marxism

Is libertarian socialism possible in North Africa?

Is libertarian socialism possible in North Africa? Is it even possible to struggle for it in an organised way? What about West Africa? Central Africa?

These are the regions I am trying to educate myself about now. South of Europe.  There are hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, and I have been trying to find out why.

Of course, I knew the general picture – Wars, Poverty, environmental destruction, corrupt and oppressive governments – and I knew that all these things in one way or another are the fault of transnational capitalists and the big imperialist states, of which most sit on the UN Security Council.

But now I’m trying to find out which way or another. Which transnational corporations, companies and capitalists are making money out of where, with help from who, and with what consequences? It’s a big question, made up of a great deal of smaller ones.

Of course, there are lots of books available, and lots of documentaries, but you’d be surprised how little actually. Or perhaps you wouldn’t.

Most countries in the Sahara and Sahel regions do not have TV networks producing high quality journalism in the English language, because of government repression, a general lack of resources, and sometimes just because of the generally chaotic situation.

Two English-language broadcasters who do have quite a lot of stuff up there on YouTube for free are Al Jazeera – owned by Qatar, and Press TV, owned by Iran. Iran and Qatar have completely contradictory geopolitical interests for the most part, and it is no surprise that Al Jazeera and Press TV often report contradictory narratives.

For example, take the war in the north of Mali. Al Jazeera glorifies the struggle of the Tuaregs for an independent State called Azawad with many emotional interviews and personal stories. Press TV says that hardly anyone in the north of Mali actually wants independence and it’s all a French conspiracy.

So basically, both of these channels are trying to appeal to Westerners who have anti-imperialist sympathies, as of course is Russia Today. But all of them are actually controlling information and constructing narratives to suit the interests of various imperialist states and, one must suppose, transnational capitalists.

How many Tuaregs actually wanted independence? Al Jazeera could just be focusing on the minority who do and making it seem like they represent them all, or Press TV, who don’t provide any evidence for their statistics, could be making it all up. Al Jazeera makes no mention of possible French interests in stirring up the conflict, though is usually quite critical of French imperialism.

So you can’t just base your ideas on what is on TV, is the conclusion. You have to go back to the basics.

When Britain, France and other imperialist powers directly colonised countries in Africa, and in other parts of the world, they basically wanted to export resources back to their imperial centres to sell to their people, or to convert in factories to something else which they could sell to people both in the colonies and in Europe.

So they needed to make sure that some roads and ports got built, as well as mines, plantations and a few shitty houses for native workers to sleep in, but that was about it. They definitely didn’t want these countries to have big industries of their own so that they could produce their own goods, because then they wouldn’t have to buy them from the imperialists.

Today in Africa you still see people using industrially-made products that are imported from outside Africa, only now the companies are not only European but Asian and American as well. You still also see African resources mainly being exported outside of Africa to Europe, Asia and the Americas.

So it’s clear that despite many changes of government in the past 60 or more years since these countries became independent, not that much has changed in terms of the basic economic set-up.  In colonial times, this economic set-up was based on the brutal force of a completely undemocratic state, and again, not much has changed.

So what about libertarian socialism? As Nationalism, Marxist-Leninism, Islamic Fundementalism and even ‘African Socialism’ have all failed to actually change the basic situation that African workers, peasants and landless, unemployed refugees are in, could a non-statist political movement work?

What has usually happened when countries have had mass political movements for independence from European empires is that their leaders have taken over the state structures and economic infrastructure that the Europeans left and have been corrupted or bullied by the Europeans and Americans into keeping everything basically the same as it was before.

Often there has been a bit of a struggle, usually taking the form of military coups and civil war, which when you look a bit closer turn out not to be a bunch of ‘mindless savages killing each other for no reason’ or whatever the Western media tries to present it as, but actually a bunch of armed groups funded by different imperialist powers fighting each other, or just one group funded by the West fighting another group which genuinely wants to nationalise the wealth of the country.

Unfortunately most of these armed fighters who have simply wanted to nationalise the wealth of the country have also been guilty of killing civilians and so cannot be supported uncritically, even if the imperialist stooges they are fighting are far worse.

Increasingly the anti-imperialist fighters are fucking crazy Islamic fundamentalists who kill anyone they don’t like, oppress women, kill LGBT people, and do all sorts of other stupid bullshit.

So what about libertarian socialism? What about a movement that says the same thing as all the others have said ‘stop exporting all the resources at the barrel of a gun’ but which instead of saying ‘then give it to our new state in the name of Allah, Socialism, the Nation or Whatever’ says ‘let the workers control the means of production directly at the level of the shopfloor?’

What about NO state? What about communities running their own affairs in municipal assemblies, workers running their own workplaces, everyone electing all individuals to be put in any position of responsibility or authority and having the power to instantly recall them if they abuse it?

What about villages, neighbourhoods, workplaces, all being self-governing and choosing delegates, again subject to instant recall, to go to regional or industrial meetings to coordinate production and distribution between themselves as and when is necessarily, with no fixed centralised authority?

There are some African political activists calling for such a thing. There are anarchist movements in South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, maybe other places. But it is a very small movement in a very big continent.

Travelling activists have always played a role in the history of the anarchist movement. Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Emma Goldman, Makhno, they all moved across borders many times in their lives, spreading ideas along the way and linking together organised workers and revolutionaries in different countries.

It seems to be that Europe has quite a lot of educated people of libertarian socialist opinions (whether they use that term or not) who are not particularly ‘engaged in revolutionary struggle’ right now – and North Africa is the closest place to go for most Western Europeans, where they would be able to find actual revolutionary conditions.

In Europe, conditions are not revolutionary because the ‘masses’ are far too bourgeois. There is an ‘underclass’ or lumpenproletariat of people who have nothing much too lose and everything to gain from social revolution. The majority of people, though, are enjoying the benefits of transnational capitalist imperialism far too much.

Look at me, for instance. I am unemployed, yet I can still eat and have a roof over my head, because the food I eat is mostly grown in other countries and the producers paid a fraction of the low prices that I pay for it, out of money that the State in my country is able to afford to pay me, just to stop me getting too angry, because it is a rich State that makes wealth by exporting high tech arms and financial services around the world to maintain the global, brutal capitalist order which it helped create in the first place.

Now take the average unemployed person in Morocco, the closest African country to me. They don’t get given money by the State just for being unemployed. The state isn’t going to pay the impoverished masses there money to stop them getting too agitated. Instead it relies on brute force and a network of government informers in every neighbourhood.

The Moroccan state couldn’t afford the kind of social welfare system that exists in the UK. They have what money the Western imperialist governments let them have, through the World Bank, foreign aid, or direct investment, which is very little.

Say they wanted to buy a load of landmines from a Western company. Well, I’m sure a Western bank would lend them the money, and a Western government would encourage them to. Then the Western arms company would have more money, and so would the bank, so that Western government would have a higher GDP. The same people might even own the bank, the arms company, and control the government. In effect they have just given the Moroccan state a bunch of weapons for free, because they wanted to anyway, to keep down the pesky Moroccan workers. But you may as well make shit loads of money at the same time.

So basically, in Europe you have a lot of revolutionaries with not much potential for revolution, and in Africa you have a lot of potential for revolution without enough revolutionaries. So how about some redistribution?

To be clear – I am not at all calling on European activists to come and ‘save Africa’ or any shit like that. We are not going to ‘bring anarchism’ to the masses. Anarchism doesn’t work like that. It is not the same as Marxism.

Marxists, especially Marxist-Leninists, believe that the people are basically too stupid to govern themselves, but that if a bunch of Marxist intellectuals come along at the right time and boss them around a bit, maybe those intellectuals could take over the State, and boss the people around some more, until one day, far in the future, the people will be ready to govern themselves.

Anarchists believe that people are able to govern themselves now, if only they would be given a fucking chance. Being given a chance includes acquiring land, tools and other means of production while being free from external oppression for long enough to get something going.

So whereas Marxists, for their strategy to work, need to go around convincing people that Marxism is a belief system that makes sense, but that is just too complicated for the workers to understand, and that they, the Marxists, are very clever and should be listened to and obeyed all the time if the workers know what’s good for them, anarchists have no need to behave like this.

Anarchists just need to go along, pitch in, help out, just like everyone else, and stay true to their principles, being as open and honest about them as is possible without getting shot in the head. At the most, anarchists need to convince workers of the value of themselves, not of anarchist theory.

For example, if you say to someone, ‘you can do that yourself, you don’t need some big shot to do it for you” and they say ‘oh no, for sure, I couldn’t do that, not little old me”, you just need to tell ‘em they shouldn’t be so down on themselves. Just be encouraging, like a mate.

There are people in Africa who cry out for foreigners to come and solve all their problems for them. They may not particularly be happy with a bunch of foreigners coming and saying ‘no, do it yourself, but we can help out a bit if you like’, but hey. Fuck ‘em. You can’t treat someone differently because they are from a different country. If some dickhead came up to me in England and asked me to solve all their problems for me I would tell them the same thing.

There can be no revolution in Europe without revolution in Africa. When people there kick out the multinational corporations and destroy all the dictatorships, taking the wealth of their countries into their own hands, directly, you know what will happen here in Europe? We won’t have any fucking food to eat, or petrol to drive cars with, uranium to power our laptops, or coltan to make those laptops out of. Then you might see some revolution. Then the European working classes might think about rising up and seizing the land, factories, and other means of production.

So that is the basis on which I am saying European activists should go to Africa – as revolutionaries who see no borders as being real, and know that our liberation is bound up with the liberation of all people, all around the world. We should use our privileged access to resources – as well as other privileges such as relative freedom of movement and in many cases skin colour privileges – to support working-class, peasant and landless people’s struggles for liberation – helping to build connections between movements in different countries, on the basis of non-hierarchical, horizontal organising, and resisting all bureaucratic or authoritarian tendencies in those movements from within.

It’s a lot to ask, I know, and potentially very dangerous. But what else is there? Shall we let Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb be the leading voice of opposition to capitalist imperialism in the region while we sit in Europe watching things get worse and worse from a distance?

Or should we practice what we preach?

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Where would Camden Market be without Stalin?

“If it weren’t for Stalin would Post-Modernism have happened?

That is the thought which occurs to me as I look into the mirror brushing my teeth, staring at the tee-shirt I am wearing. It’s a stylised picture of a “worker” holding a hammer, with a slogan in German and the symbol of the former East German Deutsches Demokratisches Republik. The whole style of the shirt is unmistakably Modernist, and what’s more, Stalinist.

In the twentieth century the various State-Capitalist dictatorships going by the name “Communist” made heavy use of this kind of Modernist art, as did the Communist Parties of many Western Countries. When I went to Cuba in 2005 the legacy of this was still intact, as amazingly vibrant surrealist art was everywhere to be seen.

The styles of art used on old Communist propaganda are edgy, and in most peoples opinion, pretty cool. At the time they first came out they must also have seemed fresh and “modern”, hence “modernism” – signifying the ideals of the Modern Age: Progress, Technology, Big Hammers.

I cannot help but contrast the style of the art on the teeshirt I wear to bed with those I saw just earlier that day for sale in Camden Market. I used to go there as a teenager to actually buy things – rather than just go busking as in the case now – and I remembered seeing (and buying) a great number of old Communist propaganda tee-shirts, with just a few that would make reference to silly things in popular culture like Star Wars and Supermario, as well as a shit-load of teeshirts for rock bands.

There were always a few that were examples of what the Situationists called “detournement”, which basically means “subversion”. These would be shirts where a politically or culturally significant piece of art would be altered in some way so as to change the underlying message.

This process was highly popularised in the UK by the Punk movement, such as with the iconic Sex Pistols images of the Queen with safety pins through her face. In that case the message being expressed was clearly a rejection of Monarchism in favour of a nihilistically destructive, yet fun-loving attitude – Punk.

These days it seems that ‘detourned’ teeshirts are the main sort sold in Camden Market, but rather than signifying any anarchistic political messages there are, in the words of Hamlet, “signifying nothing”.

Take for example the “Obey” brand. This, as I understand it, was a fiendishly clever social experiment by a subversive street artist, to create a new brand that simply contained the word “obey”, sometimes with a funny picture of an angry old wrestler. In so doing I believe he was trying to make a comment on the fact that modern consumer-capitalist society has become so focused on Brands that they have become authority figures in themselves.

The experiment worked extremely well, as the brand has become commercially successful; with the result that now you will see “Obey” written on the fronts of clothing shops next to other brands like Nike and Adidas. This means that rather than having to go around putting stickers on all the shops, he has found a way to make the system itself do the work for him.

Unfortunately I do not believe that too many of the people who actually spend money on clothes which say “Obey” on them really realise that this was the original intention. Ironically most of them are simply taking the brand’s injunction to Obey at face value, which only proves the original point, that our society’s culture has become dominated by Brands to a scary degree.

The “Obey” story doesn’t end there, however, for now in Camden market you can see a great number of tee-shirts which have been “subverted” to say “Disobey”, and the wrestler’s face has been replaced with the V-for-Vendetta mask. This V mask has become something of a brand-name for “revolution”, with new activist groups like Anonymous and Occupy appropriating it as a symbol, and thus advertising the film V-for-Vendetta each time they do so, to the benefit of the production company of that film.

The film itself was already an example of capitalistic appropriation of a genuinely revolutionary piece of art, the V-for-Vendetta graphic novel by Alan Moore, an Anarchist. The film version takes out all explicit mentions of anarchism or even the word Anarchy, and changes the lead female character into a potential rape-victim who needs to be saved by another man rather than a sex worker being oppressed by the government for her choice of profession. This obviously makes the film character much less of a strong female role model, as you’d expect from a Hollywood film.

So now some smaller scale capitalists – the people who put up the capital to make all these shirts in Camden, and the people who own the stalls and shops selling them – are making money from the fact that some people never understood the original intention behind the Obey brand and who furthermore cannot understand a revolutionary message unless a watered-down Hollywood film version of it has been made. It would be interesting to know how many people wearing these “Disobey” shirts even know who Guy Fawkes was.

Generations of graphic designers have detourned so many images from popular culture already that they have started to detourn things that were already, in my opinion, subversive enough. In this process all meaning has started to become lost. Rather than expressing some clearly understood message such as “Fight for revolution against capitalism”, they more and more express an absence of any kind of over-arching coherent meaning at all.

This is called “post-modernism”, the idea that we must consciously do away with any “meta-narratives” such as “society is progressing towards a better capitalist world for us all” – which is still the official narrative of most Nation-States, or “society is progressing towards a better Communist/Islamic/New Age world for us all”.

I have no objection to Post-Modernism in itself as an artistic or political theory, for great damage was indeed done to the world by blind acceptance of these kinds of meta-narratives, and indeed is still being done.

Post-modernism – I believe – was born partly out of the realisation of many genuine revolutionaries that the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary project had become corrupted to the point of representing a reactionary and extremely violent threat to the liberty of the global working class, rather than a force for it’s liberation.

This realisation prompted a crisis within revolutionary circles in the West, with some turning to “Trotskyism”, a mythological version of Marxist-Leninism which portrays Leon Trotsky as a messianic figure whose ideas can save the whole project. Many others dropped out of the Marxist movement and became Anarchists instead, as anarchists had not been tainted by association with the Bolsheviks, and had actually been the first to criticise their corruption. Others just dropped out of revolutionary politics altogether.

Some however – the Post Modernists- began calling into question the fundamental assumptions of Marxism itself, assumptions which many Anarchists had also shared, as they too had been influenced by Marx, even if they did not see him as an authority figure.

The greatest of these assumptions was that capitalism will inevitably collapse in on itself due to the nature of its own contradictions. This prediction of the future relies on belief in some abstract historical forces that have nothing to do with decisions that we as revolutionaries make in our real lives.

It is similar to a religious belief that the final victory of good over evil has already been foretold, and therefore we don’t have to worry too much about it. We just have to do what the Church, or the Communist party tell us, even if they tell us to do “evil” things like kill innocent people in the name of the cause.

Along with challenging the ideas of Modernism – which Communism and Capitalism were both examples of – came challenges to Modernist art work. Post-modern artists began to juxtapose images of progress – like big factories and workers with hammers -with images representing the pre-Modern world – like big old Cathedrals or idyllic countryside scenes – with other images that were just completely chaotic.

The overall message behind this kind of collage is that Modernism is a myth and progress is not necessarily happening at all. Elements of the pre-Modern world are still very much with us now in the 21st Century, as a quick glance at the Islamic world, or indeed most of the former colonised world will prove. These exist alongside elements of “Modernity” – big skyscrapers and constant advances in technology – and of course the chaos of War, Climate Change and Nuclear radiation tearing at the very fabric of reality.

So when post-modernist art is a reflection of this reality in which we live today in the twentieth century, then it’s all well and good. But what the fuck am I supposed to make of a tee-shirt I saw in Camden where the faces of the Olympic athletes making the Black Power salute had been replaced by those of Imperial Stormtroopers from Star Wars? Are they saying that the Black Power movement has been incorporated into the Western Imperialist superstructure? Or are they just “signifying nothing” again?