Foucault’s boomerang: the new military urbanism

Stephen Graham, Open Democracy

On 4 February 1976, Michel Foucault, the eminent French social theorist, stepped gingerly down to the podium in a packed lecture at the Collège de France in the Latin Quarter on Paris’s South Bank. Delivering the fifth in a series of 11 lectures under the title ‘Il faut défendre la société’ (‘Society must be defended’), for once Foucault focused his attention on the relationships between western societies and those elsewhere in the world. Moving beyond his legendary re-theorisations of how knowledge, power, technology and geographical space were combined to underpin the development of modern social orders within western societies, Foucault made a rare foray into discussions of colonialism.

Rather than merely highlighting the history through which European powers had colonised the world, however, Foucault’s approach was more novel. Instead, he explored how the formation of the colonies had involved a series of political, social, legal and geographical experiments which were then actually often bought back to the West in what Foucault – drawing possibly on Hannah Arendt’s famous work on totalitarianism – called ‘boomerang effects’. ‘It should never be forgotten,’ Foucault said:

“that while colonization, with its techniques and its political and juridical weapons, obviously transported European models to other continents, it also had a considerable boomerang effect on the mechanisms of power in the West, and on the apparatuses, institutions, and techniques of power. A whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself”

Such ‘boomerang effects’ centred on ordering the life of populations at home and abroad – what Foucault called ‘biopower’ and ‘biopolitics’ – rather than on protecting sovereign territory per se. Foucault did little to elucidate these in detail, and rarely touched on colonialism or postcolonialism again. However, his notion of colonial boomerang effects is powerful because it points beyond traditional ideas of colonisation toward a two-way process in the flow of ideas, techniques and practices of power between metropolitan heartlands of colonial powers and the spaces of colonised peripheries. Such a perspective reveals, for example, that Europe’s imperial cities were much more than the beneficiaries and control points organising explicitly ‘colonial’ economic techniques of plunder and dispossession through shipping, plantations, mining, oil extraction or slavery. They were also much more than a product of the economic booms that came with the processing and manufacturing of resources extracted from the colonies.

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Israel, Palestine and the mapping of power

Tristram Hunt writes: ‘It’s almost comical. The idea of maps is to represent reality; here it represents fantasy.” So Professor Bruce Wexler of Yale University comments on how the vast majority of maps in Palestinian and Israeli schoolbooks omit the existence of the other entity. As a result, children on either side of the Green Line are growing up with “an internal representation of their homeland, in which one does not include the other”.

But since when have maps been about objective representation of space? They are about the expression and fulfilment of power. From the age of Ptolemy, all those lofty claims to comprehensiveness have usually succumbed to the promotion of political agendas. As the cartography scholar Jerry Brotton rightly remarks: “A map always manages the reality it tries to show.”

Nowhere more so than with the British empire. For in Israel/Palestine, just as in Kashmir and Sudan, postcolonial nations are still wrestling with imperialism’s mixed legacy and its arbitrary lines in the sand. As the colonial unravelling continues, and as rising powers seek to exert their own dominion, the historic confusions of British map-making are fostering all manner of geopolitical tensions.

From the outset, cartography and colonialism went hand in hand. The assertion of political control over supposed terra incognita was most effectively realised by drawing up plans and plots. Maps allowed for the expropriation of existing land rights (since indigenous communities often lacked accurate measuring instruments) and an explanation of a colony’s significance.

Take Bryan Edwards’s mid-18th century Map of the Island of Barbadoes, with its delineation of the Caribbean landscape into Anglican parishes and sugar plantations. What mattered was Barbados’s role in the imperial project, rather than any realistic representation of its geography or population.

Or perhaps the most famous propagation of British colonial power, John Colomb’s 1886 map, Imperial Federation. It placed Britain centre stage, coloured our colonies a distinctive red, inflated the land mass of Canada, left swaths of unconquered terrain simply blank, and at its base posited a serene Britannia surrounded by icons of her Indian, Australian, and African colonies. [Continue reading...]

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The Arab Spring and the West: seven lessons from history

Seumas Milne writes: There’s a real sense in which, more than any other part of the former colonial world, the Middle East has never been fully decolonised. Sitting on top of the bulk of the globe’s oil reserves, the Arab world has been the target of continual interference and intervention ever since it became formally independent.

Carved into artificial states after the first world war, it’s been bombed and occupied – by the US, Israel, Britain and France – and locked down with US bases and western-backed tyrannies. As the Palestinian blogger Lina Al-Sharif tweeted on Armistice Day this year, the “reason World War One isn’t over yet is because we in the Middle East are still living the consequences”.

The Arab uprisings that erupted in Tunisia a year ago have focused on corruption, poverty and lack of freedom, rather than western domination or Israeli occupation. But the fact that they kicked off against western-backed dictatorships meant they posed an immediate threat to the strategic order.

Since the day Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt, there has been a relentless counter-drive by the western powers and their Gulf allies to buy off, crush or hijack the Arab revolutions. And they’ve got a deep well of experience to draw on: every centre of the Arab uprisings, from Egypt to Yemen, has lived through decades of imperial domination. All the main Nato states that bombed Libya, for example – the US, Britain, France and Italy – have had troops occupying the country well within living memory.

If the Arab revolutions are going to take control of their future, then, they’ll need to have to keep an eye on their recent past. So here are seven lessons from the history of western Middle East meddling, courtesy of the archive of Pathé News, colonial-era voice of Perfidious Albion itself. [Continue reading...]

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The Arab Awakening is here to stay

Christopher Dickey writes: Westerners have long felt the need to lecture Arabs about Arab history. “We know the civilization of Egypt better than we know the civilization of any other country,” Lord Balfour told the British Parliament in 1910. “We know it further back; we know it more intimately; we know more about it.” Indeed, the unmistakable message of this quintessential colonialist was that “we” know the Arab world better than the Arabs do, which is why “we” have every right to rule in their lands, whether directly or indirectly. As the late historian Edward Said observed, this “orientalism” became a sort of justification for colonialism “in advance.”

More than 100 years after Balfour, and after the demise of so many erstwhile empires, it’s amazing the extent to which Western pundits (even some from Muslim backgrounds) still echo his sentiments. Having utterly failed to predict the revolutionary movements that erupted in Tunisia and Egypt a year ago, they continue prognosticating with shameless confidence about the eventual triumph of “counterrevolutionary” forces of dictatorship and demagoguery.

“There are many possible outcomes—from restoration of the old order to military takeover, from unruly fragmentation and civil war to creeping Islamization,” the usually-smarter-than-this Robert Malley and Hussein Agha wrote in The New York Review of Books in September. “But the result that many outsiders had hoped for—a victory by the original protesters—is almost certainly foreclosed.” In other words, the ineluctable forces of the Arab world’s sorry history will decide the Arabs’ sorry future.

Yet the most striking thing about these revolutionary movements has been the extent to which they put history aside, both their own and that invented for them by foreigners. How else to explain the resilience of the Tahrir Square protesters, many of whom vented their violent rage against elections they feared were rigged, then voted anyway—and enthusiastically! How to fathom the sheer endurance of the locked-down population of Syria’s embattled city of Homs week after week, month after month? Where would you find the precedent?

As Al Jazeera analyst Marwan Bishara writes in his forthcoming book, The Invisible Arab: “Never has the power of the people appeared so humane, so inspiring, so personal, so determined as in Tunisia, so daring as in Syria, so diverse as in Yemen, so humble as in Bahrain, so courageous as in Libya, or so humorous as in Egypt. If, as one keen observer noted, every joke is a tiny revolution, the Arabs, and most notably the Egyptians, are revolutionaries par excellence.” And the biggest joke is the received wisdom that in the Arab world the past always determines the future. [Continue reading...]

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Arming democracy’s opponents

The Daily Telegraph reports:

Facing budget cuts at home, western arms firms are desperate for a share of the lucrative Middle East market. “The post-financial crisis reality,” said Herve Guillou, president of Cassidian Systems, a subsidiary of European aviation defence group EADS, “is that today it is clearly the Middle East that is seeing the biggest growth.” Iran’s growing military power has pushed Gulf states into their largest-ever military build up, making purchases worth £76 billion from the US alone in 2010. The largest acquisitions were made by Saudi Arabia, which is spending £41 billion on F-15 fighter jets and upgrades for its naval fleet.

The six Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait – along with Jordan will spend another £41 billion on defence in 2011, according to Frost and Sullivan, a research firm.

Libya and Egypt are among the states which have representatives at IDEX [the International Defence Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi]. Global Industrial and Defence Solutions, a Pakistani exhibitor, lists Libya as being among the “key customers of our products.” Renault also issued a press release before the exhibition, saying it had contracted to supply military trucks to Egypt. Libya’s al-Musallah magazine, which covers arms-trade related issues in the country, is also among the exhibitors.

Simon Jenkins writes:

I must be missing something. The present British government, like its predecessor, claims to pursue a policy of “liberal interventionism”, seeking the downfall of undemocratic regimes round the globe, notably in the Muslim world. The same British government, again like its predecessor, sends these undemocratic regimes copious weapons to suppress the only plausible means of the said downfall, popular insurrection. The contradiction is glaring.

Downing Street is clearly embarrassed by Egypt, Bahrain and Libya having had the impertinence to rebel just as David Cameron was embarking on an important arms-sales trip to the Gulf, not an area much addicted to democracy. Fifty British arms makers were present at last year’s sickening Libyan arms fair, while the resulting weapons are reportedly prominent in gunning down this week’s rioters. Cameron reads from the Foreign Office script, claiming that all guns, tanks, armoured vehicles, stun grenades, tear gas and riot-control equipment are “covered by assurances that they would not be used in human rights repression”. He must know this is absurd.

What did the FO think Colonel Gaddafi meant to do with sniper rifles and tear-gas grenades – go mole hunting? Britain has tried to cover its publicity flank by “revoking 52 export licences” to Bahrain and Libya for weapons used against demonstrators, in effect admitting its guilt. This merely locks the moral stable after the horse has fled, while also being a poor advertisement for British after-sales service. What is the point of selling someone a gun and telling him not to use it?

Gaddafi turns US and British guns on his own people

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The West can no longer claim to be an honest broker in the search for peace

Gary Younge writes:

The events of the last month in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere have challenged the way the west thinks of the Arab world (and how the Arab world thinks of itself). What remains to be seen is the extent to which these ongoing events confront the way in which western powers view themselves and their relationship to the Middle East.

Over the last decade in particular, the Arab world has increasingly been depicted in the west as a region in desperate need of being tamed so that it can be civilised. It has been portrayed as an area rooted in religious fervour, where freedom was a foreign concept and democracy a hostile imposition. Violence and terrorism was what they celebrated, and all they would ever understand. Liberty, our leaders insisted, would have to be forced on them through the barrel of a gun for they were not like us. The effect was to infantilise the Arab world in order to justify our active, or at least complicit, role in its brutalisation.

While this view has been intensified by the 9/11 terror attacks, the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq, it was not created by them. “There are westerners and there are Orientals,” explained the late Edward Said, as he laid out the western establishment’s prevailing attitude to the region at the turn of the last century, in his landmark work . “The former dominate, the latter must be dominated, which usually means having their land occupied, their internal affairs rigidly controlled, their blood and treasure put at the disposal of one or another western power.”

So the sight of peaceful, pluralist, secular Arabs mobilising for freedom and democracy in ever greater numbers against a western-backed dictator forces a reckoning with the “clash of civilisations” narrative that has sought to overwhelm the past decade. It turns out there is a means of supporting democracy in this part of the world that does not involve invading, occupying, bombing, torturing and humiliating. Who knew?

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The fear of freedom

As the train of democracy gathers steam in Egypt, there are those nearby who seem eager to throw themselves under its wheels.

No doubt an observer such as the Israeli historian, Benny Morris, is vain enough to imagine that he is not about to get run over but, on the contrary, hopes his grave warnings will encourage others to seize the train’s brakes and prevent an imminent catastrophe.

What is more likely to happen is that we will only need wait a matter of months before Morris and fellow fearmongers will be exposed as hysterical fools or intellectual rogues.

Morris believes that those of us in the West currently intoxicated by the glorious vision of democracy taking birth in Egypt, have only been able to indulge in such emotions because we don’t understand what Egyptians really want.

Alas, I fear, Westerners will see what most Egyptians actually think and want if and when the country holds free and fair general elections (perhaps in September-October). And I fear that they will be surprised—perhaps even shocked—by the results, and by what the Egyptian masses then say about what they actually think and want. I fear that at that point, “Death to Israel,” “Death to America,” and “Allahu Akbar” will drown out every democratizing and liberalizing chant.

But by then the genie will be well out of the bottle; by then, it will be too late.

Trapped inside a misanthropic Zionist mindset, Morris seems incapable of recognizing that at the core of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the driving force is not ideological. It is a universal and human demand for respect.

Sensing themselves newly visible on a world stage, ordinary Tunisians and Egyptians stood up, individually and collectively, and said: we refuse to be treated as less than human. We are reclaiming the dignity that is everyone’s birthright and will no longer tolerate the abuse of brutal rulers or the indifference of foreign powers. We demand to be heard and respected.

To the extent that the call from the dignity revolutions is being heard far beyond the Arab world, it resonates most with those who to differing degrees and for different reasons, share the same experience. That many of us live in democracies does little to diminish a sense that our governments do not represent our interests. And that so many of our fellow citizens respond to this reality with indifference only makes us envy the courage and imagination of people who do otherwise as they rise up, declare and discover: we have the power to change the world.

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