Finding a Way Out of the Polder

“It was after the end of
the world… To lie on
our backs looking
into the dark was all
there was worth

—       Nathaniel Mackey, “Eye on the Scarecrow” from Splay Anthem.

These past few months I have been busy doing everything except blogging. One could say I have been purposefully shying away from it, in the main, because I felt—and still feel—like writing fuck everything ad infinitum. An urge that I have, somehow, managed to curb when writing for ‘official’ publications and panels. My engagement with the intellectual work of theorists grouped under the label ‘Afro-Pessimism’ made me realize that the only possible response is fuck everything, starting with the nation-state. The nation-state is so deeply fucked that we might not be able to rehabilitate it, at all. If recuperation (making things better) is our political goal, then we might be setting ourselves up for an impossible task.

Over the past months, I’ve been told, several times, in purportedly leftist spaces, that my work is “too radical,” or even more bewildering: “too political.” What does it mean to be too political? What constitutes the ‘too’? The ‘too’, which is almost accusatory, is as curious as it is significant, and says much about what is considered ‘constructive politics’, and what is not. The diagnosis ‘too political’ implies that a certain kind of politics, or criticality, is expected—perhaps, even desired—however, I am overdoing it by desiring, in the words of Aimé Césaire, “The only thing in the world worth beginning // The End of the World, of course.” My demand is, by its very nature, in a relation of excess vis-à-vis the political, and, therefore, unreasonable both in terms of meaningfulness and practicality. To fundamentally question the legitimacy of established ways is seen as not only an assault on ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, but also a subversive act against the nation itself.

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“O my brethren! I have told/ Most bitter truth, but without bitterness.” — Samuel Coleridge

In Affective Economies Sara Ahmed tells us that “emotions play a crucial role in the ‘surfacing’ of individual and collective bodies through the way in which emotions circulate between bodies and signs.” We are conditioned to relate to one another in specific ways, and it is through emotions and the specific ways in which we are conditioned to feel about others that societal norms and the very boundaries and surfaces of bodies take shape. We are taught to fear the stranger, and it is through our fear of the stranger, who has, as Ahmed notes in Strange Encounters, “already come too close” that the stranger emerges. Strangers, then, aren’t those whom we haven’t met, “but those who are, in their very proximity, already recognised as not belonging, as being out of place.” The circulation of emotions and our affective encounters speak of the intimate life of power. It is no wonder that sentiment and affective attachments were and are at the centre of governing projects. Dutch colonial governing projects gained their political coherence through “the management of [such] affective states, in assessing appropriate sentiments and in fashioning techniques of affective control.” (Ann Stoler, Affective States)

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Mapping the Limits of Social Movement Organizing: Comité 21 Maart

Recently, I attended Samen Tegen Racisme & Discriminatie (United Against Racism and Discrimination). The meeting was organized by Committee March 21, an alliance of various social organizations. This coalition is planning a city-wide (Amsterdam)—possibly even a nationwide—demonstration against racism and the goal of the meeting was to outline a strategy. The invited speakers were Mustafa Ayrancı, Mohamed Rabbae, and Sandew Hira; they respectively represented Turkish, Moroccan and Black organizations. Mercedes Zandwijken moderated the meeting.

The meeting left me drained, exasperated, depressed. I’ve been to more meetings than I can count in which straight, cisgender, middle-aged men were positioned as “leaders.” What I witnessed on Monday wasn’t new. Before the project got its legs, it was already heading down an all too familiar path. Their forthright admission that the proposed concept suffered from “blind spots” seemed, in light of what was missing, procedural.

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On the Strange Case of “Work” without Workers

“It is not that I have no past. Rather, it continually fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now.” — Samuel R. Delany, Dahlgren

Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger warns us in The ‘Air of Liberty’: Narratives of the South Atlantic Past that “[I]t’s not enough to condemn [this] slave trade as having been a crime; the details of its afterlife, the cultural heritage it left in its wake, have to be understood as a contemporary dilemma, an open wound.” And yet there is scant critical analysis in the Netherlands of slavery’s afterlife. In general, Dutch attitudes are very much in line with contemporary neo-liberal discourse that “treats the present,” as Issa Shivzi observes in The Struggle for Democracy, “as if the present has had no history.” This uncoupling of the present and the past is actively done and maintained as an aspect of power.

We need to make visible these obscured, deliberate modes of violence and place the present in relation with history. As I will argue, a critical engagement with the afterlife of slavery forces us to re-think concepts like freedom, progress, work, production, exploitation, freedom, as well as contemporary conceptualizations of race, gender, sexuality, ability and class. Prior to emancipation White Dutch politicians imposed their vision of “freedom” and their circumscribed definition of autonomy on Black folks in the Dutch Caribbean. The attempts of the Dutch state to control and prescribe the comings and goings, desires, and behaviour of “freed slaves” have left lasting marks on the ways we imagine freedom and what constitutes work.

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The War on Welfare

Welfare has always been a hotly debated topic. However, lately the discourse on “welfare” has taken an especially nasty turn and can be considered a full out attack on “bijstandsmoeders,” i.e. welfare mothers. Academic Zihni Özdil has written a critical piece on the “war on welfare mothers,”  in which he highlights the invalidity of the arguments being made.

In this piece I argue that the current mode of attack trades on racist stereotypes of Black women. Racist ideas about black sexuality are regularly being deployed to organize society and used to lubricate the cutting of public spending, or in pleas for tighter immigration control. What is often buried in public discussions, whether on welfare or immigration, is race. Race is often what gets buried.

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Justitia Vincit Omnia

 “All persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstances. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race, or sex or on any other grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted.” – Article 1 of the Dutch Constitution

Last year three criminologists of Leiden University conducted a study in which they found that people who “look Dutch” have the least chance to be sentenced to imprisonment by sub-district judges. Moreover, “Dutch-looking” people receive on the whole a lesser sentence, quite often a fine or community service. In response to the Leiden study Rivke Jaffe wrote a column entitled Is There Such a Thing as a Non-Dutch Appearance?, which was published in the Leiden university weekly Mare. She writes,

“The Leiden study was conducted based on the observations of students who used a standardized checklist. Upon inquiry I learned that the variable “non-Dutch appearance” was based on a combination of the subjective assessment of the observer, and the registration of the place of birth of the suspect. If ambiguities arose, then the observers simply left this attribute open. If there were any uncertainty whether the appearance of the accused was Dutch, or not, then the case would not be included in the analysis. This only occurred in ten of the 541 cases, so the observers felt pretty confident about their ability to distinguish between a Dutch and non-Dutch appearance.”

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The Political Economy Of Racism

“Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.” ― Audre Lorde

In the opening speech at the congress 15 jaar Algemene wet gelijke behandeling Gelijke behandeling, de realiteit: Dilemma’s, verlegenheden en kansen Laurien Koster remarked that, “The impact of discrimination is severe: less profitable results when women are underrepresented in [your] company’s workforce. Discrimination and harassment lead to reduced efficiency and attention span in the workplace.” (my translation)

The impact of employment discrimination is often expressed in capitalist terms that reflect corporate interests, i.e. loss of profit, less innovation and diminished overall results. Quite often the implementation of a rigorous diversity policy is offered as a counter to these adverse economic effects. Diversity, so it goes, is good for business. However, many advocates of diversity within the Netherlands fail to think critically about the material and cultural conditions in which diversity policies are produced, circulated, interpreted, and enacted. Who sets the agenda, and what are the consequences? Who eventually benefits, and who loses from diversity policies?

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