J. Khadijah Abdurahman, Sucheta Ghoshal
The Otherwise School is a collaboration between J. Khadijah Abdurahaman's initiative We Be Imagining and Sucheta Ghoshal's research collective Inquilab at the University of Washington. The program for summer 2021 was funded by the Department of Human-Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. The project's goal is to develop tools and techniques of counter-fascism. Here, Abdurahman and Ghoshal discuss why a project to build internationalist solidarity against global fascism feels long overdue, and how it all started with grieving together.
Who can be alive today / and not study grief
— Joshua Bennett
→ How can we think about HCI when to be alive is to grieve?
→ What is the relationship between caste, Blackness, Indigeneity, and technology?
→ How can we begin to think about prototypes for counter-fascism?
Sucheta Ghoshal: In our framing of the Otherwise School, we named global fascism as the overarching threat we are up against. Perhaps we could take this opportunity to unpack how we both arrived at that analysis and, more importantly, what we feel are the scopes and stakes of global fascism today.
Personally, I do not know how to answer this question without completely falling apart. If I am being honest, I have lost the ability to think about fascism from a distance.
I am so tired. How can I make an intellectual argument about fascism when all I want to do is sleep? Well, sleep and then wake up refreshed. To a normal life—one where I go out to the backyard in the morning to water my plants, because they need water twice a day now that the South is burning in summer. I want to be mad at the weather in simple terms. Instead, for what seems like forever now, my days start and end with wondering whether I will have any family left a month from now. Whether the next time I visit home I will have a home left. I am constantly stressed about immigration, wondering about how to be in this country, any country, in less temporary ways. I would give anything to just be mad at the weather. Or even just fascism as a theory. Sadly, that is not the case.
And if fascism feels like it has hit home for me—a Brahmin academic  with a tenure-track job in the U.S—we know that global fascism has burned many homes down to the ground. When I say this, I think about the South Asian landscape, of course, but it is also painfully true in the everyday lives of the Black American community organizers I have worked with in the U.S. South. I mean, in 2019 one of my movement homes, the Highlander Center, was literally burned to the ground by neo-Nazis.
That said, I am still learning to trust these intimate reactions to global crises as political analyses of our time. Anyone who has lost a loved one due to infrastructural failure—whether it is a poorly managed pandemic or an unnecessary war—knows that what they feel is more than personal. Grief, induced by global fascism, is political. I think a key technology that has helped me make this leap in processing grief—from personal to political—has been our friendship. Particularly, your insights on how global fascism is affecting the Horn of Africa at the moment. Could you give us an overview?
Anyone who has lost a loved one due to infrastructural failure—whether it is a poorly managed pandemic or an unnecessary war—knows that what they feel is more than personal. Grief, induced by global fascism, is political.
J. Khadijah Abdurahman: We don't have a full account of the dead, even 11 months after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed used Facebook to declare a war on the Tigray region. Through Internet shutdowns, deportation of journalists, humanitarian organizations, and enforced disappearances of Tigrayans in other areas of the country, he attempted to render a scorched-Earth campaign invisible. In some ways, Ahmed and his Prosperity Party have been successful. We don't know exactly how many people have been systematically executed, sexually assaulted, or starved by the Ethiopian Federal Military or the Amhara Regional Militia. In a country where civic society has been reduced to informant networks, it's hard to know when exactly the Ethiopian government extended an invitation to the Eritrean army to participate in the annihilation of their own people.
At the outset of the war, the narrative produced by the state was that the Tigray People's Liberation Front had attacked  the federal government's military bases, necessitating enforcement of "law and order"  to restore the sanctity of a "unified Ethiopia." Humanitarian organizations saw Ahmed's political project, Medemer ("merge together" in English), as a salve for a region plagued by intense political repression across ethnic lines. The academic consensus does not stand with the Indigenous peoples and nations violently unified into the Ethiopian state. Rather, it perceives the ongoing demands for reparations and land back as regressive tribal or ethnic behavior. To demand recognition outside of state identity is deemed an insult to modernity and the march of progress.
This begins to come in focus when Ahmed was bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize  for brokering a peace treaty with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in 2019. Within the Horn of Africa's diaspora, Ahmed's Machiavellian governance is often attributed to the influence of Afwerki, who has been the president of Eritrea since 1993. Having thrown the Eritrean People's Liberation Front that brought him to power under the bus, Afwerki refused to hold elections, mandated indefinite conscription, and has incarcerated those who don't comply in coffin-like shipping containers, as most recently depicted on PBS NewsHour's Escaping Eritrea (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/escaping-eritrea/).
People in Ethiopia know that unity  is actually a catchword for far-right hypernationalism and that the current Ethiopian state indisputably meets the criteria for fascism. It's hard to make time to debunk the empire, though, when you're grieving—knowing the remittances will never be enough.
As the Tigrayan diaspora campaigned online to raise awareness of the genocide back home, appealing to the U.S. government as well as United Nations officials to intervene, Ahmed and his base argued that Western intervention into Ethiopia's law-and-order enforcement was inherently anti-Black and a violation of African sovereignty. The tension between subjugated peoples in Ethiopia appealing to Western imperial powers for protection from a murderous state—which is in fact receiving generous patronage from Western imperial powers—is only rendered further ironic when considering that the myth of a "never-colonized Ethiopia" was invented by an Italian advisor who assisted Emperor Haile Selassie in negotiating the terms and conditions of the first dependent colonial state in the Horn of Africa.
We don't know exactly how many Eritrean refugees in Tigray were snatched back by the army they had risked everything to avoid conscription into. Stories bleed through onto social media or come into view as military intelligence contractors like Maxar Technologies share satellite images with humanitarian organizations, but the rhythm of information is perpetually outpaced by the intensity of suffering. The god-like view from above afforded by satellite imagery makes visible the mass graves or incinerated houses but not the people. You can't see causality from the satellite, only trace the outlines of mass graves or destroyed homes or graineries. It's hard to keep track of the stories pulsing through WhatsApp threads. It's hard to grieve when the algorithm prioritizes novelty. Does sentiment analysis have a threshold at which all of us are reduced to polygons, like the satellite images?
Are the reports of conscription, starvation, and intimidation in the southern Oromia region just what happens when you ally with Isaias Afwerki or just what happens when intelligence directors ascend to the seat of power? How did the founder of Ethiopia's spy agency (INSA) manage to sell the world a vision of unity when the infamous Jail Ogaden administered torture under his supervision? A Human Rights Watch report documenting atrocities committed in the Somali Regional detention center opens with a testimony from a 42-year-old man, Mohamed, who spent five years inside without charges: "Jail Ogaden is unthinkable. From the moment you are put there until the moment you are released, you do not know if you are alive or dead. You are tortured and humiliated day and night, you are starved, [and] you can't sleep because there's so many people" .
How do you count the dead? Who counts as living when grief can get you killed? I don't know the answer but I hold Black-studies scholar Katherine McKittrick's call to "count it out different" as I slam against the limits of enumerating the violences.
SG: I'm pausing for a moment, since the way forward from here is impossible without a genuine infrastructure of internationalist solidarity, and what you said is going to shatter many fairy tales of revolution. Committing to the work of building up that infrastructure will entail purging these myths and reassessing our beliefs about nation-states.
Our positionality in the academy, specifically as scholars/practitioners of technology, has exposed us to a certain flavor of urgency toward that goal. An urgency that is particularly brought on by how new technologies are catalyzing this geopolitical destabilization.
JKA: Bonnie Holcomb and Sisai Ibssa's book The Invention of Ethiopia: The Making of a Dependent Colonial State of Northeast Africa makes the point that Europeans provided firearms to Emperor Menelik so that he could conquer the colonized peoples who were not amenable to inter-imperial interests. Holcomb and Ibssa highlight how firearms not only allowed Menelik to win the war by being able to kill at greater scale and speed but also reorganized the military according to European forms of organization. It required European and colonial advisors from India and the Arab Middle East because the object of firearms doesn't exist in isolation. It is both a product of and requires human infrastructure to organize, train, and manage its deployment.
Pivoting off that insight to consider developing tools and techniques of counter-fascism, I'm thinking about how to identify the fissures in this current capitalist mode of production to remember/implement/design technologies that hail  Indigenous knowledge production. Parsing the dis/misinformation that the Ethiopian state is flooding social media with is not merely about identifying or deplatforming bad actors or fact-checking. Governing an information ecosystem requires bolstering resources and telecommunication infrastructures for Oromia and the South, which is the site where the operational capacity to unleash terror on the northern Tigray region was fine-tuned. If we only look at telecom blackouts, we're only looking at the areas that had adequate ICT infrastructure to begin with. Similar to imported European weapons that also imported European forms of military organization in the service of domestic emperors—at the expense of the majority populace—the geography of access to the Internet and social media has coalesced around urban centers, ultimately rejecting the 78 percent of people within Ethiopia who live in rural areas.
SG: Right. But firearms are inherently produced with a specific politics that can only lead to war. I feel like that's important too. Some technologies are created with certain wars already in mind, and using/reforming/restructuring them may, at best, lead to different qualitative and/or quantitative outcomes of the same war.
To be honest, I don't feel like the agenda of preparing ourselves with tools and techniques of counter-fascism is something that technologists are uniquely skilled for. I also do not think that this work is any more or less urgent with novel digital technologies of fascism like predictive policing or facial recognition. I think of technologies as materials for expression. They involve, in Arnold Pacey's or André Brock's sense of the word, artifacts, practices, and beliefs. Fascism has always had its technologies—its artifacts, practices, and beliefs/ideologies. Counter-fascist work, too, has had to develop its technologies both as a response to fascism and also to just imagine a future of our own. I think a sharp look at technologies of global fascism—both digital and nondigital—is going to be crucial in imagining a future.
JKA: Yes, and how do we build a movement that's sustainable when we're all so exhausted, grieving and dying and locked up and sick and mad and despairing and disorganized and fumbling the ball and unknowing and misrecognizing each other and talking past each other and afraid and building up fiefdoms to fortify what we know and those who are like us because we can feel that the worst has yet to come (at least for those of us who are privileged to have space to reflect)?
2. Reuters staff. Inside a military base in Ethiopia's Tigray: Soldiers decry betrayal by former comrades. Reuters. Dec. 17, 2020; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-conflict-attack/inside-a-military-base-in-ethiopias-tigray-soldiers-decry-betrayal-by-former-comrades-idUSKBN28R1IE
3. Abiy Ahmed, H.E. Operations to restore law and order in Ethiopia's Tigray region: How did we get here? Embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Dec. 24, 2020; https://www.ethioembassy.org.uk/operations-to-restore-law-and-order-in-ethiopias-tigray-region-how-did-we-get-here/
5. Tibeso, A. and Abdurahman, J.K. Tigray, Oromia, and the Ethiopian Empire. The Funabulist. Aug. 31, 2021; https://thefunambulist.net/magazine/against-genocide/tigray-oromia-and-the-ethiopian-empire
6. Human Rights Watch. "We are like the dead" Torture and other human rights abuses in Jail Ogaden, Somali Regional State, Ethiopia; https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/07/04/we-are-dead/torture-and-other-human-rights-abuses-jail-ogaden-somali-regional
7. Hail in Althusser's sense, i.e., "Within this framework, Althusser introduces the concept of interpellation, otherwise known as 'hailing.' Ideologies 'call out' or 'hail' people and offer a particular identity, which they accept as 'natural' or 'obvious.' In this way, the dominant class exerts a power over individuals that is quite different from abject force. According to Althusser, individuals are interpellated from the day that they are born—and perhaps even before, since parents and others conceive of the role and identity that their child will assume." See: https://bit.ly/3uD4r7T
J. Khadijah Abdurahman is cofounder of the Otherwise School: Tools and Techniques of Counter-Fascism. She is a fellow at the AI Now Institute at NYU, in partnership with C2I2 at UCLA and the UW Law School, and an Assembling Voices fellow at Columbia University. firstname.lastname@example.org
Sucheta Ghoshal is an assistant professor in the Department of Human-Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. She also co-founded the Otherwise School: Tools and Techniques of Counter-Fascism. email@example.com
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