David Graeber: Support the Kurds in Syria!

rojava

In the piece below, David Graeber asks why the world is ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria, drawing a connection with the situation in Spain during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (1936-1939), when the so-called democracies imposed an arms embargo on Spain, while Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist dictatorships not only provided the Spanish military and Falangists with the most up-to-date weapons, but even supplied some of their own armed forces, bombing civilian targets like Guernica, which provoked Pablo Picasso into creating one of his greatest art pieces in protest. The situation in Kobane is also reminiscent of the situation of the Paris Commune in May 1871, when the reactionary armed forces of the Versailles government attacked the revolutionary Communards, massacring 30,000 Parisians while the world looked on and the Prussians ensured that no outside help would arrive, much as Turkey is doing to the Kurds in Kobane.

Mujeres Libres in the Spanish Revolution

Mujeres Libres in the Spanish Revolution

I included some selections by David Graeber on the “new anarchism” and democracy in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I also included a statement from Kurdish anarchists, and an interview that Janet Biehl conducted with PKK members regarding their adoption of a libertarian communalist approach inspired by Murray Bookchin. Volume One of the Anarchism anthology included several selections regarding the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and the Mujeres Libres group Graeber refers to below.

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society) Meeting in Qamishli

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society) Meeting in Qamishli

Why is the world ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria?

In 1937, my father volunteered to fight in the International Brigades in defence of the Spanish Republic. A would-be fascist coup had been temporarily halted by a worker’s uprising, spearheaded by anarchists and socialists, and in much of Spain a genuine social revolution ensued, leading to whole cities under directly democratic management, industries under worker control, and the radical empowerment of women.

Spanish revolutionaries hoped to create a vision of a free society that the entire world might follow. Instead, world powers declared a policy of “non-intervention” and maintained a rigorous blockade on the republic, even after Hitler and Mussolini, ostensible signatories, began pouring in troops and weapons to reinforce the fascist side. The result was years of civil war that ended with the suppression of the revolution and some of a bloody century’s bloodiest massacres.

I never thought I would, in my own lifetime, see the same thing happen again. Obviously, no historical event ever really happens twice. There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today. But some of the similarities are so striking, and so distressing, that I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution, to say: we cannot let it end the same way again.

The autonomous region of Rojava, as it exists today, is one of few bright spots – albeit a very bright one – to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution. Having driven out agents of the Assad regime in 2011, and despite the hostility of almost all of its neighbours, Rojava has not only maintained its independence, but is a remarkable democratic experiment. Popular assemblies have been created as the ultimate decision-making bodies, councils selected with careful ethnic balance (in each municipality, for instance, the top three officers have to include one Kurd, one Arab and one Assyrian or Armenian Christian, and at least one of the three has to be a woman), there are women’s and youth councils, and, in a remarkable echo of the armed Mujeres Libres (Free Women) of Spain, a feminist army, the “YJA Star” militia (the “Union of Free Women”, the star here referring to the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar), that has carried out a large proportion of the combat operations against the forces of Islamic State.

How can something like this happen and still be almost entirely ignored by the international community, even, largely, by the International left? Mainly, it seems, because the Rojavan revolutionary party, the PYD, works in alliance with Turkey’s Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), a Marxist guerilla movement that has since the 1970s been engaged in a long war against the Turkish state. NATO, the US and EU officially classify them as a “terrorist” organisation. Meanwhile, leftists largely write them off as Stalinists.

But, in fact, the PKK itself is no longer anything remotely like the old, top-down Leninist party it once was. Its own internal evolution, and the intellectual conversion of its own founder, Abdullah Ocalan, held in a Turkish island prison since 1999, have led it to entirely change its aims and tactics.

The PKK has declared that it no longer even seeks to create a Kurdish state. Instead, inspired in part by the vision of social ecologist and anarchist Murray Bookchin, it has adopted the vision of “libertarian municipalism”, calling for Kurds to create free, self-governing communities, based on principles of direct democracy, that would then come together across national borders – that it is hoped would over time become increasingly meaningless. In this way, they proposed, the Kurdish struggle could become a model for a wordwide movement towards genuine democracy, co-operative economy, and the gradual dissolution of the bureaucratic nation-state.

Since 2005 the PKK, inspired by the strategy of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, declared a unilateral ceasefire with the Turkish state and began concentrating their efforts in developing democratic structures in the territories they already controlled. Some have questioned how serious all this really is. Clearly, authoritarian elements remain. But what has happened in Rojava, where the Syrian revolution gave Kurdish radicals the chance to carry out such experiments in a large, contiguous territory, suggests this is anything but window dressing. Councils, assemblies and popular militias have been formed, regime property has been turned over to worker-managed co-operatives – and all despite continual attacks by the extreme rightwing forces of Isis. The results meet any definition of a social revolution. In the Middle East, at least, these efforts have been noticed: particularly after PKK and Rojava forces intervened to successfully fight their way through Isis territory in Iraq to rescue thousands of Yezidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar after the local peshmerga fled the field. These actions were widely celebrated in the region, but remarkably received almost no notice in the European or North American press.

Now, Isis has returned, with scores of US-made tanks and heavy artillery taken from Iraqi forces, to take revenge against many of those same revolutionary militias in Kobane, declaring their intention to massacre and enslave – yes, literally enslave – the entire civilian population. Meanwhile, the Turkish army stands at the border preventing reinforcements or ammunition from reaching the defenders, and US planes buzz overhead making occasional, symbolic, pinprick strikes – apparently, just to be able to say that it did not do nothing as a group it claims to be at war with crushes defenders of one of the world’s great democratic experiments.

If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis? If there is a parallel to the Mujeres Libres of Spain, who could it be but the courageous women defending the barricades in Kobane? Is the world – and this time most scandalously of all, the international left – really going to be complicit in letting history repeat itself?

David Graeber, October 12, 2014

Picasso's Guernica

Picasso’s Guernica

Anarchism and the Ukrainian Civil War (2014)

Street scene from Odessa, May 2014

Street scene from Odessa, May 2014

Below I reproduce excerpts from an article by “Antti Rautiainen” of the Russian anarchist group, Autonomous Action, regarding Ukrainian anarchist responses to the current situation in Ukraine. The article was prompted by the fire at the House of Trade Unions in Odessa on May 2, 2014, the result of armed clashes between pro-Russian militia and right wing Ukrainian nationalists resulting in some 42 deaths. The full article can be found here. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several excerpts regarding the anarchist movement during the Russian and Ukrainian civil wars of 1918-1921. Although the Ukrainian anarchist movement today is tiny by comparison, the difficulties facing it, and the people of Ukraine, are no less significant.

Civil War in Ukraine

War does not require personal hatred between people, geopolitical and economical reasons are good enough for that. And in the Ukraine, the geopolitical interests are far greater than in Yugoslavia. If you have an interest in flaring up ethnic hatred or war, a rather small ethnic rift is enough. A few abuses, murders, and kidnappings, and everyone will be ready for battle. This has succeeded now in Ukraine, just as it has succeeded in many other places.

At the moment, the Western «left» seems to be pretty much clueless in terms of the events taking place there. This is because the «left,» broadly speaking, is not a very useful concept in the former Soviet Union, as it can mean anything from social-democrats and anarchists, to stalinists supporting Putin. Personally, I prefer to always write the word in quotation marks. I identify with anarchists, not the «left,» since, for quite a while now anarchists have been the only political force in Russia which united the ethos of opposing racism, sexism and homophobia to the ethos of social equality. Until very recently, there had not been much of any Western «new left» in Russia, with the exception of a handful of Trotskyists.

A split within the «left» in Ukraine is completely predictable and even necessary. In Kharkiv the streetfighting, Stalinist organisation, «Borotba» (meaning Struggle), has been on the opposite side of the anarchists. In this region of the former Soviet Union, 99.9% of the «left» will always support imperialism for the sake of «being with the people.» It is about time that anarchists refuse the «left» label. We have nothing in common with these people.

But anarchists, too, can be easily manipulated with buzzwords such as «self-organisation» and «direct democracy.» For example, Boris Kagarlitsky, a Russian intellectual widely known amongst the Western «left» and a frequent guest of World Social Forums, has found favorable ground in the West by using these buzzwords.

Apparently, the Ukrainian and Russian anarchists could not foresee the developments which lead to the civil war. Maidan had only been discussed from the point of view that it could offer something better than the Yanukovich regime. It was not expected that Russia would react to a Maidan victory with a conscious escalation of the conflict, and which could eventually lead to civil war.

Whereas Russia is the major propaganda machine and arms provider in the conflict, Western countries are not doing much better, as they only acknowledge the interests of the new government in Kiev and present the movement in Eastern Ukraine as mere Russian puppets.The armed wing of the «federalists» are definitely Kremlin puppets, but if it were not for the widespread discontent and protests against the new regime in Kiev, this armed wing would not have emerged.

I do not believe that a civil war was the Kremlin’s aim. First of all, it wanted to destablize Ukraine to the maximum in order to have Kiev give up any attempts to gain back control over Crimea. Now the situation is out of the Kremlin’s control, and it may have to send regular troops to Ukraine in order to fulfill the promise of support it has given to the «federalists.»

The government in Kiev has given so many «final ultimatums», which were quickly forgotten, and has announced so many [nonexistent] «anti-terrorist operations,» that it is clear it has very few battle-ready troops. A few times, the central government troops have actually taken action and the results have been tragi-comic. Thus, the government understands that it’s still in question whether it would succeed in a full-scale civil war. However, it also understands that war can help discipline society and stabilize the new order to the extent that any promises given to Maidan would be forgotten. With time, both sides have come to understand that a full-scale war might be necessary for their interests, even if neither was initially planning for this.

Anarchist Black Cats in Ukraine

Anarchist Black Cats in Ukraine

Disagreements within the anarchist movement

Over the course of events, the Ukrainian and Russian anarchist movements have split into three different sides. A first group concentrated on producing internet-statements against both sides of the conflict. For them, keeping out of any social processes is a matter of principle, and they only want to monitor and assess. Participation in the social protest is not a goal for them, as they prefer to keep their hands clean. Since every process has input from either disgusting liberals, hated nationalists, awful stalinists, all three at the same time, or other undesirables, one can never fully participate in anything and the only alternative is to stay home and publish statements on the internet about how everything is going from bad to worse. However, most of the time these statements are just self-evident banalities.

A second group was made up of those who got excited about all the riot-porn and anti-police violence in Kiev, without considering who was carrying out this violence and in whose interests. Certain antifascists drifted as far as to defend the «national unity» in Maidan, and threatened particular Kiev anarchists due to their criticism of Maidan and refusal to participate. Most of the people in this camp are just fans of anti-police violence without any theoretical frame[work], but some want to give Maidan an imagined anti-authoritarian flavor, by equating the general meeting of Maidan («Veche») with the revolutionary councils established during 20th century revolutions. They base this claim on the social demands occasionally presented at Maidan, but these demands were always at the periphery of the Maidan agenda.

One of these peripheral demands was the proposal that oligarchs should pay a tenth of their income in taxes and was generally in tune with nationalistic populism. However, the demands of the Kiev Maidan were still far from returning the billions stolen by oligarchs back to society. In Vinnytsa and Zhitomir, there was an attempt to expropriate factories owned by German capital, but this was the only case going beyond the national-liberal context that I am familiar with.

In any case, the main problem at Maidan wasn’t the lack of a social agenda and direct democracy, but the fact that people did not even demand them. Even if everyone kept repeating that they did not want another «orange revolution» like in 2004, nor for Yulia Timoshenko to return, at the end of the day chocolate industrialist Poroshenko and Vitaly Klitchko are leading the polls. This was the choice the people made as they grew weary of the revolutionary path as proposed by the radical nationalists of the Right sector. As of now, people want to return to «life as usual,» to life before Yanukovich, and are not prepared to make the sacrifices that further revolutionary developments would demand. Representative democracy is indeed like a hydra, if you cut one head, two will grow in its place.

However, none of the fears of a «fascist takeover» have materialized. Fascists gained very little real power, and in Ukraine their historical role will now be that of stormtroopers for liberal reforms demanded by the IMF and the European Union — that is, pension cuts, an up to five times increase in consumer gas prices, and others. Fascism in Ukraine has a powerful tradition, but it has been incapable of proceeding with its own agenda in the revolutionary wave. It is highly likely that the Svoboda-party will completely discredit itself in front of its voters.

But anyone attempting to intervene, anarchists included, could have encountered the same fate — that is, to be sidelined after all the effort. During the protests, anarchists and the «left» were looking towards the Right sector with envy, but in the end all the visibility and notoriety, for which they paid dearly, was not enough to help the Right sector gain any real influence.

If Kiev anarchists would have picked the position of «neutral observers» after Yanukovich had shot demonstrators, it would have completely discredited them. If after being shot, the working class, or more exactly «the people,» that is, the working class along with the lower strata of the bourgeoisie, would have failed to overthrow Yanukovich, Ukrainian society would have fallen into a lethargic sleep such as the one Russian and Belarusian societies are experiencing. Obviously, after the massacre there was no choice left except to overthrow the power, no matter what would come in its place. Anarchists in Kiev were in no position to significantly influence the situation, but standing aside was no longer an option.

And thus, we come to the third, «centrist,» position taken by anarchists — between the brainless actionism and the «neutral» internet statements. The camp of realist anarchists understood, that even if the Maidan protests pretty much lacked a meaningful positive program, something had to be done or the future would be dire.

Russian Anarchist Street Fighter

Russian Anarchist Street Fighter

The limits of intervention

In Kiev, anarchists took part in a number of important initiatives during the revolutionary wave — first of all the occupation of the ministry of education, and the raid against the immigration bureau by the local No Borders group, which was looking for proof of illegal cooperation with security services of foreign countries. But the most successful anarchist intervention was the one in Kharkiv, where Maidan was relatively weak but also freer of nationalistic influence.

Still, such centrism has its own problems. For one, you might unintentionally help the wrong forces gain power, also discrediting radical protest. A second problem would be that you might end up fighting a fight which is not your own. When AntiMaidan attacked the Maidan in the city of Kharkiv, its imagined enemy was not the anarchists, but NATO, EU or Western-Ukrainian fascists. Since anarchists had joined Maidan, it would have been cowardly to desert once the fight started. Thus anarchists ended up fighting side by side with liberals and fascists. I do not want to criticize the Kharkiv anarchists, after all they made, perhaps, the most serious attempt among Ukrainian anarchists to influence the course of events, but this was hardly the fight, and these were hardly the allies, they wanted.

And so comes the point when desertion becomes imperative, and that is when civil war begins. As of now, it’s still too early to make any final assessment of the anarchist attempts to influence Maidan, but after the beginning of a civil war, Maidan will no longer play a role. From now on, assembly will gradually turn to the army, and assault rifles will replace Molotov cocktails. Military discipline will replace spontaneous organisation.

Some supporters of the Ukrainian organisation, Borotba (meaning Struggle), and the Russian Left Front claim that they are attempting to do the same things as the anarchists did at Maidan, that is, direct protest towards social demands. But AntiMaidan has no structures of direct democracy, not even distorted ones. It quickly adopted the model of hierarchical, militaristic organisations. The AntiMaidan leadership consists of former police and reserve officers. It does not attempt to exert influence through the masses, but with military power and weapons. This makes perfect sense, considering that according to a recent opinion poll, even in the most pro-«federalist» area of Lugansk, a mere 24% of the population is in favor of armed takeovers of government structures. That is, AntiMaidan cannot count on a victory through mass demonstrations.

Whereas at its essence Maidan was a middle-class liberal and nationalistic protest, supported by part of the bourgeoisie, AntiMaidan is purely counter-revolutionary in tendency. Of course, AntiMaidan has its own grassroots level. One could attempt to intervene, but an intervention by joining would mean supporting a Soviet, imperialist approach. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Borotba, the Russian Left Front and Boris Kagarlitsky have all joined this Soviet chauvinist camp. Intervening in Maidan made sense only as long as the enemy were Berkut police forces and paid thugs. When the opponents are misled AntiMaidan participants, it no longer makes sense to fight in the streets.

When looking at either side of the conflict one can see a dangerous tendency, which every anarchist and anti-authoritarian will face in the future: the recuperation of anti-authoritarian rhetoric and terminology for the purposes of hierarchical ideologies. On the one side, «autonomous nationalists» who have found sympathy amongst many anarchists, and on the other, intellectuals such as Boris Kagarlitsky. Both characterising warring factions with attributes such as «direct democracy» and «self-organisation.» In reality, these characteristics are either present in a distorted form or not at all. When two different flavors of nationalism are «self-organising» in order to maim and murder each other, there is nothing to celebrate. Subsequent to the events in Ukraine, it is clear that anarchists must explain the essential difference between «self-organisation» and self-organisation to the world.

According to the opinion poll referenced above, in Eastern Ukraine as a whole, only 12% of the population supports the «federalists’» armed actions, whereas the Kiev government is supported by some 30%. The remaining 58% supports neither, and in conditions of civil war, this is the majority on which we should count. We should encourage desertion and conflict avoidance. Under any other conditions, and if anarchists had more influence, we could form independent units against both warring factions.

Unarmed civilians have stopped bloodbaths in several places by moving in between the troops as human shields. If not for this kind of civil disobedience, a full-scale war would have been launched much earlier. We should support this movement, and attempt to direct it against both «federalist» and government troops simultaneously.

In case Russia reacts either by occupying parts of Eastern Ukraine or the country as a whole, we could take the example of anarchist partisans in World War II era France and Italy. Under such conditions, the main enemy is the occupying army, as it will antagonize the whole population very quickly. But it is also necessary to keep the maximum distance from the nationalistic elements of the resistance, as any alliance with them would hinder anarchists from realizing their own program in the framework of the resistance.

The events in Odessa are a tragedy, and it is possible that among those who died in the House of the Trade Unions were also people who played no part in flaring up the violence. People who threw molotov cocktails at the House should have understood the consequences. Even if the fire igniting was not solely due to them, it is not for lack of trying.

In case civil war spreads, these deaths are just the beginning. No doubt that on both sides the majority only wants a better life for their close ones and their motherland, and many hate governments and oligarchs to an equal extent. The more sincerely naïve people die, the greater the pressure to support one of the factions in the war, and we must struggle against this pressure.

Whereas it may occasionally be worth it to swallow tear gas or to feel the police baton for a bourgeois revolution, it makes no sense at all to die in a civil war between two equally bourgeois and nationalist sides. It would not be another Maidan but something completely different. No blood, anarchist or otherwise, should spill due to this stupidity.

Antti Rautiainen, May 2014

Autonomous Action

Autonomous Action

Russell Brand: Don’t Vote – It Only Encourages Them

Writer and comedian Russell Brand is generating some controversy by stating the obvious: the electoral system is incapable of redressing the inequality and injustices facing people today. What we need is a revolution. As anarchists like to say, “if voting could change anything, it would be illegal.” In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a piece by Eduardo Colombo on “why anarchists don’t vote.”

ifvoting700iv5

National Strike in Colombia

National Strike in Colombia

National Strike in Colombia

Below I set forth a report by the Colombian anarchist Grupo Libertario Vía Libre about the national strike movement in Colombia, similar to recent popular protest movements in places like Brazil and Turkey. Since this report was written in August 2013, activists, trade unionists and members of the political opposition have been subject to death threats, showing how difficult it is to mount social protests in Colombia where there is a constant threat of state sponsored violence and terror. In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a piece by the Colombian anarchist group, the Colectivo Alas de Xue, which emphasizes the affinities between anarchist ideas regarding federalism and self-management and the striving for self-determination by indigenous peoples in Colombia.

Colombia3

On the National Strike and Wave of Popular Disobedience in Colombia

The administration of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, now into its third year, is on its heels due to a growing crisis of legitimacy. Shaken by a storm of social unrest, the result of several crises that have impacted among others the agricultural, transportation, health and education sectors, GDP is slowing down and the first symptoms of a national economic crisis are visible. Large parts of the campesino, mining, artisanal and transportation worker sectors, impacted by a prolonged agricultural and industrial depression that originated through the liberalization of the Colombian economy over the last twenty years, organized a Paro Nacional, a National Strike. These workers also felt the impact of the unequal and exclusive recovery in the prices of raw materials that has taken place in a few marginal countries during the current capitalist crisis, as well as the shock effect brought on by the first year of implementation of the U.S. Free Trade Agreement, to which the Santos administration has added 20 other new free trade agreements. The National Strike was observed in rural areas and with fragmented expressions sent Colombia from mid- to late August into a vortex of social disobedience, which is continuing and strengthening the increasing class resistance that we have witnessed since 2008, as well as the escalating cycle of protests that took place through 2011-2012.

The Santos administration has led a political project of one sector of the national bourgeoisie that wants to convert the nation into a regional power, committed to U.S. imperialism but with the autonomy to open itself to Asia. This project seeks to modernize a backwards State and to deepen capitalist penetration in Colombia. Santos’ administration has initiated a Peace Process with the left-wing FARC-EP guerilla organization and a limited policy to liberalize some outdated oligarchic structures, especially in the rural areas, that opened up a wave of expectation and hope among the population. Yet due to the administration’s own characteristics this hope cannot be fulfilled, a fact that has awakened the ire of millions.

All this is happening as elections in which the administration seeks to secure its reelection are on the horizon; the political left pushed into political moderation, fragmented in the electoral arena, is in urgent need of increasing its social presence now that it faces the threat of losing its institutional participation.

Santos is also developing a complex peace process that has put into action the only formula his administration considers efficient, which is closed negotiations, outside the country while the armed conflict continues. This process has led to an increase in the conflict, not in its military stalemate [State forces cannot defeat the leftist insurgents] but in the social dimension that gives us a crucial understanding of the pressure and participation of those on the lower rungs of society, so that an authoritarian and militarist State will concede and guarantee peace.

The sectors involved in this struggle have become central figures in the nation’s politics and a center of attention for almost three weeks. Calling into question all of the current administration’s policies and the neoliberal model with a few obscure but important anti-capitalist elements, these sectors are demanding immediate subsidies and investment plans linked to strategic demands like the defense of territory, and the campesino and artisanal economies.

Anarchism and Social Organization

Anarchism and Social Organization

The Strike has not only overwhelmed the government and security forces but also the [political] left and social organizations. This Strike has been extensive and wide open, with varied and unequal participation. It has been intermittent but forceful and has united four large waves of protest:

  1. The artisanal and traditional miners of the provinces of Choco, Antioquia and the central Andean region of Cundinamarca and Boyaca, all of whom are poor and underemployed, struggling to maintain their jobs, threatened by a government that persecutes and criminalizes them in order to open the mining industry to multinational mining and energy companies. These miners started their own strike over a month ago;
  2. Truck drivers and small owners of vehicles located above all in the western part of the country, who are resisting government plans to modernize their industry that would convert them into salaried workers and monopolize the companies. They also oppose policies to increase the price of gasoline, fuel oil and toll fees that have been on the rise since 2010;
  3. Impoverished campesinos close to bankruptcy, who make up the most important wave of all. The majority are farmers from the Andean region, the Pacific region and the provinces of Santander and North Santander who produce potatoes, onions, rice and milk and who have been affected by the agro-industrial model of economic growth, the massive influx of foreign-subsidized agricultural products and the large network of middle men and speculators. They have continued the string of strikes initiated by coffee growers and coca-growing campesinos during the first semester of 2013;
  4. Civic protesters in towns and neighborhoods who found in these protests the time and place to voice their own protests and demands for health care, housing, jobs. This includes others like the motorbike taxi-drivers, and those impacted by the winter rain floods, the inter-municipal transportation workers or urban youth from impoverished neighborhoods.

As the second coffee-growers’ strike was brought under control, the transportation sector divided, efforts to render the Strike invisible, the regional dialog strategy fell apart in the most conflicted regions, and in the midst of the breakdown of nationwide negotiations due to government tactics the Santos administration, which has used forceful but unequal repressive measures throughout this movement leaving eight unarmed protesters dead, now faces a situation not seen in over a generation: a national strike called by the popular movement that actually impacts this country, that had witnessed the silent and dramatic failures of the 2006 and 2008 strikes organized by the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, and the 2012 strike organized by the COMOSOCOL [COMOSOCOL was created to coordinate Colombian social movements and organizations]. The current rural-based protest movement has surrounded the cities, blocking and paralyzing provincial roads and reducing the delivery of food.

The similarities with the 14 September 1977 National Strike are worth mentioning. It was the largest mass protest of Colombia’s recent history, and took place during the presidency of Liberal Alfonso López Michelsen, whose administration Santos ironically commemorated in recent days. Sadly Clara López, president of the Polo Democratico Alternativo, and Piedad Córdoba, leader of Marcha Patriótica, two political movements opposed to the Santos administration, also commemorated the López administration.

The comparison with the 1977 strike and its demands that our organization has successfully positioned within the current social struggles, allows us to analyze the similarities of both contexts and the frustrated hopes for reform, the social crisis and the initial economic crisis, as well as the important differences that characterize urban involvement and the enormous labour union presence that shaped the 1970s experience.

Anarchism and Class Struggle in Colombia

Anarchism and Class Struggle in Colombia

This current movement also shares similarities with powerful regional strikes that took place during the second half of the 1980s. The current movement is not that large and aggressive yet it is more coordinated at the national level and with a broader or more diverse makeup. We think that the current movement continues our popular tradition of local and national civic strikes as an expression of current/historical discontent.

The outlook of this movement is complex yet optimistic: on the one hand the strength of the mobilization – even though worn out – continues; more civic sectors have joined the protest and the nationwide impact continues to grow. This is exemplified by the smooth coordination led by the Mesa de Interlocucion y Acuerdo, or MIA. The MIA is made up of unorganized independent sectors and the leadership of FENSUAGRO, which is a member of Marcha Patriótica and Dignidad Campesina [potato, rice, onion and coffee growers] influenced by the MOIR [FENSUAGRO is the Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria; MOIR is the Movimiento Obrero Indpendiente y Revolucionario; Marcha Patriótica is a left-leaning social and political movement]. At the same time a national strike of health workers organized under the ANTHOC; a national 24-hour oil sector strike that will not halt production called by the USO; a mobilization of public school teachers by the FECODE, the most important union federation in Colombia, that has called a second time for a National Strike – this time for September 10, and a call for a national strike of university students in October by the MANE in defence of the Alternative Law for Higher Education [ANTHOC is the national union of public sector health workers; USO is the oil workers' Union Sindical Obrear; FECODE is the public sector teachers union; MANE is the Mesa Amplia Nacional Estudiantil. The student-led MANE brought down a Santos-proposed education reform with ample social and political support last year].

Yet the government has taken a hardline suspending dialogue, militarizing the regions in conflict, criminalizing organizations involved in the conflict like Marcha Patriótica and starting judicial processes against protest leaders like Hubert Ballesteros. The popular movement, in the meantime, shows a serious limitation because it does not have the organic participation of urban workers, in neighbourhoods and workplaces, a sector that is highly unorganized but decisive due to its demographic and productive importance to push forward some important change at the national level.

It is clear that despite the fact that former right-wing president Alvaro Uribe’s movement has lost its control over this popular movement due to its neoliberal and antimilitarist positions, it can still be used by the ultraconservative Uribe to capitalize on the discontent generated by the lack of communication, the lack of food supplies, the cells of ill-directed violence, as well as the fear of renewed class warfare and possible social change.

In the current situation organized anarchists in Bogota have participated according to our limited but growing strength in some of the actions of agitation, solidarity and protest carried out in the city and the province of Cundinamarca, mainly in the marches that took place on August 19 in the city of Facatativá and as students and popular educators on August 29 in the National Day of Struggle.

Workers' Struggles Have No Frontiers

Workers’ Struggles Have No Frontiers

For our group, the lessons of the movement are clear: we should promote a broad campaign of solidarity with all people in struggle working for conscious and programmatic unity of the struggles in the rural and urban sectors preparing for the National Strike (Paro Nacional), promoting the strength of popular organizations and their ability to fight in those areas in which anger explodes and extend the protests to new territories.

In that sense we must defend the legitimacy of the Strike, especially the blockage of major roads as the main form of struggle and popular political violence as a tool of self-defence, as we seek the participation of local communities, projecting the organization and the collective control of direct action decided upon by the base to contain their negative effects by that same base, while at the same time we help diversify the repertoire of actions for the eventual response.

We believe we must work to change the Strike into a laboratory of our own power, generating and struggling for our own needs and aspirations for social change, increasing direct action and organizing among urban workers and launching our link with the more dynamic rural sectors, fighting against the Santos administration and the neoliberal model, as we at the same time deepen and open new spaces for the libertarian battle against Capitalism and State control.

Grupo Libertario Vía Libre, Bogotá

Anarchism and Revolution in Colombia

Anarchism and Revolution in Colombia

Lessons from the Turkish Uprising (2013)

Turkish Protesters

Turkish Protesters

Below, I reproduce excerpts  from a recent interview with some Turkish anarchists regarding the uprising there. They discuss how they were inspired by the example of Greek anarchists in 2008 and 2010. In Volume Three of  Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a piece on the uprisings in Greece and the lessons to be drawn from them. Volume Three also includes a selection on anarchist influences in the Kurdish independence movement in Turkey, particularly the ideas of Murray Bookchin regarding popular assemblies, a form of organization which some elements of the Turkish protest movement have also adopted.

Revolutionary Anarchist Action Group (DAF)

Revolutionary Anarchist Action Group (DAF)

Anarchists in the Turkish Uprising

The important thing about this rebellion is that there was no political organization leading the movement. No leader, no party. The explosion appeared on the third day of the protests about [Gezi] park and trees. People went to the streets because of the violence and brutality… of the state. There were also some other motivations driving people into the streets, but none of them is related to any political organization. It is an autonomous movement.

Although there is no political organization directing people, there are anarchists, leftists, and other people who were already organized.

It is important to have experience in clashes; individuals from these political groups talk with the others about how to act in the streets, and everybody decides what to do. There were some important initiatives, like building barricades, and behind them people who supported the effort with first aid, cooking, and discussing what to do next. People were eager to talk more about what to do. This is a new thing here. Information was shared via fliers on the street and via social media about how to keep up with the movements of the police, how to respond to the gas bombs, and the rights of people who were arrested. I have to admit that people used Facebook and twitter in a useful way…

This year has been the most repressive year yet for the social opposition. The government banned demonstrators from the square for May Day. That was the starting point, I think. There were also clashes on May Day. And after May Day, we were not allowed to protest anything in Taksim [Square]. The government banned any kind of demonstration. So this made people angry. We were on streets after May Day to protest various things, but mainly this situation.

The new thing about this occupation is not about demands or ideas. The new thing is the reaction of the people who saw the violence of the state. Before the rebellion, things like barricades, gas masks, and throwing stones at the police, seemed like bad notions for the people. This has changed a lot. Now the people are cheering for tear gas and singing songs about the barricades.

Greek anarchists

Greek anarchists

How have the Greek social struggles since December 2008 shaped the imaginations of people in Turkey?

I think there are some similarities between the 2008 rebellion in Greece and 2013 in Turkey. There are some economic facts in both cases, but these are not the real reasons. The situations are, rather, the expressions of the people against the terror and violence of the state. When the police murdered Alexis [Grigoropoulos], the situation changed. The legitimacy of the state disappeared. People understood the real purpose of the state. This is the situation in Turkey now. The legitimacy of the state has disappeared.

The events of 2008 in Greece attracted the attention of anarchists in Turkey. There were solidarity actions (in which we were directly involved). It gave us an opportunity to talk about anarchism with the people. I do not know if this had any role in self-organizing our society. But at least I can say this: the rebels in Greece shaped the imagination of anarchists in Turkey.

After 2008, another rebellion occurred in Greece in 2010. We attribute more importance to this rebellion, because it was then that anarchists especially started to organize life and shape its context. This is important for anarchism and also for society as a whole. All analyses will be deficient without experience of possible future ways to organize our lives.

Our group, Revolutionary Anarchist Action, had the chance to discuss the similarities and differences with the comrades who came from Thessaloniki who were in the rebellions of 2008 and 2010. We organized an assembly in Taksim Square with the comrades who came for solidarity.

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street

What about the recent uprisings in North Africa, and the Occupy movement in the US?

As for the Occupy movements, they seemed to attract people. But I have to say this: the Turkish rebellion is more than some reformist demands like the Occupies all around the world. The ones who embrace the Occupy movement in Turkey are liberal groups who mostly talk about humanism, state democracy, environmentalism and other issues like that.

Egyptian anarchists

Egyptian anarchists

Do participants in the protests see a connection between opposition to Erdoğan’s power in Turkey and the ongoing struggles against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? How strong is the dialogue between protesters in Turkey and Egypt?

There is no strong relation between the movements in Turkey and Egypt. We have some anarchist contacts, and we shared our thoughts on the rebellion in Egypt, and they shared theirs about the recent rebellion in Turkey. But it is really difficult to organize a common struggle. We have to organize the societies first.

Some people who are in streets use Turkish flags and Kemal flags, which are the symbols of the Kemalists [republican nationalist followers of Kemal Ataturk]. The main opposition party wants to direct the movement, but it is really difficult for them, because they do not have any logical perspective to mobilize the movement. Sometimes they are using the same language as the government, especially about the people or groups who clash directly with the police.

The demands of the people who are in the streets cannot be limited by any kind of election, or referendum. The people who hold the Kemalist symbols are in the streets with Kurds, with leftists and anarchists. They are now understanding the situation and changing their minds. They are understanding what politics really is.

But as I stated, there are also people from the main opposition party in the streets who wanted to change the way of action.

"We Are the People"

“We Are the People”

What is the effect of widely reported rhetoric like “we are not activists, we are the people,” or “I am not a radical, I am a law-abiding citizen,” from protesters?

Now, I have to separate these two expressions. “We are not activists, we are the people” is a very powerful way to express the spirit of the actions. The state tried to marginalize the actions from the beginning. This is the general strategy of the government: because they have had the votes of the majority for 11 years, they are trying to define all the rest as the “marginal.” The opposition on the streets was completely ignored and described as marginal in the mainstream media for example, on May Day as I mentioned above.

Nevertheless, the Taksim revolt has changed this concept. The people on the streets were very diverse. Different groups of people had been oppressed in different ways. Through the government of the AKP [“Justice and Development Party”], many amendments affected different groups such as workers, women, LGBTs, Alevis, minorities. So “the marginal” lost its meaning, because everyone had become “marginal,” so “the marginal” became “the people.” The prime minister called the people who were included in the actions “a few looters.” The people embraced this rhetoric against those attempts to marginalize the actions. For example, when the actions were reported on a TV channel as “the marginal actions of marginal groups,” one man among the protesters appeared in the frame, slapped the reporter, and asked “Who do you say is marginal?” On a similar broadcast, a woman came into the frame and asked “Who is marginal?”

On the other hand, the Kemalist media emphasizes the depoliticized character of the people in the streets. This is important for them to control the movement. But the reality is not like this. “I am a law-abiding citizen” is not common rhetoric among the protesters. The anarchist character of the movement is clearer. But this does not mean every person in the rebellion is an anarchist. Other rhetoric is like “We are people on the street and against all police.”

Turkish Protesters Fight Back

Turkish Protesters Fight Back

Have there been debates about violence versus non-violence? What do most demonstrators feel that they have the “right” to do in protest? How has this changed? And how have people reacted to those who take more militant action?

Self-defense against violence is not even an issue during the clashes. But some leftist and Kemalist groups wanted to shape the movement as a non-violent thing. Yet, for example, two days ago there was a commemoration in the square for the people who were murdered by the police. The action for the commemoration was just to put flowers in the square but police used violence again. So these situations change people’s minds in favour of self-defense against the violent forces of the police.

Through the riot, many banks and global corporations were damaged, but also some local shops which are known to belong to fascists, or that belong to the mayor of Istanbul or people who have a close relation with the government. The rage of the people was concrete and the spirit of the riot has effected a militant character. A slogan on one of the banners can help to explain: “We are going to take back our freedom with interest, which you have taken in installments.”

It was signed “Interest Lobby” because Erdoğan tried to present these actions as “the game of the external powers” and blamed the “interest lobby.”

turkey-tweets
What has been the role of social media in spreading the movement, and in limiting it?

When TV channels, newspapers, and mainstream media sites censored the actions, people used Facebook to inform each other, not just about the news, but also the information which was necessary for the next actions. Twitter was also another good resource for the protesters. People were sharing news about the situation at the barricades and the positions of the police, but also announcing the addresses of the infirmaries and the needs of the people. People used the “new media” to organize solidarity and support as well as actions. Even today, there is a lot of material circulating, like photos or videos of police violence. The people are reacting to the mainstream media and still effectively using the social media for communication.

Which of the repressive strategies of the authorities have failed, and which have succeeded?

They are still using violence. Now resistance is more legitimized. People’s values have changed. The government is now talking about asking the people about every political strategy. But now people are trying to talk about political strategies that they want to realize without the state.

On the other hand, the state is going on in the same way. They have started a witch hunt on the social media. People’s Facebook profiles or tweets are used to accuse people. Other than that, there have been many raids on political spaces, offices, newspapers, radio stations, and on the houses of the political people. Many people have been taken into custody and many of them are still in jail. Through the raids, the cases are made secret, which means that you cannot see your lawyer for 24 hours, and you don’t know what you are accused of, and many irrelevant things are taken as “proof” in order to invent evidence or hide the evidence of the actions of the police. The state is using this riot to suppress all social opposition. Erdoğan has congratulated the police department for their conduct throughout the actions, despite the people they murdered. The police officer who shot Ethem Sarısülük (he died after being shot in the head) was judged and released by the court pending trial. While this oppression is growing, the people are getting more and more enraged, because of the state and injustice.

Turkish DAF banners
How will this change the future of social struggles in Turkey?

This depends on the organized groups, I think. Because, to resist, it is important not just to continue the actions, but to think collectively, act collectively, and shape our lives collectively. The experiences we got from this rebellion will help in the next struggles, like in Greece in 2008 and 2010.

After the state’s loss of legitimacy, if this is combined with anger against the capitalist process and resistance against social repression, and if this makes people self-organize the whole of life, then we are not afraid to talk about social revolution. But it is too early. These are the first steps for the social revolution in the future.

As our comrades said, “our century has been started.”

With revolutionary solidarity,

Anarchists in Turkey

Turkey Our Century

Military Dictatorship or Social Revolution in Egypt

social revolution flags

Here is a brief excerpt from a larger piece by Jerome Roos on the Egyptian military’s recent moves against the Morsi government in Egypt:

Even if the Muslim Brotherhood did at times seek to directly confront the military’s political influence, the military’s top command remained one of the dominant political and economic players even after Egypt’s first free and fair elections. It never took over state power because it never truly relinquished it: after burning its fingers on a disastrous year of military rule, it deliberately entered into a coalition with the country’s biggest and oldest organized political force. The moment that force imploded, as a result of its own incompetence and arrogance, the army simply dumped it and replaced it with someone more of their liking — piggybacking off a wave of grassroots protest and some of the largest mobilizations in world history to further entrench its hegemony.

This has led to an extremely dangerous situation in which a majority of protesters has now come to see the army as an enforcer of the popular will and a defender of the people’s revolution because it sided with them in the struggle to overthrow the deeply unpopular Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the military command has carefully and skilfully preserved the position of social dominance it acquired over the course of the past six decades of military dictatorship. Mubarak was overthrown, but his authoritarian state was never truly dismantled. As an Egyptian activist told us in an email yesterday, by siding with the streets in the overthrow of Morsi, the army and the state security apparatus even managed to “whitewash” their own previous lies and crimes and now seem more popular and less vulnerable than ever.

For the rest of the article, click here.

egypt

From Taksim to Rio to Tahrir… and Everywhere

Protesters return to Tahrir Square

Protesters return to Tahrir Square

With the media carrying stories about huge public demonstrations now again in Cairo and other parts of Egypt, with millions of people demanding an end to the Morsi regime, and the Egyptian military threatening to intervene to restore “order,” this open letter from the “Comrades from Cairo” collective is as timely as it is relevant. Check out these links: http://roarmag.org/2013/06/from-tahrir-and-rio-to-taksi…ne%29; and http://www.glykosymoritis.blogspot.com.

Open letter by the Egyptian activist collective ‘Comrades from Cairo’

To you at whose side we struggle:

June 30 will mark a new stage of rebellion for us, building on what started on January 25 and 28, 2011. This time we rebel against the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood that has brought only more of the same forms of economic exploitation, police violence, torture and killings.

References to the coming of “democracy” have no relevance when there is no possibility of living a decent life with any signs of dignity and decent livelihood. Claims of legitimacy through an electoral process distract from the reality that in Egypt our struggle continues because we face the perpetuation of an oppressive regime that has changed its face but maintains the same logic of repression, austerity and police brutality. The authorities maintain the same lack of any accountability towards the public, and positions of power translate into opportunities to increase personal power and wealth.

June 30 renews the Revolution’s scream: “The People Want the Fall of the System”. We seek a future governed neither by the petty authoritarianism and crony capitalism of the Brotherhood nor a military apparatus which maintains a stranglehold over political and economic life nor a return to the old structures of the Mubarak era. Though the ranks of protesters that will take to the streets on June 30 are not united around this call, it must be ours — it must be our stance because we will not accept a return to the bloody periods of the past.

Though our networks are still weak we draw hope and inspiration from recent uprisings, especially across Turkey and Brazil. Each is born out of different political and economic realities, but we have all been ruled by tight circles whose desire for more has perpetuated a lack of vision of any good for people. We are inspired by the horizontal organization of the Free Fare Movement founded in Bahía, Brazil in 2003 and the public assemblies spreading throughout Turkey.

In Egypt, the Brotherhood only adds a religious veneer to the process, while the logic of a localized neo-liberalism crushes the people. In Turkey a strategy of aggressive private-sector growth, likewise translates into authoritarian rule, the same logic of police brutality as the primary weapon to oppress opposition and any attempts to envision alternatives. In Brazil a government rooted in a revolutionary legitimacy has proven that its past is only a mask it wears while it partners with the same capitalist order in exploiting people and nature alike.

These recent struggles share in the fight of much older constant battles of the Kurds and the indigenous peoples of Latin America. For decades, the Turkish and Brazilian governments have tried but failed to wipe out these movements’ struggle for life. Their resistance to state repression was the precursor to the new wave of protests that have spread across Turkey and Brazil. We see an urgency in recognizing the depth in each others’ struggles and seek out forms of rebellion to spread into new spaces, neighborhoods and communities.

Our struggles share a potential to oppose the global regime of nation states. In crisis as in prosperity, the state — in Egypt under the rule of Mubarak, the Military Junta or the Muslim Brotherhood — continues to dispossess and disenfranchise in order to preserve and expand the wealth and privilege of those in power.

None of us are fighting in isolation. We face common enemies from Bahrain, Brazil and Bosnia, Chile, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Kurdistan, Tunisia, Sudan, the Western Sahara and Egypt. And the list goes on. Everywhere they call us thugs, vandals, looters and terrorists. We are fighting more than economic exploitation, naked police violence or an illegitimate legal system. It is not rights or reformed citizenship that we fight for.

We oppose the nation-state as a centralized tool of repression, that enables a local elite to suck the life out of us and global powers to retain their dominion over our everyday lives. The two work in unison with bullets and broadcasts and everything in between. We are not advocating to unify or equate our various battles, but it is the same structure of authority and power that we have to fight, dismantle, and bring down. Together, our struggle is stronger.

We want the downfall of the System.

Comrades from Cairo

Egyptian protesters storm the Muslim Brotherhood

Egyptian protesters storm the Muslim Brotherhood

Building the Revolution in Greece

The New Anarchism (1974-2012)

The New Anarchism

Below I reproduce excerpts from a recent report at Truthout by Joshua Stephens on the constructive efforts by Greek anarchists to create alternatives to capitalism and the nation-state. The approaches they have been developing since the uprising in 2008 are similar to those proposed by Alexander Berkman based on his experiences during the Russian Revolution. Directly democratic popular assemblies formed the basis of the anarchist collectives during the Spanish Revolution, and were later championed by Murray Bookchin. Stephens refers to Colin Ward, whose ground breaking article on anarchism as a theory of organization is included in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Anarchist alternatives to capitalism and hierarchical organization are well documented in all three volumes of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, now on sale at AK Press.

Joshua Stephen’s on the situation in Greece:

“On the first day of the uprising, we smashed the police stations,” an anarchist in Thessaloniki told me last spring.  “On the second, we smashed the banks.  On the third, there was nothing left to smash, and we were suddenly faced with the fact that we didn’t really know what to do.”  It seems to have been a widespread frustration.  The occupations of academic and political institutions that occurred amidst the uprising gave way to what are called Popular Assemblies in some 70 neighborhoods across Athens.

About half of these are still operating, composed of an often unlikely spectrum of participants.  Anarchists, local workers, even municipal employees and officeholders all collaborate off the political grid in democratically administering needs, redistributing available resources and bolstering existing struggles against both austerity and the steady creep of fascism.

Their strategy can be read in a short 1958 article by Colin Ward in the British anarchist journal Freedom, entitled “The Unwritten Handbook”:  “The choice between libertarian and authoritarian solutions occurs every day and in every way, and the extent to which we choose, or accept…  or lack the imagination and inventiveness to discover alternatives to the authoritarian solutions to small problems is the extent to which we are their powerless victims in big affairs.”  When a round of austerity measures included a new and often unaffordable property tax in electricity bills, many Greeks saw their power abruptly cut.  Popular Assemblies began compiling lists of households without power, ranking them based on vulnerability (age, the presence of infants, etc.), and deploying qualified people to restore electricity, illegally.

On a cool April evening in the neighborhood of Peristeri, assembly participants debated models for localizing economic transactions through alternative currencies and non-monetary programs like time-banks.  Over drinks following a talk I gave last spring, the bulk of the questions from local anarchists known the world over for bravado and street warfare were about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, an overwhelmingly liberal phenomena back home, hardly considered political (much less radical).  In Greece, however, forging direct relationships with the agricultural sector amounts to a fuck-you to the International Monetary Fund and its threats of import cutoffs, issued to leverage passage of austerity measures.

During my few days on the ground in Athens this trip, I was invited to an anti-fascist march organized by the Popular Assemblies of south Athens.  It marked what felt like an expansion of their role into directly confronting Golden Dawn, where the state has proved either unwilling or unable to tread. “If we don’t resist in every neighborhood, they will soon become our prisons” could be heard reverberating off the facades of buildings.

Counting by tens, I estimated roughly a thousand marching from the commercial plaza adjacent to the Dafni Metro, winding through a number of its various neighborhoods before reaching a former military installation occupied and renamed Asyrmatos Greek for “wireless,” referring to the towering antennas jutting out of what is now a sizable community garden and community-managed conservatory.

In the adjacent neighborhood of Aghios Dimitrios, where much of the march was organized, the Popular Assembly meets weekly in theatrical space of a local municipal building.  On the surface, it appears quite innocuous, as though it’s scheduled through an arrangement with the local government.  I was surprised to learn that each week’s meeting is a sort of micro-occupation; participants simply walk in and seize the space, with zero visible pushback from employees, and no police response.  “In 2008 (during the uprising), we seized the building for a month,” one local told me.  “So, I think that, for them, two hours a week is a bargain.”

The oldest Popular Assembly in Athens operates in the neighborhood of Petralona, the site of a recent, widely publicized murder of a Pakistani man at the hands of fascists.  When I visited with them last spring, they were opening a kitchen and cafe space for educating people about nutrition and food production, and operating an extensive calendar of peer-led health and mental health events, inspired in part by Mexico’s Zapatistas.  Today, they operate medical, dental and eye clinics in coordination with other Popular Assemblies, based on non-monetary mutual aid.

As we weaved through commercial corridors and narrow neighborhood  arteries last week, all of this seemed to be shifting from a sort of quiet mode of survival into an overt assertion of power.  Scattered action commanded the attention of onlookers.  Quarter-sheet fliers were tossed into open bus windows, open supermarkets and even into the day’s light breeze, scattering like ticker tape. Two masked young women darted out of the crowd periodically, spray-painting a stencil onto walls featuring a sort of close-up frontal image of a boy with his fist forward, reading “The sons of Adolf will receive a red and black punch” (a reference to the colors of the traditional anarchist flag).

The smell of fresh spray paint hung in the air, the fire to its smoke appearing on walls, the sides of buses, and a newly favorite target in the country’s crisis establishments set up to buy people’s gold.  These entrepreneurs are referred to as mavragoriters a termcoined during Greece’s years under Nazi occupation. “They were Greeks, usually friends of or sympathetic to the Nazis, and they took advantage of the crisis and the starvation that existed all over the country,” explained a young woman, who asked not to be named.  “It reached a point where they were buying houses in exchange for two bottles of olive oil, or quantities of rice.”

The subtext of the young woman’s description seems the soul of the Popular Assemblies:  dignity.  She later pointed me to a communique posted at Indymedia Athens, in which anarchists in the city set about countering the neoliberal mantra heard around the country, and the ethics of the mavragoriters “No job is a shame.”  The Popular Assemblies appear to operate from the inverse that appears in the communique “Shame is not a job.” Surviving merely to revive histories of foreign occupation or homegrown fascism, for them, is a path without hope.

Joshua Stephens is a board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies, and has been active in anti-capitalist, international solidarity and worker-cooperative movements across the last two decades.  He currently divides his time between the northeastern US and various parts of the Mediterranean.

Anarchist Demonstration in Athens

Anarchist Demonstration in Athens

Kropotkin: Against Representation

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from several essays in Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel. I did not have room for Kropotkin’s essay on “Representative Government.” This is the second part of that essay to be posted here, focusing on his anarchist critique of political representation.

vote nobody

Representative Government Part 2

The faults of representative assemblies should not in fact astonish us if we reflect for just a moment on the manner in which they are recruited and in which they function.

Must I offer again the picture, so disgusting, so thoroughly repugnant, which we all know — the picture of what happens at elections? In bourgeois England and democratic Switzerland, in France as in the United States, in Germany as in the Argentine Republic, is not that sad comedy everywhere the same?

Must one tell how the agents and electoral committees contrive, canvass and carry out an election, making promises on all sides, political in meetings and personal to individuals: how they penetrate into homes, flattering the mother, the child, and if necessary caressing the asthmatic dog or cat of the “voter”? How they spread themselves around in the pubs and cafés, trying to convert the voters and entrap them in their discussions just as their counterparts in roguery try to involve them in the “three card trick”? How the candidate, making himself desirable, appears among his “dear voters” with a benevolent smile, a modest look and a cajoling voice, like an old vixen of a London landlady trying to capture a lodger with her sweet smile and angelic looks? Need we enumerate the lying — entirely lying — programmes, whether socialist-revolutionary or merely opportunist in orientation, in which the candidate himself believes no more than he believes the predictions of an Old Moore’s Almanac, yet which he defends with a spirit, a sonorous voice, a show of feeling, worthy of a clown or a wandering actor? It is no wonder that the popular theatre no longer limits itself to exhibiting Bertrand and Robert Macaire as simple rogues, Tartuffes or swindlers, but adds to these traditional types the representatives of the people, in quest of votes and pockets to pick.

Finally, must we talk about the cost of elections? Surely all the newspapers keep us well informed on this question. One has only to reproduce the expense lists of electoral agents, in which figure roasts of lamb, flannel waistcoats, and sedative waters sent by sympathetic candidates to the “dear children” of their voters. Need we also recall the cost of boiled potatoes and rotten eggs “to confound the opposing party” that occur in the electoral budgets of the United States, or the costs of libellous placards and “last minute tricks” that already play such an honourable role in our European elections.

$6 billion 2012 US election most expensive in history

$6 billion 2012 US election most expensive in history

Thus it is, and it cannot be otherwise so long as there are voters to give themselves masters. Think only of the workers, who are equal among themselves, taking it into their heads one day to pick rulers; it will be just the same as ever. Perhaps roast lamb will no longer be distributed, but praise and lies will, and there will be no shortage of rotten eggs! What better can people hope for when they are willing to put up their most sacred rights for auction?

What, in fact, is asked of voters? To find a man to whom they can confide the right to legislate on everything they cherish most: their rights, their children, and their work! So why be surprised when two or three thousand Robert Macaires turn up to compete for these royal rights? We are seeking a man to whom we can confide — in the company of others chosen in the same lottery — the right to ruin our sons when they are twenty-one, or even nineteen if that is more convenient, and to shut them up for three years — or even up to ten years — in the pestilential atmosphere of a barracks! And to let them be massacred when and where the rulers want to start a war which the county will be forced to carry on to the bitter end once it has been started.

Such rulers can close the universities at their will, and either force the parents to send their children to them or refuse entry. Like a new Louis XIV they can favour an industry or kill it if they prefer; sacrifice the North to the South or the South to the North; annex a province or give it away. They can dispose of something like three billion francs a year, which they snatch out of the mouths of the workers. They retain the royal prerogative of naming the executive power, a power which, however in agreement with parliament it may be, can at the same time be just as despotic and tyrannical as the former kings. For, while Louis XIV could command a few tens of thousands of officials, the new rulers can command hundreds of thousands; while, if the king could steal from the exchequer a few paltry bags of coins, the constitutional ministry of today can “honestly” pocket a few millions by a simple manoeuvre at the stock exchange.

It is astonishing to see what passions come into play, when there is a call for a master who can be invested with such powers! When Spain put its throne up for bids, it was not in the least surprising to see the brigands flocking in from every side. As long as this commerce in royal powers continues, nothing can ever be reformed; elections will be fairs at which vanities are traded for consciences.

Furthermore, even if one manages to reduce the power of the deputies, if one breaks power up by making each commune a State in miniature, everything will remain the same.

direct democracy anarchism

The question of true delegation versus representation can be better understood if one imagines a hundred or two hundred men, who meet each day in their work and share common concerns, who know each other thoroughly, who have discussed every aspect of the question that concerns them and have reached a decision. They then choose someone and send him to reach an agreement with other delegates of the same kind on this particular issue. On such an occasion the choice is made with full knowledge of the question, and everyone knows what is expected of his delegate. The delegate is not authorized to do more than explain to other delegates the considerations that have led his colleagues to their conclusion. Not being able to impose anything, he will seek an understanding and will return with a simple proposition which his mandatories can accept or refuse. This is what happens when true delegation comes into being; when the communes send their delegates to other communes, they need no other kind of mandate. This is how it is done already by meteorologists and statisticians in their international congresses, by the delegates of railway and postal administrations meeting from several countries.

But what is being asked nowadays of the voter? Ten, twenty, even a hundred thousand men, who do not know each other from Adam, who have never even seen each other and have certainly never met to discuss a common concern, are expected to agree on the choice of one man. Moreover, this man will not be mandated to explain a precise matter or to defend a resolution concerning a special affair. No, he will become an instant Jack of All Trades, expected to legislate on any subject, and his decision will become law. In such circumstances the nature of delegation is betrayed and it becomes an absurdity.

The omniscient being whom everyone is seeking nowadays does not exist. But suppose we can present an honest citizen of probity and good sense and a modicum of education. Is he the sort of man who will get elected? Obviously not. Hardly twenty people from his grammar school remember his excellent qualities. He has never sought the limelight, and he despises the means by which attention might be drawn to his name. He will never gather more than two hundred votes!

He will not even be nominated as a candidate, but instead they will choose a lawyer or a journalist, a glib speaker or scribbler who will carry into parliament the ways of the bar and the newspaper office, and will add himself to one of the herds that vote with the government and the opposition. Or perhaps it will be some merchant, anxious to get the title of M.P., who will not hesitate about spending ten thousand francs to gain a scrap of fame. And where life is notably democratic, as in the United States, where committees spring up constantly to counterbalance the influence of great fortunes, the worst type of all is elected, the professional politician, that abject being who these days has become the plague of the great Republic, the man who makes politics an industry, and practices it according to the methods of great industry — with display, pizzazz and corruption!

Change the electoral system however you like; establish the secret ballot; make elections in two stages, as in Switzerland, make all the modifications you can to apply the system with the greatest possible equality; arrange and rearrange the voting lists; the intrinsic faults of the institution will continue. Whoever manages to gather more than half the votes will always be a nonentity, a man without convictions but anxious to please everyone.

That is why, as Spencer has already remarked, parliaments are generally so badly composed. The members of parliament, he says in his Introduction, are always inferior to the average of people in the country, not only in terms of morality but also in terms of intelligence. An intelligent people always seems to demean itself in its choice of representatives, and betrays itself by choosing nobody better than the boobies who are supposed to act on its behalf. As for the honesty of the representatives, we know what that is worth. Merely read what is said about them by the ex-ministers who have known and understood them.

funny-pictures-auto-joke-politics-366241

What a shame it is that there are no special trains to allow the electors to see their “Chamber” at work! They would soon be disgusted. The ancients used to make their slaves drunk to teach their children the evils of intoxication. Parisians, go to the Chamber and see your representatives at work so that you will become disgusted with representative government!

To this rabble of nonentities the people abandons all its rights, except that of dismissing them from time to time and naming others in their places. But since the new assembly, chosen by the same system and charged with the same mission, will be just as bad as the last, the great mass of the people end up losing interest in the comedy and restricting themselves to a bit of patching up here and there by accepting a few of the new candidates who thrust themselves forward.

But if the process of election is already marked with such constitutional and irredeemable faults, what is there to be said of the way parliament fulfils its mandate? Think for a moment, and you will see at once the insanity of the task you have imposed on it.

Your representative is expected to express an opinion, give a vote, on the whole infinitely various series of questions that surge up in that formidable machine — the centralized State.

He must vote the dog tax and the reform of university instruction, without ever having set foot in a university or having known a country dog. He must pronounce on the advantages of the Gras rifle and on the site to be chosen for the State stud farm. He will vote on phylloxera, on tobacco, on guano, on elementary education and on the sanitation of the cities; on Cochinchina and Guyana, on chimney pots and on the Paris Conservatory. Having never seen soldiers on parade, he will rearrange the army corps, and having never seen an Arab, he will make and remake the Muslim landholding laws in Algeria. He will protect sugar and sacrifice wheat. He will kill the vine, imagining he is protecting it; he will vote for reforestation against pasture, and protect the pastures against the forests. He will know all about railways. He will kill off a canal in favour of a railway without knowing in what part of France either of them may be. He will add new items to the Penal Code without ever having consulted it.

An omniscient and omnipotent Proteus, today soldier, tomorrow pig breeder, in turn banker, academician, sewer-cleaner, doctor, astronomer, drug manufacturer, currier and merchant, according to the Chamber’s orders of the day, he will never hesitate. Accustomed in his function of lawyer, journalist, or public orator to talking of things he knows nothing about, he will vote on all these questions, with the sole difference that in his newspaper he amused housemaids with his nonsense, and at the assizes he kept the sleepy judges and jurors awake with his voice, while in the Chamber his opinion becomes law for thirty or forty million people.

And since it is materially impossible to have his views on the thousand subjects on which his vote will make law, he will gossip with his seat mates, spend time in the bar, write letters to warm up the enthusiasm of his “dear voters,” while a minister reads a report crammed with figures put together for the occasion by his administrative assistant; and at the moment of voting he will declare himself for or against the report according to the nod of his party leader.

Thus a question of pigfood or soldier’s equipment will be merely a matter of parliamentary bickering between the two parties of the ministry and the opposition. They will not ask themselves whether the pigs really need more food or whether soldiers are already as overloaded as desert camels; the only question that interests them is whether an affirmative vote will profit their party. The parliamentary battle is carried out on the backs of the soldiers, the farmers, the industrial workers, in the interests of the ministry and the opposition.Proudhon in 1848

Proudhon in 1848

Poor Proudhon, one can imagine his disappointment when he had the childlike naiveté, on entering the Assembly, to study profoundly each of the questions on the order of the day. He offered figures and ideas, but nobody listened to him. Parliamentary questions are all resolved well before the bills are presented by that very simple consideration: is it useful or harmful to our party? The scrutiny of votes is made; those submitted are registered and the abstentions are carefully noted. Speeches are made principally for the sake of effect; they are heard only if they have some artistic value or lead to scandal. Simple people imagine that Roumestand has aroused the Chamber by his eloquence, while Roumestand, after the sitting, works out with his friends how he can keep the promises he made to capture the vote. His eloquence was no more than a cantata for the occasion, composed and sung to amuse the gallery, and to maintain his own popularity by sonorous phrases.

“Capture the vote!” but who in fact are those whose votes are captured, so that the totals cause the parliamentary balance to lean one way or another? Who are those who overthrow and remake ministries and give the country a policy of reaction or of external adventurism, who decide between the ministry and the opposition?

They are those who have so justly been called “the toads in the marsh”! Those who have no opinion, those who sit always between two stools, who float between the two principal parties in the Chamber. It is precisely this group — fifty or so nonentities, people without convictions of any kind, who sway like a weather vane between the liberals and the conservatives, who allow themselves to be influenced by promises, places, flattery or panic; it is this little group of nobodies who, by giving or refusing their vote, decide all the business of the country. It is they who pass the laws or pigeonhole them. It is they who support or overthrow ministries and change the direction of policy. Fifty or so nonentities making the law of the country, that is what, in the last resort, the parliamentary regime has been reduced to.

It is inevitable that whatever may be the composition of a parliament, even if it is stuffed with stars of the first magnitude and men of integrity— the decision will belong to the toads in the marsh! Nothing in that can be changed so long as the majority makes the law.

After having briefly indicated the constitutional faults of representative assemblies, we should now show these assemblies at work. We should show that all of them, from the Convention to the Council of the Commune in 1871, from the English parliament to the Serbian Skoupchtchina, are plagued with incapacity; how their best laws — according to Buckle’s expression — have been no more than the repeals of preceding laws; how these laws had to be torn from their hands by the pikes of the people, by insurrectional means. That would be a tale to tell, but it would go beyond the limits of our review.

Besides, anyone who knows how to reason without being misled by the prejudices of our vicious educational system will find for himself enough examples in the history of representative government in our age. And he will understand that, whatever the representative body may be, whether it is composed of workers or the middle class — and even if it is wide open to social revolutionaries — it will retain all the faults of representative assemblies. These do not depend on individuals; they are inherent in the institution.

To dream of a workers’ State, governed by an elected assembly, is the most unhealthy of all the dreams that our authoritarian education inspires.

Just as one cannot have a good king, whether it is Rienzi or Alexander III, so one cannot have such a thing as a good parliament. The socialist future lies in a quite different direction; it will open to humanity new directions within the political order, in the same way as in the economic order.

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Kropotkin: Representative Government

kropotkin birthday

Well, Kropotkin’s 170th birthday has come and gone, and the world has not come to an end. In celebration of being able to continue celebrating Kropotkin’s and others’ birthdays, I am posting the first of two excerpts from Kropotkin’s essay on representative, or parliamentary, forms of government, from Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel, which I was unable to include in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. The continuing failings of representative government are well illustrated by recent elections in the United States and Egypt, where representative forms of government are still being used to deprive people of any effective control over their daily lives.

Representative Government

“The mission of the State,” we have been told in order to delude us, “is to protect the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich, the working classes against the privileged classes.” We know how governments have fulfilled such missions; they have done the reverse. Faithful to its origin, representative government has always been the protector of privilege against those who set out to free themselves from it. Representative government in particular, with the connivance of the people, has organized the defence of the privileges of the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie against the aristocracy on one side and the exploited on the other — showing itself modest, polite, well mannered toward the first, and ferocious towards the others. That is why even the slightest of laws protecting the worker, no matter how harmless it may be, can be wrung from a parliament only by an agitation that comes close to insurrection. Remember merely the struggles it was necessary to wage, the agitations to which people had to devote themselves, in order to obtain from the British Houses of Parliament, the Swiss Federal Council, the French Chambers, a few wretched laws limiting the hours of work! The first legislation of this kind, voted in England, was extorted only by putting barrels of powder under the machines in the factories.

Elsewhere, in countries where the aristocracy has not yet been destroyed by the revolution, the lords and the bourgeois get along marvellously together. “Grant me the right to legislate, m’lord, and I will mount guards around your castle!” — and he mounts the guard as long as he does not feel threatened.

It took forty years of agitation, which sometimes carried fire through the countryside, before the English parliament decided to guarantee to the farmer the benefit of improvements he made on land he held by lease.

As to the famous “land law” voted for Ireland, it was necessary, as Gladstone himself admitted, for the country to rise in a general insurrection, openly refusing to pay rents and defending themselves against evictions by boycott, fires and the killing of landlords before the bourgeois would vote the wretched law that purported to protect the hungry land against the lords who starved it.

But if it is a matter of protecting the interests of the capitalist, threatened by insurrection or even agitation, then representative government, that organ of capitalist domination, will turn savage. It attacks, and it does so with more confidence and baseness than any despot. The law against socialists in Germany is the equivalent of the edict of Nantes; and not even Catherine II after the peasant rising of Pugachev or Louis XVI after the wheat riots displayed such ferocity as the two “National Assemblies” of 1848 and 1871, whose members shouted: “Kill the wolves, the she-wolves and their cubs,” and unanimously, without a single opposing voice, rejoiced in their slaughter by soldiers drunken with blood! The anonymous beast with six hundred heads showed itself able to surpass Louis XI and Ivan the Terrible and their kind!

Executed Communards

Executed Communards

It will be the same wherever there is a representative government, whether it is elected in the regular way or is imposed in the lurid light of an insurrection. Either economic equality will prevail in the nation and the free and equal citizens will no longer surrender their rights into anyone else’s hands, seeking out instead a new organization that will permit them to manage their own affairs; or, there will still be a minority who will dominate the masses on the economic level, and it is then that the masses must be watchful. Representatives elected by that minority will act appropriately. They will legislate to maintain their privileges and will act with violence and massacre against those who do not submit.

It is impossible for us to analyze at the present moment all the faults of representative government; that would take up whole volumes. In limiting ourselves entirely to what is essential, we can avoid the trap of pedantic classification. Yet there is still one fact that calls for discussion.

It is a strange fact indeed! Representative government had as its aim to put an end to personal government; it set out to place power in the hands of a class, and not of an individual. Yet it has always shown the tendency to revert to personal government and to submit itself to a single man.

The reason for this anomaly is quite simple. In fact, having armed the government with thousands of prerogatives which are still from the past; having confided to it the management of all matters that are important to a country, and given it a budget of billions, was it possible to confide to the mob in parliament the administration of such numberless concerns? Thus it was necessary to nominate an executive power — the ministry — which was invested with all these quasi-royal prerogatives. What a miserable authority, in fact, was that of Louis XIV, who boasted of being the State, in comparison with that of a constitutional chief minister in our day!

It is true that the Chamber could overturn such a minister — but for what reason? To name a successor who would be invested with the same powers and whom it would be forced, if it were consistent, to dismiss in a week? So it prefers to keep the man it has chosen until the country cries out loudly enough, and then it discards him to recall the man it has dismissed two years ago. It becomes a seesaw: Gladstone-Beaconsfield, Beaconsfield-Gladstone. And basically it changes nothing, for the country is always ruled by one man, the head of the cabinet.

But when the choice falls on a clever man who guarantees “order” — that is to say internal exploitation and external expansion — then the parliament submits to all his caprices and arms him with ever new powers. However much contempt he may show for the constitution, whatever the scandals of his government, they are accepted, and even if there are quibbles over details, he is given a free hand with everything of importance. Bismarck is a living example of this; Guizot, Pitt and Palmerston were such in preceding generations.

Bismark directing the German Parliament

Bismarck directing the German Parliament

That is understandable: all government has a tendency to become personal since that is its origin and its essence. Whether the parliament is elected by property-owners or by universal suffrage, even if it is named only by workers and consists only of workers, it will always search for the man on whom it can unload the cares of government and to whom in turn it will submit. As long as we confide to a small group all the economic, political, military, financial and industrial prerogatives with which we arm them today, this small group will necessarily be inclined, like a detachment of soldiers on a campaign, to submit to a single chief.

This happens even in undisturbed times. But let a war blaze on the frontier, let a civil struggle start up in the interior, and then the first ambitious newcomer, the first clever adventurer, seizing control of the machine with a thousand ramifications which we call the administration, will be able to impose himself on the nation. The parliament will no more be capable of preventing him than five hundred men picked by chance in the street; on the contrary, it will paralyze the resistance. The two adventurers who carried the name of Bonaparte did not succeed by chance. As to the efficacy of the parliamentary debating society in resisting coups d’états, France knows something about this. Even in our day, was it the Chamber that saved France from MacMahon’s attempted coup? As we now know, it was the extra-parliamentary committees. Perhaps the example of England will be cited. But it should not boast too loudly of having retained its parliamentary institutions intact during the nineteenth century. It is true that it has managed throughout that century to avoid class warfare, but everything leads one to believe that it will break out there too, and that Parliament will not emerge intact from that struggle and will founder in one way or another during the march of the revolution.

If we want, at the time of the coming revolution, to leave the gates wide open to reaction, to monarchy perhaps, we have only to confide our affairs to a representative government, to a ministry armed with all the powers it possesses today. Reactionary dictatorship, first tinged with red, and then turning blue in proportion as it feels itself more securely in the saddle, will not be far behind. It will have at its direction all the instruments of domination; it will find them all at its service.

But even if it is the source of so much evil, does not the representative system at least render some services in the progressive and peaceful development of societies? Has it not perhaps contributed to the decentralization of power which has asserted itself in our century? Has it not perhaps helped to hinder wars? Has it not bowed to the exigencies of the moment and at times sacrificed certain antiquated institutions, so as to prevent civil war? Does it not offer at least certain guarantees, a hope of progress, of amelioration within the nation?

What a bitter irony is to be found in each of these questions and in so many others that nevertheless spring up as soon as one judges the institution! For all the history of our century is there to condemn it.

Robespierre - the original Jacobin

Robespierre – the original Jacobin

Faithful to the royalist tradition in its modern guise, which is Jacobinism, parliaments have done nothing other than to concentrate powers in the hands of the government. Bureaucracy carried to an extreme becomes the characteristic of representative government. Since the beginning of this century the talk is all of decentralization, of autonomy, and nothing is done but to centralize and kill the last vestiges of autonomy. Even Switzerland is suffering from this influence, and England submits to it. If it had not been for the resistance of manufacturers and merchants, we should today be in the position of having to ask permission in Paris to kill a cow in Brive-la-gaillarde. Everything falls more and more under the high hand of government. All that is left to us is the management of industry and commerce, of production and consumption, and the social democrats — blinded with authoritarian prejudices — already dream of the day when in the parliament of Berlin they can regulate manufacturing and consumption over the whole surface of Germany.

Has the representative system, which we are told is so pacific, saved us from wars? Never has there been so much extermination as under the representative system. The bourgeoisie needs to establish its domination over markets, and that domination is gained only at the expense of others, by shot and shell. Lawyers and journalists like to talk of military glory, and there is nobody more warlike than stay-at-home warriors.

But is it not true that parliaments lend themselves to the needs of the moment and are ready to modify institutions that are in decay? As in the days of the Convention it was necessary to put a knife to the throats of the Conventioneers to extort from them nothing more than agreements to faits accomplis, so today we have to stage a full insurrection to tear from the “representatives of the people” the smallest of reforms.

As to the improvement of the elected body, never has there been seen a generation of parliaments like that in our day. Like every institution in its decadence, they carry on while their condition gets worse. People used to talk of the corruption of parliaments in the days of Louis Philippe. Speak today to the few honest men who have wandered into these morasses and they will tell you: “ I am sick at heart with it all!” Parliamentarianism inspires only disgust in those who see it close at hand.

But is it really impossible to improve it? Would not a new element, the working class element, infuse it with new blood? Very well, let us analyze the constitution of representative assemblies, study their functioning, and we shall see that such dreams are as naive as the thought of marrying a king to a peasant girl in the hope of being given a succession of good little kings!

Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson

Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson

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