2017 Verso Blog Highlights
A look back at our most read blog posts of the year.
Dalia Gebrial, Decolonising Desire: The Politics of Love (February)
Dalia Gebrial examines the colonial scripts that encode people in and out of the possibility of love.
The primary social practice of love has been through heteronormative, monogamous dating and marriage; there is a compelling and important radical argument that these relationship structures are oppressive and predicated on the uneven and gendered distribution of emotional labour. What I’m interested in is further investigating is what it means to not be legible within even these problematic discourses of love. Exclusion from such frameworks is not always tantamount to liberation – in fact, exclusion denotes an entirely different set of racialised oppressions.
Zoé Samudzi, Dehumanization by Deification: On Kamala Harris and "Black Women Will Save Us" (August)
“Black women will save us!” has become a kind of liberal refrain following the presidential election (where 94% of Black women voters supported Clinton) and the emergence of Maxine Waters and Kamala Harris as congressional gadflies.
The refusal to acknowledge the violent politics of a woman of color because of her raced-gendered identity is comparably racist to a critique of woman of color that revolves solely around those identities: white supremacy, remember, knows no sectarian or ideological bounds. Dehumanization, whether through degradation or deification, reflects of bigoted regard for minoritized individuals or groups; it objectifies of the identities of women of color to suit one’s politics. It is both infantilizing and condescending to avoid holding women of color’s politics to the same standard of rigor as the white men we easily (and necessarily) critique. and rests on no meaningful understanding of hegemonic social structures. This superficial politics of representation (i.e. the idea that elevating minorities to positions of power is an unquestioned social good regardless of their politics) and a weird fetishization, rather than actual respect, for non-white womanhood.
Christina Heatherton, Not Just Being Right, But Getting Free: Reflections on Class, Race, and Marxism (July)
How should we think about the relationship between race and class on the left? As Christina Heatherton reminds us in this series of reflections on David Roediger's new book Class, Race, and Marxism the point is not to be right, but to get free.
It bears repeating that class is a relation and not a fixed identity. The dynamics of class movements emerge in different convergences of struggle. Our theories have to be capacious enough to account for these convergences. The recent scandal of Grenfell Towers in London offers one concrete example. An untold number of poor, immigrant, and working class people died when the public housing tower block where they lived, caught fire. The blaze, we now know, was accelerated by non-fire retardant panels, installed on the face of the building; an effort to minimize its “unsightliness” for wealthier neighboring residents for whom the building was an eyesore. We might not yet have a synthesis of Marxist theory that fully accounts for the convergences of labor exploitation, circulations of finance capital, the predations of real estate speculation, immigration, militarism, colonialism, racism, social reproduction, queer and non-normative familial relations, aesthetics, and neoliberal austerity, but this is essentially what the residents who are organizing against this mass murder by the state and capital are currently articulating. Our theorizing should follow such movements – rather than the other way around. To get free we have to be able to comprehend the “changing terrain of class relations” as it unfolds before us, a point Roediger returns to throughout the collection.
Yasmin Nair, March as Feminists, Not as Women (January)
On the Women's March.
Yet, even as I roll my eyes about the many issues with the March and its ancillaries, all of which seem to be dominated by Nice White Ladies, I think about the nine-year-old girl, the daughter of friends of a friend, who insists that her family drive from Wisconsin to participate in Chicago. There is a definite shift in the air when someone as young as that feels the need to participate in a framework that is both political and personal. And as much as I cringe at the thought of marching with annoying Nice White Ladies (who can sometimes be sweetly condescending to brown and black women but who are, to be fair, probably not all that nice, to their credit, in several different ways), I recognise that it surely means something that so many women feel compelled to march.
Akwugo Emejulu, Another University is Possible (January)
The SOAS students' struggle to decolonise their curriculum is a call to reshape and re-imagine what the university is for and whom the university should serve.
The campaign statement to decolonise SOAS does not call for the removal of specific theorists from the curriculum, yet this has been misrepresented in the media, with the students caricatured as ignorant, censorious snowflakes who insist on racialising the ‘pure’ discipline of philosophy. The Telegraph’s headline read, ‘University students demand philosophers such as Plato and Kant are removed from syllabus because they are white’. The article reports that the conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton, derided the student action as ignorant: “clearly they haven’t investigated what they mean by ‘white philosophy’. If they think there is a colonial context from which Kant's Critique of Pure Reason arose, I would like to hear it.” Meanwhile, conservative historian Anthony Seldon counseled: “We need to understand the world as it is and not rewrite history as some might like it to have been”. The great irony of these dismissals is that the SOAS students are seeking to resist the very revisionism itself of contemporary accounts of the Enlightenment, specifying that “if white philosophers are required, then to teach their work from a critical standpoint. For example, acknowledging the colonial context in which so called ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers wrote within.”
McKenzie Wark, On the Obsolescence of the Bourgeois Novel in the Anthropocene (August)
How can cultural workers respond to climate change? Can the cultural work of responding to climate change be a global conversation? McKenzie Wark writes about the novelist Amitav Ghosh's influential lectures on "the great derangement."
The bourgeois novel generally draws a sharp distinction between the human and the nonhuman, and concerns itself with actions, motivations and inner lives of its humans. Not only are the setting and period discontinuous with the world (although sometimes a metonym for it), the actions of the humans are discontinuous with other agents. “But the earth of the Anthropocene is precisely a world of insistent, inescapable continuities…” (62) Ghosh sees this as a problem, as he sees understanding climate change as a problem of understanding continuities. But he wants to see the human as continuous with the nonhuman while playing a bit less attention to the inhuman, to collective labor and its instruments. The emphasis on the continuous is also a bit one sided, given that climate change results from a metabolic rift, a discontinuity, in the way imperial and commodified systems of production function.
Sarah Brouillette, Tragedy Mistaken for Management Theory: On Kazuo Ishiguro and the Nobel Prize in Literature (October)
Should we debate whether another writer deserved the “honour” of the Nobel Prize in Literature more than Kazuo Ishiguro? Consider the nature of this particular distinction.
Specifying what counts as worthy in literature has long been about asserting the dominance of the advanced over the elementary — elite, trained, highly educated expression being more valuable than common speech and common forms, of course. Class power, in essence: the legitimation of bourgeois rule. The Nobel Prize in Literature has existed to protect this refined category of expressivity. It has celebrated the humanizing, imaginative, individualizing, enlivening, ennobling, non-commercial, non-materialistic ways of seeing. Attached to all this is a subtle critique of more popular culture and groupthink, even as the books it prizes — precisely through the distinction of being better than merely commercial — sell far more copies than they would have otherwise. The most important thing for the Nobel Prize in Literature and attendant commentary is invariably the inherent quality of “the writing itself,” and the heightened — usually inward, psychologized — exploration of universal themes.
Jacques Rancière, Attacks on "populism" seek to enshrine the idea that there is no alternative (May)
In today’s Europe the label "populism" is used to designate something else. It is not a mode of government. On the contrary, it is a certain attitude of refusal, faced with the reigning practices of government. What is a "populist," as today defined by our governmental elites and their ideologues? Beyond all the many variations on this word, the dominant discourse seems to characterise it by way of three essential traits: (1) a style of interlocution that addresses the people directly, going around its representatives and its notables; (2) the claim that governments and ruling elites are more concerned with their own interests than the res publica; (3) an identitarian rhetoric that expresses fear and rejection of foreigners. Yet it is clear that there is no necessary link between these three characteristics.
Nadine El-Enany, The Colonial Logic of Grenfell (July)
The colonial politics of space overdetermined the premature and violent deaths of the Grenfell residents racialised as non-white.
Practices of subjugation and control of people racialised as non-white persist in the state-sponsored disproportionate confinement of people from former European colonies to high-rise buildings lacking the most basic safety measures. Rapid gentrification in the area and the local council’s prioritisation of the interests of new, predominantly white wealthy residents intensified the vulnerability to harm and premature death of the marginalised poor housed in Grenfell Tower. Gentrification entails the over-policing of communities racialised as non-white to enhance the desirability of an area and to ensure property prices are not devalued. Khadija Saye, who was killed in the Grenfell fire could not telephone for help on the night of the fire because she had recently been wrongfully arrested and the police had not returned her phone.
Françoise Vergés, Racial Capitalocene (August)
An excerpt from Futures of Black Radicalism.
Though minorities and peoples of the South have shown that they are the victims of racialized environmental politics — toxic waste, polluted water and rivers, pesticides, polluted food — have studies on the emergence of the “Anthropocene” addressed the role of race in its making? In other words, is the Anthropocene racial? Scholars have studied race as a central element of destructive environmental policies, but what connection can be made between the Western conception of nature as “cheap” and the global organization of a “cheap,” racialized, disposable workforce, given the conception of nature as constant capital and the fact that “the organizers of the capitalist world system appropriated Black labor power as constant capital”? What methodology is needed to write a history of the environment that includes slavery, colonialism, imperialism and racial capitalism, from the standpoint of those who were made into “cheap” objects of commerce, their bodies as objects renewable through wars, capture, and enslavement, fabricated as disposable people, whose lives do not matter?
Deborah Cowen, Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance (January)
On the explosion of infrastructure politics.
Infrastructure connects a range of political conflicts which might otherwise seem disparate and discrete: crises surrounding the rights of refugees and the provision of asylum in a world of thickening borders; crises of indigenous peoples’ lands and sovereignty in the face of transnational extractive industries; crises regarding local livelihoods in an economy organized through speed and flexibility in trade across vast distances; crises of water infrastructure in Black and Indigenous communities; crises of police and carceral violence that breed profound distrust in the core institutions of the state for communities of color. At the center of these struggles are the systems engineered to order social and natural worlds. Struggles over infrastructure are hardly new, but they are perhaps more ubiquitous, as the world becomes increasingly financialized, securitized, and logistical.
Joshua Clover, Terminal Showdown (January)
Written in response to the airport occupations that followed the first announcement of the Muslim ban.
Workers have not ceased to struggle for themselves or to join in the struggles of others. The recompositions of the labor market have changed how this looks. Increasingly they take on the aspect of circulation struggles, unfolding in the transport sector, staging themselves in the street rather than the factory, often in collaboration with non-workers. The participation last night of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance is a perfect example. It is a significant and sizable union — but it is the circulation sector, both conceptually and literally. The taxis and cars are operated independently by drivers who pay costs and fees and take some portion of their earnings as revenue, rather than receiving a wage from an owner whose productivity depends on them running. If they went on strike last night, it was a strike against themselves. Or rather, it was targeted at consumers, not producers. Marketside, to be technical. If it was against a great machine, it was against the machine of the city, against the smooth operation of moving things from here to there. More of a riot, really. In this it corresponded to the series of airport shutdowns not just in spirit but in logic.
Tamara K. Nopper, The Unexceptional Racism of Andrew Sullivan (April)
Historicizing the Model Minority myth.
Like those who challenge the anti-Black subtext of Sullivan’s commentary, people rightfully condemn Petersen and others who juxtapose African Americans and Asian Americans in this way. However, not mentioned by many critics is that Petersen was an established sociologist of migration who was commissioned by the NYT. Also frequently overlooked is the fact that Petersen went on to write the 1971 book Japanese Americans: Oppression and Success, for a series focused on ethnic groups. As a White man, he wrote a book about an ethnic group of which he was not a part, which was not the norm for the series. The reason why I think these points are significant is not because it makes the model minority myth more credible, but because it troubles the notion that pronouncements such as Sullivan’s are divorced from, or devoid of, mainstream and academically accepted discourse. It also requires us to look beyond “clickbait,” and mainstream media, which, as many model minority myth critics note, circulated Asian American success stories for decades following the 1960s. If we look more closely at how Petersen structured his argument regarding Japanese Americans as model minorities, we can better situate the problem represented by Sullivan’s commentary within the larger, overlapping spheres of academia, mass media, and punditry.
Asad Haider, Those Who Refuse (August)
On the murder of Heather Heyer.
Today we must remember not only Heather, but all those who, compelled by logic, left their homes in the morning to fight for justice, knowing that they might not come back. These people are never angels or saints. They are ordinary people, like you and me. And what must move us about them is that for every fallen comrade, a thousand more stood up to take her place. Their refusal could not be silenced. They knew that the way to honor the victims of injustice was to eradicate it.
Jasper Bernes, Our Streets (August)
Heather Heyer was killed by a person and not a car, and yet the car, a Dodge Challenger, seems almost an extension of the person.
Americans can be imperious about their road rights, as if the freedom to drive one’s car down a stretch of asphalt unimpeded were written into the constitution. In fact, legislators in several states have tried recently to spell out such rights in statute, introducing much harsher penalties for blocking the road but also removing civil liability for drivers who kill blockaders accidentally. In Indiana, a lawmaker introduced a bill requiring police to use “any means necessary” to clear the roadway. Police and police unions are particularly outraged at protest blockades. The police are, as we know, absolute masters of the road. They put on their sirens and their lights and the seas part for them. Someone standing in the road and refusing to move in the face of their command is an intolerable affront to that sovereignty.
Ed Morales, Puerto Rico: Belonging to, But Not Part of (September)
The Trump administration's delay in sending real aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria is a distasteful display of colonialist racism. But it's par for the course: our citizenship has always been second-class.
Of course we know, after centuries of colonialism, that we are resilient. AF. And when one hears the peculiar sing-song of the Puerto Rican lilting, consonant-dropping Afro-Caribbean language on the fluttering airwaves, it’s clear that the will to survive is strong. It’s embedded in the mountains, the same ones that have stood for centuries without wavering, against the shearing winds that coalesce off the coast of West Africa and spin chaotically into the Northeastern peaks of the Luquillo Range.
Popular Weekend Reads
Our Weekend Reads series presents excerpts from Verso backlist titles available again through print-on-demand.
Wendy Brown, Resisting Left Melancholia (from Without Guarantees)
It has become commonplace to lament the current beleaguered and disoriented condition of the Left. Stuart Hall is among the few who have tried to diagnose the sources and dynamics of this condition. From the earliest days of the rise of the Thatcher-Reagan-Gingrich Right in Europe and North America, Hall insisted that the “crisis of the Left” in the late twentieth century was due neither to internal divisions in the activist or academic Left nor to the clever rhetoric or funding schemes of the Right. Rather, he charged, this ascendency was consequent to the Left's own failure to apprehend the character of the age, and to develop a political critique and a moral-political vision appropriate to this character. For Hall, the rise of the Right was a symptom rather than a cause of this failure, just as the Left's dismissive or suspicious attitude toward cultural politics is for Hall not a sign of its unwavering principles but of its anachronistic habits of thought, and its fears and anxieties about revising those habits. In short, the Left's disintegration and disarray must be pinned not on external events or developments in the late twentieth century, but on the way the Left positions itself in relation to those events and developments.
Yves Lacoste, Ibn Khaldun and The Myth of "Arab Invasion" (from Ibn Khaldun: The Birth of History and the Past of the Third World)
Ibn Khaldun is too good a historian to forget that the Arabs founded great and stable empires in both the east and the west. In a number of important passages he demonstrates that all the kingdoms and viable political organizations founded in North Africa were established by “nomadic” or “Arab” peoples or by tribes with very similar socio-political characteristics. The Almoravids, for instance, were true Saharan nomads; the Fatimids were originally peasants from Kabylia; the Almohads were a mountain tribe from the Moroccan High Atlas. As we shall see, Ibn Khaldun is quite right to classify them together. We are not, then, dealing with “nomads,” “Bedouins,” or “Arabs” but rather with groups having similar political and social structures though very different “ways of life.”
G.A. Cohen, The Labour Theory of Value and the Concept of Exploitation (from The Value Controversy)
This essay shows that the relationship between the labour theory of value and the concept of exploitation is one of mutual irrelevance. The labour theory of value is not a suitable basis for the charge of exploitation laid against capitalism by Marxists, and the real foundation of that charge is something much simpler which, for reasons to be stated, is widely confused with the labour theory of value.
Nicos Poulantzas, General Propositions on Fascism and the Dominant Classes (from Fascism and Dictatorship)
The appearance and rise of fascism correspond to the deepening and sharpening of the internal contradictions between the dominant classes and class fractions, which is an important element of the political crisis in question.
This can only be understood on the basis of a correct conception of the alliance of classes and class fractions in relation to political domination. In a social formation composed of many social classes, and in particular in a capitalist social formation, where the bourgeois class is constitutively divided into different class fractions, no single class or class fraction occupies the field of political domination. There is a specific alliance of several classes and fractions, which I have elsewhere described as the “power bloc” (le bloc au pouvoir). Thus, the contradictions between the dominant classes and class fractions often take on sufficient importance to determine the forms of State and of regime.
Stephanie Coontz & Peta Henderson, "Explanations" of Male Dominance (from Women’s Work, Men’s Property)
Male dominance is one of the earliest known and most widespread forms of inequality in human history. To some, the very idea of a book on the origins of sexual inequality is absurd. Male dominance seems to them a universal, if not inevitable, relationship that has been with us since the dawn of our species. A growing body of evidence and theory, however, suggests that this is not the case, and a number of scholars have begun to address the issue of male dominance as a historical phenomenon, grounded in a specific set of circumstances rather than flowing from some universal aspect of human nature or culture. The essays in this volume offer differing perspectives on the development of sex role differentiation and sexual inequality (the two are by no means identical), but share a belief that these phenomena didhave origins, and that these must be sought in sociohistorical events and processes. Before turning to these theories, we would like critically to review some of the alternative explanations of sexual inequality.