DAMNING THE FLOOD By Richard Pithouse, Mute Magazine, 14 October 2008

By supporting NGOs, is the left suppressing a radical politics in Haiti and elsewhere? And is it possible to defend a popular movement without deifying its leader? Richard Pithouse reviews Peter Hallward's new book on the containment of popular politics in Haiti
The inequality of class, first universalised into a global Manicheanism in The

Communist Manifesto, is not just complicated by gender, race and sexuality. There is also the fact that the globalisation of capital has always been accompanied by the violent division of the world into different kinds of spaces meant to be inhabited by different kinds of people. The unequal allocation of rights and resources across these spaces has always been held to match unequal capacities for thought, speech and action. Attempts at building solidarity across these divisions have often been insufficiently attentive to their objective material differences or too willing to treat claims about subjective difference as objective.
In the contemporary world the failure to attend to the objective difference of particular situations often results in the assumption that all struggles should aspire to the form that the anti-globalization movement has taken in the metropole. Amongst other problems this immediately renders the (usually) white Northern really look like. A failure to attend to the subjective choices with which people confront particular situations often results in a reifying culturalism that sees struggle as a natural expression of cultural difference. It is inevitably complicit with some form of racism and often risks an inability to discern domination within a nation or movement. Peter Hallward is a philosopher who has thought about the question of solidarity across the divisions that structure domination with a rare combination of subtlety French philosophy and Haitian politics include a consistent stress on the fact that and militancy. The themes that link his work on contemporary post-colonial theory,

activist an automatic and universal expert on what a popular radicalism should

everyone thinks and that thought is the subjective confrontation with specific

objective situations. Hallward affirms the specificity of particular situations and affirms the subjectivity with which they are confronted and thereby ‘maintains the strict sense.’i relation between subjective and objective (and between subjects) as a relation in the

Hallward is committed to a prescriptive politics. He argues that genuinely political actions must elaborate universal principles (principles that hold for everyone), that for these principles to be meaningful they must be adhered to directly and immediately, that adhering to them is necessarily divisive and requires collective unity and a willingness to confront domination. In other words he proposes a politics of popular self-emancipation organised around popular intellectual work

and consensual disciplined commitment. From the beginning his work has taken the view that, following Paulo Freire, ‘true generosity consists in fighting to destroy the causes which lead to false charity.’i

Damming the Flood is a richly detailed account of the popular Haitian movement Lavalas (the flood) in and out of power. There is a focus on how the movement was vilified and its president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, removed from office by the American military with considerable support from global civil society.

Image: Lavalas demonstration, September 29th, 2006. 'Yesterday, in the capital, Aristide, Haiti's former president, demanding his return from exile in South Africa.' http://www.nickwhalen.com

thousands of Lavalas supporters rallied in support of the deposed Jean-Bertrand

Hallward’s basic argument is that as Lavalas developed into a formidable force in

the late 1980s it began to constitute a serious threat to the US-backed Haitian elite. an attempted coup in January 1991 and then a successful military coup in

They responded to the election of Aristide to the Presidency in December 1990 with September 1991. It left 5000 dead. Aristide returned to office in November 2000 with 92 percent of the vote and disbanded the army at which point the Haitian elite, with strong support from elites in Canada, the US and France, began to wage an elaborate propaganda and destabilisation campaign against the Lavalas government. This was supported by many NGOs, including those on the left, and was followed by a military attack after which Aristide was removed from the country by the US military in February 2004. Lavalas supporters were then subject to sustained lives. Nevertheless resistance has continued. repression by occupying United Nations forces at a cost of several thousand more

Hallward takes the view that the objective constraints imposed on Aristide’s

administrations by imperial power were severe and that there was no prospect for fundamental transformation. Nevertheless there were important innovations by way of a higher minimum wage, a literacy programme, a school building project, health care and so on. Even IMF statistics confirm clear progress in these areas. But Hallward’s analysis breaks with the economism that typifies much contemporary leftism and he also takes the symbolic and political movement as significant. For instance he takes seriously the political ramifications of Aristide’s choice to open up the swimming pool in the presidential palace to children from poor families. But the passive and was rooted in a network of grassroots organisations through which much of this it is noticeable that the practical action taken by Aristide’s primary thrust of his assessment stresses that popular support for Aristide was never people could work for their own empowerment. Although Hallward doesn’t make governments in support of the poor often found ways to combine material support with support for popular democratisation. For instance housing was not reduced to the provision of houses but included the development of town squares in shack settlements.

Image: Fanmi Lavalas supporters march against the cost of living, Haiti, December 27th 2007 Hallward deals frankly with the problem of opportunism, a problem that every

movement has to confront when it reaches the point of winning some access to or

control over state resources. He also deals directly with the reality that any

movement operating in a repressive environment in which its membership is generally criminalised is going to have to take on some of the judicial and security functions usually reserved for states with inevitable risks and inevitable condemnation. Nevertheless, he concludes that:

Over the last twenty years, Lavalas has developed as an experiment at the outer limits of contemporary political possibility. Its history sheds light on some of the ways that political mobilisation can proceed under the pressure of exceptional powerful constraints.ii
Hallward’s claims about a campaign of demonisation against Lavalas are persuasive. It is instructive to set aside Hallward’s arguments about this and instead apply Chomsky’s propaganda model to the recent history of Haiti. By excluding highly

disputed events and examining only those on which there is some agreement as to the basic facts, and comparing only those that can be as closely matched with others as is possible it quickly becomes evident that, for instance, violence attributed to Lavalashas been systematically treated in a very different way in the elite media and civil society to that of other actors such as the Duvalier’s paramilitaries, the Nations and so on. Haitian Military, the US Military, the anti-Aristide paramilitary groups, the United

Image: Anti-Aristide protesters march in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 1st 2004

But the fetishisation of leaders of popular movements has a sorry history and it is deifying Aristide rather than supporting ongoing popular struggles in Haiti. Hallward describes his book ‘as an exercise in anti-demonization, not

worrying that some of the solidarity work with Haiti seems to be more interested in

deification.’iii This seems fair – especially given that he is clear that Lavalas emerged from discussions amongst ordinary people in the shack settlements of Port-auPrince and that its continued strength after Aristide’s kidnapping is rooted in the ongoing practice of similar discussions and the modes of grassroots militancy that they have engendered.

Aristide is an interesting theorist in his own right and his own thought provides as good a measure as any for measuring the value of mobilisation. His political thought is rooted in liberation theology. For Aristide, who says that when we say God ‘We Christian impulse that does not separate belief from action, that exasperates mean the source of love; we mean the source of justice’,iv liberation theology is ‘the conservatives, and annoys so many people on the left who dream of realizing the

happiness of others ... without the others.’v He is clear that the political movement that twice bought him to power begins from and is sustained in the ‘little church’, or what liberation theology in Latin America calls ‘base communities’. They are small groups that meet in their own neighbourhoods to discuss, on their own time principle in the little church is that ‘All persons are human beings, and to be

and in their own language, their ideas about politics and society. The fundamental cherished.’viThe fundamental political task is to ‘fan the fire of hope and to turn it into a tool for the people.’vii This theological politics is not unwilling to take a side. unrepentant, intransigent’viii and that ‘If they [elites] do not wish to share Aristide has long been clear that the preferential option for the poor should be ‘total, fraternally ... They must accept that it is they, not I and my colleagues, who are advocating war.’ix He’s also made it very clear that as people assume political agency ‘Liberation theology then gives way to a liberation of theology, which can also include a liberation from theology.’x Lavalas seems to have achieved, a form of organisation closer to that of a series of linked congregations rather than a party and rooted in the organisation of the poor by the poor in the languages that people speak, in the places where they live, in the modes that they choose and in the times

when they are free to organise. This is a politics of popular self-emancipation.

Image: Portrait of Aristide Hallward argues that although ‘NGO administrators and left-leaning academics are often uneasy with what they see as a merely populist deviation’xi this popular power is necessary for any kind of meaningful challenge to domination. He has a point. As C.L.R. James noted in his history of the Haitian Revolution ‘It is force that matters’.xii Lavalas took state power under extremely hostile circumstances and sought to counts, and chiefly the organised force of the masses […]. It is what they think that

subordinate the state to society by demobilising the military while continuing to mobilise society. When Aristide was first elected President in 1990 he declared that ‘I will not be president of the government, I am going to be president of the opposition, of the people, even if this means confronting the very government I am creating.’xiii He held to this position and ten years later wrote that people should ‘not confuse democracy with the holding of elections.’xiv

Image: Voltaire Hector. Declaration of Jean Bertrand Aristide in South Africa April

9, 2005. 2005

The often hysterical demonisation of Lavalas can easily be understood and slotted into a familiar pattern of imperial attempts to contain oppositional movement that attempted coup against Chavez in 2002. William Robinson provides a useful lens includes the fate of Lumumba and Allende, the war against the Sandinistas and the for this kind of analysis in the years after the Cold War. He argues that the US and its allies moved away from supporting dictators and that this shift was rooted in a recognition that support for dictators like Botha in South Africa, Marcos in the were not only demanding the removal of dictators but also the popular Philippines and the Duvaliers in Haiti had produced oppositional movements that democratisation of society. This recognition led to a shift in policy that saw the creation of liberal democracies as a more effective way of containing popular aspirations. There had been, Robinson argued, ‘a reconceptualization of the

principal target in intervened countries, from political to civil society, as the site of social control.’xv Robinson quoted Bill Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot as observing that ‘Even after our [military] exit [from Haiti] in February 1996 we will remain in charge by means of USAID and the private sector.’xvi In South Africa and the Philippines this worked well enough as the new regimes were enthusiastic about demobilizing the movements that had brought them to power.

But in Haiti the Lavalas project was to subordinate the state to society via ongoing popular democratisation. This was unacceptable. The result was a return to political society as a key target of political control – a return to regime change.

But there is another aspect to the demonisation of Lavalas which may be more NGOs. His criticism of racist ideas about enlightened white charity, the role of limits of the human rights project all cover familiar ground. But his criticism

discomforting for some on the left. Hallward elaborates a consistent critique of NGOs in promoting the agendas of foreign governments and his critique of the extends to the explicitly anti-neoliberal NGOs that position themselves on the left. He is completely sceptical of their political effectiveness in opposing domination arguing that:

Rather than organize with and among the people, rather than work in the places and on the terms where the people themselves are strong...[they]... organize trivial made-for-media demonstrations against things like the uncontroversial evils of neo-liberalism or the high cost of living. Such protests are usually attended by tiny groups of 30 or 40 people – which is to say, by nobody outside the organizers’ tiny circles.xviii
But he sees their support for regime change as a very significant in offering an appearance of some kind of legitimacy for the coup. His explanation of why the left an interview with a women’s rights activists who explains the NGO hostility to NGOs would oppose a movement with tremendous popular support centres around Lavalas in terms of class rivalry. ‘Foreign observers underestimate,’ she explains, ‘the massive gap between elite (wealthy, French-speaking, internationally orientated) NGO professionals and grassroots (poor, Kreyol-speaking, neighbourhoodorientated activists).’xviii Aristide makes a similar point arguing that:

Everything comes back, in the end, to the simple principle that tout moun se moun – every person is indeed a person, every person is capable of thinking things through for themselves. Those who don’t accept this, when they look at the nègres of Haiti – and consciously or unconsciously, that’s what they see – they see people who are too poor, too crude, too uneducated, to think for themselves. They see people who need others to make their decisions for them. It’s a colonial mentality, in fact, and still very widespread among our political class. It’s also a projection: they project onto the people a sense of their own inadequacy, their own inequality in the eyes of the master.xix

There is a fundamental difference between forms of left politics that propose

alternative policy arrangements or ways of being without developing any capacity to force the realisation of their goals and those that actively develop popular power and alternative modes of community and are willing and able to confront domination collectively and directly. The former can be called the expert left and the latter can be called the popular left. The expert left tends to operate in the languages of imperial power, to be dependent on state or donor funding, to require side of the razor wire where the police offer protection and to organise via international travel and the internet.

certification from bourgeois institutions as a condition of entry, to be located on the

Image: Massive Protest demanding Aristide's return in Haiti's second largest city. 184 to put an end to Lavalas. They will Fail!'. Credit: Haiti Information Project It is not unusual for the expert left to be entirely unaware of the existence of a popular left even when it is a literal stone’s throw away. Discourse in the wrong the mouths of the wrong people is often just invisible to the expert left.xx This lamentable fact is never innocent of class and can be deeply racialised. If the popular left reaches the point of being able to stage some sort of major

December 16th 2004. Banner translates as: 'Operation Baghdad is a plot by Group

language, in the wrong place, in the wrong philosophical matrix and, most of all, in

interruption into bourgeois space it is not unusual for the elite left to be entirely

unable to comprehend the rationality of that revolt. This is often predicated on an inability to comprehend the existence of grassroots intellectuals or grassroots political militants.xxi When the expert left is confronted with the concrete reality of the popular left via a direct demand for recognition and respect it is not unusual for the response to take the form of denial, paranoia, criminalisation and recourse to conspiracy theory in a rival elite.xxii In his essay on the Paris Commune Alain Badiou defines the left as ‘the set of parliamentary political personnel that proclaim that they are the only ones equipped to bear the general consequences of a singular political movement. Or, in more contemporary terms, that they are the only ones able to provide “social movements” with a “political perspective”.’xxiii He concludes that the decision of the communards to take public affairs into their own hands was a decision to break ‘is always a rupture with the left.’xxiv with the left and that a political rupture, a rupture with the logic of representation,

which the speech of grassroots militants can only be understood as manipulation by

Image. Voltaire Hector. Burning the market "Tet Boeuf" an anti-government

demonstration May 31, 2005. 2005

Badiou also agues that after Lenin concluded that the slaughter of the communards necessitated the development of a centralised, disciplined project aimed at seizing state power the party has been the mode by which the left has sought to organise taken in most of the world – the NGO. The party is not dead. On the contrary it

popular politics. But Badiou does not address the new form that the official left has retains considerable power in places like India and in South Africa. And there are countries, such as Haiti or Brazil, where the church is also a contender for influence over popular struggles. But while there is a large critical literature on vanguardism and clericalism the critical literature on NGOs generally criticises NGOs that work for directly imperial agendas – such as the NGOs that work with the World Bank, USAID and so on – while valorising the left NGOs that operate in spaces like the World Social Forum. But in most of the world it is precisely the left NGOs that assume the right to give direction to social movements and to monopolise the

resources that can mediate the development of international solidarity. Most of the left texts that seek to offer a global picture of the contemporary moment are based on the experience and thinking of these NGOs rather than the experience and thinking of popular movements. Most attempts at international solidarity are organised through these NGOs. Hallward’s book breaks decisively with this consensus and seeks direct engagement with popular politics.

Damming the Flood is rich with empirical detail and nuanced insight. Its author has paid close attention to the realities of the situation confronted by grassroots militancy in Haiti as well as to the key choices made within that militancy. One of the clearest contributions of the book is the concrete development of Hallward’s early theoretical work on the question of solidarity. An aspect of this that is developed with particular force can be formulated in terms of a choice confronting anyone wanting to develop solidarity across the brutal divisions of human existence: will that solidarity be with the expert left or the popular left?xxvi
Richard Pithouse <Pithouser AT ukzn.ac.za> lives in Durban where he has studied and taught philosophy. He has been part of Abahlali baseMjondolo since the movement's inception.

Info Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood, London: Verso, 2007 Footnotes i Peter Hallward Absolutely Post-Colonial: Writing Between the Singular and the

Specific, Manchester: Manchester University Press,, 2001, p. 330. ii Hallward Absolutely Post-Colonial, p. 335. iii Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment London: Verso, 2007, Damming the Flood, p.314. iv Hallward, Damming the Flood, p.Xxxv. v Jean-Bertrand Aristide Eyes of the Heart Monroe: Common Courage Press, 2000, p.63. vi Jean Bertrand Aristide Dignity, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996, p. 103. vii Jean-Bertrand Aristide, In the Parish of the Poor: Writings from Haiti, New York: Orbis, 1990, p. 57. viii Aristide, Dignity, p.49. ix Aristide, In the Parish of the Poor, p.18. x Aristide In the Parish of the Poor: Writings from Haiti, p.17.Damming the Flood, xi Hallward Damming the Flood Haiti, p.318. xii Hallward, Damming the Flood, p.137. xiii C.L.R. James The Black Jacobins, New York: Vintage, 1989, p. 286. xiv William Robinson Polyarchy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 291 xv Aristide, Eyes of the Heart, p.36. xvi Robinson, Polyarchy, p. 68. xvii Robinson, Polyarchy, p. 311. xviii Hallward, Damming the Flood, p. 181-182. xix Hallward, Damming the Flood, p.184. xx Cited in Hallward, Damming the Flood, p.342. This kind of situation is not at all unique to Haiti. See, for instance, the comments on NGOs from The National Convention Against Displacement & SEZs held at Bhubaneswa in India in 2007

at http://sez.icrindia.org/2007/06/27/bhubaneshwar-sez-convention-draftdeclaration-on-sezs-and-displacement/ In South Africa there has been an extraordinarily hysterical, vicious and entirely dishonest set of responses from paranoia and ruthlessness of the NGO left in the face of autonomous popular statement by the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign at http://abahlali.org/node/3032 xxi Consider, for example, the inability of the letter campaigns in support of Amina Lawal in 2003 to comprehend that there was a project to defend Lawal within Nigeria and within Islam. See the statement against the letter campaigns at http://www.wluml.org/english/newsfulltxt.shtml?cmd[157]=x-157-18546 xxii Emilio Quadrelli developed an excellent analysis of this in an essay on the 2005 revolt in the Paris banlieaus. Quadrelli’s intervention simply contrasted interviews with grassroots militants with the pronouncements of the elite left who could see Political Militants: Banlieusards and Politics’ Mute, 30 May and-politics nothing but an inarticulate cry for help by the ‘socially excluded’. See ‘Grassroots 2007http://www.metamute.org/en/Grassroots-political-militants-Banlieusardsxxiii This is typical of all of the various forms of discourse by which a faction of the academic and NGO left in South Africa have tried to render explicit and constant xxiv Alain Badiou ‘The Paris Commune: A political declaration on politics’ in Polemics, London: Verso, 2006, p. 272. xxv Badiou, The Paris Commune, p. 289. rejection of their authority from popular movements as speech that does not count.

within the NGO left to the polite rejection of their authority by the popular left. The mobilisation has rivalled that of the state. For an early comment on this see the

xxvi This is not to suggest that NGOs and academics are necessarily separate from and opposed to popular mobilisation. On the contrary these relations are a matter of choice and it is in principle perfectly possible for the NGO and the academic to work to support the popular left from within its practices, spaces, languages and the popular rather than the expert left. Similarly an NGO that secures a and clientalism remains an instance of the expert left.

structures. But when this is achieved the resulting project remains an instance of constituency (or the appearance thereof) for its projects via some form of patronage

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