A Review of Take Back The Land, by Max Rameau

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Not going to lie, when I received Take Back the Land: Land, Gentrification & the Umoja Village Shantytown, I was in no hurry to read it. Several prejudices of mine factor into that: the fact the author is advertised as a “Pan-African theorist and campaign strategist” has a lot to do with it. Despite having very little familiarity with Pan-Africanism, I associated it more with National Liberation movements and the unlikely support for Gaddafi which emerged at the time of the NATO invasion than with anything to do with emancipation. And as for the specialization of people in roles such as “campaign strategist”, I am extremely skeptical about what that implies in terms of formal or informal hierarchies: not that people do not have singular experience and skills to contribute, but everyone should be the strategist of their campaign.

Then, there is also the fact that it relates the rise of (and fall of, sadly enough, but also lessons to be taken from) a movement about land property and that I have not long ago given up reading Hannah Dobbz’s Nine-Tenths Of The Law, not that it is a bad book in any way, and the chapters I read made me learn about some land struggles I had never read about before, but because of its focus as a guide for American squatters (and its rather exotic view of squatting in Europe), I felt it was not of as much value to me as other books. Now, I think I maybe should give it another go, but when I got Max Rameau’s book, I was afraid it would be the same.

Last but not least, the few things I had read about gentrification (texts on the internet, mainly on American anarchist websites) led me to believe it was mainly dumbed-down economics. That is not true of Rameau’s theory at all. Actually, his chapter about “Systemic Issues” is so good that when I started wanted to underlign something to quote it in this review, I just kept on going, and going, as he whole chapter is made of awesome. Sadly, the book does not come with a bibliography, but I will look into this.

Anyway, I gave it a go in the end, mainly for the simple, silly reason that I have been reading disproportionately way too many white authors lately, and I realised my prejudices almost made me miss this highly-intelligent analysis. This book is full of well-observed remarks all of us will share from our own experience:

  • about coalitions:

“Clearly understanding each other’s positions and views is critical to building any coalition. Glossing over differences might be harmless when the campaign around which the coalition is built consists of one simple step. In virtually any other scenario, however, glossing over differences in order to build “unity” in the short term will result in chaos in the long term.

The primary benefit to the exhaustive, and oft-times frustrating, process of achieving mutual clarity is not agreement, it is understanding precisely where each party stands on the relevant points and issues. Only this understanding determines whether the coalition is a viable one.”

  • about the limits of mainstream media (after the publishing of the first big news story on the housing crisis people were facing):

“One of my high school literature teachers spent far too much energy, or so it seemed at the time, ensuring that his students understood the difference betwee, the ‘setting’ and ‘theme’ of a story. […]

Were he to have read them all himself, my guess is that Mr. Dent would have argued that the setting for the “House of Lies” and related stories was the housing crisis, but the theme of the story was not housing, it was public corruption.

[They] expressed neither principled nor strategic concern for the public policy of housing, regardless of how bad, so long as no money was stolen during the implementation of those bad policies. The clear priority of the story was to stop public corruption, not necessarily to end the housing crisis.

Conversely, the major issue and theme for the political movement was gentrification and the housing crisis, and its impact on the human beings in our community.

It was entirely possible, then, that the media would support throwing individual crooks in jail, without pursuing the more fundamental demands of building more housing for poor people. In this scenario, the rich will no longer have their money stolen, but poor people would still have no housing. The rich get a much better deal from this solution than the poor, which is understandable, given that the proposal emanates from huge corporate entities still trying to convince us about the benefits of the real estate “boom”.

From a public policy perspective, even if all of the stolen and misspentmoney was returned and then used for the purposes intended by the electorate, there would still be a severe housing shortage in South Florida because the officials voted to create a severe housing crisis in South Florida.

In a real way, the media switched the subject on us all. The big problem is the housing crisis, but the media shifted focus away from how many housing units are built and destroyed […] and towards public corruption. This is not to imply that public corruption is not a problem and that should be covered, but housing is a problem and that should be covered as well. AS such, one of the tasks of the movement would be to shift attention back to the question of housing.”

  • about the need for honesty:

“It’s important to be perfectly honest with the people at all times, making clear the risks, and trusting them to make informed decisions about their level of participation. The easy route would be to minimize the risks or pep-talk her into something she was not ready to do, a tempting option given the fact that the issue at hand was much bigger than her and her family. Furthermore, the idea of the county, on the heels of a massive scandal, coming in on television to evict a cancer survivor and her children—who occupy number 31,000 on the wait list—from perfectly good housing that had remained vacant for two years, was almost irresistible.

Almost.”

That last quote hints at one of the question this book raises in my mind: what is the precise nature of this relationship between the “organizer” and “the people”. As an anarchist, it is hard not to be suspicious of any kind of relationship or decision-making process as potentially problematic, and a lot of this book has sentences in the elusive style of “the decision was taken” which make alarm-bell rings. By whom? After what debate? Etc. One of the limit of this book is that it is the story of this movement told from the unique perspective of Rameau. This is good for a number of reasons: high coherence of ideas, the gripping impression of living the story through his eyes, more emotional connection. However I was left a bit wishing for his lucid and fascinating testimony to be completed by other perspectives, no doubt mainly reinforcing, but perhaps sometimes hopefully complementing and adding some subtlety to this account. By “other” I mainly mean the thoughts and impressions of the Village residents, who sometimes seem to come as more of an afterthought (quite literally: quote 1) than the centre of the struggle.

But reading this book, I now understand why AK Press decided to publish it, and even if Max Rameau is not an anarchist, his work definitely deserves the attention of anarchists for reasons which I hope I’ve shown here, and many more. Go buy it if you can.

Also, as a sidenote, it reminded me a lot about the CREA (collective for requesition, mutual aid and self-management), a group in Toulouse, France which has been opening squats for homeless families for a while now and is in many obvious ways politically related to the Umoja Village. Here is a good introduction video they made (in French) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaW6aXANGcY

Their website is creatoulouse.squat.net

And a video of them in the news during one of the trials to close down a squat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kd97p2uB1TI

Notes on identity: Is shifting the focus from the structures of oppression to invidual responsibility always bad?

In the best case scenario, it leads to a situation where everyone has the right to eat at McDonalds and to vote in elections, if not to have the right to be tortured by a police officer whose skin is the same colour, who is the same gender, and speaks the same language as their victim. One cannot escape from the structural constraints of the system by democratising access to its functions.

 Crédit à Mort, Anselm Jappe

Those are quite random thoughts about an online discussion I started by reacting to a statement about the IDF’s latest display of an army’s lack of humanity. A friend’s comment was “Jews were forced to hide in sewers during the holocaust. They, of all people, should know better.” It is a type of argument we often see, not only about Jewish people but any oppressed group (“how can a Black/gay person vote Tory?“). When it comes from a member of said group, of course we cannot, and should not, police how people identify themselves and how they feel about it. When they are not, the issue is a lot clearer.

In either case, it made me think of many cases in which the fact that an individual belongs to an oppressed group is deemed to give special moral qualities to said individual: “feminist” essentialism, for example, or the belief that women in positions of authority would be somehow fairer simply on account of being women. Which is really no different in nature than the orthodox Marxist belief that working-class people, when elevated to a position of power, will somehow behave better than bourgeois leaders (which come in Stalinist and Trotskyist versions). And of course, the use of the phrase ‘betray’ in sentences such as “Political parties/unions/ union leaders have betrayed the movement“, which many anarchists use without thinking about it, partakes in this worldview. How are they betraying anything when they are precisely filling their function? Unions and the police are not so dissimilar, and this type of discourse is no better than blaming the violence of police repression on individual police officers’ practices.

A lot of contemporary nationalist discourse (and almost all nationalist discourse on the Left) takes this form: In Britain, it is shameful that we let people die of exposure in the street. As French people, we should somehow have a special duty to observe the principles of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

Sometimes, it gives the oppressed more moral license, on the contrary, instead of more of a moral duty, like in the Orientalist belief of a whole fringe of Marxist-Leninist groups that the Palestinian or other national liberation movements cannot be held to the same standard of morality we expect from everyone else, and that if they ‘choose’ Islamism as a mode of resistance, we should support it.

As far as I can tell, this kind of thinking only leads to unjustified feelings of guilt or to a suspension of moral judgment which spur little positive action. But are there any cases in which shifting the focus from the structures of oppression to invidual responsibility is useful or necessary?

Films about Africa

This blog started by listing films that depicted women in more than minor roles, and the question arose: what about other people? Well, the women-friendly film list was devised not to forget lesbians, trans women and women of colour, but women are definitely not the only category with the representation of which cinema has issues. I started to consider the representation of Africa in movies. Here is my provisional film-list, including European and American films made about/set in Africa, African films and everything in between… Please comment with further suggestions.

Casablanca (1942) by Michael Curtiz

Notes Towards an African Orestes (1970) by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Xala (1975) by Ousmane Sembene

Black and White in Color (1976) by Jean-Jacques Annaud

Ceddo (1977) by Ousmane Sembene

Une Femme en Afrique (1985) by Raymond Depardon

Camp of Thiaroye (1988) by Ousmane Sembene

La Captive du désert (1990) by Raymond Depardon

Naked Lunch (1991) by David Cronenberg

Afriques: Comment ça va avec la douleur? (1996) by Raymond Depardon

Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998) by Michel Ocelot

Lumumba (2000) by Raoul Peck

Ali (2001)

Waiting for happiness (2002) by Abderrahmane Sissako

Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony (2002) by Lee Hirsch

Abouna (Our Father) (2002) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Moolade (2004) by Ousmane Sembene

Hotel Rwanda (2004) by Terry George

Darwin’s Nightmare (2004)

The Constant Gardener (2005) by Fernando Meirelles

Desert Rebels – Ishumars, The Forgotten Rockers of the Desert (2006) by François Bergeron

Last King of Scotland (2006) by Kevin MacDonald

Goodbye Bafana (2007) by Bille August

District 9 (2009) by Neill Blomkamp