Beyond Europe


There are plenty of good reasons to dislike the European Union. It is, perhaps above all, profoundly undemocratic–at times, as in its treatment of Greece a year ago, stridently anti-democratic. Of course, some of its elements are more democratic than others; it is more a cluster of institutions than a unitary body that speaks in anything like one voice. Moreover, democracy is not always everything: the European Court of Human Rights, for instance, is surely one of its more progressive components, not least because it has acted as a break against demagogic tendencies in individual nation states.

Moreover, whatever the Union’s benefits (or drawbacks) for citizens of its constituent states, you also have to take into account its effect on those outside its borders, or on those who precariously find themselves within its boundaries. For all the conveniences of relatively unrestricted travel and movement within Europe, there are the pernicious effects of “Fortress Europe”: the attempt to restrict movement from outside the area, or to corral refugees in the periphery of the South and the East so as to keep the Northwestern “heartland” as pure as possible.

There is thus undoubtedly a progressive case to be made against Europe, and there always has been. For instance, if one were outside the EU it might be easier, rather than harder, to welcome migration and encourage a diversity that goes beyond the tired old European constraints: not just Spaniards or Poles, say, but Syrians, Somalis, Colombians, and so on. This would be to acknowledge that Britain has never been solely European, but also (for both better and worse, thanks to its imperial past) a meeting point of cultures and populations that are truly global.

But has this been what we have heard from the “Leave” campaign? Far from it. Indeed, quite the opposite. Which is why yesterday’s “Brexit” vote is so discouraging. Rather than leading to a more expansive vision of Britain’s place in the world, underlining the extent to which we are more than simply European, it is a retreat, a withdrawal, a reversion to an old (and manifestly untrue) conception of national self-sufficiency or organic distinctiveness. It is all deeply depressing. Even the disappearance of Cameron and (soon, no doubt) Osborne is hardly a silver lining, given their likely replacements.

But the transition is going to be messy. Perhaps, amid all the confusion (for surely the Leave campaign have no more idea what exactly happens next) there may be space to open up the idea that the (not so) United Kingdom can move beyond Europe, not simply away from it.

Erratum: A friend of mine has repeatedly taken me to task for suggesting that the European Court of Human Rights is part of the EU infrastructure. It isn’t, of course, and I apologize for the error.

On the other hand, the relationship between the ECHR and the EU is complex, and the two are deeply imbricated; they are both closely linked as part of a wider cluster of Europe-wide legal and political institutions and treaties. For more on this tangle, see for instance Francis Fitzgibbin’s “If We Leave” (London Review of Books 38.12 [June 2016]).

In any case, none of this materially affects my points above. Some transnational institutions that broach national sovereignty are reasonably progressive and/or popular, and whether they are or not doesn’t necessarily correlate with the extent to which they are democratic. We need a more nuanced take on them all, which is precisely what neither the Leave nor the Remain campaigns gave us.


Panama City feels like a cross between Havana and Hong Kong. Like Havana, its downtown “Casco Viejo” displays the faded elegance of dilapidated balconied buildings alongside ruined colonial churches. Though gentrification is driving out the working class families who lounge in living rooms that open right on to the street, for the time being the area is still edgy and cheap enough to be a backpacker’s dream. Like Hong Kong, on the other hand, on the other side of the bay the Panamanian capital is a city of high rises and unabated construction. Soon it is due to be home of nine of the ten tallest buildings in Latin America, and the speed at which the towers go up seems hardly to have been affected by the global financial crisis which elsewhere has hit property especially hard.

Panama spans the various epochs of colonialism that shaped first Havana, as one of the fortified cities shepherding silver and gold bullion from South American mines to Spanish ports, and then Hong Kong, as a vital node in a global network of free trade. Even now, Panama is shaped mostly by the wealth the flows through it, whether that be thanks to its new-found prominence at the end of the Central American gringo trail, or the combination of speculation and money-laundering that have fuelled its real estate boom.

Above all, Panama is still shaped by the canal without which it would never have existed as an independent country. You can sit and watch the container ships pass through the locks at either Miraflores (at the Pacific end of the transit) or Gatún (at the Caribbean). Each is carrying perhaps millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise, and paying hundreds of thousands for the privilege of taking its goods through the isthmus rather than the long way around South America, via Cape Horn. In turn, the size of the canal locks has long determined the breadth and length of the majority of the world’s ocean-going container fleet. Only now, with a new breed of “post-Panamax” ships, is the canal to be widened and deepened, at a cost of up to $5 billion.

Panama has always flourished by siphoning off some of the capital that flows through its borders. In turn, however, it has always been vulnerable to those who wish to prey on its own parasitism. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, these were pirates, most notably the Welsh privateer Henry Morgan who destroyed the first incarnation of Panama City and repeatedly attacked the fortresses (such as San Lorenzo and Portobelo) that guarded its Caribbean flanks. Today the profiteers are the more anonymous and decidedly less romantic figures of the bankers, real estate agents, and construction interests, as well of course as the usual litany of corrupt official in the public sector.

For the spoils of Panama’s fortune have hardly been divided equally, and indeed have been the ruin of many. The canal itself, and the railway that preceded it, was only built at the cost of tens of thousands of lives from among the labor force that flocked from around the Caribbean and across the world. Some of the survivors’ descendants now live in cities such as Colón, which is essentially one large (and rather dangerous) slum, avoided by backpackers and speculators alike.

When I was in Colón, in a city-center mall with plenty of vacant store lots that had rather over-optimistically been built to attract cruise passengers, hundreds of senior citizens were patiently sitting in line. They were there to register with a scheme promulgated by the new president, Ricardo Martinelli, whose government has pledged them a pension of $100 a month. This handout is no doubt a populist gesture, but for those who aren’t in a position to start sailing under a black flag or Jolly Roger, such gestures are welcome.


Paraguay has a significant population of German immigrants and their descendants. It’s not the only Latin American country with a German influence: see Colonia Tovar in Venezuela, for instance, or the now rather nefarious Colonia Dignidad in Chile. And there’s little more surprising in the Yucatán and Belize than the sight of packs of blond Mennonites on the move, all cowboy hats, check shirts, and overalls for the boys and men, headscarves and dresses for the girls and women.

But in Paraguay the German presence is particularly notable. At times it is as though German were the country’s second language (or third, after the indigenous Guaraní). This page on German genealogy suggests there are 166,000 speakers of the language in the country. And at the hotel where I was staying last week, for instance, the guide to room services was in Spanish and German, rather than English. Most of the other visitors were speaking German, including a large group of young girls from the Chaco, in town for some kind of sports tournament, chaperoned by a tall young blond man with the air of a Christian youth leader, who spoke heavily accented Spanish.

The German colony in the Chaco are Mennonites who peaceably enough raise cattle and make cheese. By all accounts, the Chaco is a pretty desolate place, and the Mennonites and the Guaraní have it pretty much to themselves. (Even so, early last century the Paraguayans managed to lose a war with Bolivia over the territory.)

But then there are Germans and there are Germans. And the topic of Nazis or former Nazis in South America is always a subject of intrigue and speculation: luridly fictionalized as The Boys from Brazil or The Odessa File, but on the basis of real cases such as most famously Eichmann’s flight to and capture from Argentina. Josef Mengele, though he initially fled to Buenos Aires, spent signficant post-war time in Paraguay.

Still, I had either forgotten or repressed from my only previous visit to Paraguay the shock induced, this time, by noting the first day of my stay a Spanish translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on sale at a street corner kiosk. Or, a little later, just off one of Asunción’s main squares, on the pavement outside a cybercafe, seeing two pencil drawings of Hitler on sale among the usual collection of secondhand textbooks and shabby novels. No irony, no self-consciousness as far as I could see: just a couple of portraits of the Führer, should I have wished to buy them as a souvenir of Paraguay.

I take it that most Paraguayan Germans shudder somewhat as I did in seeing such reminders of the Reich. Not least now that Germany itself is, with the World Cup, trying to rebrand itself beyond the clichés of either jackboots or dull efficiency. But perhaps more likely, these signs of history’s unsavoriness merely blend in with their adopted country’s long history of dictatorships (Doctor Francia “the Supreme” as well as that other son of Germany, Stroessner) and injudicious wars of aggression and catastrophic defeat.

UPDATE: Royden Loewen’s Mennonite and Nazi would seem to be a book to read, complicating my account above.


This post is part of Long Sunday’s “Carnival of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak”.

Before I attempt to bring some threads together, a bit of anecdotage, that may also prove illuminating about value and global communications.

Blair, The Third WayA few years ago, at a time that I was working in Manchester, England, I happened to be in North Carolina for a conference. There I received an email from my friend Jean Franco, who taught for many years at Columbia (she is now emerita) and is one of Gayatri Spivak’s closest friends. She’d just got back to the States from London and said she had “an immense favour to ask.” Gayatri had phoned her from Hong Kong, “in a state of agitation,” because she needed to get hold of a book by Tony Blair, The Third Way, in advance of her keynote at the British Sociological Association conference in Manchester at the weekend. It was now Wednesday. Jean passed along Gayatri’s temporary email address in Hong Kong so we could make further arrangements.

I forwarded all this back to my partner, Susan, back in Manchester, to see if she might be able to pick up the book and drop it off at the relevant hotel. And I wrote to Gayatri to assure her that measures were being taken to ensure the text’s arrival. She wrote back:

My Ma always tells me, in her heavily (Bengali)accented Sanskrit: swadeshe pujyate raja vidyan sarvatra pujyate (a king is worshipped in his own kingdom, a learned man everywhere). I laugh at her, usually. But Giddens’s books are all over the place, but neither Blair’s nor Clinton’s offerings are to be found in any library or bookstore in Hong Kong or New York! O tempora, o mores.

Susan then chipped in with the information that

I’ve managed to track down a copy of The Third Way for you–though even in his own land, this king’s publications are hard to find!

For it had turned out that a copy of the book was not to be had in Manchester for love or money, either, but that a phone call to the Fabian Society meant that the book would be sent North post haste. And indeed, Susan picked it up and left it at the hotel for Gayatri to collect.

A little while later, a note arrived in the post, written on the back of a scrap of stationery from Air India’s Maharajah Lounge in Hong Kong. Enclosed was the money that the book had cost, thanks to Susan for her trouble, apologies for a “peculiar smudge” (circled and arrowed) and the explanation that “this is the only piece of paper I have, would you believe. My paper was awful. Best, Gayatri.”

I like this story for a number of reasons. First because it shows something of the worries, the charm, the humour, and also the self-deprecation of someone so often described as “difficult” (with all the overtones that such a description carries).

Second, because it’s an instance of a fairly extraordinary ad hoc network coming together to get something done: a phone call from Hong Kong to New York; an email from there to North Carolina, and then on to Manchester and back to Hong Kong; a phone call to London, and a series of deliveries to and within Manchester; and finally the note, its textuality and materiality physically marked and commented upon, and money repaid. It’s a dizzying circulation of information, people, commodities, and money. All kinds of debts and favours and friendships or affects are called in and granted or extended, in a circuit that overlaps with and enables the purchase, distribution, and consumption of a particular commodity, but that is in no way simply reducible to the economic.

And so third, there’s a moral about value–intellectual, academic, cultural, and political as well as financial–as it is translated across borders and across generations, even across languages. “Swadeshe pujyate raja vidyan sarvatra pujyate“: a fable about the relativity of prestige, at first “heavily [. . .] accented” in a language I at least do not understand, gently laughed at by she who does, perhaps because it seems an “inadequate” or naive view of the world; but it’s a saying that becomes more than adequate, something like a durable snippet of wisdom from “Ma” about the limitations of temporal power, even in an age of Empire and globalization.

Cross-posted to Long Sunday.


This post is part of Long Sunday’s “Carnival of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak”.

I’m going to jump in here with a brief note on continuity and discontinuity in Spivak’s text, “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value.”

The nub of Spivak’s argument is this: she presents a critique, first, of what she terms “the continuist version of Marx’s scheme of value” (In Other Worlds 155), but second and more importantly, also of “all ideologies of adequation and legitimacy” (171).

The notion of value as continuity (of unruffled exchange, or even a series of more or less orderly exchanges and transformations) is at best mistaken, at worst ideological, and so complicit.

Hence Spivak’s recourse to “the concept-metaphor of the text” (171) and textuality, to indicate the overdeterminations, the loose ends, the “situation of open-endedness” that characterizes the process by which value is produced as “an insertion into textuality” (161).

But the point is that there are discontinuities and then there are discontinuities.

For if capitalism puts forward ideologies of continuity, the latest of which is the dream of unregulated world-wide instantaneity effected in globalization, in fact it functions always by means of a series of ruptures, of breaks in that flow. Globalization can only be a tendency, another version of the same basic ideology of continuity. In practice, “even as circulation time attains the apparent instantaneity of thought (and more), the continuity of production ensured by that attainment of apparent coincidence must be broken up by capital” (166). Here, maintaining a distinction between productive center and comprador peripery, between the First World and “the dark presence of the Third” (167), is crucial. But also even immediately in the production process: value arises from the discrepancy between use and exchange, from the super-adequation of labour power. It is discontinuity, not continuity, that constitutes the ruse of capital.

Yet Spivak will have no truck with any notions of flow and immanence counterposed to capitalist segmentarity. From the outset she brackets off “the anti-Oedipal argument” of Deleuze and Guattari as “but a last-ditch metaphysical longing” (154). Moreover, and for all her agreement with the notion of capital’s liberating aspects, its “‘freeing’ of labor-power” (161), she is harsh in her critique of any utopian faith in what we might call the deterritorializing powers of Empire. “Telecommunication” (for which we could substitute now the powers of cognitive or communicational labour) only “seems to bring nothing but the promise of infinite liberty for the subject” (167; my emphasis). And this is because “economic coercion as exploitation is hidden from sight in ‘the rest of the world'” (167).

No. Against discontinuity: more discontinuity, or perhaps better, other modes of discontinuity. Against the capitalist ruse of extracting surplus in the discrepancy between labour power and exchange value, Spivak defends what she describes as the “radical proto-deconstructive cultural practice” of “bricolage, to ‘reconstellate’ cultural items by wrenching them out of their assigned function” (170). This is, no doubt, a defence of eclecticism. And here, incidentally, Deleuze and Guattari somewhat surprisingly reappear, now applauded for their concept of desiring-machines as “originarily unworkable” (170).

But here’s the question, and in some ways it’s a question for Deleuze and Guattari too: can in fact these two modes of discontinuity, the one governed by capitalist expansiveness, the other by a principle of avant-garde defamiliarization, really be distinguished so easily? Can we still say so unreservedly that “the computer, even as it pushes the frontiers of rationalization, proves unable to achieve bricolage” (170)?

Or to put it another way: Spivak recognizes a certain ambivalence in the word-processor, and so in the machinic and the collaborative communicational labour it enables; but does she explore that ambivalence far enough?

1980s word processor
Cross-posted to Long Sunday.

black globalization

Blood & Treasure offers an analysis of what the author terms “black globalization” based on an entry taken from “Global Guerrillas”.

The Iraqi resistance is, we learn, characterized by flat management structure, portfolio careers, free agency, continuous improvement, delivery cycles, learning organizations, skill set development, and outsourcing. The very model of a modern multinational.

At the same time, a comment to the earlier, “Global Guerrillas” post states “As I read about the strategies mentioned above it suddenly hit me where I had heard of them before, from a book I read in the 80’s called ‘The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism’ by Hakim Bey.” To which the “Global Guerrilla” blogger links his own analysis of Fallujah as a TAZ.

I think this undecidability, or rather the cross-mutation between commerce and subversion under the sign of terror, can also be seen in classical piracy, as I mentioned earlier.

Is there really a difference between “black” globalization and any other form of globalization? Is not “black” globalization the “truth” of a putative “white” globalization, which is held back only by the remnants of transcendence and command?

What’s at issue is also, in the sixteenth century as much as today, the relation between Multitude and Empire.

The question is precisely whether what we have here is an identity, an undecidability, or perhaps a complex series of potential “tipping points” between different forms. Is there in fact no real distinction between the two (between globalized insurgency and networked commerce), except for their overcoding by the state discourse of a “war on terror”? Or is there in fact a real difference, whose contours can only be mapped contextually and historically, i.e. in terms of effects (does, for instance, piracy encourage or slow down the slave trade) rather than by examining the movement itself? Or can a line be drawn between Multitude and Empire, albeit with the acknowledgement that one may easily and at almost any time be converted into the other?

Certainly the pull of commerce is very strong. One could imagine a number of guerrilla groups (the FARC, the IRA, even Sendero) that have become dominated by what had perhaps originally been an instrumental use of illegal trade networks. Smuggling, extortion, and protection rackets may have originated as means to raise funds to continue the armed struggle, but their logic overtook the instrumentality of political violence.

Is this how the multitude becomes “corrupted”? Whereas Empire becomes corrupt through the hypostasis of state command?