Category Archives: Peter Hallward

M&G: Open letter to James Nxumalo, Senzo Mchunu & Jacob Zuma

2 October 2013


James Nxumalo, Mayor, eThekwini Municipality, Durban, South Africa

Senzo Mchunu, Premier, KwaZulu-Natal

Jacob Zuma, President, Republic of South Africa

We are writing to you to express our grave concern at events unfolding in the Cato Crest shack settlement in Durban.

After an illegal eviction in Cato Crest by the eThekwini Municipality in March this year, shackdwellers occupied an adjacent piece of land. They named the settlement “Marikana”. Since then, two activists have been assassinated -Thembinkosi Qumbelo and Nkululeko Gwala. A third, Nkosinathi Mngomezulu, is in critical condition after being shot by the Land Invasions Unit. A number of activists have been seriously beaten by the police. Other activists, including Bandile Mdlalose and S’bu Zikode of the shack dweller movement Abahlali baseMjondolo who have been supporting the residents, have been threatened with death.

Continue reading

The Guardian: Occupy has the power to effect change

Occupy has the power to effect change

Peter Hallward

Occupy movements in the US went on the offensive last week, a few days after police forcibly cleared tents in cities from New York to Oakland. In addition to holding their ground in the face of violent intimidation, they began to interrupt business as usual. Rejecting the logic that compels the poor to bail out the rich, they restricted access to New York’s stock exchange, they marched on bridges and subway stations, they targeted banks and corporations, they overwhelmed university campuses. Meanwhile, in defiance of an eviction order, Occupy London undertook a “public repossession” of an abandoned office building and began its conversion into a “bank of ideas”; in its first couple of days, this new variation on a public university has already arranged a full schedule of meetings and talks about privatisation, tax havens, globalisation, direct democracy, the Tobin tax, photography and contemporary fiction. More forceful protests against neoliberal austerity measures and other forms of tyranny, meanwhile, have continued in Tahrir Square and in cities across Europe and the Middle East.

In action after action, Occupy has already sent shockwaves through established centres of power all over the world. If further actions continue and spread they may soon begin to elude the coercive mechanisms designed to hold them in check.

It’s increasingly obvious, after Obama’s budget compromises, after crackdowns in Egypt and Bahrain, after the recent usurpations in Greece and Italy, that only direct action on a mass scale now offers any prospect of an alternative to local variations on market-imposed plutocracy. Small victories can sometimes pave the way for much larger mobilisations. From the call for a general strike in Oakland on 3 November to the virtual implementation of such a strike in the UK on 30 November, this month may one day be remembered as marking yet another qualitative threshold in the revolutionary year of 2011.

The millions of us who are fighting one way or another to cross this threshold will prevail if we can succeed in doing two related things. We will need, first of all, to convert the polemical clarity of the new slogan – “we are the 99%” – into a commanding political standpoint, one that confines the opposing standpoint to the marginality it deserves. As Anindya Bhattacharyya points out, “the slogan doesn’t so much describe a state of affairs as prescribe a course of action”, one that may eventually unite the people against our enemies. We need to take full account of the fact that we are forced to live and work in a system designed to benefit those few who exclude themselves from our “we”.

Karl Marx was right to argue that the logic of capitalist exploitation will tend over time, unevenly but inexorably, to polarise humanity into two and only two classes of people: exploiter and exploited. Competition among exploiters will tend to concentrate their numbers towards the isolation (and hence vulnerability) of the 1%; at the same time, aggressive erosion of the difference between the exploited and the unemployed or excluded will tend to unite, slowly but surely, “the immense majority of the people”. As György Lukács recognised with particular clarity in the wake of Russia’s revolution, Marx was also right to argue that the exploited majority will only acquire the power needed to change this system when we are prepared consciously and deliberately to make and to take this power, in full awareness of what this implies.

Our second task, then, is to develop forms of collective action that exceed the repressive mechanisms set up to contain them. Rallies, protests and the occupation of symbolic spaces can change the balance of power, but they do not exhaust our range of strategic options. Nine months ago, the people who won the battle to defend Tahrir Square demonstrated the scale and kind of action required to hold a public space against direct assault, but so long as an occupation or a protest remains small enough for it to be surrounded or “kettled”, so long as politicians are prepared to issue eviction orders (and so long as their police are prepared to carry them out) then the limits of these actions are clear enough. The demands that are beginning to emerge out of the global Occupy movement – demands that will help to end patterns of exploitation and start to reverse the consequences of neoliberal assault – will only prevail if they are made through forms of collective action that cannot be kettled or cleared. If they are to endure, occupations need to spread and escalate, and be complemented by other forms of action.

Our struggle will prevail once we begin not only to deplore or condemn but also to interrupt the mechanisms that exploit the labour and resources of the immense majority. When workers withhold their labour or take control of their workplace, when the unemployed refuse the exclusion to which they are condemned, when students refuse to pay their fees and debts, when immigrants rebel against discrimination, when householders defend their homes against foreclosure – when civil disobedience and noncompliance acquires a depth and scale that no police operation can break – then the fundamental isolation of the tendential 1% will be exposed for all to see.

In addition to the example set in northern Africa earlier this year, at this juncture we might do well to remember some of the tactics developed at the other pole of that continent in an earlier assertion of “people power”: the mix of strikes, blockades, sit-ins, boycotts and “stayaways” organised in the mid-1980s by South Africa’s UDF and other grassroots organisations as part of a struggle to render their country “ungovernable”. Situations vary, but a collective determination to interrupt work or school, to blockade an institution or a university, to withhold payment of rents and debts, can take all kinds of forms in all kinds of places. Stayaways can concentrate around a particular site, or spread through emulation towards a mass strike. There are few logistical limits on participation in a stayaway, and as participants invent the forms of organisation required to sustain them their duration can range from a symbolic interruption of work or class to an indefinite boycott, walk-out or shut-down.

One way or another, growing numbers of British, American and European students may soon begin to follow in the footsteps of their Chilean counterparts, and start challenging an educational system that offers most of them little more than a precarious chance to pay off a lifetime of debt. At the same time, at a pace and level of integration that defies historical comparison, millions of precariously or unemployed people all over the world are coming up with their own ways of making the point that “we’re all in this together” – and acting like it.

No matter how emphatic its elite bias or “market mandate”, there is no government that could resist a co-ordinated combination of occupations and sit-ins on the one hand, and of mass strikes and stayaways on the other. Where there’s a political will there’s a political way. For the 99%, the power is ours to make and to take.

Egypt’s popular revolution will change the world

Egypt’s popular revolution will change the world

In discovering their power to determine their future, north Africa’s protesters have already opened a new age in world history

In one of his last published essays, written in 1798, the philosopher Immanuel Kant reflected on the impact of the continuing revolution in France. Kant himself was no Jacobin, and opposed extra-legal change as a matter of principle. He conceded that the future course of the revolution’s pursuit of liberty and equality “may be so filled with misery and atrocities that no right-thinking person would ever decide to make the same experiment again, at such a price”. Regardless of its immediate political consequences, however, Kant could at least see that the universal “sympathy bordering on enthusiasm” solicited by the spectacle of the revolution was itself a telling indication of its eventual significance. Whatever might happen next, the event was already “too intimately interwoven with the interests of humanity and too widespread in its influence upon all parts of the world for nations not to be reminded of it when favourable circumstances present themselves, and to rise up and make renewed attempts of the same kind”.

A similar interweaving has characterised sympathetic observation of today’s north African revolutions from the moment they began. Of course, it is too early to say what the immediate outcome of Egypt’s ongoing mobilisation will be. Anti-government protestors have so far retained the initiative and determined the course and pace of political change. At this point, after a couple of exhausting weeks, Egypt’s rulers (both at home and abroad) clearly hope that belated recourse to a familiar mix of divide-and-rule manoeuvrings – minor concessions, secret negotiations, delayed investigations, selective intimidation – may yet manage to distract some of the participants in a mobilisation thus far remarkable for its discipline, unity and resolve. Some observers, who are perhaps themselves exhausted, have begun to wonder whether the spectacle of Egypt’s protests might now start to fade away.

Judging from the response in and around Tahrir Square, this seems very unlikely. In a sense, though, what happens in the immediate future may prove less important than what has already happened in the immediate past. Hosni Mubarak and Omar Suleiman already belong to a decidedly ancien régime. The fate of Egypt’s revolution is already independent of the next twist in negotiations with the old dictatorship, or the next fumbled response from its American backers.

For whatever happens next, Egypt’s mobilisation will remain a revolution of world-historical significance because its actors have repeatedly demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to defy the bounds of political possibility, and to do this on the basis of their own enthusiasm and commitment. They have arranged mass protests in the absence of any formal organisation, and have sustained them in the face of murderous intimidation. In a single, decisive afternoon they overcame Mubarak’s riot police and have since held their ground against his informers and thugs. They have resisted all attempts to misrepresent or criminalise their mobilisation. They have expanded their ranks to include millions of people from almost every sector of society. They have invented unprecedented forms of mass association and assembly, in which they can debate far-reaching questions about popular sovereignty, class polarisation and social justice.

Every step of the way, the basic fact of the uprising has become more obvious and more explicit: with each new confrontation, the protestors have realised, and demonstrated, that they are more powerful than their oppressors. When they are prepared to act in sufficient numbers with sufficient determination, the people have proved that there’s no stopping them.

Again and again, elated protestors have marvelled at the sudden discovery of their own power. “We look like people who’ve woken up from a spell, a nightmare,” observed writer Ahdaf Soueif, and “we revel in the inclusiveness” of the struggle. Protestor after protestor has insisted on a transformative liberation from fear. “People have changed,” teacher Ahmad Mahmoud told a Guardian reporter:

“They were scared. They are no longer scared … When we stopped being afraid we knew we would win. We will not again allow ourselves to be scared of a government. This is the revolution in our country, the revolution in our minds. Mubarak can stay for days or weeks but he cannot change that.”

Protestor Karim Medhat Ennarah agreed: “We have already created a liberated republic within the heart of Egypt” with “our own security services” and “our own food supply chains. People are exhausted but exhilarated.”

Such liberation and exhilaration seemed unimaginable just a few weeks ago, in ancien régime Egypt. It is now the people, not the régime, who will decide on the limits separating the possible from the impossible.

This is the main reason why, regardless of what happens in the short term, the long-term consequences of 25 January 2011 may well counter and exceed those of 11 September 2001. Even now, George W Bush and Tony Blair continue to invoke 9/11 as the inauguration of a “new era”, as their occasion for “thinking the unthinkable” on a wide range of fronts. In reality, of course, 9/11 was invoked only to justify the implementation of long-standing imperial plans; it served only to consolidate the old balance of power and to intensify an old set of neoliberal trends.

Egypt’s revolution raises the prospect of a break with these trends. No one can predict the immediate sequence of events, but it is now possible to anticipate an Egypt that chooses to confront, rather than enhance social inequalities, one that prioritises the interests of the many over the privileges of the few. It’s possible to envisage an Egypt that seeks to free itself of foreign influence, and thus an Egypt more willing to recognise the difference between a “peace process” and a “surrender process” in the Middle East. It’s possible to imagine a scenario in which Egypt’s neighbours might follow suit. It’s possible to imagine, in short, how the north African revolutions of 2011 might change the world as a whole.

A future possibility is just that, a possibility. But in Egypt, the present fact remains: for the first time in decades, the decision to determine and then realise such possibilities depends first and foremost on the people themselves.

Haiti 2010: Exploiting Disaster

Haiti 2010: Exploiting Disaster

By Peter Hallward

Just before 5pm, on Tuesday January 12, 2010, Haiti’s capital city and the surrounding area were devastated by the most catastrophic earthquake in the history of the hemisphere. The scale of the destruction was overwhelming. According to the most widely cited estimates, around 220,000 people perished and more than 300,000 suffered horrific injuries, leading to many thousands of amputations.

Stories told by the bereaved defy summary. Perhaps as many as 200,000 buildings were destroyed, including 70% of the city’s schools. Today, more than half a year after the disaster in which they lost their homes and virtually all their belongings, around 1.5 million people continue to live in makeshift camps with few or no essential services, with few or no jobs, and with few or no prospects of any significant improvement in the near future.

Although the earthquake has no precedent in Haitian history, the factors that magnified its impact, and the responses it has solicited, are all too familiar. They are part and parcel of the fundamental conflict that has structured the last 30 years of Haitian history: the conflict between pèp la (the people, the poor) and members of the privileged elite, along with the armed forces and international collaborators who defend them. If the 1980s were marked by the rising flood that became Lavalas, by an unprecedented popular mobilisation that overcame dictatorship and raised the prospect of modest yet revolutionary social change, then the period that began with the military coup of September 1991 is best described as one of the most prolonged and intense periods of counter-revolution anywhere in the world. For the last 20 years, the most powerful political and economic interests in and around Haiti have waged a systematic campaign designed to stifle the popular movement and deprive it of its principal weapons, resources and leaders. The January earthquake triggered reactions that carried and that are still carrying such measures to entirely new levels.

So far, this ongoing counter-revolution has been grimly successful. Rarely have the tactics of divide and rule been deployed with such ruthless economy and efficacy as in Haiti 2000-2010. A small handful of privileged families are now wealthier and more powerful than ever before; once the post-quake reconstruction begins in earnest, in early 2011, they are set to become wealthier still. More than a million homeless and penniless people, by contrast, are likely to spend the reconstruction years in a sort of squatters’ limbo, as foreign technocrats, multinational executives and NGO consultants decide how best to rebuild their city. The majority of their compatriots will remain destitute and forced to endure the most harrowing rates of exploitation in the hemisphere. The majority also know that if current tendencies prevail, their children, and their children’s children, can expect nothing different.

Today, with the battered remnants of the Lavalas movement more divided and disorganised than ever before, with the country firmly held in the long-term grip of a foreign “stabilisation” force, the majority of Haiti’s people have little or no political power. At the time of writing, in late summer 2010, many foreign observers of the Haitian popular movement were struck above all by a widespread sense of resignation and impotence. For the time being, suppression of Lavalas has left the people of Haiti at the mercy of some of the most rapacious political and economic forces on the planet. For the time being, at least, it looks as if the threatening prospect of meaningful democracy in Haiti has been well and truly contained.

In these intolerable circumstances, nothing short of popular remobilisation on a massive scale, more powerful, more disciplined, more united and more resolute than before – nothing, in other words, short of the renewal of genuinely revolutionary pressure – holds out any real prospect of significant change for the majority of Haiti’s people. Of course, this is precisely the prospect that those who have managed the country’s recent political development, and who are managing its post-earthquake reconstruction to this day, are most determined to avoid.

Just a few days after the immediate trauma of January 12, it was already clear that the US- and UN-led relief operation would conform to the three main counter-revolutionary strategies that have shaped the more general course of the island’s recent history. (a) It would foreground questions of “security” and “stability”, and try to answer them by military or quasi-military means. (b) It would sideline Haiti’s own leaders and government, and ignore both the needs and the abilities of the majority of its people. (c) It would proceed in ways that directly reinforce and widen the immense gap between the privileged few and the impoverished millions they exploit.

Even a cursory review of the first six months of reconstruction in 2010 should be enough to show that the ongoing application of these strategies is best described as an intensification of the measures that have undercut the power and autonomy of Haiti’s people over the two preceding decades.

Download the rest of the essay in pdf here.