Notes on Imperialism and Painting, in condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine

George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin, 2013, oil on board, 20×18

Barricade stands in solidarity with the people of Russia and Ukraine who have become unwitting victims of a totally indefensible war initiated by Russian president Vladimir Putin and his oligarchic administration, a crisis that has, in a matter of weeks, led to the displacement of millions of ordinary citizens, driven Europe to the brink of another major refugee crisis, and resulted in thousands of military and civilian casualties. Putin’s attack—alongside his refusal to acknowledge Ukraine as a legitimate state with a democratically elected government—is not just territorial but ethnic and is fueled by a misplaced nostalgia about a purportedly glorious Soviet past. We at Barricade condemn this invasion of a sovereign state by a foreign dictator that has resulted in the destruction of thousands of human lives and livelihoods.

But even as we denounce Putin’s war on Ukraine and his escalating rhetoric around nuclear weapons, we also want to call out the double standards of the United States and mainstream Western media for their convenient elision of the West’s own complicity in the crisis, especially its involvement in NATO’s capital-driven expansionist policies. We express our solidarity for the working people of both countries and mark our protest not only against the war initiated by Putin but also the global neoliberal network founded on an economy of extraction and the maximization of profits. We believe that a war is inseparable from the way we tell the story of the war, and that the US’ (justified) denunciation of Putin also serves to conceal the equally egregious sovereign-territorial invasions the US has made this century, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan in the guise of a “war on terror,” but in erstwhile Yugoslavia as well in 1999 in total disregard of the UN Charter. The current crisis should, therefore, not make us forget the fact that the US and its allies have on several occasions used force to invade and interfere in the internal affairs of other nations, undermined their territorial independence, and brought about regime changes to suit its own geopolitical needs—and that the effects of these actions reverberate and are amplified in hardly unforeseeable dimensions, causing more death, impoverishment, despair, and further conflict, long after such “operations” are “accomplished.”  

Excursus on the artist and his art
To illustrate the risk of the ease with which US imperial war crimes can be and have been elided or painted over by emerging geopolitical crises—not to mention by our national desire to obfuscate and forget—former president George W. Bush has gifted us a remarkable example. Since retiring from political life, Bush has—like another wartime leader before him, Winston Churchill—taken up painting. Unlike Churchill, who waxed romantic in a famous essay on the pleasures of plein air painting, Bush’s paintings are primarily portraits. Yet not unlike Churchill, whose essay explicitly analogizes the (ostensibly) purposeless activity of art-making with the (overtly) purposive activity of war-making, Bush’s paintings serve an implicit political function. Adam Taylor of the Washington Post wrote in 2014 of Bush’s portrait of Putin: “it is a really good painting aesthetically.” While it’s tempting to sneer at a foreign policy reporter’s aesthetic judgments—and tempting, but less so, to recall that “Hitler was actually a kinda good artist”—what’s more telling is that this comment is smuggled in between parentheses. For this is how revision and rehabilitation of the narrative begins. Matt Saunders, writing also in 2014, but for Artforum—a venue in which one might reasonably expect to encounter credible aesthetic judgments—describes a certain “haplessness” in the painter’s hand: “he moves the paint with carefree gumption.” And yet, Saunders foregoes the opportunity to analogize Bush’s hapless way of moving paint with his hapless art of war or with his carefree gumption in Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan, prompting instead: “The ex-president defines himself as a painter, but do we define him as an artist?” We at Barricade would like to suggest that the portrait is very often just as much of the artist as it is of the sitter.

Call for Submissions Issue #5 — EXTENDED! To April 15th!

Illustration by Iggdeh

In 1910, women’s rights and labor activist Helen Todd declared that bread—“which is home, shelter, and security”—is just as necessary to life as roses—“music, education, nature and books.” The slogan “Bread and Roses” immediately became a rallying cry for a successful textile workers’ strike in Massachusetts in 1912, before going on to have a career in song and strike actions far beyond this moment.

The table and the imagination: the one of inconceivable value without the other.

Barricade wants to publish your translations of this and like-minded demands, from all places and times where the forces of capital and reaction have sought to separate them.

See our Submissions page for details on how to submit your translation manuscript. Deadline for the present call: April 15, 2022.

Solidarity with Palestine

Pro-Palestinian demonstration in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Saturday May 15, 2021. Photo by Elizabeth Benninger.

May 15, Nakba Day, marked the anniversary of the dispossession and forced displacement of the Palestinian people. Dhikra al-nakba, literally “memory of the catastrophe,” commemorates not only the destruction of a society and loss of home, but also the continuous struggle that Palestinians have since waged for the recognition of their rights.

The current bombardment of Gaza by the Israeli military, which has targeted residential buildings and left scores of Palestinians dead and many more without homes, and the thinly veiled project of ethnic cleansing and land grabbing in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, are not exceptional but rather exemplary of the Israeli settler colonialist state and its apartheid policies. This intensification of the ongoing violence in occupied Palestine underscores the need for vocal and visible international solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Many protests and other acts of solidarity are being planned worldwide in the coming days; you can find partial lists here and here; checking social media of local Palestinian advocacy organizations should provide the most up-to-date information. Tuesday, May 18 has been named a day of action in solidarity with the Palestinian uprising and general strike.

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Solidarity with GSOC Strike

Barricade stands in solidarity with GSOC members and their families who are currently on strike to fight for equitability and standards of care in their working conditions.

After ten months of bad-faith negotiations and stonewalling by the NYU administration, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC-UAW 2110), NYU’s Graduate Worker Union, has been left no alternative but to strike. NYU has refused to adequately respond to the most pressing matters to rank and file GSOC members, including: a living wage, robust healthcare, childcare subsidies and parental leave, financial and legal support for international students, and stronger workplace health and safety regulations — crucially, protections against power-based harassment and the removal of NYPD from campus. 

For a cogent statement of the stakes and of cross-faculty support from the NYU chapter of American Association of University Professors, see here.
The NYU chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America also stands in solidarity with GSOC members and affiliates. 

For information about the demands of GSOC related to healthcare, living wage, and workplace safety, see here. If you are interested in supporting GSOC, please learn about potential actions here or sign a letter of support here. Click here to read GSOC’s response to President Hamilton and Provost Fleming’s offensively misleading email to the entire NYU community, mischaracterizing GSOC’s position. Join the virtual picket line here.

Patrick Sylvain : Dream Sequence 5–8

Bilingual poet and scholar Patrick Sylvain’s book-length collection of English/Haitian Creole poems — Unfinished Dreams / Rèv San Bout — from which the following sequence is drawn “investigates the unrealized personal and sociopolitical aspirations of Haitians, both at home and in the diaspora,” writes Sylvain. The motivating figure that limns and permeates these poetic reflections is the “unfinished.” Through it, Sylvain elaborates a range of historical, political, social, ecological, and formal poetic claims and wagers. The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) — an impertinent attack on global capital for which, Sylvain explains, the Haitian people continue to be punished — haunts this work, as a paradigmatic forbearer of all that remains to be done. Utilizing a wide array of formal constraints and poetic conceits gleaned from a variety of literary and cultural traditions, Sylvain is writing against enforced and encrusted ideas of prestige and class that obstinately attach to Haitian Creole as a language of aesthetic and intellectual production.  

The following poems are interspersed with excerpts from Sylvain’s essay “Bilingual Existence and the Portals of Translation.” Listen to Sylvain reading his poems in both languages on the barricade/ramparts SoundCloud.

More selected poems from Unfinished Dreams / Rèv San Bout will appear in Barricade’s forthcoming Summer 2021 issue, where Sylvain will discuss his poetic engagement with historical and contemporary Haitian life.

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election : afterword : gerrymandering in croatia. how a single party manages to stay in power despite everything.

Image by Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835), originally published in the Boston Centinel, 1812.

by Mirta Jurilj

Following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the main part of which proceeded in several stages from 1980 to 1992,[1] the newly minted independent countries were granted the opportunity to try their hands at democracy.

The year 1992 saw the first parliamentary elections in Croatia, which were held in the approximate form as they still are today—i.e., citizens voted to fill the seats of around 150 representatives or deputies to serve in a unicameral parliament, the so-called Sabor. These seats would be re-filled every four years by direct popular vote. The aforementioned number of representatives is the first burning issue regarding the Croatian political system; specifically, for a country that is roughly the size of New York State and whose total population is estimated at just over 4 million, the figure is a tad too high,[2] leaving plenty of room for (or perhaps occasioning) manipulation and corruption.

Continue reading “election : afterword : gerrymandering in croatia. how a single party manages to stay in power despite everything.”

election : tentative conclusions

illustration by iggdeh

by Lauren K. Wolfe & Zach Rivers

January 20, 2021, a new president—an old politician—is peaceably inaugurated in Washington, D.C., against a backdrop of proliferating fears, lurid fantasies, familiar rhetorical flourishes, fatiguing analyses, blurry concepts, and weird events. Partisans and observers leverage the language of exceptionalism (‘this is unprecedented’) and inevitability (‘this is a logical culmination of…’)   in an attempt to get a grip on what is, what has been going on. What to call the actions of a collection of citizens who broke and entered upon what is ostensibly their own property, with the aim of interrupting the affirmation of what is also ostensibly their own will? ‘This is unprecedented’—but then again, no: these griefs, this disunity is nothing new. These are the energies summoned and solicited by the democratic organization of a polity, a polity that has never been united, and they are not unusual. The ordinariness of sometimes, often, incandescent divisions is one thing that we had hoped to elaborate in the context of this election : series. To move beyond the defensive posture of jaded wonder coupled with a smug ‘I told you so’ at the state of things.  That, and to gather together as broad a picture as we could of the overdetermined fulcra that democratic elections are: the fierce, anguished, conflictual, historically determined energies that are brought to bear on a week, a day, a decision, a draft legal document, a legislative body, and that are meant to result in a series of actions and policies that answer, mollify, or reward these energies.

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election : belarus at the moment

illustration by iggdeh

by Siarhei Biareishyk

A society of solidarity and care emerging in response to state incompetence and repression enters the stage of military dictatorship at the outset of 2021. After five months of sustained peaceful protests, the number of people taking part in weekly marches is now waning as a result of poor weather, exhaustion, emigration, and pandemic spread; increasing are the networks of horizontal organization and solidarity initiatives from below. From August 2020 to January 2021, the Belarusian state and society have undergone several rapid metamorphoses: on the level of the state, a shift from state-capitalism with soft-authoritarian constitutional rule to a military dictatorship; on the level of civil society, a mass transformation of individuals into citizens and political subjects, active in a horizontal self-governance without leaders; on the level of gender relations, a crack in the hegemony of patriarchy; on the level of the protest movement, a morphing of an uprising into a revolution. If the August election presented an occasion for this process, prepared by the global context (such as the COVID pandemic and economic crisis) and local forces (such as the erosion of the welfare state and generational change), it was an event following that election that spurned this sustained protest movement. The riot police and other forces of the repressive state apparatus unleashed a wave of terror unprecedented in post-Soviet Belarus. What followed was a sustained act of defiance and resistance. A protest against fraudulent elections turned into a revolutionary resistance because in the terror actions that followed, the state authorities became identical with its repressive apparatus. It became clear that the police forces, riot police in particular, have been trained, sustained, privileged, and subsidized in the society with the sole purpose of doing exactly what they did—exercise brutality on the citizens—while fully believing themselves justified to do so, seeing themselves as the true citizens and rulers of the country. As it turned out in retrospect, protesters’ demand for the end of police violence and to hold those responsible for the crimes accountable amounted to a demand to overturn the entire system, because the system based on police violence was built in the course of the past 26 years since the democratic election of Aleksandr Lukashenko in 1994, who has retained the office of presidency since then. In other words, the Belarusian protest expressed a refusal to live in a country in which such terror is a possibility at all, which was tantamount to a revolutionary demand to remake a society as a whole.

At the time of this writing, over thirty thousand people have been detained (most on charges of violating the law on mass gatherings stipulated in Article 23.34), countless people have either left or were forced to leave the country, over 150 people are considered political prisoners, and several are dead since election day on August 9, 2020. The demands of the protesters have not changed: end police repression; release all political prisoners; hold new, fair elections. In the past five months, the protest movement has adopted neither a cohesive political program nor a geopolitical orientation. The world, and the post-Soviet sphere in particular, is following with a keen eye and a series of questions suspended in the air: Is governance without legitimacy, based solely on a repressive apparatus, possible? If so, how? Is peaceful protest insufficient for revolutionary transformation? When the times comes, will the forms of protest, characterized by solidarity, horizontality, and leaderlessness, subordinate or be subordinated by the content of oppositional politicians with the hegemonic neoliberal agenda waiting at bay? The Belarusian revolution has provided an alternative to the color revolutions in the region in the mode of its protest; will it provide an alternative in the mode of its politics? In what follows, I provide a timeline of the events, not so much from the point of view of heroes, a series of heroic actions, or sacrifices by the Belarusian civil society—of which there are many—but from the point of view of the dynamism of the protest with respect to the repression of the authorities that both suppresses and stimulates it. The meaning of these events, no doubt, is determined retroactively from the standpoint of January 2021—i.e., the events that appeared decisive from the standpoint of September have changed their meaning by January—and the current standpoint is characterized by the stalemate between the oppressive apparatus and peaceful protest. While the record of these events also serves an archival purpose, the standpoint of dynamism of the mass movement from which this story is told also serves as a reminder that any stalemate or disappearance of resistance is only apparent, so long as the causes of the resistance persist.

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election : germany 1998

illustration by iggdeh

by Sultan Doughan

In 1998, the Green Party in Germany ran an election campaign with the slogan “New majorities only with us.” But what kind of majorities can elections create? I might be asking the obvious, given that elections are decided by majority votes channeled through an elaborate system of representatives. The elections in Germany in 1998 provide a case to complicate this notion of political and consequently national majority, because the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) campaigned by centering social justice and by addressing the politically marginalized and ethnic minority segments of the populace, specifically German-Turks. A new political majority was constituted in 1998, and old convictions of an ethnically homogeneous nation were challenged through several statements, policies, and ultimately legal reforms. The figure of the foreigner (Ausländer) was deployed productively by all parties and ultimately facilitated the shift into a new national self-conception within a neoliberal Europe. In fact, I think, more than “new majorities,” a new minority emerged in the years after the 1998 elections—a Muslim minority. And for this minority to emerge and remain productive for political purposes, a longer history of migration built on the logic of return had to be undone.

How so? Let me explain through a personal-political account of ever-shifting Turkish life in Germany.

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election : burkina faso 2014

Illustration of ballot box in pink and white. Box says "election"
illustration by iggdeh

by Yarri Kamara

(adapted from Kamara’s article “Burkina Faso: Nothing will be as it was before,” published in Africa is a Country, October 2019)

A few years after the Jasmine Revolutions had shaken up North African countries, events came to a boil south of the Sahara in Burkina Faso. On October 31, 2014, massive street protests toppled President Blaise Compaoré who was in power for 27 years. Revolutions, uprisings or insurrections, whatever label you give them, tend to be presented as clear-cut turning points in history books, but the truth is that the first few years after such upheavals are often confused, complex, and sometimes downright demoralizing. It is still not clear how the outcome of the 2014 Burkina Faso insurrection will go down in history books—indeed, there is not yet even consensus on how the events should be referred to, though with time, the term “insurrection” has come to displace the term “revolution.” Awaiting the clarity of hindsight, here is a look back through the eyes of an ordinary bystander to the extraordinary events that occurred at the end of October five years ago.

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