May 8, 2012
If you were to pinpoint one moment when it looked as if things just might work out for Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, it would probably be February 2, 2010. That day, Fayyad addressed the annual Herzliya Conference, a sort of Israeli version of Davos featuring high-powered policymakers and intellectuals. It is not a typical speaking venue for Palestinians; yet Fayyad was warmly received. He sat in the front row next to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who—just before Fayyad ascended the stage—whispered into his ear and grasped his hand in what appeared to be a show of genuine affection. When Fayyad reached the blue and white podium, he garnered an enthusiastic round of applause from the hundreds in attendance.
Standing five feet five in a charcoal suit with glasses, frog-like features, and thinning salt-and-pepper hair, Fayyad didn’t appear all that charismatic—and he didn’t sound charismatic, either. He spoke in jargon-laced English with a deep nasal monotone. But what he had to say was dramatic—even revolutionary.
Six months earlier, with decades of negotiations and armed conflict having failed to produce Palestinian independence, Fayyad had proclaimed a bold new strategy: Instead of waiting for Israel to grant them a state, the Palestinians would build it themselves—brick by brick, institution by institution. Fayyad’s “state-building program,” as it was known, had earned praise from the likes of Israeli President Shimon Peres (who called him the “Palestinian Ben Gurion”) and The New York Times’ Tom Friedman (who coined the term “Fayyadism” to describe “the simple but all-too-rare notion that an Arab leader’s legitimacy should be based not on slogans or rejectionism or personality cults or security services, but on delivering transparent, accountable administration and services”). Even some right-wing Israeli politicians had spoken favorably of Fayyad, especially when comparing him with Yasir Arafat or Hamas.
More significantly, polls showed that Fayyad was winning over Palestinians—and it was easy to understand why, since his policies were yielding results. With the world still in the throes of the global financial crisis, the West Bank economy had enjoyed two years of double-digit growth. Unemployment had declined as thousands of Palestinians went to work building new schools, health clinics, and government offices. Cities like Ramallah and Jenin, which became war zones during the second Palestinian intifada, had begun to assume an air of normalcy as masked gunmen gave way to newly trained Palestinian police.
At Herzliya, the subdued Fayyad came to life as he spoke of his state-building program. “That exercise that we have embarked on, related to getting ready for statehood, was described by some as a source of concern on grounds that it is—or represents—unilateralism by the Palestinians,” Fayyad said. “And I’m here to tell everyone”—he raised his voice and his arms—“that indeed it is! It is unilateral! As it should be! Because it’s about building a Palestinian state. It’s about getting ready for Palestinian statehood, and the state that is being built here is a Palestinian state. And, if we Palestinians don’t build it, who’s going to build it for us?”
At the time, negotiations had been frozen for more than a year. Yet Fayyad boldly predicted that his program would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state by August 2011. “By then, if in fact we succeed, as I hope we will,” he said, “it’s not going to be too difficult for people looking at us from any corner of the world … to conclude that the Palestinians do indeed have something that looks like a well-functioning state in just about every facet of activity, and the only anomalous thing at the time would be that occupation, which everybody agrees should end anyways. That’s the theory.” As Fayyad finished his speech—saying that his people aspired “to live alongside you in peace, harmony, and security”—several audience members stood up to applaud. For a moment, anyway, just about everyone seemed to be rooting for Salam Fayyad.
LIKE MOST PALESTINIAN leaders, Fayyad spent much of his adult life outside the West Bank—but the similarities end there. While Mahmoud Abbas—the Palestinian Authority’s (P.A.) current president and Fayyad’s boss—followed Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Jordan to Lebanon to Tunisia during the group’s terrorist days in the 1970s and 1980s, Fayyad was busy earning a series of degrees: getting his B.A. from the American University in Beirut, before moving to Austin, Texas, where he got an MBA from St. Edward’s University and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas. Palestinian politicians, like Israeli ones, tend to be tough guys. Fayyad, by contrast, is bookish and nerdy. He has a habit of nodding—almost bowing—when he shakes hands with people.
By all accounts, Fayyad had no designs on public life. After three years teaching economics at Jordan’s Yarmouk University, he took a job with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in St. Louis and, in 1996, became the body’s manager in the West Bank. When the hopeful atmosphere of the 1990s degenerated into a wave of suicide bombings and Israeli military reprisals in 2001, Fayyad was serving as the Arab Bank’s local director. As pressure intensified on Arafat to appoint a finance minister in the spring of 2002, Fayyad emerged as the logical candidate. “Everybody had a very high regard for him,” Elliott Abrams, who served in various senior posts in the Bush administration, told me. “We were constantly trying to raise money for the Palestinians. And what we heard from a number of Arab donors was, ‘Why should I give them money? He only steals it’—he being Arafat—so the advent of Fayyad was very important for us.”
“Of course, he had a particular appeal to President Bush because of his Texas links,” Abrams added. “People who’d met Arafat were very impressed by dealing with almost anyone else—for example, [Abbas], a guy who wore a suit and a tie, not a fake military uniform, and who was not in favor of violence. Fayyad was another step beyond that—he had a Ph.D. from the United States, he was a genuine economist, worked at the IMF. So he really talked our language.”
The Israelis also took a liking to Fayyad, who—in the rare moments when he spoke publicly about the conflict—unambiguously condemned terrorism against Israelis. Then–Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “viewed him very seriously,” recalls Danny Ayalon, a former Sharon adviser who is now Israel’s deputy foreign minister. “He saw him as a nation-builder, as opposed to the rest of the Palestinian leadership that were nation-destroyers and wanted to destroy the state of Israel.” Fayyad even became friends with some high-ranking Israeli officials, including Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass. At the wedding of Weisglass’s daughter, Fayyad sat next to Sharon during the ceremony and struck up a long conversation.
It wasn’t just the Israelis and Americans who trusted Fayyad. In the West Bank and Gaza, he began earning a reputation as the “Mr. Clean” of Palestinian politics. He put the P.A.’s budget online and arranged for Palestinian security forces to be paid via direct deposit, in order to minimize the opportunities for corruption. After Arafat’s death in late 2004 and Abbas’s subsequent victory, some officials in Fatah— the secular-nationalist movement that had dominated Palestinian politics for decades—hoped that Fayyad would join their party. But instead, in the 2006 parliamentary elections, Fayyad teamed up with longtime Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi on a slate of secular liberals. Their Third Way Party won two seats in the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council and quickly disbanded. “We did well given that we campaigned for one month only,” Ashrawi told me recently at her office in Ramallah, a day before I interviewed Fayyad. “The reason that not just the Third Way, but many of the left-wing parties, the smaller factions, didn’t do well was because of the extreme, extreme polarization. … I’m sure if the situation was more relaxed and calmer, and if we didn’t face all these tremendous challenges, then people would sit back and say, ‘OK, now we need the reformers, the institution-builders, the democrats to take over.’ But, when they saw this polarization, it became either-or. It’s not, ‘Let’s look for the third option.’ It became, ‘If Hamas takes over, then the Islamic political parties have taken over and we don’t want that,’ or, ‘If Fatah takes over, then we will have more of the corruption.’”
In June 2007, the struggle between the two factions—then serving in a tenuous unity government—exploded into all-out civil war when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. In response, Abbas dismissed the Hamas prime minister and picked Fayyad to lead an emergency technocratic government. Abbas “thought that to maintain national unity and to maintain hope of reconciliation, that the prime minister should not be Fatah,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator and a close Abbas confidant, told me. Fayyad was a logical choice in another respect: He was uniquely qualified to restore the international aid and Israeli security cooperation that had been suspended following Hamas’s election victory.
When Fayyad first came into office, Palestinians were still reeling from the second intifada. As bloody as that period was for Israelis—some 1,000 died in suicide bombings and military campaigns from 2000 to 2005—it was even more so for Palestinians: More than 5,000 died; the P.A.’s economy, not to mention its infrastructure, was devastated; and lawlessness reigned in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Now Gaza was lost to Hamas, but the West Bank, at least, was under Fayyad’s control. And, in his first couple of years in office, he set about stabilizing the territory. His government banned the public display of weapons. It also oversaw the creation of a new, streamlined security force that trained in Jordan under three-star American General Keith Dayton. “Dayton told us that the person who really was making it possible to train the security and police forces and then keep them honest, keep them dedicated to their task, was Fayyad,” Abrams told me. “It was Fayyad who was keeping them from being a Fatah hit squad. It was Fayyad whom they could turn to if somebody gave what looked to be an illegal order. It was Fayyad who actually went to the graduation ceremonies and gave them a kind of pep talk about their job being not to fight Israel, but to help build a Palestinian state from the ground up.”…
A specter is haunting the academy—the specter of “new communism.” A worldview recently the source of immense suffering and misery, and responsible for more deaths than fascism and Nazism, is mounting a comeback; a new form of left-wing totalitarianism that enjoys intellectual celebrity but aspires to political power.
The Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek and the French philosopher and ex-Maoist Alain Badiou have become the leading proponents of this new school. Others associated with the project are the authors of the influential trilogy Empire, Multitude, Commonwealth, the American Michael Hardt of Duke University and the Italian Marxist Toni Negri; the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo (who recently declared that he has positively “reevaluated” The Protocols of the Elders of Zion); Bologna University professor and ex-Maoist Alessandro Russo; and the professor of poetry at the European Graduate School (and another ex-Maoist) Judith Balso. Other leading voices include Alberto Toscano, translator of Alain Badiou, a sociology lecturer at Goldsmiths in London, and a member of the editorial board of Historical Materialism; the literary critic and essayist Terry Eagleton; and Bruno Bosteels from Cornell University. Most spoke at “The Idea of Communism,” a three-day conference held in London in 2009 that, to the astonishment of the organizers, attracted nearly a thousand people willing to pay more than one hundred pounds each. After that event, a companion publishing industry, powered by Verso Books, has grown up to accompany the movement, making it respectable on campuses. Among new communism’s most important English-language texts, all published in the last few years, are The Idea of Communism, edited by Costas Douzinas and Zizek, Badiou’s The Communist Hypothesis, and Bosteels’s The Actuality of Communism.
Badiou’s recent volume in particular, which Verso has designed as a little red book complete with a golden communist star on its cover, gives a flavor of the movement’s thinking and aims. Co-founder of the militant French group Organisation Politique and now in his mid-seventies, Badiou reads the presence of communism in human history as the ongoing struggle for human emancipation rather than the series of disastrous detours it mostly was. From the French Republic of 1792 to the massacre of the Paris communards in 1871 and from 1917 to the collapse of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1976—these are but two “sequences” of the communist “idea” in modern history, the first a time for the “setting in place of the communist hypothesis,” the second an era of “preliminary attempts” at its “realization.” The gaps between these “sequences” (including the last three and a half decades) Badiou classifies as time when the communist hypothesis is “declared to be untenable” and capital all-powerful. The “thrilling task” to which Badiou calls his readers, and to which a layer of intellectuals have rallied, is to “usher in the third era” of the communist idea.
So, why this new interest in communism, of all things? After all, the leading new communists have refused to plumb the gist of the historic failures of the past and freely admit that they have almost no idea how to proceed in the future. And in the present they are politically irrelevant. The appeal rests on one fact above all: only the new communists argue that the crises of contemporary liberal capitalist societies—ecological degradation, financial turmoil, the loss of trust in the political class, exploding inequality—are systemic; interlinked, not amenable to legislative reform, and requiring “revolutionary” solutions.
Why does this idea appeal today? What can it actually mean, both theoretically and as a new form of radical politics in the twenty-first century? Do its evasions (of the communist record) and its repetitions (of the anti-democratic, authoritarian, and elitist assumptions of the old communism) define the new communism as yet another form of leftist totalitarianism?
he rehabilitation of communism has been “overdetermined,” as the late French Marxist Louis Althusser would have put it. In other words, there has been a convergence of a series of apparently disparate but, in the eyes of the new communists, systemically related factors that has created a social emergency and the need for a kind of intellectual crisis management. First, and most obviously, the international financial crisis, the failure of the capitalist utopia after 1989, and the triumph of what Badiou calls an “utterly cynical capitalism.” Second, the “return of history” after 2001 in the form of the failure of the so-called new world order and the emergence of seemingly viable authoritarian and collectivist alternatives to liberal democratic capitalism. Third, the post-1980s growth, especially in the US and UK, of what Robert Reich calls supercapitalism (intense competition, deregulation, globalization, financialization, the disappearance of job security, decline of labor unions, the erosion of the welfare state, and the attendant growth of extreme social inequalities, or what Zizek calls “new forms of apartheid, new walls, and slums”). Fourth, a growing external crisis in the form of ecological emergency. Fifth, a growing internal crisis in the form of “new enclosures”—i.e., the privatization and marketization of personal existence through the growth of biogenetics and new intellectual property norms. Sixth, a “hollowing out,” as Badiou puts it, of representative democracy until all notions of government “for the people” let alone “by the people” become a poor joke.
Badiou establishes a systemic critique in The Communist Hypothesis, arguing that “political power, as the current economic crisis with its one single slogan of ‘rescue the banks’ clearly proves, is merely an agent of capitalism.” Similarly, for Slavoj Zizek, “the link between democracy and capitalism has been broken” and this rupture is the expression of “an inner necessity . . . in the very logic of today’s capitalism.”
If the financial crisis has cast doubt on an entire economic system, it is the crisis of the left that has created a political space for the new communism. Social democratic reformism is exhausted; across Europe and the Anglosphere, national versions of “Blairism” have everywhere turned the old people’s parties into ideological rationalizers of a system that now mostly works only as a wrecking ball. These parties no longer take care of their own, argue the new communists. The only other form of leftism that has flourished after 1989 has also been revealed to be politically ineffectual: postmodern, theoreticist, and obsessed with oppression in culture, language, identity, and representation; uninterested in exploitation and political economy, in thrall to Foucauldian (often tenured) forms of “resistance,” this literary and cultural “speculative leftism,” it turns out, is no threat to capitalism. Indeed, much of the attraction to new communism comes from a yearning for a politics that is genuinely oppositional, positioned wholly outside the capitalist market and liberal democracy. Zizek sums up the pitch: “Do not be afraid, join us, come back! You’ve had your anti-communist fun, and you are pardoned for it—time to get serious once again.”
But this is no mere exercise in nostalgia. The new communists dream of working out a new mode of existence of the communist “hypothesis” in the twenty-first century. They hope a new communist movement can grow out of the system’s antagonisms. Zizek identifies four: “the looming threat of ecological catastrophe, the inappropriateness of the notion of private property for so-called ‘intellectual property,’ the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics), and, last but not least, new forms of apartheid, new Walls [sic] and slums.” The new communism is distinguished by refusing to treat these antagonisms in isolation, as technical problems amenable to parliamentary reform. For example, it rejects the idea that the ecological emergency is solvable by sustainable (capitalist) development, or that the hollowing out of representative democracy can be fixed by campaign finance reform. According to Zizek, it is because these antagonisms are expressions of the very structure of contemporary capitalism that they lend to the communist idea “a practical urgency.”
Zizek argues that while the first three antagonisms are a “triple threat to our entire being,” it is the fourth, the antagonism between the “excluded” and the “included,” that is (quoting Marx) “the real movement that abolishes the present state of things.” As the commons—of culture, of external nature, of internal nature—are privatized and enclosed, a process of near-limitless proletarianization sets in: the vast majority of people become “excluded from their own substance.” Zizek thinks the new revolutionary agent will be grounded in the “revolutionary antagonism of the commons.” The new communists did not coin the slogan “we are the ninety-nine percent,” but when the Occupy activists are ready to listen, they’ll find a theory that can generalize their practice…
The spy who came in from the code: How a filmmaker accidentally gave up his sources to Syrian spooks
May 8, 2012
Last fall, “Kardokh,” a 25-year-old dissident and computer expert in the Syrian capital of Damascus, met with British journalist and filmmaker Sean McAllister. (Kardokh is his online pseudonym, used at his request.) McAllister, who’s made award-winning films in conflict zones like Yemen and Iraq, explained that he was shooting a documentary for Britain’s Channel 4 about underground activists in Syria, and asked if Kardokh would help him.
At the time, the situation in Syria was deteriorating rapidly, as protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime turned violent following a vicious crackdown by security forces. The Syrian government had drastically curtailed visits by foreign journalists, but McAllister had managed to get in undercover. Kardokh was grateful for a chance to tell his story. “Any journalist who was making the effort to show the world what was happening, that was a very important thing for us,” he told me in February.
At the time, Kardokh was providing computer expertise and secure communications to the resistance. He agreed to be interviewed about his work on camera by McAllister, who filmed his face, telling Kardokh that he would blur it out before publishing the footage. McAllister also asked Kardokh to put him in touch with other activists.
But some of McAllister’s practices made him uneasy, Kardokh said. He worried that the filmmaker didn’t realize how aggressive and pervasive the regime’s surveillance was. Kardokh and his fellow activists took elaborate measures with their digital security, encrypting their communications and using special software to hide their identities online. “I started to feel that Sean was careless,” Kardokh told me. He said he had urged McAllister to take more precautions in his communications and to encrypt his footage. “He was using his mobile and SMS, without any protections.”
Then, in October, McAllister was arrested by Syrian security agents. He wasn’t harmed, but was held for five days and said that he could hear the cries of prisoners being tortured in nearby rooms. Eventually, he was released and returned to the UK. “I didn’t realize exactly what they were risking until I went into that experience,” McAllister said in an interview on Channel 4 after his release.
The Syrians had interrogated McAllister about his activities, and seized his laptop, mobile phone, camera, and footage. All of McAllister’s research was now at the disposal of Syrian intelligence. When Kardokh heard that McAllister had been arrested, he didn’t hesitate—he turned off his mobile phone, packed his bag, and fled Damascus, staying with relatives in a nearby town before escaping to Lebanon. He said that other activists who had been in touch with McAllister fled the country as well, and several of those who didn’t were arrested. “I was happy that I hadn’t put him in contact with more people,” Kardokh said.
Rami Jarah, a Syrian activist based in Cairo, said that he tried to help another activist, known as Omar al-Baroudi, get out of the country after McAllister’s arrest. “He was terrified,” Jarrah said. “His face was in those videos. He said that his number was on Sean’s phone.” The next day, Baroudi disappeared, and Jarah said that he has not been heard from since.
Officials at Channel 4 say they took action to help McAllister’s sources after his arrest. “We have been in contact with everyone who felt at risk because they spoke to Sean,” said Amy Lawson, the channel’s head of communications. “He is an experienced filmmaker and took steps to protect his material. Syria is an extremely difficult environment to work in, so we continue to look for ways to minimize that risk whilst ensuring we tell this important story.”
It’s easy to argue that McAllister should have taken stronger precautions, but what, exactly? How many reporters are familiar enough with the technical aspects of digital security that they could protect their computers and phones from the Syrian intelligence service? The fact that McAllister, an experienced and committed journalist, jeopardized his sources with inadequate digital precautions is indicative of a broader problem in journalism today: We haven’t kept pace with technological advancements that have revolutionized both information-gathering and surveillance.
After researching the subject of digital security, I realized that there have been occasions in my own work as a freelancer covering the conflicts in Libya and Afghanistan when I’ve exposed myself and my sources by carrying unencrypted data or e-mailing sensitive information over insecure channels. It’s unclear what, if anything, major news organizations are doing about it. When CJR’s Alysia Santo recently tried asking outlets like The New York Times, she got a firm “no comment.” Curious, I e-mailed an informal survey to journalist friends and colleagues, and several who’ve worked as senior correspondents in Afghanistan for major US news outlets said they’d had little-to-no formal training or assistance from their organizations in digital security.
“I think that the journalism community in the US, and to some degree elsewhere, is just beginning to grasp the fact that they need to protect their information and, by extension, their sources,” said Frank Smyth, who is the senior adviser for journalist security at the Committee to Protect Journalists and also runs a private company, Global Journalist Security. “It’s just too easy to get in and lift their information or monitor their communications without them ever knowing they were compromised.”
For correspondents who report from conflict zones or on underground activism in repressive regimes, the risks are extremely high. Recently, two excellent investigative series—by The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News—and the release of a large trove of surveillance industry documents by Wikileaks dubbed “The Spy files,” provided a glimpse of just how sophisticated off-the-shelf monitoring technologies have become. Western companies have sold mass Web and e-mail surveillance technology to Libya and Syria, for instance, and in Egypt, activists found specialized software that allowed the government to listen in to Skype conversations. In Bahrain, meanwhile, technology sold by Nokia Siemens allowed the government to monitor cell-phone conversations and text messages…