The sign, homemade, carried by a protester, reads “Ferguson to Gaza, Intifada, Intifada.” The slogan is more than a sentiment, more than a simple but powerful statement of solidarity. It is all of these things, but much more too. It is an explicit recognition of the world’s reality, far beyond Ferguson or Gaza.
"Apartheid" in today's world does not describe just a particular legal circumstance in this or that corner of the globe. It is, in varied and intricate ways, a fact of daily life under neoliberalism. Global capital communicates to us in any political, economic or aesthetic language it can muster: "This world is not yours, and you do not belong here."
Red Wedge, of course, finds this to be criminal. As do the artists, poets and writers whose work appears our second issue. Art, literature, performance, music and creativity; these, in a very basic sense, are a bending of time and space. Each is a potential defiance of the ways capitalism, racism and imperialism rule. They dare us to imagine over the walls.
Lagos, Calais, Baltimore: Ur-Apartheid?
To call apartheid “global” is not to diminish the very real struggles of those who live or have lived with the strict legal definition of the term. Palestine, pre-1994 South Africa, American Jim Crow; these are/were systems in which segregation, in which separate and unequal, are written into law. They are brazen, apparent, exceptional in their own ways, worthy targets of any movement for human decency and justice.
But one cannot honestly assess today’s world without acknowledging that there is something very apartheid-like (ur-apartheid?) that has insinuated itself into daily life. If apartheid rightfully brings with it very racialized overtones, then we should remember that the vast majority of the global working class is non-white. And that in every country – no matter what its racial composition – there are the scapegoats, the underclass, those who have their denial of basic rights wrapped up in some ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, cultural or even spiritual component. What does this mean in a world shaped by class exploitation, patriarchy, empire and white supremacy?
The answers become apparent almost immediately if the question is asked the right way. Racism, after all, has a political economy. As Melvin Leiman writes in his (aptly named) The Political Economy of Racism, “The effects of racism are an extension of the normal polarizing effects produced by a capitalist economy.” [emphasis ours – ed.]
We could note this about all forms of oppression. Though the words and works in these pages revolve mostly around the valence of race, this should not be mistaken for insouciance toward sexism, Islamophobia, queer and transphobia and much else. These are not aberrations from the dynamics of class exploitation, but deeply interwoven within it, while at the same time appearing to have a life and logic of their own.
Most of the time it is not explicitly legally sanctioned, but then capitalism is not a purely juridical system. Even then, the gravitational pulls of class society are such that legal segregation cycles back into acceptability. In the United States yesterday’s “whites only” drinking fountains become today’s “cis only” bathrooms. And Michelle Alexander’s book has acquainted many a reader over the past five years with the concept of “the new Jim Crow.” The economics of a structure based on inequality and exploitation give rise to separate worlds, one built on top of the other. Decadent utopia for some, untempered dystopia for the rest.
Apartheid, then, is not exceptional in contemporary capitalism. Nor are its cultural signifiers. They are found in the corralling of refugees and immigrants, be they in Australia’s Nauru Detention Centre, the “Jungle” of Calais in France, or the detention centers of South Texas. Each are intended and designed not just to maintain social control over their inhabitants, but to keep them out of the eyes, minds and worries of some mythical Euro-American (read: white) mainstream.
Apartheid is unavoidable in Eko Atlantic, an artificial island of gleaming towers being constructed off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria. Eko Atlantic is explicitly billed a preserve for the super-rich designed to shield them from the deprivation and climate disaster that the city’s poor already bear disproportionately. Those who call this “climate apartheid” have more or less said what needs to be said. Chalk it up to the price of the ticket for surpassing South Africa as the largest economy on the most exploited continent.
When we see Grosse Pointe Park, a wealthy suburb on the edge of Detroit, erect a literal fence to keep the blight out of sight and out of mind, when the town begins requiring that people show ID’s before entering its parks, it is more than a disturbing echo from the past. It is very current, and it is very real. It is, again, an underhanded, covert form of segregation, integrated into the look and layout of an urban area.
Walter Benjamin’s observation, that all monuments under capitalism are monuments to oppression, is apt here.
We would do well to remember that these segregatory experiences, though primarily social and political, are also aesthetic. In fact, we could even say that the aesthetics are what make these experiences in the first place. Remembering this doesn’t entail simply boiling everything down to how it looks, sounds, tastes, feels. Rather it is being able to see through either the shiny sheen of shared prosperity or the air of menace that capital adopts whenever one suits it over the other. The psychological war waged by the culture industry may be hot or cold, (passive-)aggressive, but it is always waged.
In his book The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey repeatedly uses contemporary Baltimore as something of a case study for how neoliberalism has accelerated and made more pliable capitalism’s natural propensity for condensing and manipulating both time and space. Various architectural aesthetics run roughshod next to each other, each one supposedly autonomous and self-contained even as they indicate a total cultural experience that is as disjointed and dizzying as it is vast.
The city’s Harbor Place is filled with chain restaurants and shops, hosting whimsical outdoor performances of musicians, jugglers and bubble artists in the warm months. Each year it attracts as many visitors as Disneyland. While ten blocks away are the foreclosed homes, the poverty and blight, the not-so-benign neglect and systematic police violence that exploded in the form of last spring’s uprising.
Freddie Gray – the young man whose death at the hands of police touched off the rebellions – hailed from a neighborhood almost entirely African-American, with fifty percent unemployment, where virtually nothing from the city is spent on infrastructure or sustainable development. But somehow there is always enough to send regular and heavy patrols of brand new, suped up police cruisers into it.
“We are shiny and new,” the cop cars seem to taunt. “Touch us, or anything like us, and we will sever your spine.”
This, in a nutshell, is how state securitized neoliberalism has transformed the aesthetic use of space. It holds an immeasurable influence on how we create and recreate, be it in the form of papering over material conditions, resisting those conditions, or forging our identities within them.
Radical Identity and the Art of the (Im)Possible
This forging of identities is key to understanding how art manifests in contemporary society. Human beings define themselves in relation to their surroundings. Art and creativity are intertwined in this, mediating how people or groups of people see themselves in relation to an environment that is for the most part undemocratically imposed upon them. One adopts or changes an identity – their music, their clothing, their lingo, their performative choices – to more clearly define themselves in relation to the world and its predominating structures.
The entire raison d’etre for youth subculture since at least World War II has been the exploration of different ways to take up space. The zoot suits of that era exhibited a sense of billowing out, of floating and flying into public space quite against permission to do so. These extravagant suits, hats and shoes a-rhythmically flapped against the monotonous, mechanical regimentation of an American reality saturated with imperial ambitions. Much in the same way that the bebop jazz associated with the zoots sounded an atemporal, existential wail against this same hypocritical reality.
Malcolm X, himself a zoot in his years as “Detroit Red,” described the look as "a killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic's cell." This was an ethos of an ontological jailbreak against the soft imprisonment of everyday life, a way to reveal to the world that its wheres and whens don’t apply to you. That it was African-American, Mexican, and Filipino youth primarily adopting this ethos was no accident, and made it doubly subversive.
Dizzy Gillespie, the great pioneer of bebop, was once chased down a New York City street for dressing in “too flashy” a manner for a Black man. The U.S. War Production Board publicly stated that the amount of material spent sewing the suits was “wasteful,” and better used to make uniforms. Life magazine called zoots “solid arguments for lowering the Army draft age.” In 1943, this resentment against people of color not doing as they were told boiled over into physical attacks on them by American soldiers on leave – most notoriously in Los Angeles’ “Zoot Suit Riots,” but also in Chicago, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia.
These are the moments when art, culture and politics geographically intersect in dynamic ways. Today’s intersections are more subtle and nuanced, more underhandedly coercive and manipulative: the often arbitrary rules governing what or where graffiti can be, attempts to literally legislate the sagginess of a Black person’s pants. Antonio Gramsci once argued that popular culture is at once a site of rebellion and conformity. Neoliberalism’s flexible relationship to time means it is able to take better advantage of this internecine contradiction, reminding us that Hell always provides you with just enough room to breathe – until it decides that you no longer deserve this room (see: Eric Garner).
That so much of this kind of segregation is allowed to persist or simply goes unnoticed is all the more reason for us to not only illustrate and scream about it, but to direct those screams in its very face. This is an urgent task, one that riffs off the potential for art and gatherings as “carnivalesque,” as transgressive, as possessing the ability to paint possibilities past the static dominance of the “what is,” granting participants the opportunity – much like Malcolm and the zoots – to reinvent themselves in direct opposition to the denial of dreams.
The art and aesthetics of global apartheid encourage us to not reinvent ourselves, to not just accept but revel in the “what is” without asking “wherefore?” It is heard whenever Donald Trump orgasmically describes his proposed wall along the Mexican border as “beautiful,” “fantastic,” or “gorgeous.” It is in the work of cartoonists who use their “leftist” credentials to paint Muslim and Arab refugees as depraved, lecherous, immoral brown hordes, to be kept at bay at all costs, pitied but never humanized (see: Charlie Hebdo).
This seems to us not only dangerous politically but insulting artistically, narrowing some of art’s most key attributes. As Walter Benjamin, John Berger and other critics have pointed out, visual art – and this could similarly be said for music, literature or the performing arts – possesses the ability to transport the consciousness of the audience somewhere it physically isn’t. Why then should it settle on reinforcing the very barriers that prevent us from becoming who, going where, and being when we want?
If art expands our sense of the possible then the art of global apartheid is a lazy manifestation that contents itself with dancing along the tops of walls while laughing at those of us who can’t climb up, sadistically reveling in the existence of decay from the safety of the Fiddler’s Green.
Against this, Red Wedge posits art that reasserts the control of ordinary people over the world itself. This is art that militates against erasure and segregation, that hones in on the distempered, distemporal cravings for freedom that are themselves refusing to be ignored and amplifies them. It is art that encourages the autonomy of the imagination beyond the limits of manufactured boundaries, that captures the dynamic of the subject striving to become an objective force of history.
But how can these ideas become both widespread remain and within our hands? How can we hedge against the cultural cache of militant protest and the avant-garde becoming sanitized and watered down? Can they be protected against “co-optation”? Can one make the carnival an uninterrupted part of life? The answer on the surface may appear to be a transhistorical “no,” but if there is the possibility to the contrary, it lies in the transformation of subculture into counterculture.
It means cultivating radical anti-racist organization and artistic practice hand-in-hand with one another. This is a two-sided, dialectical relationship. On one side it means forging radical anti-oppression politics that are both confident and curious, are neither reductive nor dismissive toward cultural experimentation. On the other, it means an artistic practice that does not see aesthetics as a substitute for politics or drift into mealy-mouthed platitudes of “art changing the world.”
There is little wonder then that the best examples of this kind of art are also emerging from communities struggling against their own externally enforced invisibility. In the United States this has naturally manifested in Black Lives Matter – a radical social movement confronting deep, materially entrenched American racism – and the way it has impacted both the larger discourse and artistic expression. That Black Lives Matter has centered so much on disrupting spaces in such a way that their constructed racism suddenly becomes evident – implicitly asking why these constructions must be how they are – explains how it is that an entire cultural conversation can be shifted.
To be sure, cultural movements like Afrofuturism and Afropunk already “meant something” even before Black Lives Matter stormed onto the scene. Now, however there is not only a greater sense of relevance but a far more complex, multifaceted sense of transcendence that captures the imagination in its audience so much more potently because that imagination is now active. Afrofuturism insists that any futurity worth living can only be created if the past is reckoned with. Afropunk continues to explode notions that the identity of punk is either static or exclusively white, directing the crunch of decay and neglect back into their own faces.
Naturally, this kind of rising cultural influence brings with it the risk of it being sanitized and defanged (see: Janelle Monae’s Pepsi commercial). On the one hand it is undeniably a Good Thing when aesthetics that push back against enforced time-space-identity reach a wider audience. But neoliberalism has proven itself flexible and capable of integrating these back into its own needs. Signifiers are hollowed out and refilled with the false narrative of prosperity and progress, of transhistorical whos, wheres and whens dictating our lives.
Which is why it was so encouraging to see, in the wake of last year’s horrific racist shootings at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a wave of outraged artistic and spatial reclamation. Statues and monuments to slave owners, Confederate generals and politicians who defended the owning of another human being, called what they are by way of graffiti: racist.
Red Wedge rejected the notion that this was “vandalism.” The Vandals of a thousand years ago are commonly thought of as having destroyed civilization. Those who painted on Confederate memorials were suggesting that civilization have a different timeline, and that our arts and culture reflect it.
Every subcultural denizen – from the zoots to the punks – is primarily preoccupied with defining their self in relation to the world. But occasionally they are forced to redefine the world in relation to them.
When the filmmaker, artist and activist Bree Newsome – whose own work takes great influence from Afrofuturism – scaled the flagpole in front of the State Capitol Building and stripped down the Confederate flag, this is essentially what we were witnessing. This was more than just an act of protest or civil disobedience (though it certainly was both of these). It was an act that made this other timeline, this other future history, this other world in which monuments are built to dignity and solidarity instead of slavery and segregation, unavoidable.
How to make this kind of spatial redistribution permanent? All honest roads, however long or winding or treacherous, point to revolution.
We cannot lose ourselves in the symbology. If this heuristic of “global apartheid” is to have any meaning, then must take a lead from those fighting its most extreme, distilled manifestations. In recent months, there has been a concerted effort to more deeply entwine the bonds of solidarity between Black liberation and the struggle for Palestinian freedom. As the recent poem from Mari Morales-Williams, Remi Kanazi and Kristian Bailey declares, “when I see them, I see us.”'
In Palestine we see an occupying force more than ready to communicate its dominance through both symbols and brute materiality. Chain link fences, barbed wire, massive concrete walls all serve functional and primal purposes, but embedded in them is also a kind of cultural micro-logic: that those within the walls do not deserve much more than inhumanity. Hope falls from blue skies, but if those skies are contained, then a lot less will get through
In Palestine we see an occupying force more than ready to communicate its dominance through both symbols and brute materiality. Chain link fences, barbed wire, massive concrete walls all serve functional and primal purposes, but embedded in them is also a kind of cultural micro-logic: that those within the walls do not deserve much more than inhumanity. Hope falls from blue skies, but if those skies are contained, then a lot less will get through.
Concomitant with this is a deliberate, calculated Israeli policy that uses art and culture as hasbara, or state propaganda. Invite artists, musicians, thinkers, writers to produce, present, perform in your country; you may then paint yourself as an island of western enlightenment afloat in a sea of Oriental barbarism rather than an outpost of racist settler colonialism. It is an image of cultural openness designed to make invisible the brutal denial of basic personal autonomy, an image that by its very existence cancels itself out. Cruel, metanomic irony from a state that does not and cannot concede to popular rule if the populace is too brown.
Here, where apartheid is at its most militarized and brazenly manipulative, we see some of the most breathtaking creative resistance. We see young Palestinians explaining on social media to protesters in Ferguson how to make homemade gas masks. We see the “separation barrier” used not just for improvised graffiti but for sometimes magnificent murals that glimpse a future in which the wall comes down. The blue skies, open fields, magnificent alternate realities are made, again, unavoidable in the midst of their polar opposite. (All the more reason for Israel to be denied its cultural cover by the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; in doing so, the rebellious imagination has that much more room to thrive.)
Last year, a video circulated online of a young man in the West Bank. Black smoke blew by in the background; the Israeli Defense Force was plying its typical trade of unreserved brutality against an already-occupied people. In the video, the young man ventures out by himself, not running, but spinning, bobbing, kicking his legs out. He is dancing the dabke, before turning round and letting loose a rock from his slingshot. In this moment, the dance is an act of resolve and defiance. It lets the soldiers off-screen know that there is not an animal seen through the scopes of their rifles, but a human being, capable of thought, choice and creativity. It is art and resistance as interchangeable synonyms for each other.
May all our slingshots be incorporated into a dance. May all resistance provide a window into human beauty.
This editorial appears in Red Wedge No. 2, “Art Against Global Apartheid.” A copy can be purchased through the Red Wedge shop.