King of the Castle

I picked up King of the Castle by Gai Eaton (1990) largely by accident. I saw someone reading the book on a flight; both the author and the book brief sounded unique, so I ordered a copy. A few quotes:

"Since unbelief lies at the root of almost all that is said or thought or done in our time, it follows that the believer's critique of the modern world cannot be less than radical." (p. 18)

"Before our eyes in the course of decades, not centuries, a new kind of world is coming into being, a world populated almost exclusively by dependants; but dependent upon whom and with what safeguards? Whether those who control the machinery of the State, the leaders in one country or another, have seized power or been elected by a mass-electorate which votes only on immediate, bread-and-butter issues, and whether they are motivated by self-interest or good intentions, one thing is sure: they are themselves controlled by forces of change which they do not understand and, in obeying these forces, they are restrained neither by immutable principles nor by the weight of custom and tradition. The brakes have been taken off; and there is nothing to suggest that these people know where they are going." (p. 60-61)

"The arrogance of the West in relation to other cultures is decently cloaked in our time, for this is an age of polite falsities; but it has not been outgrown. The fact that non-Europeans are expected to adopt Western patterns of government and 'post-Christian' morality (as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations) is evidence of this." (p. 165)

"What the Muslims call the Holy War is in fact the opposition of the unified and God-centred man to the forces of dissipation and chaos both within and outside himself. Such warfare is likely, in our times, to provide a history of defeats and failures - at least so far as our environment taken as a whole is concerned - but this is precisely why we are told that less is expected of us than was expected of the men of earlier periods. Defeat does not matter, because it is by fighting this war that we become what we are, and the achievement of integrity is not dependent upon the quantitative and temporal outcome of that struggle. Our concern is only with doing what we are capable of doing. The rest is out of our hands." (p. 198) 


The Powers of Mourning and Justice

Judith Butler's "Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Justice" (2004) was published in the "Radical Thinkers" series of Verso Books. The book is a series of essays written after Sept 11, 2001, collected in this short publication of ~150 pages (of writing, excluding Notes). In the Preface, the author suggests in the years following Sept 11 intellectuals and journalists did not uphold their duty to justice, wherein an injustice muted critical discourse and public debate. The specifics of the essays are less timely today, but raise general questions about power – power over media and what can be spoken in the public sphere, power over what can and cannot be asked or discussed, power over life and death, the power to decide whose life should be mourned and whose ignored. The creation of binaries of the with-us-or-against-us type, stifled the ability to engage, Butler for example suggest that opposing war was equated with sympathizing or justifying terrorism.  While the details have changed, the processes persist and the arguments in this book remain relevant. Worth a read.


What is an American Muslim?

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im's "What is an American Muslim? Embracing Faith and Citizenship" (2014) is an Oxford publication, written in what seems like a world away in terms of US identity politics. The book is largely not what the title reads "What is..." but rather "What should...". Although the author has produced some interesting works (for example, a 1995 book Human Rights in Cross Cultural Context), this one does not stand out. In the ten years since publication, there have been 26 citations, several of which are critical book reviews. This book sat on my shelf for some years, and I can't recall where or how this book came to my attention. Some (debate-starting) notes:

"To realize this vision of citizenship and meaning for themselves, and to uphold it for others, American Muslims must join general political and social life—in solidarity and common cause with other citizens—and begin exercising their rights to democratic self-governance. To earn the rights of citizenship, Muslims must assume the responsibilities of citizens. In engaging a proactive citizenship, American Muslims should seek to integrate on their own terms as persons and communities, rather than abandoning their religious self-determination through passive assimilation. This includes the constant evolution and reformation of American Muslims' identities in relation to national identity." (p. 6-7)

"The idea of an Islamic state that enforces Sharia as the positive law of the state is, from an Islamic point of view, both conceptually untenable and practically counterproductive. It is untenable because, once Sharia norms are enshrined in law, they cease to be the religious law of Islam and become the political will of that state. Moreover, given the wide diversity of opinion among Muslim scholars and schools of thought, enacting any of those norms as state law will mean having to select among competing views that are equally legitimate. Since that selection will be made by whoever happens to be in control of the state, the outcome will be political, rather than religious. Why will this process be counterproductive? By suppressing competing views, it will necessarily deny some Muslims their religious freedom. I am therefore advocating the institutional separation of religion and the state, while recognizing and regulating the unavoidable connection between religion and politics." (p. 22)

"My own answer for such questions, for which I believe to be religiously accountable, is that Islamic religious doctrine is historically contextual, a product of human interpretation, and not immutable or divine as such. Accordingly, I would first oppose the application of any Sharia norm as the positive law of the state, as explained in chapter 1. Second, I would oppose the community-based practice of dated human interpretations of Sharia that are no longer appropriate in today's context." (p. 172) 


Land, Landlessness and Poverty in Ethiopia

Emerging out of a 2016 workshop organized by the Forum for Social Studies in Addis Ababa (also the publisher of the book), the 2018 publication "Land, Landlessness and Poverty in Ethiopia" presents cases / chapters from four regions in Ethiopia (SNNP, Amhara, Oromia, Tigray). The book is edited by Dessalegn Rahmato, and covers a topic he has been alerting our attention to for several years - landlessness. The full book is available for download here. Notes from the Introduction by Dessalegn:

"Landlessness is an important subject for close examination because it is an overarching problem with implications for poverty, social stability and the environment. Despite this, however, it has not attracted serious investigation and there are not many in-depth analyses of the subject and its ramifications. The problem is in large measure a product of demographic pressure, land scarcity and the insufficiency of access to non-farm employment in the rural areas. Landlessness is now growing to be a significant problem, and, in some of the densely settled communities, it has reached crisis levels, causing serious concern among kebelle and woreda authorities. The problem is an indicator of poverty, and no program of poverty reduction can succeed without addressing it in a meaningful way. There is a generational factor at work here: the tenure regime in place disadvantages young peasants who, by law, should have been provided farm plots by the kebelles concerned but are not because there is no arable land to distribute. This generational divide has the potential to erode social stability and cohesion. As is discussed by all the researchers in their work, the response of the young to landlessness has been varied but of particular significance has been the phenomenon of out-migration from the rural areas. Such migration may be to bigger urban centers in search of employment (this is evident in Addis Ababa), but the migration that has drawn public attention because of the dangers involved is the illegal migration to foreign countries such as the Middle East and South Africa and the victimization of would-be migrants by people smugglers and the human tragedy it has caused." (p. 4)

"Landlessness is a serious and growing problem in all rural areas, and yet it has not been given the attention it deserves by local authorities. For the purposes of the study, the following definition of landlessness was adopted by the research teams: any individual living in a rural community who has no rights to land registered in his or her name is considered landless. Having temporary access to land under a rental arrangement does not disqualify the person in question from being described as landless. In many cases, a landless person has no access to land of any kind, no employment and no income. The first point to bear in mind is that landlessness is at the heart of the generational fault-line facing rural society. Invariably, those suffering from the misfortune of having no rights to land are the young, and young males appear in the picture more prominently than young females. The major factors that were found to be responsible for rising landlessness included demographic change and consequent land shortage; large-scale investments in commercial agriculture, manufacturing and infrastructure; land degradation; and the paucity of non-farm (or off-farm) employment opportunities." (p. 6) 


Price War$

Rupert Russell's "Price War$: How the Commodities Markets Made Our Chaotic World" (2022) is a mass market book, however as a PhD holder from Harvard I picked this up to see if there are any interesting insights. With the exception of parts relating to Ukraine and Trump, the majority of the content of the book seemed dated between 2008 and 2014, which is reflected in the endnotes / bibliography as well. It would have been useful to know when all the trips were made, but most often this is not mentioned by the author, although points of reference suggest many of these also did not take place recently (reducing the journalistic value of a mass market book like this).

Although not a novel point, some interesting notes on algorithm trading:

"The computers are scanning headlines from all over the world, searching for chaos, looking for a small disturbance that could send prices higher and—before anyone has even read the headline, let alone verified it—trade automatically. The sheer volume of the algorithmic trades magnifies the mere suggestion of chaos— such as an army approaching a refinery—into an all-too-real price shock..." (p. 87) 

"The closer I got to understanding prices, the weirder they became. They were supposed to be synthesising information, coordinating global supply chains, moving people and goods and services to the most productive parts of the economy. Instead, prices were caught up in a social game that revolved not around reality but around collective perception of a reality, an orthodoxy. Just as in a cult or a religion, it is through the quick and public embrace of the emerging orthodoxy that material benefits are accumulated, be they wealth or status. In the long term, orthodoxies often crumble. But in the short term they can appear invincible, as unquestionable arbiters of truth and fortune." (p. 89) 


Formations of the Secular

Talal Asad has produced some interesting books, his 2003 book "Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity" is somewhat less powerful as a collective narrative since it draws on previously published materials (as opposed to a narrative that is linked throughout), nonetheless some interesting ideas from two decades past:

"What is the connection between "the secular" as an epistemic category and "secularism" as a political doctrine? Can they be objects of anthropological inquiry? What might an anthropology of secularism look like? This book attempts, in a preliminary way, to address these questions." (p. 1)

"The terms 'secularism' and 'secularist' were introduced into English by freethinkers in the middle of the nineteenth century in order to avoid the charge of their being 'atheists' and 'infidels,' terms that carried suggestions of immorality in a still largely Christian society. These epithets mattered not because the freethinkers were concerned about their personal safety, but because they sought to direct an emerging mass politics of social reform in a rapidly industrializing society. Long-standing habits of indifferences, disbelief, or hostility among individuals toward Christian rituals and authorities were now becoming entangled with projects of total social reconstruction by means of legislation." (p. 23-24)

"In fact liberal democracy here expresses the two secular myths that are, notoriously, at odds with each other: the Enlightenment myth of politics as a discourse of public reason whose bond with knowledge enables the elite to direct the education of mankind, and the revolutionary myth of universal suffrage, a politics of large numbers in which the representation of 'collective will' is sought by quantifying the opinion and fantasy of individual citizen-electors. The secular theory of state toleration is based on these contradictory foundations: on the one hand elite liberal clarity seeks to contain religious passion, on the other hand democratic numbers allow majorities to dominate minorities even if both are religiously formed." (p. 61) 


Colonial Effects

Emerging out of a PhD study, Joseph A. Massad published "Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan" (2001). This is a fascinating book, which should be more widely read. Although it focuses on Jordan, there are insights for research on nationality, nationalism, colonialism, decolonization, and identity, in additional to Middle Eastern studies. Some notes:

"… the production of national identity and national culture within Jordan as both a typical and atypical post-colonial nation-state… More specifically, I examine whether two key state institutions, law and the military, assist in the production of the nation. Recent studies of nationalism describe the nation as "invented" or "imagined," by intellectuals and/or political elites who are producers of, or produced by, the political discourse of nationalism. In this study, I am more interested in whether institutions play a role in the production of colonial and postcolonial national identity and culture… Law and the military were central institutions set up by the colonial powers in the colonies. They replaced existing juridical and military structures, or introduced them to societies that did not have them before. Both law and the military retain their colonial markings as European institutions established to serve the colonial state. As Frantz Fanon has shown, however, once national independence is achieved, the new nation-state elites replace their colonial masters in administering the same institutions that were used to control them." (p. 1)

"The establishment of paternity as the source of nationhood has been enshrined in British nationality laws since the nineteenth century. In the exemplary case of Britain, as Francesca Klug demonstrates, "women were only allowed to reproduce the British nation on behalf of their husbands. They could not pass their nationality to their children in their own right." In fact, British women who married outside the nation lost their British nationality, as did their children. On the other hand, the children of British men and non-British wives would be automatically British, as would the non-British wives. Some of these laws were changed in 1981 and 1985, when British women won the right to transfer their citizenship to their own children born abroad.51 It is the former British model that was transported to the colonies." (p. 35)

"The school system became instrumental in the production of the British imagined "Transjordanian." It is in those schools, or what Althusser calls the ideological state apparatus, that a gendered Transjordanian nationalist agency was first conceived. The responsibility of the military school system was to teach the boys a new ideology, nay a new epistemology, through which they were to apprehend their identity as well as the function it was to have: "The need for the production of Arab officers cadets, apprentice tradesmen and future NCO's from Arab Legion schools was to become more pressing as time went on. The government schools were saturated with politics, and many school-teachers were Communists. In Arab Legion schools, every effort was made to teach the boys a straightforward open creed—service to king and country, duty, sacrifice and religion [emphasis added]. Glubb reduces this formulaic creed to its bare essentials. In the "military preface" to Abdullah's memoirs, written for the benefit of the troops in a special edition released to them, he says, "All that we soldiers have to do is to do our duty to God, the King and the nation [emphasis added]."" (p. 150)

"Through the disciplinary mechanisms of surveillance and education, Glubb's policies not only repressed and erased much in the Bedouins' way of life that conflicted with imperial interests but also produced much that was new and combined it with what was "inoffensive" and "beneficial" in their "tradition" in a new amalgam of what was packaged as real Bedouin culture. The new Bedouin culture in fact sublated much of pre-imperial Bedouin culture foreclosing certain venues while opening a myriad others, erasing practices while preserving and transforming others." (p. 159)

"After the end of formal colonialism, national identities and cultures in the postcolonies are not only modes of resistance to colonial power, they are also the proof of colonialism's perpetual victory over the colonized. The irony of this is in having us believe that this colonial subjection and subjectivation is anticolonial agency." (p. 278) 


Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa

Rudolph T. Ware III published "The Walking Qur'an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa" in 2014, with the University of North Carolina Press. Am arriving at the text late, after having it in my "too read" pile for too long. A few notes:

"We must see beyond race and put Africans back at the center of Islamic Studies. To be fair, West African Muslims have drawn their fair share of attention, but the inner working of Islam as a system of religious meaning in their lives has not. Redressing this oversight is imperative, in part because of the huge (and growing) demographic weight of Islamic Africa. Reckoning with role of religious meaning in the past, present, and future of hundreds of millions of African Muslims requires that we pay attention for their engagements with Islamic knowledge." (p. 30)

"In ways both obvious and subtle, the French school was the leading edge in that colonial assault on African Muslim ways of knowing. Until the 1920s, a direct competition for students existed, and the French were losing. An early report on Qur'an schooling by the head of Muslim Affairs Office, Paul Marty, acknowledged, "It is painful to watch certain of the rural [French] schools stagnating with only a dozen students, while taken together the little marabout schools flourishing nearby reach a hundred." For decades, the colonial state crafted legislation designed to move African children out of Qur'an schools and into French schools." (p. 165)

"… the école française posed a more fundamental problem to the basis of Qur'an schooling. From the outset of colonial expansion, the colonial state promoted French schools in direct opposition to Qur'an schools. Louis Léon César Faidherbe, the chief architect of French military expansion, saw the colonial school as a crucial tool for naturalizing and legitimating French rule. In a March 1857 letter to the minister of the marine, he wrote, "the affairs of the schools... I regard as the most important of all those with which I am charged." The statement was only a minor hyperbole. This was heyday of assimilation discourse in the French Empire, and Faidherbe took the idea more seriously than most. Michael Crowder has defined the notion of assimilation in French imperial discourse as the belief that "there were no racial and cultural differences that education could not eliminate. Thus the French, when confronted with people whom they believed to be barbarians, believed it their mission to convert them to Frenchmen." Perhaps Faidherbe did not wish to convert Africans into Frenchmen, but he certainly hoped to use French schools to assimilate them to the colonial enterprise." (p. 191-192)

"Colonial racism and Francophone education have certainly produced plenty cultural estrangement, but more is at work here than just alienation… In African society, Islamic society, and in many societies that are both African and Islamic, educating children was not left to the nuclear family. Schooling is a community responsibility. This idea is explicit among Mālikī scholars in West Africa, who usually characterize learning and teaching and Qur'an as a fard kifāya (collective obligation) of the community. If some people diligently are attending to it, it is not incumbent upon each and every individual who knows something of the Qur'an to teach it. But if it is neglected or endangered, it becomes an individual obligation a fard 'ayn, mandatory for every capable person, male or female." (p. 241) 


The New Age of Empire

Kehinde Andrews' 2021 book "The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World" was celebrated by many (Kimberle Crenshaw, Russel Brand, Ibram X Kendi, and a host of book reviewers) and critiqued by a few (book reviewers). The author is the first professor of Black Studies in the UK. I assume this book was not written for academics, but for a mass market. The book introduces readers to a lost list of centuries of Euro-Western genocide and plunder. Much of the book is summative. The author describes the aim as: "A central thesis of this book is that White supremacy, and therefore anti-Blackness, is the fundamental basis of the political and economic system and therefore infects all interactions, institutions and ideas. My aim is to trace how White supremacy has been maintained and plays out in the various updates to Western empire" (p. xxi).

A glimpse into the book: "Racial science arose as a discipline to explore the superiority of the White race, and it is telling that basically all the key Enlightenment thinkers were architects of its intellectual framework. Voltaire (in France) believe that "None but the blind can doubt that the Whites, the Negroes, the Albinos [sic], the Hottentots, the Laplanders, the Chinese, and the Americans, are races entirely different." Hegel (in Germany) thought that "Negroes are to be regarded as a race of children who remain immersed in their state of naivete. They are sold and let themselves be sold without any reflection on the rights and wrongs of the matter." John Locke (in seventeenth-century England) believed that 'Negroes' were the product of African women sleeping with apes and therefore that we were subhuman. David Hume (in Scotland) was 'apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four of five different kinds) to be naturally interior to the Whites.' One of the architects of the Greatest Democracy on EarthTM, Thomas Jefferson (in the United States) believed that Black people 'whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the Whites in the endowments of both mind and body.' All agreed that race was real and defined in biology that determined the extent to which a people could claim full humanity." (p. 7-8)

The author concludes that the "glimmer of hope for true transformation in the West is that if the system is left to collapse under its own weight it may well end human existence as we know it" (p. 207) and therefore maybe "it is in this moment, standing on the cliff-edge of annihilation, staring into the abyss caused by Western so-called civilization, that the depth of the problem and scale of the solutions can be grasped." (p. 207) The book details the former but provides none of the latter (beyond "create an entirely new framework for the world's political and economic system", p. 207). It also seems to discount any kind of transitional steps or processes of transformation (as per many Marxist-inspired thinkers, awaiting the revolution, or in this case a Western-based scholar awaiting the fall of the Euro-Western system or revolution that takes it down). 


Debtfare States and the Poverty Industry

In 2014, Susanne Soederberg published "Debtfare States and the Poverty Industry: Money, Discipline and the Surplus Population" presenting a unique counter-narrative to many of the global development buzzwords (such as financial inclusion). The book focuses on examples in two countries, each with unique examples. In the US, the author examines credit cards, student loans and payday loans. For Mexico, there are chapters on the international financial system, microfinance and housing. Anyone interested in and/or doing research on financial inclusion or microfinance should engage this, if for nothing else as an important counter-narrative.


"Both PROGRESA and Oportunidades were specifically aimed at appeasing and depoliticising the increasing presence of resurgent popular movements, while acting as a bromide for the masses, so as to signal political stability and a well-disciplined and relatively cheap labour market made possible by ongoing forms of the structural violence of labour, e.g., dereliction of labour laws and the dominance of precarious work (Wacquant, 2009). True to neoliberal assumptions and mirroring the US workfare state, Oportunidades strives to create a disciplined and productive labour force for the future by conferring greater responsibilities on the poor by drawing on the social power of money as a mechanism whereby the poor can begin to resolve their problems without relying on society" (p. 59-60)

"This strategy of extending the democratisation of credit to undocumented workers allows the banks to break through barriers to capital accumulation while enticing 'non-citizens' to become part of the community of money, where they can experience (temporarily) formal equality and freedom. This also allows illegal workers to build a credit history so they can purchase cars, homes and other big ticket items on credit ('Bank of America Casts Wider Net for Hispanics', 13 February 2007, Wall Street Journal). Again, the state plays a paradoxical role in terms of its support for the expansion of the community of money. On the one hand, it must be actively seen to clamp down on illegal immigrants and thereby to feed the social construction of protecting the interests of the American worker by demonising the 'other'. At the same time, the state's highly visible and coercive crackdowns on illegal workers serve to instil constant fear and, by extension, discipline among this segment of the surplus population ('Illegal-immigration crackdown on Chipotle restaurants could hurt workers, activist says', LA Times, 7 February 2011). On the other hand, the state has stepped in to ensure that undocumented workers pay taxes through the single taxpayer identification number (ITIN) issued by the Internal Revenue Service and have access to formal banking facilities, such as credit cards, mortgages and so forth in order to allow them to function at the bare minimum as market citizens ('Embracing Illegals: companies are getting hooked on the buying power of 11 million undocumented immigrants', BusinessWeek, 18 July 2005)." (p. 93-94)

"Registering $1trillion in April 2012, student loans in the United States exceeded the total amount of all other forms of unsecured consumer debt.1 Educational loans remain the only form of consumer debt to markedly increase since the peak of household debt in late 2008 (Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2012). The student loan industry is comprised not only of private lending institutions, such as Sallie Mae, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase, but also the US state, which operates its own lending facility. This formidable component of the US poverty industry has become a highly lucrative venture for private lenders." (p. 104)

"To sum up: In contrast to neoliberal postulates that market-led growth delivers universal benefits, capital accumulation in Mexico has yielded profits and interest generating income for powerful capitalists, both inside and outside of the country, to the detriment of over half the population, who are surplus labour toiling in the economically precarious and insecure spaces of informality. Aside from revealing the roots of impoverishment of the so-called 'base of the pyramid', the above analysis has sought to shift our gaze away from the narrow and depoliticising boundaries of the realm of exchange, where the naturalisation of poverty and much of the analyses of the microfinance industry takes place, to the wider dynamics of capital accumulation." (p. 199) 

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