Saturday, 14 March 2009

Talking Movies

F**** 'Young Victoria'

Before I say anything, let me say, f**** "Young Victoria." Every time I see a bus passing with what's-her-face plastered on its side, I mouth these words of endearment to the bus. The first time I saw the freaking trailer in the cinema, I was like 'whaaaaaat - are you kidding?' If anyone was the symbol of the British Empire it was Queen f******** Victoria. And, they're making a movie about her, about the young Victoria, in love and all, becoming a queen and all, the heavy burden of serving her people and all. Yeah well, whaddaya you know. It is a foregone conclusion that the Brits are as much in love with their colonial past as they were when Queen Victoria was young, and in love, and serving her country and peoples. I love how these biopics of emperors and queens make it sound like it was such a life of suffering and misery for them, having the burden of serving their peoples on their delicate shoulders and small heads.

In one of our recent TPP lectures on civil society, our lecturer Subir Sinha was talking about Gramsci's thought on civil society. Apparently Gramsci went around saying * that domination and imperialism was embedded in Western culture.

This reminds me of the strangeness I felt when I was in Netherlands a few years ago for a 'Project Management' workshop. My family was there for the first week of the workshop and, we did the usual museums in Amsterdam. I believe it was Golden Age of the Netherlands theme at the Rijksmuseum and, I was struck by the absolute absence of mention of its empire save for one painting where a noble lady was shown against the tropical background of Ghana. I had actually visited the slave castles in Ghana the year before that and, found it quite amusing that mention of slavery and empire was so small in this celebration of the Golden Age. Most of the paintings that were housed there were from the 17th century - great Dutch masterpieces known for their mastery of light. What I found amusing was that in celebration of this Golden Age too conveniently forgets that the Golden Age is the same thing as slavery, colonialism and empire. When we think of history, we cannot separate any of these eras for they co-existed and in fact, it is hard to believe that a Golden Age in either the Netherlands or elsewhere in Europe would have been possible without the plunder and murder in Africa, Asia and the Americas. I remember walking around in Amsterdam thinking that to myself, thoughtfully peering at the impressive buildings, roads, canals, houses - a place of prosperity and peace. I had decided there and then, that this prosperity was achieved at the cost of the misery, slavery and domination of other peoples.

These very same thoughts ran through my head when I had to decide to come out here for a masters. The irony of it still strikes me - that I have to - for a successful career in Development - come to London - once the seat of the biggest empire in the world. Domination has just taken on different subtleties and forms.

For me, history has not ended. Having had my foot in Pakistan, Liberia and Britain, I find its legacies are well and alive and kicking. We truly live in historical times.


The very fact that the move was split into two parts i) Che and the Cuban Revolution and ii) Che and his failed revolution and demise in Bolivia made the whole prospect of going to the movies that much more exciting. Not to mention that Benicio del Torro was going to star as Che Gueverra and, Soderbergh was going to direct. I have always been a fan of del Torro ever since I saw him in Soderbergh's "Traffic" and the "Usual Suspects." The fact that Soderbergh was making this movie shows his impressive versatility - I mean, this is a guy who made not one but three "Ocean's!" Che seemed to have done well at the Froggie movie festival and, did not seem to have had any attention bestowed upon it in the Oscars. This was a sure sign that Che was going to be something to watch.

That the movie is that long, split into two parts, gave me the impression that the movie maker was really interested in showing in great length and detail what Che's life and struggle was like. Not even what it symbolised but really, to give attention to in detail the 'life and times' ** of that era.

So what can I say? I really enjoyed both parts. The first one was more of a mix of flash backs, Che's interview as a voiceover, shots of his speech at the UN, the battle of Santa Clara. I noticed that Castro's character is really shown to be very shrewd, calculating and less likeable than that of Che's who is very obedient and patient. The second one is entirely the guerrilla fighting in the moutains in Bolivia and the ultimate failure. Both parts derive a lot of their material from Che's diaries. The second part shows Che to be reading or writing whenever he is taking a break. Apparently, Soderbergh wanted to contrast the two different revolutions and, it shows in the treatment of the two parts.

Not that Che needs to be humanised any more given his ever-enduring legacy and popularity even today, but I think it is important that such films get made. I look forward to the day when a film on bin Laden or Yasser Arafat would be made so that 'enemies' of the 'West' are humanised and better understood. So that the likes of Mary Kaldor do not flippantly remark 'one-eyed Mullah' in a public lecture.

A great movie about a great man.

The World War 2 Movie

I can't rant enough about my intolerance of War War 2 Movies. Ever since I have been a kid, I have known that there are World War 2 Movies out there - they were about war, death, the horrible side of human nature, heroism and greatness, blah blah blah. I'm almost 30 now and they are still making them. Either its a love story against the backdrop of World War 2 or a movie delving into the mind of Hitler or of course the Holocaust.

Why can't I stand them? Firstly, I am perfectly sick of them and I have not even watched that many World War 2 movies. Since I have found my head and started to see a little or understand the world, I have realised that for the Europeans, the World Wars were the most heroic and defining moments of their entire history. This was the time when evil was fought and defeated, when great sacrifices were made and heroes were made. Churchill is great for the Brits because he led them through this time. The fact he was a racist imperial pig and looked like one too is of no relevance. 

The World War 2 movie gives me a psychological allergic reaction. Let's take the Holocaust. Apart from the fact they are not over it and the fact it is bemoaned as the greatest ever tragedy in history, in the entire human history, *** there is no realisation whatsoever that because of the European guilt over what happened to the Jews that the Palestinians got screwed over for the next 60 years. 

The Europeans still can't get over the Holocaust guilt. How did their great civilisation produce this evil? I have even read this in academic texts - believe it or not. Half the VCD texts wee philosophical musings over how the German population participated in this methodological, organised Holocaust. There is no question over how the great European civilisation accomplished slavery and colonialism. How did in their Enlightened, Rational and Renaissance-struck minds tell themselves enslavement, plunder, murder, destruction of entire civilisations, cultures, peoples was okay? That they never have to feel any guilt nor shame for it? 

There are a couple of conclusions one can arrive it. Because the Europeans were a bunch of enslavers and imperial colonisers it is not a great stretch of the imagination that they would have engaged in the Holocaust. And, racism and imperialism is still kicking and alive in Western civilisation as a whole. There is no way in hell that only 60 odd years after the end of colonialsm, even less for many many African countries, and only 200 years or so after the end of slavery, that Western minds have suddenly become Enlightened. 

So, to hell with the World War 2 movie. 

*hahaha - 'went around saying'
** it's a typical tagline for a biography
*** just for the Jews, not the Gypsies or the Poles or the homosexuals or anyone else, only the Jews suffered in the Holocaust

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

VCD Blues

End of lectures has surprisingly come sooner than I had imagined. I knew that the second term was going to come to an end on 20 March and so on, but the end of lectures has crept up much sooner. I feel a bit blue as this was our last week of lectures associated with new topics  - next week is going to be wrap-up, open panel sessions. I guess I feel blue because I am very much into the rhythm of lectures, classes, reading, hanging out with friends, doing presentations, mulling over essays and so on. 

This week's lecture was 'Terrorism and the War on Terror.' It is a good place to start describing my VCD blues. I did my essay on this topic and, was fuming quite early on that given the focus on so-called Islamic terrorism, why there was not a Muslim or Arab writer in the core readings. Nevertheless, I went to the lecture to see how the topic would be presented. To say the lecture could have been a little bit more exciting would be to put it mildly, sourly even. I think the topic was generally covered and, most of the information that was presented to us is pretty much basic knowledge. We all know terrorism is a highly contentious word used by those in power. We all know that the mujahideen were armed and trained and funded by the Americans, Saudis and the Pakistanis to oust the Soviets. We know the deal. We know this 'infrastructure of 'terror' was set up by the very people who now call these mujahideen terrorists. So what's new? (Although I would have liked the lecturer to explicitly say that Islamic terrorism was created by the Americans and Saudis and let's even Pakistanis although we were just a bunch of idiots playing their game.)

When it came to talking of terrorism in a more abstract and theoretical sense, it seems that the lecturer had nothing really to offer us. Is terrorism part of war or not? Is it a tactic merely? Is it action-reaction? Can it be war between non-state actors and states? 

If the majority of the lecture was on so-called Islamic terrorism, then why are not offered any Islamic analysis of it? 

I have done a lot of reading on terrorism for my essay and frankly, I do not know anything more than I knew before. And, these academics start getting into theorising, the whole thing falls apart. For the bloody sake of it, they want to see if they can box terrorism into rational-choice models, sociological theories, psychological theories, Marxist thought*, you name it. Is terrorism individually-motivated or collective? I mean what can I say, can one be dumb enough to reduce terrorism, a highly effective tool of war, to any one of these?  How can we become so apathetic and cold in analysing terrorism? Do we not know which conflicts and grievances are home to terrorism? Have we not seen enough faces of suffering Palestinians humiliated by Israelis? Have we not seen families slaughtered by mistake by American bombardment in Afghanistan? There are people out there for whom the possibilities for a future, of a life of dignity, are doomed. 

A few weeks ago, I was watching Al Jazeera and they were showing a family grieving for its members who were killed by mistake by American bombardment. It was - as it is always - a harrowing clip. This one young boy was saying he will join the Taliban and blow himself up. What can I say? There was helplessness in that picture, in that family's grief and the helpless viewer. 

There's a couple of words and phrases I have picked up since I started the masters. One is 'dangerous economists and armchair academics' - I pretty much came up with myself. The other is 'befuddling.' Aitzaz Khan used this word and, I have  hijacked it (no pun intended) and, try to use it very often when thinking fondly of the academic heroes that we read (no sarcasm intended).  What I am trying to say is that the lecture befuddled the topic. We did not go into great depth or breadth in trying to understand terrorism in all its forms, all its geographical instances and its motivations. Heck, we could have gone through a bin Laden speech/text together to get a richer understanding of what the Number One Terrorist is saying. We could have watched a clip. We could have been more explicit in drawing parallels between the Cold War and the War on Terror. Focus dammit, don't give us the basics! And, if you are not an Islamic scholar, then get someone from the Middle East department or the History department to brief us.  Make it interesting, make it relevant and please consider your audience! Some of us may actually be Muslims and, cringe at 'Islamic terrorism,' cringe at 'terrorism,' cringe at a careless sweep of it. 

So let's see, one of the most important topics there is today when we think of violence and conflict, that has seen a re-assertion of American hegemony, imperialism befitting Cold War foreign policy in not only demonising and creating an evil, indescribable enemy, has seen a Vietnam of our generation has been treated as follows:

- without depth
- without voices and analysis from the Arab and Muslim word
- failed to capture the deep crisis that is afflicting the Muslim world and identity


Let me see - what did I really expect from the the VCD course? Please note I am specifically talking about the Political Economy of Violence and Development class. I would have thought we would be studying violence not just in 'developing' countries but also in 'developed' countries. It is not an affliction which affects us only. 

We have to some extent been offered historical roots of many conflicts in Africa and Asia but, let us not kid ourselves. We have only paid lip service to colonialism and slavery. I do not believe for one minute that the conflicts which have erupted in our countries are something 'new' that have a few links to the past but are more or less new phenomenon. The legacies of colonialism and empire are so deep rooted and continue to permeate structures, power dynamics, ethnicity and race and religion. It is within these legacies that we can find the roots to this violence and conflict. 

Trying to box the roots of violence and conflict into rational choice theories, greed and grievance, resource scarcity, resource abundance, inequality or religion has 'befuddled' my understanding of it. I feel my brain has shrunk instead of being expanded. I feel like I am looking at the base of tree and trying to find its roots in its branches which go in different directions. It is like taking a backward twisted look at the root and causes of something. 

Without a deep understanding of history of post colonial states how can we possibly hope to understand the deep crises that afflict our countries and peoples? The absolute failure of the nation state project in some and relative success in others? What is the reason that you go to Africa and find such mickey mouse countries, some so tiny they 'befuddle' imagination, some so large they could squeeze in all of Europe? Is there any sense and logic? Look at Liberia - a country of hardly three million but what a storm in a tea pot - and look at the DRC, the size of Western Europe. Both these countries have less than 5% of their road networks paved? ** How do you explain that? These nation states were set up to fail! Liberia and DRC are the most resource rich countries you can imagine but are dirt poor. Is it a resource curse, really, Mr. Collier? 

The trauma and deep breakdown of society and culture of post conflict societies was completely ignored and neglected. The nuclear family breaks down, prostitution becomes an attractive livelihood, survival becomes critical, people are traumatised, their brains are still wired on a short term circuit, they can't think long term. You find crazy people on the street lost in their madness. You find an explosion of religion, Pentecostal churches in Africa and, South Korean missionaries in Afghanistan. 

What I find amusing is that half of these VCD people will end up with jobs in peacekeeping missions, most likely in Africa, completely unaware of the trauma of a post conflict society. I certainly was not trained or oriented in how I should conduct myself or be more sympathetic to such a society. Zoe Marriage's book does touch upon this actually, the fact that most aid workers have no clue about war or conflict, have never experienced it, therefore, how can they be expected to deal with its issues. It was only after spending quite a bit of time and putting two and two together that I realised how traumatised Liberians actually are. 

The thing about working and living in a post conflict country in the development sector is that you are dealing with two layers - conflict and lack of development. I am saying a very obvious thing but the reality is very complex and frankly, the course is not appreciating this or shall I say, exploring this. We have been dealing with issues way too superficially. We have not really focused on any country or region, it's done very ad hoc and, I feel like I still only know about Liberia and Liberia only. 

I would have thought that at least I would be offered more in-depth understanding of another peace building project. That comparisons would be explicitly made so that we could appreciate such projects. 

I would have also thought we would really delve into the dynamics of peace keeping missions, interactions of the military and local population, the cultural contact, the politics, the bad stuff, the good stuff. I would have thought we would look at the dysfunctional aspects, the contradictions much more deeply.  Okay, we know it's liberal peace building, we know that peace accords are more times a failure than success, we know that NGOs are chasing the money, we know all that, but we have to get down to a more micro level. I thought there would be at least some commentary on the use of funding! How much the UN blows on itself! 

Last but not least, I was really hoping to be exposed to some African and Asian thought on violence. Surely, there are other philosophers besides Europeans who have some idea on the role and place of conflict in history, nations, society. No other dude or dudette? African and Asian and Latin American civilisations have nothing to say? 

European noises, our voices

Looking at conflict and violence in developing countries through an academic microscope objectifies and distances you from it. And this applies to general development speak. If you only hear European noises, you take away other voices. You take away their voice in the whole matter. It actually disempowers you. Because at the end of it, for Europeans it is a study, an inquiry. They fail to realise this is something real for us from the developing world. I think the entire course and, actually the other development studies courses, forget that some of their students hail from the Third World. That for us, it is home. 

* Thankfully, Marxist analysis can be applied to any kind of struggle. It does not have to be class struggle, any struggle is understood, justified in Marx. Therefore, yay to Marx!
** I am making up that statistic but it is probably true. And I randomly mention these countries.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

How To Do Coursework

How to do group work  and, how to go about doing the group study case....

Israel Apartheid Week - Ronnie Kasrlis and Tariq Ali

Israel Apartheid Week
Ronnie Kasrlis and Tariq Ali
28 February 2009

One of the things I really appreciate about SOAS is that it is so fiercely pro-Palestinian. SOAS gives a lot of space for events which keep alive the issue of Palestinian suffering, culture, the Israeli occupation and so on. It is great to be in such an atmosphere. At the other end of it, very little is going to change given the current situation and as it has been for the past 60 years or so.

I do not know whether it was because it was a Saturday, but the audience was pretty small and, as such it was not as much of an electric ambiance that is built up with a larger group of people and with such a potent topic as this. Therefore, I imagine the audience was mostly sympathetic. In fact, when Ronnie was speaking a certain degree of gloom seemed to have settled into the room as the picture he was describing was so grim.

And, because my boyfriend is from South Africa I have even more of an interest in the comparison that is often made between Israeli occupation and the apartheid regime in South Africa. I remember when I first met him, I was so intrigued about asking him what it was 'like' to live under apartheid because I just knew of it so remotely. All I knew was that it was pretty nasty and Mandela was one of the greatest men there was, a freedom fighter who was imprisoned for 27 years. Needless to say, the more time I have spent with my boyfriend, the more I have realised how bloody awful and dehumanising that regime was.

I also learned that a lot of South Africans have been traveling to Palestine and, coming back with terrible stories of the humiliation that Palestinians have to suffer. I remember watching some random documentaries on SABC* and was horrified at what these people had to say first hand. And then, of course, we know of how Desmond Tutu was treated when he told the Israelis that they were racist, that Palestinians were suffering the same kind of racism at roadblocks, being denied equal rights, especially the right to dignity. He told them that they should know better given the Holocaust. What do they Israelis tell him? That he is anti-Jewish and was insulting the memory of the Holocaust.

Ronnie Kasrlis

"Israel is an apartheid state." Who stated this? Not Mandela nor Tutu. This was observed by Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, way back in 1963. This was said in response to world opinion of what was going on in South Africa. As Ronnie stressed, this was a shrewd, very shrewd, observation.

So how is the South African and Israeli apartheid similar?

- citizenship only for Jews and whites, exclusive citizenship
- racism
- preservation of racial purity, marriage
- dispossession, mass ejection

In South Africa, townships and black spots were developed to separate the races. Peoples' homes were bulldozed and people were relocated to these townships. Businesses were destroyed so that white businesses could move in.

Israel's place regionally and internationally - it acts with total impunity from Western powers and is, in fact, supported by the US and the UK. Churchill famously said, 'What's good for the Jews is good for the British Empire.' It became a client state of the US against Arabs and rising nationalism under Nasser. After the Six-Day War, the successor of Verwoerd, Voerster, said that if the Israelis had beat the Arabs by 'lunchtime,' they would have the African states by 'breakfast.' Hence, their adventures in Rhodesia, Mozambique, Angola, etc.

There is a biblical narrative associated with the creation of Israeli with its roots in 19th century Zionism. It was a movement actually developed by agnostics and atheists and manipulated the Jewish faith. Similarly, the Dutch Afrikaaners believed they were 'pioneers' and they were on God's mission in Africa. They had a covenant with God. They were certainly industrious people (but kookoo in the head). History books up until the 1990s went around saying ** that African tribes only arrived in the 16th, 17th centuries at the same time the Dutch arrived. The Israelis pretty much say the same thing.

Israel and apartheid South Africa have had very strong links. In the October '73 war, Voerster rushed to Israeli with support in terms of arms. Ronnie said this was a real 'axis of evil,' two racist states helping to build each others' armaments and defense, including nuclear devices.

When it comes to methods and measures, Israel is 'far, far worse.' He said he could never believe it when black South Africans even said that as horrible as apartheid, it was a 'picnic' compared to what the Israelis are doing. The townships were not under siege, attacked by bombs and aerial bombardment. He said that after an incursion/attack on Lebanon in '69, the Israeli commander had said they had behaved like the Nazis. Ronnie started talking about the Israeli spokeswoman that was being seen at the time of the war on Gaza who he said was just like a Nazi, blonde, blue yes, and cold.

He asked, if Holocaust is at the top of tragedy in modern times, how do we evaluate Gaza? As a Jew himself and his heritage with its remembrance of the Holocaust, he said he was reminded of gas chambers when the Israelis were dropping phosphorous on Gaza. He called it 'infernal instruments of death.'

He said Israeli was nothing less than a fascist state which if not stopped would attack Iran?

The lesson of South Africa is that the anti-apartheid struggle was not anti-white and nor is the anti-Israel struggle anti-Jewish. An international solidarity movement for a mass struggle is possible. South Africa faced an enormous amount of pressure in the end. What is vital is unity. He said the factions of Palestine must and will sort out their differences and civil society will breathe life back into the struggle.

Israel did not win the war on Gaza. The world is alert, awake. Jewish women in Toronto staged a sit-in. Dockers in Durban, South Africa refused to offload an Israeli cargo ship. Universities in the UK are hosting the Israeli Apartheid Week.

Tariq Ali

He started by saying that the BDS (the Boycott, Disvestment and Sanctions) movement is a real opportunity for mass politics let alone Middle East politics.

There has been a 'rupture' in the 'liberal' mind, breaks in the Jewish communities. For example, 96% of young Jews interviewed in the US did not seem to 'give a damn' about Israel i.e. their identity.

He said mass media is not really a useful tool in any mass politics or struggle - it's campaigning which ultimately proves to be powerful and brings about change.

The real tragedy here is the lack of solidarity in the Arab world. The prime example is Egypt under the Mubarak regime. He said the Arab world is a 'mess.' He said even the Saudis are better than the Egyptians (that says a lot!).

He said that when the Americans invaded Iraq, the Israeli ambassador to the US said why stop here, on to Damascus and Tehran.

The Latin American countries had at least shown some guts by temporarily breaking off ties with Israel such as Bolivia and Venezuela (big surprise) after the war on Gaza. *** It is not a declaration of war but a stand.

He said any opposition to Israel and the US has become difficult after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Palestinians have not known any 'respite' under Israeli occupation. The notion that they do not know what they are doing should be thrown out. This is an intelligent enemy. In the wake of the offensive in Gaza, the Israelis have destroyed the two-state solution. The Palestinians are not even living in bantustans, these are shriveled up bantustans not even linked together, permanent ghettos.

However, this should not be seen as defeat but should open up discussion.

Tariq spoke a little about history and, said that more or less Jews and Muslims have always co-existed. Palestinians today are paying the price for European genocide. The creation of a settler, colonial state made the lives of Jews in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, for example, very difficult even though these are some of the oldest Jewish communities in the world.

He asked that if the Soviet Union had not collapsed, would US still have made a deal with Israel? The 1992 Oslo Peace Accords were a sort of Treaty of Versailles for the Palestinians. The West ended up treating the PLO like an NGO which created corruption and division.

With reference to the ANC and PLO, he said the ANC was hegemonic.****

Tariq was a lot more pessimistic than Ronnie which can be understood to some degree. He said that examples such as the strike of Egyptian textile workers or train drivers taking one minute in Norway or the dockers refusing to offload an Israeli cargo ship in Durban are great but not going to be important because there is no political organisation behind these acts which can take things forward.

He had two very entertaining anecdotes:

i) He said there was no real opposition in Egypt. Take the Muslim Brotherhood - know what their problem is? They are too 'moderate!' He met them in Damascus before the Iraq invasion and it was clear the Americans were bent on doing it. He asked them what they were going to do? They claimed 'gates of hell' would be opened. Of course, nothing happened. The Brotherhood is limited to giving proclamations on what women should wear or not wear instead. He said basically, the government retained power while the Brotherhood was free to control 'cultural' aspects. He said the Six Day war wiped out Arab nationalism and only Baa'thism was left.

ii) Chavez and Al Jazeera! He said that Chavez was in Qatar for an OECD meeting. While in town, he was interviewed by Al Jazeera for an hour. He said Chavez was even more anti-American than usual. Did I crack up when I heard this - how could he have scaled the heights he had already set in insulting the US? He must have had to take a rocket ship into space! Ha! Ha! Anyway, back to the story. Al Jazeera could not handle the load of mails and responses and calls they received. From who? Arabs. Saying what? When are the Arabs going to get a Chavez?!

* South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)
** I love going around saying, 'they went around saying'....
*** In fact, I looked this up and Mauritania under a military junta did the same.
**** There is a brilliant essay by Eqbal Ahmed, "The ANC and the PLO: Painful Contrasts" which Eqbal wrote in 1994.


I really appreciated this lecture. I appreciated Ronnie's deep sense of empathy and sincerity while he was talking. Tariq Ali was a little bit more explosive - his voice would gradually rise and explode in a boom. It was a pleasure to hear him speak. I wanted to go say hello to him afterwards but I was a bit star struck!

I de-briefed my better half after the lecture. He said that he feels bad for Jews because Israel is completely destroying Jewishness being the world's only Jewish state and its antics. He said that in South Africa it was the Jewish doctors and lawyers who would come to their rescue! Man, I feel really bad when I heard that because for the past 60 years or so, Jews have been reviled and especially by Muslims. I don't need to tell Pakistanis for example - the amount of e-mail forwards one receives alone on what Jews are doing to the poor Muslims.

It was a stupendous lecture but a bit depressing as well. Palestine is such an 'issue' something to talk about and vent out frustrations with the US. It is something around which we can talk and appear intellectual and morally right. I asked a classmate who is quite an activist whether she had been to the lecture or not. She said that she gets too frustrated in lectures and, believes we should be doing something. She said she was involved in obstructing a shop that sells Israeli goods and has also been to Palestine. I also asked someone from Gaza I met in the SOAS bar what they thought and that person was pretty much uninterested in speaking because nothing changes. I guess it's too close to home.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Third Spaces

World's Third Spaces: Neither Global Nor National?

Saskia Sassen
25 February 2009

I attended this lecture a while ago and, have my notes in front of me, ready to summarise this lecture and reflect on it. It's one of the more tricky lectures to do.

First of all, she was such a lively, 'knowing' and compelling speaker. There was something even more to her - she was very sensual and witty. It was really something to hear her talk. Haha, I am in love with her, but then again, I seem to fall in love with every speaker that comes to SOAS. There is nothing sexier than an intellectual, a thinker, or someone who is remotely intelligent.

The reason why I feel a bit hindered in trying to remember what exactly she said was probably because of the topic itself. Before the lecture, I was trying to guess what the title actually meant. I thought perhaps it was the idea that there were some spaces in the Third World which were between the developing and developed world which were neither national nor global. It turns out her lecture is broadly about globalisation, probably one of the most complex and contradictory concepts we have come across during the year in our courses. It is so difficult to define and wrap one's head around it.

She was introduced by Gilbert Achar, who has been hosting the Globalisation Lectures in the 2008-2009 academic year, as the author of Global Cities (1991), a major thinker of globalisation, someone who brought the concept from the economic realm into a larger picture of social processes. 'Demolition of truths'

The lecture

Saskia started off by saying that the starting point for her was the dissatisfaction with the language and vocabulary of globalisation. 'We know something is happening' and there are some 'foundational changes.' The language only captures some of these emergent processes.

For instance, there is no such thing as a 'global firm,' no such legal persona as a global firm. There are 277,000 such 'global firms' but all firms are national. In this financial crisis, government after government has produced regulatory, legal changes to produce space for firms as if they were global. She said she was 'recovering the participation of states' in this globalisation process which has to be problematised. Globalisation takes places 'deep inside the national space.' Such a problematisation 'de-nationalises' (not an 'elegant' word according to her) the process of globalisation.

She gave a few examples of instances where the global and national are interchangeable:

i) US - Mexico border is the heaviest militarised border between two countries not at war. She called it the 'weaponisation' of the border. The annual INS budget increased from US $ 200 million in 1996 to US $ 1.6 billion in 2005 under Clinton. The number of officers increased from 2,500 in the 80s to 12,000. Despite this, there is an all-time high in unauthorised immigration to the US as well increase in arrests. In the 80s, there was a 50% rate of return of Mexicans back to the US; today it is 25%. The rate of return of Mexicans was 50% in the 80s and now, it is about 25%. There are one million Americans who live in the Mexico, some of these are 'artists and like' which she said in a very amusing manner evoking laughs from the audience. She said the movements across the border demonstrate that the project of controlling these movements is said to fail. There was a 'social ecology' of the border. Wall street made US $ 2 billion in handling remittances alone. *
ii) Hizbollah - a group with multiple spaces - national? Lebanese? global?
iii) Mexico's former president meeting with illegal migrants/farmers in the US midwest. An extra territorial meeting while the US Congress was considering criminalising the workers.
iv) Havez distributing oil to poor people in the US.

These were examples meant to demonstrate that the national and global can be blurred and take on new meanings. At the same, these examples are not new. We have always lived in such a world haven't we? Apart from the kind of global financialisation that has happened that Samir Amin talked about as well as the reach of corporations and multinationals, in all other senses, globalisation that is cultural, human, intellectual has always existed. Even economic globalisation existed - one can take the Silk Route. There are theories that the Egyptians traveled to South America. Forget material globalisation, the biographies of 'medieval' greats - be they European or Arab or African - are exhilirating stories of figures who were truly international, born in one country, studied in another, served and worked further in another court of another country and so on. Let's see, who do we have? Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, Khayyam, Thomas Aquinas and, Ibn Sina. In fact it seems that life under empires was probably less visa-hassle free than it is today. If ideas were never constrained - if the Arabs had not preserved Greek knowledge, Europeans would not have had access to all that classical knowledge - then it is easier to imagine that the world has been much more of a globalised place than we think it is.

Clearly, though, the concept of globalisation in my course of study is its problematisation with regards to the nation state construct which is needless to say a modern one.

She said one way of understanding this micro processes which 'worm themselves' into it is to seem them as partial, highly specialised global assemblages of bits of territory, authority and rights once firmly enconced in national institutional frames. Saskia said that 'when territory exits the national.' it becomes 'nomadic.'

For instance, the UK, an 'enlightened' state, she said it with so much sarcasm, only integrated human rights law in 2001. Human rights law is a 'de-nationalised instance of law' where the source of the law is not the state.

There are only two global laws which can be considered supra-national institutions:

i) International Criminal Court (ICC)
ii) World Trade Organisation (WTO)

So how we study the global? She gave another example of where many Latin American countries and South Africa have made clauses in their consitutions which are a 'rupture' with the French/American notions of the state which say 'state is not the exclusive representative of people.' This is another territorial exit. Who uses this exit? Indigenous peoples who can then become direct representatives. These new consitutions represent the beginning of something in her opinion.

Most of the literature on globalisation focuses on the IMF, WTO and such supranational entities. However, there are other spaces which also perform the what she called it, 'political production functions.'

She made reference to her work in 1991, Global Cities, which she said was frowned upon because a city could not be global. Global cities she said are frontier space where actors encounter each other from different backgrounds and, there are no rules for this interaction. It makes it possible for actors who are not otherwise represented to make politics. From multinational corporations making informal lobbies to disadvantaged persons such as 'queers,' (yes she used the word queers which was a bit unexpected given how concerned she was with language and play, I imagine she would have said gay and lesbian but perhaps she was trying to make a point?), immigrants, etc. She said politics in such a space can be cultural - gay pride parades, carnivals. Therefore, urban space becomes an actor.

She made another example of what she said are two extremes: tex constructionis and the ICC. Construction companies have colluded to find a common procedure when dealing with any environmental issue that may be raised. They put the onus on governments to demonstrate that they are in violation of environmental law. And, many governments are too poor to enter into that kind of litigation. As for the ICC, I guess she was trying to make the point that the ICC is completely useless? That's the other extreme? (Man, I have no idea where she was going with all of this, it was a very intuitive lecture.)

She said she had been doing research and had come across 125 assemblages. She's begun to disassemble bits and pieces of the national. Nor does this mean the expansion of the 'global.' These assemblages produce a third space for a growing range of operations (economic, cultural and political).

She does not believe we are moving towards a global state.

If we look at history, even the colonial empires were trying to create nation states which has become the basis of the world order. However, over time it was a de-nationalised nation-state which was to deal with environmental issues, issues of poverty and global justice. Today, a lot of national states are rescuing banks. The executive branch of governments is rescuing banks. Executive branches working together to rescue a global system.


So that was that. What was the lecture about? That globalisation is not about de-nationalisation but is very much rooted in the nation-states. There is no such a thing as global law firms, they're national, where ever they come from. The recent financial crisis and the rush to restore it/rescue it is being done by national governments. Therefore, we have to look at globalisation again and 'recapture', 'retrieve' the national aspects of it. Furthermore, there are third spaces today which are neither global nor national, borders, global cities, coming together of national actors in third spaces, presidents meeting their nationals in a second country where they are illegal**, etc.


Why can't these spaces be both national and global? Because it is not easy to describe them as such. These spaces have one foot in the national and one foot in the global. And, her interest is to deconstruct these 'master categories,' which can to a certain extent be illuminating but also blinding.

There was a question on regional bodies such as the EU. When talking about it, she said that she really believed Turkey should be admitted to the EU. The EU does not have enough 'obstacles,' that will create diversity and creativity and growth. Even Russia should be made part of the EU.

Saskia said everyone must learn the following statistic: The global GDP is US $ 54 trillion. The credit default of 2008 was US $ 62 trillion.

* This is our border and borderlands topic within the VCD course.
** This reminds me, when my father was posted to Greece, he helped to legalise about 35,000 illegal Pakistani workers. So was that a third space too? :-)


My blog is a third space! Ha! Between lectures and essays and headaches and Liberia and London and Pakistan and me and people and my head....