Salt and Baseline Communism #dignitystrike

Salt has often been a catalyst by which the interaction of life, colonialism and apartheid can be made visible and subject to change. From India to South Africa and today’s ongoing Palestinian hunger strike, salt is the means by which the inhuman form of colonial oppression can be tasted. To deny access to salt by taxation, price or the regulations of mass incarceration is to colonize human life itself. It is to assert that only certain types of human life are beyond price and have inherent dignity.

In his book Debt, activist anthropologist David Graeber calls gestures like passing the salt “baseline communism.” If you sit at a table with someone, whether in your own home or a dining place elsewhere, and they ask you to pass the salt, you simply do it. You don’t try and monetize the transaction. You don’t demand some kind of reciprocal gesture, like passing the pepper, just because you passed the salt. It is the simple recognition that the request comes from a human being like yourself.

This common interaction suggests that, as Graeber puts it, “communism is the foundation of all human sociability,” not to be confused with the formerly existing state Communism of the Soviet period. Nor is it about the exchange of goods. It’s the basic generosity and hospitality that makes human social life possible. It was this impetus, for example, that led the Native peoples of the Americas to give food to white settlers to their long-term detriment.

Gandhi illegally collecting salt, 1930

In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi protested against the British imposition of a tax on salt in colonial India by walking to the sea in his now-famous Salt March. Arrived at the coast, he picked up a handful of dried salt, deliberately breaking the colonial law. The absurdity of the colonizer prohibiting the colonized from using a natural product epitomized the baseline stupidity of colonialism. It was perhaps his most effective act of non-violent resistance, or satyagraha, and some 60,000 Indians were arrested for contravening the salt laws in similar fashion.

A few years ago, I visited the University of Pretoria in South Africa. I used the example of salt as baseline communism in a seminar. Later, students told me that the university had recently introduced a charge for salt in its cafeteria. It was just a couple of cents, irrelevant to those like myself with means, so I had not noticed. For those without resources, always the Black South African students, such small charges are exactly what prevent them from being able to study.

Shackville at University of Cape Town, 2015

Just as utility debt, rent arrears or a traffic ticket can disrupt African-American social life, as Ferguson has taught us, so could this little salt tax end the possibility of a Black South African student making ends meet. In 2012, Black South Africans earned an average 3000 rand ($224) per month. Assuming that a student might not make that average, it’s easy to see how even small extra charges add up. At Wits University, one of the most expensive, student fees range between 30,000 and 60,000 rand. As a result, only 53% of Black South African students graduate six years after beginning their degree. As many as a third drop out after only a year.

The students did not accept their endless immiseration. When the Zuma government attempted to raise tuition fees by 8%, they rose up, created #FeesMustFall and defeated the increase. The student movement has now turned to decolonizing education, using the slogan “Decolonize the Curriculum.” For Dr Shoshe Kessi of the Black Academic Caucus, “we can’t have a dialogue about Black people’s dignity. That is a given.” And yet it is not. That is why the Palestinian hunger strike is a dignity strike and why the hunger strike is a decolonial action.

In the Palestinian hunger strike in Israeli prisons, the regime has taken to denying the strikers salt. They had been consuming only water mixed with salt, a basic and fundamental nutrient without which life is endangered. Denying salt is denying life. More exactly, it denies social life, which is to say, human life. Graeber describes how communities like those of the Iroquois are divided into halves. The two sides interact in specific ways. You can marry only people from the other side, while you are obligated to bury their dead, just as they bury yours. “Society will always exist,” says Graeber. “Therefore there will always be a north side and a south side of the village.”

The regime wants to deny that possibility. It refuses the principle of hospitality, which capital has mutated into “the hospitality industry,” a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. According to Graeber, there is an Arab story that a burglar accidentally tasted the salt in a house he was robbing. Realizing that he had partaken of their salt, he replaced their property because now he was bound to them. Israel wants to be bound to no one and to deny the possibility of there being common life between peoples of different religions or ethnic backgrounds.

Aarab Barghouti

Aarab Barghouti, Marwan Barghouti’s son, launched the “saltwater challenge.” He drank a glass of salt water, like that then being consumed by the strikers, and challenged others to do the same. Thousands have done so, including Yacoub Shaheen, the winner of Arab Idol 2017. In a striking understanding of what is at stake, hospitality industry businesses like the Grand Park Hotel in Ramallah have posted videos of their staff taking the challenge.

What is the meaning of this challenge? It does not raise money like the ALS Ice Water challenge. It recognizes that the “village” of the social world exists, even and especially in prisons. By performing the action of those imprisoned, the challenged do not pretend that their conditions are the same. Rather they recognize that there is a duty of care toward the incarcerated. It is to enact the conditions of baseline communism in the only way possible.




Mutant Capital: Time for {R}evolution

Ever wonder where all the scary, white clowns went? They’re in power, of course. Because racial capitalism and petrocracy, the rule of fossil fuel, have been in a deep embrace since neoliberalism began. And children of the multiplex that we are, we know what happens when you are smothered in toxic materials like crude oil. You mutate.

Andrea Bowers, “Dignity Safety Justice: Woman With Raised Fist (Trans Latina Coalition, Blockade at the Beverly Center, L.A., CA, March 20th, 2015)” from “Whose Feminism Is It Anyway?” (2016

Mutant capital thinks like the Joker. Let’s use nuclear weapons! It’s fine if people starve themselves to death! And, of course, drill, baby, drill. Never mind that the consequences will be mutually assured destruction, the mother of all Intifadas and ge(n)ocide. It produces scenes like the Australian finance minister waving coal in Parliament as his solution to a climate-change induced heatwave.

Morrison Holding Coal.

That’s the situation. It is the current mess we’re in. It’s a mutant replay of the onset of the neoliberal phase of racial capitalism in 1979-80 under Mrs. Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the US. And it’s mutated wherever racialized capital has produced its divisive effects, from France to India, South Africa and beyond.

Of course these places are not simply the same. The situation, also known in Marxist-speak as the “conjuncture,” was defined by Stuart Hall as “related but distinct contradictions, moving according to very different tempos.” Grace Lee Boggs’ famous question “What time is it on the clock of the world?” is, then,  a question about the status of the situation.

In the past, I’ve worked on time-specific projects like Occupy 2012 or After Occupy in 2014. The question now is the uneven temporality of the present, colliding pasts that were thought to be past, with futures that may never be, and differentiated experiences of the present. It’s ongoing, unfolding, mutating.

It’s also a reference to the way that people in Palestine tend to refer to the institutional crisis of settler colonialism as “the situation.” As I write on the tenth day of a hunger strike by 1500 Palestinian prisoners, it’s a situation that should be on all of our minds, every day. I visited Palestine in 2016 for the first time. It was a difficult experience, not just because of the intensity of the oppression but because it made me realize how inadequate my version of “activism” is to the challenges of the situation.

One of the keynotes of the situation is the global implosion of center/center-left neoliberalism. Those outside the dominant super-rich suffered the 2007 recession, waited, saw the elites continuing to gain and have looked for someone to blame. Many have identified those political formations that claimed to be progressive but enabled the intensification of neoliberalism, from the Democrats to the UK Labour Party and France’s Socialist Party.

The contradiction that dominates this political shift is, however, not simply economic. It is the mutation of racism and xenophobia into newly pathological forms. The hostility to Poles in London, to Algerians in Paris, and the continued killings of African Americans by US police are clearly not the same but equally they are related. Further, the connection of racialized hierarchy with revived nationalism opens the way to mutant forms of what was once called national socialism.

Each of these contradictions is made non-linear, or mutant, by the Earth system crisis, itself brought on by racial capital’s post-1980 embrace of petrocracy. The Anthropocene can be measured from 11,700 BC, or 1610, or 1950. But the climate mutated when neoliberalism went global in 1980. Look at the graph.

Carbon emissions. Produced by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, closed by the Trump administration

While the acceleration begins in the 1950s, it goes into overdrive after 1980. Half of all carbon emissions were produced since 1980. It’s gone mutant.

Past time now, then, for what Grace Lee Boggs called {r}evolution—the horizontal construction of autonomous power from below by multiple subjects.  {R}evolution is deep. Are you ready for it? Let me tell you this much. It’s a revolution against mutant racial capitalism. But there won’t be a hero to save us, whether from Vermont, or wearing a cape. And it won’t be about getting an electric car or solar panels.

{R}evolution contains evolution: a transformative change in human relationships to each other, to non-human life and to habitat. A change away from fossil-fueled capitalism to constructing sustainable social relations.

{R}evolution is decolonial because it will only be in displacing whiteness’ claim to the “ownership of the Earth, forever and ever, amen,” as WEB Du Bois put it, that the feedback loop of crisis can be ended.

{R}evolution for James and Grace Lee Boggs in 1974

begins with a series of illuminations….A revolutionary period is one in which the only exit is a revolution…. It initiates a new plateau, a new threshold on which human beings can continue to develop.

That’s what you see in Palestine. It’s what you see from other Indigenous communities. The hardest lesson, perhaps, is that it is not measurable in terms of individual lives

{R}evolution is in the spirit of the Black radical tradition, defined by Cedric J. Robinson as:

the continuing development of a collective consciousness informed by the historical struggles for liberation and motivated by the shared sense of obligation to preserve the collective being, the ontological totality.

How do you do that without (vertical) power and without reinstating the past form with different leadership? To create both a genealogy of {r}evolution and its present-day possibility is to interact decolonial resistance to racial capitalism with that to fossil-fueled capital. 

Easier said than done? No doubt. But not always so easy to say either. That’s what this project will be, an exploration of pathways to thinking and making {r}evolution.