drive Depression and Anxiety in the U.S.
- Headlines for January 31, 2018
- In Warmongering First State of the Union, Trump Doubles Down on Gitmo & Escalates Nuclear War Threat
- Ilhan Omar, First Somali-American State Lawmaker: Trump's SOTU was "Disgusting" & "Fascist"
- We Are Not Going to Be Intimidated: Undocumented Activist Attends SOTU Despite Threat of Arrest
- Made in the USA: The Real History of the MS-13 Gang Trump Talked About in State of the Union
- Trump's "Backward-Looking" Speech Ignores Climate Change, While Pushing for "Beautiful, Clean Coal"