Event Poster for evening with Matt Sedillo (Jan 15, 2015)

Matt Sedillo on Automation, the Trump Presidency, and the Role of the Artist in An Age of Uncertainty

History in the Making #5

April 11, 2018

In January 2015, RESRG hosted LA-based poet and Marxist intellectual Matt Sedillo for three days of lectures, radio interviews, poetry workshops, and spoken word performances in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Matt spoke to a wide range of students, faculty, and community members about topics ranging from the social and political implications of automation, to police brutality and the rise of the radical right in the United States.[i] As an activist poet, Matt also spoke on the role of the artist in a world that is rapidly changing, and on the importance of making one’s voice heard.

As the United States enters its second year of the Trump presidency, and as automation has become even more of a transformative force than it was only three years ago, we thought it would be a good time to reconnect with Matt, and revisit some of the key themes he explored when he was last here. RESRG member Steven Jobbitt recently reached out to Matt by email, and this is what he had to say.

RESRG: When you visited us in Thunder Bay in January 2015, you gave a lecture on automation and the revolutionary conditions that this is creating, not just in the United States, but globally. The rapid development of things like driverless cars and trucks over the last few years, as well as the introduction of fully-automated grocery stores, and more recently burger-flipping robots,[ii] has forced even the mainstream media to start paying attention to this emergent reality, and to speculate on the future that is rapidly approaching, and in many ways is already here. I am wondering if you could walk us through this historical relationship between technological innovation and revolutionary change, and reflect in particular on the social and political changes that you think are necessary and/or inevitable as we move headlong into an age of full automation.

Matt: Well, society is built around tools. Whether they be physical tools or some shared conceptual ones like language or mathematics. Often we discuss mathematics as somehow objective in ways that language is not, but this is absurd. Numerical systems are no less invented than alphabetical ones. Consider the existence of various numerical systems the world over and throughout history. Egyptian numerals, Mayan numerals, Chinese numerals, Roman numerals, Hindu-Arabic numerals that have become the world standard, all different, all functional, all capable of producing marvels of human ingenuity. Language is similar. We are forever grappling to better describe the world in front of us. We are forever struggling to understand, to categorize the world around us. These tools, these intellectual tools, are the basis for interaction. Physical tools are different. They augment our existence. Whether it be a spoon, a button, a cell phone, or a rocket ship, they change what we are even capable of.

How these grand wonders are produced are determined by the technical demands of production. How many workers are needed to produce this widget given the use of these tools of production are technical questions that are determined by the material world, by the material processes of production. How things are being produced define what demands will be placed on the individuals engaged in the production of those tools.

Who has access to things, how things will be distributed once produced, is determined by our social relationships to one another. There is nothing inherent in the shape of objects that determine what relationships people will have to given objects. That is all socially determined. That all exists in the space between us and the ability to enforce these rules and regulations, a.k.a. the law and the state apparatus.

What makes a physically produced object the property of one party or another? It is based on our relationships to each other and the ability to uphold those relationships. What makes a cup a commodity first and a cup secondarily is the cruel practice of capitalism.

Under capitalism objects are not produced for their material benefit but for their profit. Labor is the basis of value and surplus labor is the basis of profit. Profit is what capitalists convert from the surplus labor of the worker. It is what they do not pay their workers. Under capitalism what the workers produce are made first as commodities and secondly as objects of use. Succinctly put, capitalism is the commodification of surplus value and the exploitation of surplus labor.

Historically the technological base of capitalism has been based on the factory system. The factory system arose on the back of slavery, genocide, and colonialism, on murder and mayhem, on horrific exploitation and the literal owning of people in order to provide the raw materials to go into factory production. Speculation on stolen land and stolen people also bolstered the market.

It is really impossible, however, to imagine the modern capitalist world as it exists without the forging of the United States. The United States is physically impossible without genocide and its forging was economically impossible without slavery. Slavery was the point of the United States. The United States required genocide to even exist. These crimes are not simply features, they are the foundations of the United States which fed the industrial revolution before the United States even became a nation. Cotton from the colonies fed the factories in England. This is what happened. Later England expanded its empire and absorbed resources from around the world, breaking age-old economies and turning them into feeders for British industry. Other Western European nations followed suit. Capitalism cannot be separated from its origins. Ongoing capitalism cannot be separated from imperialism. History is shaped this way and the world is shaped this way and cannot be discussed in broad abstractions. Nor should it be discussed outside the fact that Spanish conquest provided the initial fusion of capital required to launch the Anglo conquest of much of the world.

The relationship between industry and extraction still very much defines where entire populations fit into the capitalist world order. However, though the factory line assembly worker may be in a better position than the workers in the extractive portion of the productive process, the terms and conditions of exploitation of the individual do not negate the fact of exploitation. The level and quality of the air conditioning in the life of the laborer does not determine whether they are being exploited. If they are selling labor power and a profit is being made from that labor they are putting down then they are being exploited. The terms and conditions, the comfort level of their exploitation, does not determine whether or not they are being exploited. It does, however, usually determine whether or not someone will do anything to confront the slings and arrows of outrageous class warfare levelled against them

What is happening today, however, is qualitatively different than varying uneven levels of exploitation. Today we are seeing the realities of expulsion from the productive process. Increasingly fewer and fewer people are required for productive processes. Today the leading job in most states is not a computer coder or some job of the future; it is a truck driver.

Truck driving does not represent the brave new world. It represents the old industrial order. It represents a job that could not have been offshored or automated. Until now. The future is forming around us. The future does not show up all at once. I was born in the future that no one bothered to tell me about. Instead I was told to prepare for the service economy, to build a diverse set of skills for the service economy. People younger than me are saddled with what’s called the gig economy. There is a straight line downward. Whatever replaces the gig economy will be even more precarious, perhaps the scrounge economy.

This process of automation on the basis of advanced robotics as labor-destroying technology really began in earnest in the 1970s and piece by piece it has disintegrated the vestiges of industrial society wherever and whenever applied. This process will continue to its conclusion. There is no overlord or Pope of capitalism to slow down this process.

The good news is that though times are changing as they always do upon a technological basis, old-school solutions will work. We must seize the means of production. We need to become the collective owners of the means of production. Questions of property and questions of production, though obviously simultaneously experienced by the individual and whole classes of individuals, are actually independent questions. One is technological based on physics. The other is social based on human relationships. Though we may be pushed from the productive process, our positions as proletariat with only our labor power to sell and only our chains to lose does not change. It’s just that no one is buying that labor power. Under such conditions seizing the means of production becomes a survival cry.

The stakes are higher than ever before. Throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, as peoples formed into modern nation states throughout the world and took on the industrial revolution, the question that stood before them in terms of social struggle was whether socialism or capitalism would be the basis of an industrial means of production. People fought and died on the resolution of that question. Today the choice is between paradise on the basis of robotic production, or global starvation on the basis of robotic production. The variable is private property. We must abolish it.

Robotic production + private property = mass proletarian death. Robotic production + the collective ownership of the means of production = freedom from the stultifying division of labor and time to write poems, stare at the stars, contemplate how to extend human life, and stretch our arms further into the cosmos free of Elon Musk.

RESRG: Many people in the US, and no doubt around the world, were surprised when Trump secured the Republican nomination, and then were shocked when he was elected. Since his election victory, pundits from both parties have scrambled to explain his appeal to millions of Americans. Were you surprised when Trump was elected? And why do you think he appeals to so many people? Do you have any confidence that the democratic structures of the American system will act as a check against his right-wing populist agenda? Can the US weather this storm?

Matt: First we must say that neither party does anything for anyone who isn’t rich. One party is in word and deed in some key ways harsher than the other, but for the most part these are largely psychological exercises.

There are two major parties in this country. The Democrats look at the pain and suffering this system creates, that they willfully reproduce, and then tell their base, “we are working on it.” The Republicans in turn point at the base of the Democratic party and say those people are the problem. This is essentially the difference in how these parties present themselves to the general public. US elections are public referendums for how the world is to be explained as millions of people are caged, as wars rage, and as poverty in the world’s richest nation explodes. During US elections, disparities along many lines are discussed and reasons are offered for their existence. Both parties victim blame.

Many observers on the left outside the country generously make the distinction between the US government and the US public. This generosity of spirit is misguided. While there are millions of Americans opposed to what this brutal war machine police state does at home and abroad, millions more in this country are actually just as deplorable as the government that represents them. Donald Trump represents the end of plausible deniability on this question. Given the Trump option, millions of Americans demanded it. The reality is that millions of Americans are equally if not more bloodthirsty than those who represent them.

To watch the Republican National Convention of 2016 was to watch a Klan rally. To watch the Democratic National Convention of 2016 was to watch a rainbow coalition of death. America is a show of horrors.

Trump is an expression of this political process turned up to an unmanageable volume. Trump represents the end of plausible deniability. This country is a horror show and so are millions of people who live in it.

Still others try to understand how Trump came to be. Americans struggle with this because the default setting for the United States of America is denial.

I for one was not surprised that he won the primaries. Once they really began in earnest Trump’s eventual victory seemed fairly inevitable to me.

Trump is often discussed as retrograde or a throwback to earlier and frankly uglier times, and in many ways this is true. The battle cry of “Make America Great Again” serves multiple purposes to his audiences. It is a call to put people back in the kitchen, the closet, the orchards, the fields, and wherever his base feels most at ease having them. It is a band of bigots collected from a mostly but not entirely White bastion of absolute reaction. It is a call for the restoration of The Alamo, Jim Crow, Father Knows Best, and The Crusades. It is scary all around. Every horrific impulse imaginable that exists in the general public is embodied and expressed by Trump.

Trumpism also serves up every false victim narrative imaginable. It is that White people are the real victims here, men are the real victims here, Christians are the real victims here, Americans are the real victims here and, at its very apex, that Donald Trump is the ultimate victim and the wronged party beset by a bastion of baseless ill-wishers, detractors, and haters. It would be funny if not for how dangerous this all is.

When watching this all unfold remember that Trump uses racist outbursts to rally his base. These are not gaffes; rather, they are rallying cries. They are displays of force. So, for instance, when the book Fire and Fury embarrassed him with his details of crumbs on the mattress, he called Africa, Haiti, and El Salvador shitholes. This wasn’t one gaffe after the other. It was Twitler refocusing attention away from pathetic images back to his own strongman imagination of himself as the Grand Wizard of the American Empire. This continues to happen. And because everyone in America lies so much, everyone acts puzzled as to why his numbers seem to spike upward with racist outbursts. No one likes a loser. Not even Trump’s army of Custers. When Trump looks like a loser his numbers go down. When he acts like a Klansman his numbers go up. Now, if you are operating in denial about large sections of the US population, this will seem confusing. If you accept the truth, then it is clear. These questions can then be explored, researched, and placed in proper context.

That’s where we are at.

When talking about how we got here, that is to say how Trump won the primaries and later was installed by the electoral college, it is important we be specific. There is no such thing as general racism or general bigotry. The communities that can be targeted by racist attack arise out of history, they arise out of the history of conquest, the history of plunder, and the culture that arose out of its justification. Donald Trump initially cleared the Republican field primarily on the Mexican question, on hatred of Mexicans, on the promise that Mexico and Mexicans would pay for their sins. He announced from the very beginning that Mexicans were drug dealers and rapists. He asked that a Mexican American judge recuse himself from a court case on the basis of Mexicanidad. He claimed Mexico was lying to the Pope about him. He questioned whether a plane flying above his head during a speech were Mexican bombers.  Ann Coulter and Joe Arpaio were key figures in his campaign.  One of his surrogates warned of taco trucks on every corner. One of his surrogates complained about Spanish spoken at the Democratic National Convention claiming she would have to “brush up on my Dora the Explorer.” The name of the Cambridge Analytica Trump portfolio was Project Alamo. Once he was selected by the Electoral College, Kris Kobach, the mind behind SB1070,[iii] led the transition team.  Trump said many things and offered many offenses but there have been points of emphasis. And in the primaries he did all he could to solidify in a field of racists that he was the most anti-Mexican. He owned that. This wasn’t from a moral crisis or lack of trying from his opponents. Chris Christie wanted to implant undocumented workers with microchips and “track them like UPS trucks.” Trump did what he is good at, he captured the imagination of a base of monsters with simple language and baseless promises. Trump, a master brander, sold them a racist dream with two key phrases, which were “Build the wall” and “Mexico will pay.” That will show them. Those lazy job stealers, always complaining, we are the real victims here. Amiright? Amiright?

That that happened is easy to prove if you are open to the idea that it happened. If you live in some kind of denial, as do most people in this country, you will have some difficulty trying to balance concrete analysis with fanciful flights from reality about the disillusionment of the “White Working Class” about trade, or war, or something that can account for this motion.

A knowledge base of specific histories is crucial to understand why specific attacks are made. When Mexicans are attacked in this country, the resulting conversation often revolves around the history of US xenophobia which inevitably leads the conversation towards the 1800s and the East Coast, the Eastern Seaboard, and the Midwest. Trying to understand anti-Mexican sentiment without a historic base in the history of the American Southwest is the height of East Coast chauvinism but it is the dominant practice here in the United States. That is why legions of experts who sound so intelligent on a great many topics sound so ignorant and confused on this topic. The Rio Grande is not Ellis Island. Point, blank, period. You cannot talk about the politics of Joe Arpaio by talking about the politics of “Irish need not apply.” The oppression of Mexicans in the US, aside from the Irish who came in waves, predates and outlasts the period of oppression for the so called “White ethnic” populations who were recruited en masse after the civil war as an industrial proletariat to take many jobs in developing urban centers that Mexicans would be informally barred from in a myriad of ways. These pundits and historians view their section of the country as the country and cannot allow in their minds for the politics of the Southwest to even for a moment dominate the country as a whole. Such an understanding would call into question what America is and call into question their expertise of the nation as a whole. For them American history moves East to West and never the reverse. This is why they sound so confused and ignorant when talking about the rise of Trump. The Republican primaries were won by Trump on Southwestern reactionary politics.

Through this lens we can in retrospect ask ourselves why. With a clear view of what happened, why it happened can be examined. What is this shift due to? Does this have to do with the changing demographics? White anxiety over the Browning of America? I would argue that’s why it exploded as it did, but that Trump was likely acting on a narrower premise.

Unlike, say, Steve King, Joe Arpaio, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, Kris Kobach, Pat Buchanan or many other professional racists in and out of government, Trump does not have a strong background in anti-Mexican hatred before running for president. Trump had never previously stated anything particularly pro-Mexican; however, Trump’s racism in the past was for the most part focused on Black America. There was of course his reference to a Venezuelan beauty contestant as “Miss Housekeeping” and his infamous testimony before Congress wherein he delivered the immortal lines “they don’t look like Indians to me.” Trump also under a thinly veiled guise of economic nationalism has expressed hatred of the Chinese over the years. He has also weighed in in profoundly racist ways concerning wars waged against the Muslim world. He has had anti-Semitic outbursts, most famously against Jon Stewart. But, again, if we are talking about frequency and consistency, throughout the years Trump hammered over and over again an anti-blackness in word and deed. Trump came to the American landscape on violating the fair housing act by refusing to rent to Black people. In the 1980s he used his own money to run an ad to get four young black men falsely accused of rape and convicted of a crime they did not commit to be executed by the state. Before his most recent run, Donald Trump positioned himself as one of the central figures of the so-called birther movement claiming Barack Obama was not an American citizen. Trump, like Obama, is the son of an immigrant. No one claims he was born in Scotland. Funny how that works.

Trump is a racist on many fronts, to be sure, but his emphasis for most of his career as a professional racist had been on Black America. So why the shift? Why, in his biggest political moment, shift up? Why 2015? Why reinvent himself as Davy Crockett? I would argue it is a rather simple answer. The first person he had to beat was Jeb Bush, and Jeb Bush, while extremely anti-Black, was vulnerable on the Mexican question. Trump above all things is an opportunist. He simply does not care what he says so long as it pleases him to do so.

Jeb Bush understood the impact of demographic shift and the necessity of the Republican party to split the “Latino vote” to remain a viable party in both short- and long-term elections. 63% of US Latinidad is of Mexican descent; the second largest group is Puetro Ricans at 9%. Conventional Republican wisdom was that Mitt Romney had lost the gains made in securing a competitive percentage of the “Latino Vote” and in so doing he had lost the election.

Mitt Romney received 59% of the “White vote” but only 27% of the “Latino vote.” He lost the general election by nearly 5 million votes. This was significant. Romney was perceived to have lost the gains of the Bush years with all kinds of cavalier talk, most notably his proposed plan of “self-deportation” and quotable gems like, “I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino.”

In 2004 George W. Bush received an unprecedented 44% of the “Latino Vote,” the highest on record in no small part due to the Bush brand which is based primarily on Jeb Bush and the political use of his immediate nuclear family. Or as daddy Bush said back in 1988, “Jebby’s kids from Florida, the little brown ones.”

The Bush brand is one of the most explicitly anti-Black brands in American politics.  From the Willie Horton ad of Bush Sr., to George W’s abandonment of New Orleans, to Jeb’s own support for Stand Your Ground laws in Florida, a very clear and very overtly anti-Black image emerges. Along the campaign trail, and in an act of racist desperation, Jeb Bush tried to revitalize his campaign with his anti-black outburst, saying that his message to black voters was not “get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff.” On the other hand, the Bush brand is perceived as “Pro-Latino” and explicitly “pro-Mexican,” which is an anomaly in Republican national politics in general. Even in the American Southwest this political position is a minority within Republican politics. However, the anti-Black, pro-Hispanic, White evangelical is a viable political type with Republican politics of the region. And while no Republican ever really wins this vote, breaking off a significant section of it is the political strategy of this brand of politics. No Republican on the national stage embodied this political trend better than Jeb Bush. No political figure served better than to win 40% or more of the “Latino vote” than Jeb Bush.

To this end Jeb Bush ran as Jeb Bush. Several years before the 2016 election the specter of a Bush-Clinton race dominated the beltway. As the primaries neared, Jeb Bush’s strategy was to run a bilingual pre-campaign, delivering speeches across the country wherein he switched from English to Spanish for points of emphasis. This was something that, to my knowledge, was unprecedented for a Republican Presidential candidate. He cut full language Spanish ads, even one celebrating Cinco De Mayo as an American as well as a Mexican holiday. The early effect of this was profound. The gamble of it was recognized early. In September of 2015 it was written that this strategy for the general election might backfire in the primary. At the time Jeb Bush was polling at 44% likeability among “Hispanics” but only 39% among Whites. Trump at the time polled at 82% unlikeability with Hispanics and 48% positive with Whites.

Trump’s path was clear. Use Bush’s family against him. Paint him as a Mexican lover. Trump had good reason to think this would work. A backlash against the Bush brand specifically on the Mexican question had been brewing for more than a decade within the Tea Party. The title RINO, Republican in Name Only, had been applied by the Tea Party to politicians that were seen as hostile to Republican values. This essentially could be applied to anyone who did not think an overtly White man’s party was a viable political platform. Both the Bush brothers were seen in this light by sections of the Tea Party, so much so that the horrific guest worker program of George W. Bush, which essentially reinstated indentured servitude, was seen in the convoluted minds of the Far White of the Republican party as kowtowing to the special interests of Mexicans and big business. Trump understood this.

Trump was merciless in his attacks calling into question Bush’s marriage, cutting an ad entitled “An Act of Love” that was almost a scene for scene recreation of the Willie Horton ad. He also chastised Jeb for speaking Spanish in public, stating in a debate: “this is a country where we speak English not Spanish.” Within months Jeb Bush, who had been the assumed next candidate of the Republican party since at the very least 2013, was destroyed and Donald Trump—a reality TV star, a real estate mogul, a professional racist carnival barker—was leading polls by double digits

Even if the electoral college had not later handed Trump the presidency, Trump’s defeat of Jeb Bush would have been of deep historic significance.  In many ways it was the first Republican primary of 2040, with the question of shifting demographics placed at the center of the table. They were running a primary that pivoted on how the Republican party would handle the Browning of America. For now we have our answer.

In other primary news Kasich and Rubio marketed themselves like Jeb Bush before them as men of decency and poise, who would stand as lines drawn in the sand against Trump. Like Bush they never had a chance.

The only time Trump ever slipped in the polls was to Ben Carson, and the only primary he lost was to Ted Cruz. The reason Cruz and Carson ever had any leg up on Trump was that they had articulated a stronger hate platform against Muslims. Which is universally shared by the mainstream political spectrum of the United States of America as the United States of America is a war machine and is currently bombing seven Muslim majority countries. Vicious anti-Muslim rhetoric is shared by both parties and there is very little difference in tone and voracity.

During the primaries Ben Carson made use of every chance he got to warn his audiences of encroaching Sharia law. Cruz spoke of making the “desert glow.” It was not until Trump came up with a succinct and catchy way to convey his hatred of Muslims that he overcame his only two potential obstacles to victory. He came up with the ban. Again, Trump is a master brander.

So there it is. He knocked of Bush with a wall and knocked off Cruz and Carson with a ban. Trump understands how to keep a thing simple and how to sell it, especially if that thing is hate. Most politicians play a game of charades called the Grand Republic. Trump gets that politics, particularly Republican politics, are reality TV.

I am not surprised the hate vote won. And between Trump, Carson, and Cruz I am not surprised the non-Hispanic White guy won. And to be honest Trump is just a catchier sloganeer as I have twice now said, a master brander. I am not surprised he won the primaries.

As to the general election, Trump didn’t win. He lost. By three million votes. The electoral college won the day. Truth is Clinton banked on demographic shift to ensure her victory. And if votes counted she would have been right. But they don’t. In many ways the electoral college robbed California of its voice in this election. California is ground zero for this demographic shift and it is no surprise that it is constantly at odds with the administration. And not just high-ranking Democrats but in the streets as well. The protests against Trump during his initial campaigns were epic and the wide majority of the really major ones have been in the state of California for obvious historically developed reasons. Also consider that Trump lost the general election by 3 million votes. However, he lost California by 4 million. California alone accounts for more than the loss in the general. The electoral college as it stands today is a form of affirmative reaction. It exists as a means to empower generally more reactionary states. Demographic shift will mean nothing if it remains in place. The electoral college erased the Californian vote. A voter in Wyoming had a vote that accounted for 3.5 Californian votes. This is nonsense. The electoral college is a holdover from slavery. To repeat what I just wrote above, it is a form of affirmative reaction.

Again, why California would be at odds with Trump is not often discussed in terms of the direction of the nation, but rather in terms of the direction of California, America’s most populated state. This is because of denial and, to be frank, a sort of New England/Eastern Seaboard/Midwest chauvinism/narcissism that is never done speaking of itself. The default lens of the US is that of East Coast centrism that argues its political formations and history are the general and primary history of the United States of America and everywhere else has a regional history with regional characteristics and formations to be accounted for but still ultimately understood within the general lens of American history, meaning that dominant lens.

All this despite the fact that people are leaving those areas, primarily populating the Southwest. Seven out of the ten most populated cities in the United States of America are located in the Southwest. Yet nothing in our political discourse, cultural production, or general understanding of the country as a whole conveys that. For instance, Houston is the fourth biggest city in America. Why is there nothing about the political discourse or cultural production of this country that would convey that?

We see this play out in many ways. In the aftermath of the election, article after article spilled out of publications about the “white working class” and the rust belt and their pain, their hurt, their betrayal, and asking how could they vote for Trump. All kinds of wild, silly contextualizing for supposed non-racist reasons to vote for Trump. People just made bizarre claims saying that the Trump vote was a peace vote. It was anything but what the man had clearly campaigned on, which in the primaries and later the general election was a whole host of horrible and profound bigotries and chauvinisms with the wall and the ban being central.

Misreadings aside, the US intelligentsia could not stop talking about the Midwest in particular. Why they voted, why they didn’t vote, etc., etc. Meanwhile, the fact that California rejected Trump by over 4 million votes, 1 million more than the nation as a whole, was not seen as a fact fit for the national discourse.

Both right and left there are people who refuse to deal with the impact and significance of changing demographics and the regions central to that shift as defining the future of the country, and that’s why they sound bizarre and downright confused when speaking about Trump.

I had a discussion with a noted historian from Michigan and he completely scoffed at the idea that demographic shift accounts for California’s shift into a blue state. This despite the fact that when California had a white majority it swung for Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush and when the white majority was broken the vote shifted with it. He couldn’t imagine that to be true. This kind of willful ignorance is why people cannot understand the significance of a candidate relying so heavily and specifically on anti-Mexican rhetoric as a national platform.

The attempt to historicize Trump’s Southwestern politics as a chapter of American xenophobia does not simply obscure the topic, it literally changes the subject. Once again the conversation becomes about the US and Ellis Island. I will repeat, Ellis Island is not the Rio Grande and Southwestern politics cannot be understood in this manner.

Trump is the son of an immigrant. His wife is an immigrant. Most of his children are the children of immigrants. Hell, Joe Arpaio is the son of immigrants. Michael Savage is the child of immigrants. Michael Savage defines his politics as a defense of “borders, language, culture.”

There is no immigration debate in the US. There is a “keep the US white” debate in the US. By talking about xenophobia, the conversation again shifts to the Northeast and a time that no longer exists and for a targeted population to whom that history does not apply.

A debate about general US xenophobia when discussing Trump’s specific targeting of Mexican and Central American populations is a swift change of subjects. It does not historicize the conversation, it prevents the historicization of the conversation.

Similarly, it should be said that the Trump-Sessions attacks on the Central American, primarily Salvadoran, community that have become a dominant feature of the Trump presidency, must also be understood on their own terms. They cannot simply be collapsed into the attacks on Mexico or seen as simply an extension thereof, which is often how these attacks are discussed. The Trump-Sessions attacks are often simultaneous, but “why Mexico?” and “why El Salvador?” are distinct questions and do not simply exist in proximity to one another. The shift of focus to Central America in general and El Salvador in particular is rooted in the US and Mexican joint oppression of migrants from these countries. Once seizing power Trump had to deal with the realities of power, and dealing with Mexico as a trading partner became very difficult given his rhetoric. The United States’ relationship with the Central American republics is a horrific one of assassinations, coups, and again more scapegoating for domestic political purposes.

In the global sense, the United States’ relationship with Mexico and its relationships with the various republics of Central America has its facets, its features, its unique histories and conflicts. But at its base the historic processes and phenomena that have been set in motion here are not dissimilar to what is happening today in Europe and the fascist politics and rhetoric targeting populations of North Africa and West Asia around similar demographic questions. Of course, these places all have their histories as well and must be understood on their own terms. But the same patterns emerge, today and not in the 1800s, under very different conditions. To understand Trump you must look at what he is saying and learn the history behind why he is saying what he is saying. Same is true of Le Pen. Same is true of Erdoğan for that matter, or Modi or Duterte. Fascism is taking hold the world over and takes the shape of the history it stands on. We must fight the whole globe over. In order to fight we must first know what the hell we are talking about.

RESRG: I am guessing that, as a Marxist activist and intellectual, you feel a sense of urgency today that is as great as—if not greater than—it was three years ago. How does this sense of urgency, and more importantly your critique of the system we currently find ourselves in, shape your work as a spoken word artist? What role can—or should—art and artists play in a moment like this?

Matt: We should all do what we can from where we can. We should demystify these professions. A profession is a lot of things but what makes one capable of doing any said profession is just a skill set. What should I do with this skill set? I should write the best anti-Trump poems I possibly can. A professor should deliver the best lecture they can and write a poem. A poet should deliver a lecture and plumbers should write plays if so inclined. We really need to demystify titles and capacities. Hair stylists should write speeches. Accountants should deliver them. Baristas can make the signs and vice versa. We don’t have time for gate keeping in the midst of a crisis. We should all be firing on all cylinders and ringing the alarm to the best of our ability in multiple ways with whatever talent and skill we have in us.

These are extremely dangerous times. The whole of the world is teetering on becoming something new. There is so much potential and possibility but the instinct of billionaires is of course to hoard and unleash murder and mayhem to protect their wealth from the huddling masses. Unfortunately, the instinct of the majority of those masses is to kick downward in whatever historical role that is available to them at any given moment. That is why working people with so much to gain would often rather protect a spot in the pecking order by abusing people rather than fighting the common exploiter. I can’t account for this sadism. Luckily the majority is never required to reshape the world.

It will take an organized mass of people fighting for something better for us all, dragging so many people kicking and screaming into a better world. But in order to achieve that critical mass, people need to know they can reshape the world by organizing and collectivizing their efforts. This is why alternatives and platforms need to be organized and the profile of those organizations raised high and raised proud. Great people will join the fight for a better tomorrow given the opportunity. We can win. We must win. We will win. It’s only a matter of time. If not us, then a future generation. Or the species dies, and along with it most of the species that live now on earth, at least most of the animal kingdom. I don’t know enough to comment on how insects and plant life will fare.

We must abolish capitalism and pursue technology that does not destroy our ability to live on the planet. I think we win. Despite everything I am an optimist. It beats the alternative.

[i] Check out Matt’s Thunder Bay performances of his poems “Gangsters” and “Los Angeles” at http://www.resrg.ca/?page_id=219 (see also https://vimeo.com/117800904 and https://vimeo.com/117800903).  Follow this link to hear his interview on CBC radio (http://www.cbc.ca/superiormorning/episodes/2015/01/15/champion-slam-poet-matt-sedillo/). Check out his website at www.mattsedillo.com. Contact Matt at mattsedillo1981@gmail.com.

[ii] http://www.bbc.com/news/av/technology-43292047/burger-flipping-robot-begins-first-shift

[iii] Editor’s Note: SB1070 refers to Arizona Senate Bill 1070, the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighbourhoods Act, passed in 2010. It was championed by its supporters as a measure that would lead to a crackdown on “illegal” immigration. Critics of SB1070 condemned the bill, arguing that it sanctioned racial profiling, and that it amounted to a cash grab by Arizona’s prison-industrial complex.

Click here for the pdf version of this interview.

Border Fence between Hungary and Serbia (2015)

The Defense of Fortress Europe: Resurgent Nationalism and the Irony of Exclusion

History in the Making #4

by Steven Jobbitt

August 17, 2016

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Just over a quarter of a century ago, walls were coming down in Europe, and borders were opening up. Inspired by principles of unity and cooperation, a brave new world was being forged by optimistic European Union visionaries, while advocates of free market globalization peddled hopes for a better future, promising as they did so to bridge cultural, political, and economic divides as part of their now largely failed attempt to create a diverse but unified global village.

The political scientist Francis Fukuyama even tried to convince us that we had reached “the end of history.” With the conclusion of the Cold War, he argued, the ideological struggles that had defined the twentieth century and that had produced untold misery and suffering for millions of people had come to an end.

Freedom and democracy had won. Liberalism and capitalism would now work hand in hand to create a better, more prosperous, and equitable world.

Or so we were told.

It is hard to imagine that anyone could seriously believe this today. Since the economic collapse of 2008-2009, people in “the West” have come to realize what people in “the rest” of the world already knew from experience: history—at least as Fukuyama would have us think of it—never went away. If anything, it had returned with a vengeance.

Europe is an important and unmistakable case in point. With capitalism in crisis and political extremism on the rise, the Europe of today looks ominously like the Europe of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Like the Europe of a century ago, the gap between the rich and poor is growing (both domestically and internationally), leaving an ever-growing number of marginalized and angry citizens to seek radical political solutions to their increasingly hopeless situations.

And like the Europe of a century ago, populist leaders on the right have been very successful at manipulating people’s fears and frustrations, and steering them into right-wing radicalism and exclusionary forms of nationalism.

Though the roots of this right-wing nationalist resurgence run deep, the shift has taken many observers by surprise. Until very recently, the rigid frontiers of the nation-state appeared to be fading (at least within Europe itself), while many middle class Europeans could comfort themselves with the idea (or more accurately the illusion) that societal divisions were waning. Today, however, the walls are going back up, and societies are once again becoming re-segregated and divided along familiar lines of race, gender, class, and increasingly also age.

A siege mentality not unlike that which has propelled Donald Trump to the Republican Party nomination in the United States is currently gripping the people of Europe. Crippled by an economy that serves the interests of the few over the needs of the many, and struggling to come to terms with a rapidly mutating capitalist system defined both by austere neoliberalist policies and the revolutionary consequences of full automation, many Europeans are opting to circle their wagons, and to retreat into imagined national and “civilizational” spaces where they feel safe and protected from the upheaval and insecurity that defines their lives.

Hopes of creating a global village have been replaced by efforts to build a fortress. But even this project is on the verge of fragmenting. Given the recent outcome of the Brexit vote in the UK and a groundswell of support for Eurosceptic parties and anti-immigrant movements elsewhere, it seems that even Fortress Europe might shatter into so many tiny castles built upon rather exclusive notions of sovereignty, and propped up by a dangerously narrow and short-sighted obsession with national survival.

In the current climate, immigration has again become a hot button issue for many Europeans, with the on-going refugee crisis only pouring gasoline onto an already incendiary political and economic situation. Heightening the interconnected fears of terrorism and the non-Western “other” that already existed in Europe, the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa since the spring of 2015 has become a pretext for the exclusionary policies of many states, especially those that are situated on the geographical margins of Fortress Europe.

Of Fences and Militarized Borders

Hungary is a particularly instructive case in point. Faced with an inflow of migrants that many on the right have since likened to an “invasion,” Hungary announced early in 2015 its intentions to build a fence along its border with Serbia, a project which was completed with the help of the army by the middle of September of the same year. A new law was also passed at the same time that targeted undocumented migrants and refugees, and by September 21, 2015, Hungarian parliament had passed further legislation that granted the army and police sweeping new powers to prevent refugees from crossing the border, including giving troops the right to use rubber bullets, tear gas grenades, and crowd-dissolving weapons.

Hungary’s move to seal its borders to migrants and to effectively re-militarize its southern frontier was widely criticized in Europe at the time, but by the end of the year this Central European nation was looking less like a pariah, and more like a trend setter. Throughout the Balkans, increasingly repressive measures had been implemented to stem the flow of refugees that had reached a crescendo over the course of 2015. Only days after Hungary completed its fence along the Serbian frontier, for example, Croatia closed 7 of its 8 border crossings with Serbia and began building a fence of its own. Slovenia in turn blocked off its borders with Croatia and used pepper spray against refugees. Bulgaria began deploying troops on the border with Turkey, and Macedonia also erected a fence, and increased the military presence on its southern borders.

The implementation of these increasingly repressive measures was by no means an isolated Balkan or East Central European phenomenon. Some EU leaders had advocated the use of naval force as a deterrent for migration across the Mediterranean as early as spring 2015 (at about the same time that Hungary announced its intentions to build a fence), while throughout the EU, most member countries had imposed new checks and security measures at their borders by the beginning of 2016.

Austria was one of the leading states on this front. Bolstered by a groundswell of popular support for restrictive measures to stem the migrant tide, the Austrian government adopted a series of hardline measures that effectively criminalized migration into the country. Working in cooperation with Hungary and a handful of other states, Austria played a central role in closing the Balkan route into Central and Western Europe, one which had been the hope of a large number of refugees (primarily from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan) since spring 2015.[1]

The Irony of Exclusion

It is certainly not the intent of this short article to single out Austria and Hungary as Europe’s worst anti-immigrationist or anti-refugee offenders. In my opinion, all of Europe, along with the rest of the so-called developed world, has failed—and continues to fail—the roughly 60 million people who currently find themselves displaced in the world today.[2]

But there is a certain irony in the way that these two countries have dealt with the crisis, an irony that is particularly acute as Hungary prepares to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Revolution and the refugee crisis that the Soviet suppression of this uprising created. Though today both countries scramble to seal their borders to refugees, the memory of Hungarian victims of Soviet oppression fleeing their country is still vivid for many, especially in Hungary and the Hungarian diaspora where the revolution and its aftermath has provided useful political fodder for both the left and the right.

Letters and petitions from Hungarian refugees that I recently came across in the Portuguese archives speak volumes to the irony, and perhaps even hypocrisy, of a nation now anxious to close its borders to people in need. Having fled the tyranny of Hungary’s communist regime and the counter-revolutionary violence of the Soviet crackdown, Hungarian refugees were desperate to find countries willing to host them, countries where they would be able to rebuild their lives. For some, like a doctor who had found temporary refuge in Sweden, this meant finding a place where he could once again practice medicine, and contribute to society. For others, like a former boxing champion, this simply meant finding a new home where he could practice his sport in peace, and pursue a modest life as a manual laborer.[3]

Neither of these men found refuge in Portugal, a state that deemed itself incapable of taking more than a few thousand temporary refugees (mostly orphans), and that feared the ideological and political turmoil that even a handful of refugees might inspire in their citizens.

The irony of Austria’s current response is also illuminating, and highlights just how far we have strayed from the values that inspired post-World War II reconstruction in many nations throughout Europe.

An appeal made by the Austrian prime minister in January 1957 to the United Nations is particularly revealing. Arguing that his country had done more than any other to assist the Hungarians who had been displaced by the conflict in their own country, the Austrian prime minister chastised his contemporaries for not doing more.

Appealing to their sense of moral duty as Europeans, and reiterating Austria’s own plans to “stay the course,” he wrote: “We certainly do not envisage closing the Austro-Hungarian border. By granting the right of asylum, Austria takes into account not only its obligation as a democratic country and the clauses of the Convention on Refugees, but also its humanitarian and moral responsibilities.[…] In addition, Austria, which has a common border with Hungary, has never once said ‘we have reached our quota of refugees.’ A statement of this kind, so contrary to the spirit of freedom and human pity—feelings on which the existence of the free world is based—would completely destroy the ideal to which we are all so deeply attached.”[4]

In these otherwise dark times, we have to remember that there is another way. We have been here before, and we found the political will to do the right thing (or, at least, to say the right thing). Let’s remind ourselves that compassion can indeed be the basis of politics, and that the cultivation of a nation’s moral imagination can and should be guided by universal humanitarian principles rather than the politics of fear, hate, and exclusion. It is a noble goal for our societies to strive for. The stakes, for many, are simply too high not to.

[1] On the rise of rightwing extremism in Austria, see Anna England, “Some Wrongs that Made the Right: Austria’s 2016 Election and the Global Intensification of the Political Right” http://www.resrg.ca/?p=305

 [2] See Rafaela Jobbitt, “Africa and the Migrant Crisis: The Case of Eritrean Refugees” http://www.resrg.ca/?p=288 and Steven Jobbitt, “Broadening the Discussion on the Refugee Crisis in Europe: The Need for Global and Historical Perspective” http://www.resrg.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/HITM-1-refugee-crisis-Europe_global-historical-perspective1.pdf

[3] See my forthcoming article “Hungarian Refugees and the Politics of Martyrdom in Salazar’s Portugal, 1956-1957,” Hungarian Cultural Studies, Vol. 9 (2016) http://ahea.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/ahea

 [4] “Declaration faite par Son Excellence M. Oskar Helmer, Ministre de l’Interieur de la Republique Federale Autrichienne devant le Comité Executif de l’UNREF, le 29 janvier 1957” (quotation translated by author from the French)

Austrian campaign poster for right-wing candidate Norbert Hofer (2016)

Some Wrongs that Made the Right: Austria’s 2016 Election and the Global Intensification of the Political Right

History in the Making #3

by Anna England

July 10, 2016

On May 22, 2016, Alexander Van der Bellen, a pro-EU independent backed by the Greens, narrowly defeated Freedom Party leader Norbert Hofer, an opposition far-right candidate, in Austria’s presidential election. The Austrian interior ministry reported that Van der Bellen won 50.3% of the vote while Hofer managed to capture 49.7%. As a result of this victory, Van der Bellen effectively prevented Austria from electing the European Union’s first far-right head of state.[i]

These election results are not only surprising when one takes into consideration Austria’s national socialist past, but also alarming when cast against the backdrop of the recent upsurge of far-right politics on the international stage.

The son of a local Austrian People’s Party councilor and electric power station director, Hofer was raised in a middle class family in Pinkafeld, Burgenland. He graduated from the Technical College of Aviation Technology in Eisenstadt as a trained aeronautical engineer, and from 1990 until 1991 served as a soldier on the Hungarian border.

A self-proclaimed Margaret Thatcher fan and gun enthusiast, Hofer garnered much of his support primarily among male manual workers. His politics promised to “put Austria first,” and promoted anti-EU sentiment along with a very aggressive fear campaign targeting migrants. Though a progressive candidate was ultimately victorious, Hofer, a man who during his swearing-in ceremony as Freedom Party candidate wore a cornflower (a Nazi symbol from the 1930s) in his lapel, lost the Austrian presidential election by a mere 0.6%.[ii] It is unsettling to think that nearly half of the Austrians who voted in the election have perhaps forgotten what atrocities can occur when a nation is directed down a path of extremist nationalism with very strict regulations regarding the type of individual who is worthy of being a citizen.

As the current Brexit crisis would suggest, the election in Austria is indicative of a broader divide throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world on matters of how to deal with the migrant crisis, the economy, and how to balance wide-ranging national interests. There is an undeniable desire for swift action and strong leadership. People are demanding reforms in all sectors from education, to health care, to the job market. With tensions rising to a boiling point, many are seeking a group to blame for the current state of disarray. Sadly, in attempting to offer a resolution for western capitalism’s current woes, the far-right have chosen to target the same groups of people who so desperately need our aid; asylum seekers, displaced people, and migrants.

While Europe and the rest of the world attempts to cope with the latest humanitarian crises, especially those in the Middle East and Africa, the recurring question of how best to manage the rising numbers of refugees and migrants is a common issue of concern. The increase in migrant populations and the growing cost of resources have tested the domestic and international policies of many core European nations. The resulting responses have many on the left arguing for the provision of aid to all those in need, and many on the right who wish to shut all borders in order to prevent any physical, economic, or political threats from potentially entering into, and devastating, a country they call their own.

In promising to “put Austria first,” Hofer and his Freedom Party echo the right-wing sentiments that have become popular worldwide. The Freedom Party portrays itself as the protector of Austrian identity while simultaneously committing their party to the rebuilding of a social welfare state—something that they argue cannot be achieved if current immigration policies continue unabated. More specifically, Hofer manipulated the facts behind the recent refugee crisis in order to benefit his political ambitions after an estimated 90,000 migrants applied for asylum within Austria’s borders. Hofer emphasized and encouraged waning public empathy and made assertions that Austria did not have enough resources to sustain the needs of both Austrians and newcomers. Arguing that migrants would undermine the vitality of the nation, Hofer endorsed a very fascistic immigration policy, one which focused on “identity,” thus excluding a vast majority of displaced peoples. What is most surprising, however, is that Hofer and the Freedom Party’s lack of compassion towards fleeing refugees is not an unpopular sentiment. Ethnic discrimination is alarmingly commonplace on a global scale and has undoubtedly become a growing factor in the ways in which public policy is formulated.

It is truly unfortunate that many local and national media outlets are often found encouraging the radical right’s message, both in Austria and elsewhere, that all immigrants are a possible danger by flooding broadcasts and webpages with negative images of refugees and the horrifying violence they have experienced. By presenting one-dimensional representations of the chaos refugees have come from, the media only helps to reinforce notions of fear in western audiences by implying that the chaos will simply come with them. In turn, Western media chooses to broadcast news of terrorist violence committed against the West, but blatantly disregards events such as the violent protests for education reform in Oaxaca, Mexico or the humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic (just to mention two examples).

A main fault lays in the fact that the media often refers to refugees in terms of statistics and costs, rather than as people, and rarely discusses the positive impacts that a rise in immigration can lead to. Many migrants, for example, arrive with skills and abilities that only help to enhance the human capital of the host country. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) supported this argument by providing evidence from the United States that suggests that skilled immigrants contribute to boosting research and innovation, as well as technological progress.[iii]

As is apparent to many, Hofer and his principles are not alone. Donald Trump for the American Republican Party, Marine Le Pen of France’s Front National, and the Jobbik leader Gábor Vona of Hungary all subscribe to similar ultra-nationalistic, highly racialized, and discriminatory sexist policies. Recent developments like the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU will potentially lead to an even greater shift to the right and even deeper divides among already divided nations. Although it would be easy equate the radical right to the insane squawking of unsympathetic people who have lost touch with reality, the sheer number of supporters indicates that the issue is not so simple. Those who choose not to associate with right-wing politics find themselves fearing that many have fallen prey to the alluring sounds of the pied piper.

For a pdf version of this article click here.

Further reading:





[i]To access a more detailed review of the events of the Austrian election, see http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/24/world/europe/austria-presidential-election.html

[ii] For further reading on the Austrian election, see http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36362505

[iii] For a comprehensive analysis of the benefits and limitations of mass migration, visit the website of The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) https://www.oecd.org

[Photo credit: http://analyzingeurope.com/norbert-hofer-could-be-austrias-next-president/]

Migrants crossing Mediterranean to Europe (summer 2016)

Africa and the Migrant Crisis: The Case of Eritrean Refugees

History in the Making #2

by Rafaela Jobbitt

June 21, 2016

In the last few months, the dangers that migrants face when trying to reach Europe by boat have once again become front-page news. At the end of May 2016, a succession of vessels carrying migrants capsized off the coast of Italy, claiming the lives of 700 of them. Altogether, since 2014, the Mediterranean crossings have resulted in 8,000 deaths.

The number of asylum-seekers making it to Europe is staggering, at least from a European point of view. So far this year, 203,981 migrants have come to the continent by sea, while a total of 1,015,078 arrived in 2015. They are attempting to reach Europe via two main routes: the “Greek route,” which has seen the largest number of people cross, and the “Italy route,” which has received lower numbers of migrants, but which is considered the more treacherous of the two routes. Although most of the refugees originate in the Middle East, particularly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, many derive from sub-Saharan African countries such as Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria, Gambia, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast, among others.[1]

As might be expected, the migrant crisis has sparked intense debates in Europe and elsewhere about the reasons why people are fleeing the Middle East and Africa. It is true that one finds many compassionate voices and sober assessments about the reasons why the crisis emerged in the first place. However, one also encounters several myths and misconceptions about migrants, and about what is compelling them to risk their lives in order to leave their countries of origin. The crisis has unleashed fear and anxiety in Europe. Some see it as a “migrant invasion” that Europeans, currently in the midst of economic turmoil and austerity, cannot afford to ignore. Others argue that migrants will not assimilate into European society, stressing cultural, religious, and “civilizational” differences between them. Finally, some people like to point out that many asylum-seekers are not “true refugees,” but “economic opportunists” instead.

Clearly, there is a need to gain a better understanding of what is causing such large-scale population displacement, particularly in Africa. I would argue that migrants from Africa elicit less sympathy on the part of the international community than refugees from the Middle East, especially those from Syria (largely due to the war that has been raging in that country for five years). The conflict has been relatively well covered by international media organizations. By contrast—and in keeping with long-standing practices—the same media outlets tend to gloss over the African case, and fail to provide details about the factors that are forcing many Africans to risk their lives to reach Europe.

Running parallel to and thus amplifying the poor media coverage on Africa is the problem of long-standing misperceptions of the continent and its people. Whereas it is perhaps easy to feel pity for Syrians whose country has been embroiled in a disastrous conflict that has destroyed so many people’s lives, Africa is regarded as a perpetual “basket case,” a troubled part of the world that is filled with failed and corrupt states that seem incapable or unwilling to do anything about the problems plaguing their countries. It is therefore common to come across the view that refugees from Africa are not “real refugees,” but that they are in fact economic migrants, people who are desperate to leave the continent to seek a better life in more affluent countries.

What these perceptions and assumptions obscure is the fact that Africans also live in a globalized world, although they happen to live in one of the world’s poorest continents (poor in terms of actually existing economic conditions, but not in terms of resources or human potential). Many have relatives who have emigrated to Europe and other parts of the world, family members who they visit or stay in touch with. African diasporic communities also play a significant role in generating revenues for their countries of origin in the form of remittances that they send back home to support family members. The existence of a relative in Europe, however, does not automatically mean that his or her family member(s) want to leave Africa and emigrate as well. In order to understand the reasons why Africans are joining the ranks of asylum-seekers in Europe, it is important to comprehend the factors that are compelling them to do so at this point in time.

This article is the first in a series that analyze the African dimension of the migrant crisis. The goal is to look at particular African countries that are generating refugees, and to discuss not only the causes for population displacement, but also some of the solutions that are being put in place in order to solve it. In addition, by focusing on what in some cases are deep historical roots for the current refugee crisis involving several African nations, the aim is to counter misconceptions that people have about the continent in general and migrants in particular.

It would perhaps come as a surprise to some to find out that, according to recent statistics on migrants trying to reach Europe, many are from Eritrea.[2] In 2015, Eritreans formed the fourth main group of asylum-seekers in Europe after Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis. According to the UNHCR, since 2014, 37,000 Eritreans have requested asylum in Europe and approximately 4,000 leave Eritrea every month.[3] They figure prominently in groups of migrants arriving in Europe via the “Italy route,” which in itself is rather interesting since Eritrea was once an Italian colony. The route that Eritrean migrants travel first takes them to Khartoum, the capital of the Sudan, where they make arrangements with smugglers who take them to Libya. Once in Libya, the next step is to board a boat to Italy. Even before they reach Libya, these refugees face immense hardships and struggles. Many are physically abused and given little food or water. There are reports of rampant sexual abuse of women en route to North Africa as well. Once they arrive, migrants are locked away and hidden until the smugglers can finally put them on board a boat bound for Italy.[4]

Most Eritrean refugees, at least those requesting asylum in Europe, are young people between the ages of 18 and 24 and some are unaccompanied minors. When interviewed, some of these young people state that they were forced to leave Eritrea out of fear of persecution. The Eritrean regime, led by former rebel leader Isaias Afewerki, has been accused of perpetrating gross human rights violations. According to some reports, he is responsible for creating a surveillance state in Eritrea, and for using the on-going border disputes with Ethiopia, as well as the fear of another war with that country, as a justification for the existence of a harsh system of military conscription. Military service is mandatory for both boys and girls in their final year of high school. In theory, it is supposed to last 18 months but, in reality, Eritrean refugees who fled the country reported that either they or their family members and friends were trapped for years in indefinite and poorly paid military servitude. The Afewerki regime is also sponsoring terrorism in the region. Eritrea, which is currently under sanctions by the United States, has been a supporter of al-Shabaab and its insurgency in Somalia. Other forms of human rights abuses against its own population include indiscriminate arrest, indefinite detention, widespread use of torture and even religious persecution.[5]

If the above reasons were not bad enough, Eritreans fall prey to forced labour recruitment, including being forced to work in construction projects and on farms that are owned by the government. A company that has been implicated in coercive labour practices in Eritrea is Segen Construction, a government-owned business that received a contract to build infrastructure for the Bisha copper mine, which is jointly owned by the Eritrean government and by Nevsun Resources, a Canadian mining company.[6] The Bisha mine situation is yet another example of how foreign companies and corporations are willing to turn a blind eye and, in some cases, be complicit with human rights abuses in Africa. As long as the profits are there to be made from their extraction ventures, it does not matter to them what African states do to their citizens. People in the developed world complain about the “large numbers” of migrants applying for refugee status in their countries, without realizing that their own companies are implicated in the messy world of politics and economic exploitation in Africa. African governments of course are not without blame, and are more than willing to partake in the profits generated by the exploitation of their countries’ resources by foreign interests.

What might also come as a surprise is that many of the Eritreans refugees are in fact living in neighbouring countries, including Ethiopia and the Sudan, which currently host 155,000 and 125,000 refugees from that country respectively. Ethiopia has the largest numbers of refugees in Africa—a total of 734,000 people, primarily from countries such as the Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea. Evidently, not all of these migrants wish to leave Africa for Europe. Their hope is, perhaps, to be able to go back to their countries of origin. Still, the international community wants to discourage them from taking the Europe route. Recently, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, paid a visit to one of the four camps housing Eritrean refugees in the Ethiopian highlands. During the visit, Grandi called for the need to improve conditions for Eritrean refugees in the camps and in the region. High on the list of requests from the refugees themselves is the desire to have access to schooling or vocational training, and to see the possibility of being re-settled in a place where they will be able to make a life for themselves as something other than refugees.[7]

For a pdf version of this article, click here.

[1] To access data on asylum-seekers in Europe, including maps showing routes and countries of origin, see the United Nations High Commission for Refugees site (henceforth UNHCR), http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php

[2] For a short but informative country profile of Eritrea, see the BBC’s “Eritrea Profile,” May 5, 2016. Retrieved from www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13349075.

[3] For data on refugees from Eritrea, see UNHCR, “Sharp Increase in Number of Eritrean Refugees and Asylum-Seekers in Europe, Ethiopia and Sudan,” November 14, 2014. Retrieved from www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2014/11/5465fea1381/sharp-increase-number-eritrean-refugees-asylum-seekers-europe-ethiopia.html?query=eritrean

[4] Details about the hardships and dangers that migrants face en route to Libya are described in an article published by the UNHCR entitled “Eritrean Survivor of Lampedusa Tragedy Returns to Honour the Dead, Meet Pope Francis,” October 2, 2014. Retrieved from www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2014/10/542d0ece5/eritrean-survivor-lampedusa-tragedy-returns-honour-dead-meet-pope-francis.html.

[5] Information about human rights abuses in Eritrea can be found in “World Report 2015: Eritrea,” published by Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from www.hrw.org/world-report/2015/country-chapters/eritrea.

[6] On the Nevsun connection to alleged human rights abuses, see http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/episodes/2015-2016/nevsun-in-eritrea-dealing-with-a-dictator and http://hrc-eritrea.org/labour-struggles-truly-have-no-borders-vancouvers-connections-to-slave-labour-in-eritrea/. It is worth noting that the Bisha mine was the target of an attack carried out by Ethiopian military aircraft in 2015. See the article entitled “Canadian Mine Targeted in Eritrea: African Media Reports,” March 22, 2015. Retrieved from www.mining.com/ethiopian-jets-attack-canadian-gold-mine-eritrea/

[7] For information on Grandi’s visit to camps hosting Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, see “Do Not Risk Your Lives, Grandi Tells Eritrean Refugees,” February 2, 2016. Retrieved from www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2016/2/56b3251917/risk-lives-grandi-tells-eritrean-refugees.html.

[photo credit: AP Photo/Antonello Nusca, File]

RESRG Graduate Conference Poster (April 8, 2016)

RESRG Graduate Conference Program 2016: Inequality – Landscapes – Resources


9:00-9:30 Registration and Coffee (Ryan Building 2024)

9:30 Opening Remarks by Dr. Chander Shahi (Dean of Graduate Studies, Lakehead University) (Ryan Building 2024)

9:30-10:45 PANEL 1: Development, Sustainability, and the Environment – Ryan Building 2026 (Moderator: Dr. M.A (Peggy) Smith, Associate Professor, Faculty of Natural Resources Management)

• Anna England, “Seeing the Forest from the Trees: Analyzing the Positive and Negative Implications the Forestry industry has had on Northern Ontario”

• Si Chen, “Economic and Ecological Trade-Off Analysis of Forest Ecosystems: Options for Boreal Forests”

• Brandon Cordeiro, “‘We’ll be the only place in North America that glows in the dark’: Nuclear Waste, Northern Ontario, and the Metabolic Rift”

11:00-12:00 FIRST KEYNOTE ADDRESS (Ryan Building 2024) 

Margaret Kenequanash (Chairperson, Wataynikaneyap Power, First Nation led Transmission Company)

“Connecting Remote First Nations Communities to Clean Energy”

(introduction by Dr. Andrew P. Dean, Vice President, Research, Economic Development & Innovation)

12:00-1:00 Lunch Break

1:00-2:00 SECOND KEYNOTE ADDRESS (Ryan Building 2024)

Karen Peterson, PhD (Community-based Development Planner & Educator)

“Complexity of Environmental Problems and the Move Toward Sustainability through Collaboration with Dissimilar Entities”

(introduction by Roopa Rakshit, PhD candidate, Natural Resources Management) 

2:00-3:30 PANEL 2: Land Use and Reconciliation (Ryan Building 2026) (Moderator: Dr. Michel Beaulieu, Chair, Department of History, Lakehead University)

• Michael Lucifora, “Mercury Poisoning at Grassy Narrows”

• Dan Duckert, “Don’t Pimp My Land!”

• Marc H. Bohémier, “Indian Reserves, Land Use, and the Role of Police”

• Satenia Zimmermann, “Sustainability, viability and community well-being: Strengthening the future of northern Ontario’s First Nations communities through mining”

3:30-3:45 Coffee Break

3:45-5:00 PANEL 3: Nation, Empire, and the Rise of Neoliberalism (Ryan Building 2026) (Moderator: Dr. Steven Jobbitt, Assistant Professor of History, Lakehead University)

• Steven DeAlmeida, “Puerto Rico as a ‘Camp,’ Colony, and a Nation”

• Kim Young, “Neoliberalism and the New Imperialism: The Case of Syria to Present”

 • Kyle Gaudreau, “No Brexit: The Far Right and the Return of the Nation State”

For the full conference program (including abstracts and bios) click here.



RESRG Graduate Conference Poster (April 8, 2016)


The Resources, Economy and Society Research Group (RESRG) invites graduate students to present their research on questions of economic, environmental, and sociopolitical development, and problems associated with sustainability. This student led conference asks how systems of power and control foster unequal exchanges, and what can be done to promote equality in society, the economy, and resource extraction.

Conference Format:

Student researchers from multiple specialties will have a welcoming space to present 15 minute abstracts of their research to peers in a low-pressure environment. No formal conference experience is required; prepared power-points are suitable, as are presented excerpts of written material. All are welcome, particularly those interested in pursuing graduate studies or seeking additional ideas for their own prospective projects. Finally, all those who participate in this conference will have the guaranteed option of publishing their finalized paper on the RESRG website, under the Working Papers section.

Application Requirements

Please submit a 250 word abstract of your research to either of the contact addresses below by March 25th, along with a brief personal biography. The format below would satisfy this requirement:

I am (Name), a (Year) (Program) student in the (Department) department. The focus of my studies are (Topic and Themes).

This is a unique opportunity to share your work, network, brainstorm with fellow student researchers, and to meet experts and educators from various disciplines.

Opportunity To Publish

Students who present their work at this conference will be invited to submit their papers to our Working Papers series. Papers will be peer reviewed, and if they are recommended for publication, will be published after undergoing any necessary revisions.

RESRG grad conference poster

Is Illiberal Democracy Hungary’s Answer to the Challenges of Neoliberalism and Globalization?


RESRG member, Dr. Steve Jobbitt, provided a fascinating look into some of his early research on the political, social, moral and ideological challenges facing Hungary, as its right-wing Fidesz government negotiates the nation’s place in the European Union and in the global community at large. This Canadian International Council event was recorded at Lakehead University in September, and you can now view the full lecture on Vimeo.

The Impacts of Climate Change on the Lives of Ordinary People



RESRG Director, Pallavi Das, calls for further historical study on the impact of climate change on the lives of ordinary people, particularly the poor, in her article published in Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association. Read the full article here.

Dr. Pallavi’s article first appeared as an RESRG Editorial in December, 2014, here on the RESRG Review website. Click here to read her full editorial.

Lauren Wallace Visits Lakehead to Present her Work on Contraceptive Use in Northern Ghana


RESRG welcomed Vanier Scholar, Lauren Wallace, to speak at Lakehead University’s series of International Development Week talks, February 2-6, 2015. Lauren, a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at McMaster University, presented results from her eight months of ethnographic research in Kassena-Nankana West District in Northern Ghana. Her work focuses on concerns of local women and men related to side-effects from contraceptive use, and the implications this has on family planning decisions and women’s well-being.

Lauren was also interviewed by CBC radio in preparation for her talk at Lakehead. Her interview on Superior Morning can be accessed below.

RESRG would like to thank Lauren for sharing her important work and contributing to a very successful slate of International Development Week events.


Houses/apartments in Vietnam

Engaging the World with a Critical Mind

In recent years, pressure has increased on social science and humanities researchers to broaden the impact of the knowledge they produce by disseminating research results beyond the traditional public presentations or publication in scholarly journals and books. A key objective of funding agencies today is to make research accessible to non-academic audiences in formats that are user friendly. Concurrent with this call for wider public dissemination is the rise of new digital media formats that have both created new audiences and also emerged as the most accessible means of communicating results across the globe. As a result, scholarly work across the social sciences and humanities is appearing increasingly in digital formats, and a growing number of scholars are utilizing various new media as a means of “publishing” research.

To appreciate the potential of new media for the mobilization of knowledge in the social sciences and humanities we only need to look back to 1913 in what is now Thunder Bay. At that time Robert Flaherty began working with moving pictures on an idea that became “Nanook of the North.” Using existing technologies, Flaherty put the knowledge he gathered about Inuit lifeways into a format that reached audiences around the world. Flaherty was the “father of documentary film,” and he created a new way to share information. His innovation was at once profound and engaging. Flaherty’s innovative approach shaped filmmaking and knowledge transfer throughout the 20th century. One hundred years after work began on “Nanook of the North,” the world finds itself in another significant era of media in transition and the opportunities created by new media for knowledge mobilization by researchers in the social sciences and humanities have never been better.

In May 2012 Google released a report that showed how on-demand video consumption is increasing dramatically in what they call the Gen V group (18-34 year olds). According to the study, there are 4 billion videos watched on YouTube everyday, and nearly 1 trillion views in 2011. Only 33% of Gen V’s have traditional TV packages such as cable or satellite and they are twice as likely to stream video rather than watch it on traditional television screens. Furthermore, the CBC says that Canadians with one screen are online for an average of 16.5 hours per week, and those with more than one screen spend an average of 27.1 hours per week on the web. Further, Canadians spend more than five hours on the internet watching online videos. Multi-screen users, sometimes called “Four-Screen” Canadians, are people who have a computer and at least one other device (smartphone, SmartTV, tablet) at their disposal, and this type of media consumption is a reflection of the phenomenal increase in the demand for “transmedia,” or cross-media platforms in recent years. The Resources, Economy and Society Research Group at Lakehead University (RESRG) is therefore pleased to serve as the platform for the launch of a new tool developed by one of our members for teaching about the challenges of international development. This tool combines the innovations made possible by Robert Flaherty and takes advantage of recent advances in new media to provide the public with insights into international development that are both profound and engaging.

Engaging the World is an interactive non-linear documentary film by Ron Harpelle. The documentary was made using the Korsakow System to generate viewing options that form an evolving structure for the film. This interactive, non-linear web doc provides viewers with insights based on conversations with a number of dynamic individuals who work in the field of international development. Engaging the World is different from other documentary forms because with the Korsakow System the viewer, not the director, decides the order in which the scenes unfold and the conclusion is what the viewer concludes based on their individual viewing experience. Every person who watches Engaging the World sees a different combination of critically interacting video components and the result is a different film every time. The foundation for Engaging the World are 52 individual videos that are linked together by keywords that self generate viewing options for the next video segment to form an evolving structure for the film. The individual videos have been edited to provide short answers to questions about international development, but the viewer chooses the questions to be answered.

The beauty of an interactive film like Engaging the World is that the main elements are stand alone videos that can be appreciated on their own or as one in a series of related videos. The individual videos are no more than a few minutes in length, but the entire film is two hours long if the viewer chooses to watch every video component in the sequence. Therefore, the film can be short, medium or feature length. You can watch Engaging the World between bus stops on the way to work. You can leave it on your desktop so that you can return to it at your convenience. Or you can sit down and make an evening of it. A viewer can also start the film over as many times as they like and always get a different result. Similarly, the order can be completely random, carefully structured or any combination of the two. Viewers watch the film at their own pace and can stop anywhere they choose. All of this makes Engaging the World something you can enjoy on your own, with your family, with friends or with students you want to engage in critical thinking about some very big issues.

RESRG welcomes people interested in knowledge mobilization to explore this new tool to see how it works and to imagine how a Korsakow film can be used to mobilize other knowledge about research in the social sciences and humanities.

Click here to Engage the World!

Image of rain forest in Sao Tome

History of Climate Change from Below: A Vision for Future Research

by Pallavi Das, Associate Professor of History, Lakehead University

Anthropogenic climate change is the most pressing global environmental issue of this century, one that was highlighted by the People’s Climate March this September in New York City, the largest march ever on climate change. This huge march, as well as other demonstrations that were held across the globe from Paris to Papua New Guinea, clearly emphasized the fact that it is people, i.e. ordinary people, who are going to suffer from the impacts of climate change, and that something needs to be urgently done about it. For example, millions of small farmers around the world depend on seasonal bio-indicators (the annual rhythm of flowering, rainfall, etc.) for the planting and harvesting of their crops. However, due to climate change, these seasonal indicators have become erratic and unreliable, thus threatening the livelihood of small farmers. Therefore, even though humans are collectively responsible for climate change, neither the causes nor the consequences of climate change are equitable across the world.

When compared to the rich, it is the ordinary people, and in particular the poor, who suffer more and are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in the form of floods, droughts, and so on. Although there have been studies on the socio-economic dimensions of climate change, they are largely ahistorical in their focus and analysis.[1] This lack of historical analysis of climate change is surprising given that the term “climate change” includes the word “change,” which means change over time.[2] Similarly, climate historians have largely dealt with natural climate change in the distant past, but not with contemporary climate change largely caused by human activities that the world has been witnessing over the past century. [3] In the process, these historians have neglected how climate change impacts the lives of ordinary people within societies. Even within an ecologically vulnerable ecosystem, it is the poor who are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change.[4] Therefore, climate change and the history of climate change needs to be understood from the perspective of these people using a new approach: the history of climate change from below, or a people’s history of climate change. This approach to doing history will focus on vulnerable sections of the society; that is, poor people living in places undergoing drastic climate change in the contemporary world.

People’s history of climate change has five components. It starts with the ordinary people as they live and work in particular places, undergoing climatic (as well as economic and social) changes. For example, it could be the poor people living in Chicago, which is projected to face severe heat waves more often due to climate change. In the 1995 heat wave, for example, African Americans, many of whom are amongst the poorest of the city’s citizens, had 50% higher mortality rates than the whites. Extreme heat combined with high humidity can be fatal for the old, frail, and lower-income people who do not have access to air-conditioning. The second component of people’s history of climate change is climate change perception. This perception is often shaped by where people live and how they obtain their livelihood. These people may not use the term climate change, but they can certainly describe the climatic changes taking place in their immediate environment based on how it impacts their lives. For example, the Quechua speaking farmers in the central Andes region of Bolivia perceive climate change in terms of the decrease in frost nights because they grow potatoes that require alternative frost nights with days of intensive sunlight for processing into a freeze-dried product.[5]

People’s history of climate change will examine the factors that ordinary people perceive as responsible for and contributing to climate change and its impacts, which forms its third component. These factors could be industrialization, population growth, angry gods and so forth that ordinary people hold responsible for climate change over a substantial time period of fifty years. In addition, people’s historians of climate change will investigate how the perception of climate change by ordinary people is influenced by local and national discourses about climate change.

The fourth component of people’s history of climate change is the impact of climate change perception. As people interact with nature they develop a knowledge system that includes technologies, beliefs, and skills that enable them to maintain their livelihoods by using natural resources and interacting with the local environment in a more or less sustainable way. For example, Inuit hunters in the Canadian Arctic region have detailed sea ice knowledge along with a knowledge of the wind and current conditions which they can use to forecast ice safety, allowing them to travel in a particular direction so they can avoid dangerous conditions and hunt successfully. This Inuit climate knowledge is built upon previous experience with thin ice conditions, strong wind currents, etc., and is passed from one generation to another through stories, anecdotes, and so forth. People’s history of climate change will study this knowledge and examine people’s coping mechanisms and response to the impacts of climate change over time.

Interconnected with the above is the fifth component of people’s history of climate change, which is the examination of ordinary people’s response (including adaptation) to the impacts of climate change in their lives. This could be in the form of adapting to climate change by spatially relocating their economic activities. For example, due to increasing temperatures in the lower altitudes over the last two decades, the apple farmers in the Indian Himalayas have moved to higher altitudes for apple cultivation. Ordinary people could respond to climate change by forming social-political organizations that would highlight the problems they face due to climate change. People living in areas facing drastic climate change can respond through rituals, etc., as their livelihood practices are deeply rooted in their culture and religion. For example, in Tanzania when the rains fail, people perform rituals to please the rain god.

Climate change is a deservedly “hot” topic these days in both the physical as well as social sciences. However, studies on the socio-economic dimensions of climate change are largely ahistorical, while historical studies on climate have focused on the distant past and have neglected the lives and views of ordinary people (in their geographical contexts) with regard to climate change. It is important to focus on the poor, and on ordinary people because they are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change, and this can be done through the people’s history of climate change approach. By using this approach, social scientists would have a better and more in-depth understanding of local climatic concerns, and of how climate change actually impacts the lives of people over time and how they respond to these changes. This vision/approach to studying the socio-economic dimensions of climate change historically would help start a dialogue with ordinary people and help scholars, activists, and governmental and non-governmental organizations understand their ideas about climate change and its impacts, and to mitigate and/or adapt to them.

[1] See Gita Laidler, “Inuit and scientific perspectives on the relationship between sea ice and climate: the ideal complement?” Climatic Change 78 (2006): 407-444

[2] There have been studies in climate history where historians have studied climate in relation to societies in the distant past when changes in climate where due to natural causes rather than human activities.

[3] The exception is Mark Carey, In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[4] Donald Hughes, “Climate Change: A History of Environmental Knowledge,” Capitalism Nature Socialism vol. 21 no. 3 (September 2010): 80; Mark Carey, “Climate and history: a critical review of historical climatology and climate change historiography,” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews—Climate Change 3 no. 3 (2012): 233-249; Elizabeth Marino, and Jesse Ribbot. ‘Editorial,’ Global Environmental Change 22 (2012) 323–328.

[5] S.,Boillat, and F. Berkes. 2013. “Perception and interpretation of climate change among Quechua farmers of Bolivia: indigenous knowledge as a resource for adaptive capacity,” Ecology and Society 18(4): 21.

For the pdf version of this RESRG editorial, click here.


"Pulp Friction" film event poster (2014)

Pulp Mills on the Frontlines of Global Change: RESRG Researcher Premieres New Film

Pulp Friction is a documentary film about people, places, and the global economy. Pulp mill closures are a fact of life in Northwestern Ontario, where most people remember a time when good union jobs were common and local communities thrived. In recent years, thousands of forestry sector jobs have been lost across Canada and the Northern Hemisphere. At the same time, forest companies have moved a significant portion of their industry to the Global South and new giant pulp mills are appearing on the horizon in these unlikely locations. The trees these new southern mills rely upon are grown on plantations in a fraction of the time it takes a tree in Northwestern Ontario to grow to harvest size. The environmental impact is enormous, as these fast-growing trees extract the same amount of nutrients over a much shorter period of time. The new mills are also fully automated, requiring far fewer people to operate. People who are fortunate enough to have jobs in these new industries work for far lower wages than their northern counterparts. The shifting economies of the pulp industry bind people and communities from different parts of the world together. In Pulp Friction, Ron Harpelle introduces audiences to the people on the front line of this change and provides a timely examination of how this global industry shapes our world and impacts our communities.

The film looks at the lives of people living in the shadow of a pulp mill in three separate communities. It opens in Terrace Bay, Ontario, where the mill was spared from the wrecking ball by the Aditya Birla Group, an Indian multinational that will produce a pulp product that will be shipped abroad and used to make rayon fabric. The people of Terrace Bay are aware of how close they came to losing their only industry and the economic rationale for their town. Viewers are then taken to Kemijärvi, Finland where the world’s northern-most pulp mill recently closed. This community also depended on the mill to keep their town alive but were not as lucky as the residents of Terrace Bay. The mill is now closed, leaving the community to wonder what they will do. The film concludes in Fray Bentos, Uruguay. Unlike Canada and Finland, Uruguay is a country without natural forests. Today, one million hectares of eucalyptus plantations feed an enormous modern pulp mill that is changing everything. The future in this part of Uruguay is like the past in Terrace Bay and Kemijärvi, but at what cost? Pulp Friction tells the stories of these three communities and sheds light on globalization and how the lives of people in different parts of the world are bound together by this industry that knows no borders. Pulp Friction is in English, French, Finnish, and Spanish.

Ron Harpelle is a member of RESRG. He teaches history at Lakehead University and is an award-winning filmmaker. His previous films include, Hard Time, about a man who spent 29 years in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit, In Security, a film about barbed wire, and Banana Split, a film about Canada’s favourite fruit. Pulp Friction is the product of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Public Outreach Grant.

Pulp Friction will premiere on December 11, 2014 at 8 pm at the Finnish Labour Temple in Thunder Bay, Ontario, 314 Bay St.

Image of Kakabeka Falls in the winter (2016)

Introducing the Resources, Economy, and Society Research Group (RESRG) at Lakehead University

Whether we consider ourselves scholars or activists (or perhaps both), there is little doubt that the current challenges we face both locally and globally are too complex, and indeed too immense, to deal with on our own, or in a piecemeal fashion.  The dominant problems of our time, ones which range from climate change and environmental degradation to social inequality, political instability, and the growing gap between the rich and poor, are inextricably linked and demand innovative, comprehensive approaches to questions of sustainable development, and social and economic change.

The current need for cooperation between academic disciplines, and between diverse communities working on a wide range of developmental issues, has been reflected in recent years by a pronounced shift in research funding priorities. At the federal level, for example, organizations such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), CIDA/Foreign Affairs, and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) have moved strongly in the direction of collaborative, targeted, interdisciplinary projects. Inspired by this shift, academics across Canada (and around the world) have begun to rethink their relationships not only to the communities around them, but also to the very institutions they work in, and are now engaging increasingly in research that is both critically-engaged and action-oriented. Freeing themselves from the disciplinary silos in which they have traditionally worked, scholars now frequently work with each other across disciplines, and in recent years have begun to form fruitful working relationships with practitioners, policy makers, NGOs, social movements, and community members.

It is within this context of interdisciplinary cooperation and community-based collaboration that the Resources, Economy, and Society Research Group (RESRG) was formed at Lakehead University in Spring 2014. Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Aid to Small Universities grant, RESRG was founded as a means of building research capacity by encouraging new research activities among faculty with diverse interests and experience. Focusing on issues related to local, regional, and global development, our research group brings together scholars from multiple disciplines working on issues pertaining not only to Canada, but also to Latin America, India, Africa, and Europe.

As academics working locally but thinking and researching globally, we feel we are in a unique position to develop projects and produce outcomes that are both relevant and ground-breaking. Globalization processes, for example, combined with new resource discoveries in Northwestern Ontario, are creating substantial problems that need to be addressed. The need for innovative, interdisciplinary research has become increasingly apparent in light of current discussions around the so-called Ring of Fire mineral discoveries, and also in light of conversations that have emerged in the wake of the recent acquisition of Terrace Bay Pulp by an Indian foreign multinational, Aditya Birla Group. As the work of some of our RESRG researchers suggests, these are examples of Northern developments that can be studied in the light of insights learned from the challenges of resource development in the Arctic, and of global mining and forestry industries in the Global South. Many analysts are arguing, in fact, that the North is the new South.

By developing research capacity in cooperation with local communities, RESRG is in a position to develop innovative comparative research on questions of economic, environmental, and sociopolitical development and sustainability. Our expertise and research interests are broad, ranging from community forest management and Arctic development, to the history and sociology of labour. Moreover, beyond our interest in applying lessons learned in the Global South to questions of sustainable development in the Global North, our researchers are also pursuing projects that seek to understand the radicalization of social movements on both the right and the left, and which promise to break new ground in the people’s history of global warming.

Providing Lakehead University faculty and students with new opportunities to collaborate across disciplines and backgrounds, RESRG is dedicated to sustainable development and increased interaction with like-minded scholars and programs at other institutions. RESRG is committed to helping support a research-intensive culture in Social Sciences and Humanities at Lakehead University, and to building bridges with scholars working in Natural Resource Management. Our goal is to create a new venue for enhancing research in the region, and for increasing research funding, recruiting research talent, and “modeling” research activity within the university and in the community.

For the pdf version of this RESRG editorial, click here