David Graeber: Democracy v. the State

Continuing with the democracy and anarchy theme, here are some excerpts from an essay by David Graeber on the incompatibility of democracy and the modern state. The complete article, There Never Was a West, Or, Democracy Emerges from the Spaces in Between,” can be found in Graeber’s collection of essays, Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire, published by AK Press. I included some of Graeber’s writings on the “new” anarchism, anarchy and democracy in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Graeber explores many of these ideas in more detail in his book, The Democracy Project.

Democracy and the State: The Impossible Marriage

For the last two hundred years, democrats have been trying to graft ideals of popular self-governance onto the coercive apparatus of the state. In the end, the project is simply unworkable. States cannot, by their nature, ever truly be democratized. They are, after all, basically ways of organizing violence. The American Federalists were being quite realistic when they argued that democracy is inconsistent with a society based on inequalities of wealth; since, in order to protect wealth, one needs an apparatus of coercion to keep down the very “mob” that democracy would empower. Athens was a unique case in this respect because it was, in effect, transitional: there were certainly inequalities of wealth, even, arguably, a ruling class, but there was virtually no formal apparatus of coercion. Hence there’s no consensus among scholars whether it can really be considered a state at all.

It’s precisely when one considers the problem of the modern state’s monopoly of coercive force that the whole pretence of democracy dissolves into a welter of contradictions. For example: while modem elites have largely put aside the earlier discourse of the “mob” as a murderous “great beast,” the same imagery still pops back, in almost exactly the form it had in the sixteenth century, the moment anyone proposes democratizing some aspect of the apparatus of coercion. In the US, for example, advocates of the “fully informed jury movement,” who point out that the Constitution actually allows juries to decide on questions of law, not just of evidence, are regularly denounced in the media as wishing to go back to the days of lynchings and “mob rule,” It’s no coincidence that the United States, a country that still prides itself on its democratic spirit, has also led the world in mythologizing, even deifying, its police.

Francis Dupuis-Deri (2002) has coined the term “political agoraphobia” to refer to the suspicion of public deliberation and decision-maki ng that runs through the Western tradition, just as much in the works of Constant, Siey<&, or Madison as in Plato or Aristotle. I would add that even the most impressive accomplishments of the liberal state, its most genuinely democratic elements—for instance, its guarantees on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly—are premised on such agoraphobia. It is only once it becomes absolutely clear that public speech and assembly is no longer itself the medium of political decision-making, but at best an attempt to criticize, influence, or make suggestions to political decision-makers, that they can be treated as sacrosanct. Critically, this agoraphobia is not just shared by politicians and professional journalists, but in large measure by the public itself.

The reasons, I think, are not far to seek. While liberal democracies lack anything resembling the Athenian agora, they certainly do not lack equivalents to Roman circuses. The ugly mirror phenomenon, by which ruling elites encourage forms of popular participation that continually remind the public just how much they are unfit to rule, seems, in many modern states, to have been brought to a condition of unprecedented perfection. Consider here, for example, the view of human nature one might derive generalizing from the experience of driving to work on the highway, as opposed to the view one might derive from the experience of public transportation. Yet the American—or German—love affair with the car was the result of conscious policy decisions by political and corporate elites beginning in the 1930s. One could write a similar history of the television, or consumerism, or, as Polanyi long ago noted, “the market”.

Jurists, meanwhile, have long been aware that the coercive nature of the state ensures that democratic constitutions are founded on a fundamental contradiction. Walter Benjamin (1978) summed it up nicely by pointing out that any legal order that claims a monopoly of the use of violence has to be founded by some power other than itself, which inevitably means by acts that were illegal according to whatever system of law came before. The legitimacy of a system of law, thus, necessarily rests on acts of criminal violence. American and French revolutionaries were, after all, by the law under which they grew up, guilty of high treason. Of course, sacred kings from Africa to Nepal have managed to solve this logical conundrum by placing themselves, like God, outside the system.

But as political theorists from Agamben to Negri remind us, there is no obvious way for “the people” to exercise sovereignty in the same way. Both the right-wing solution (constitutional orders are founded by, and can be set aside by, inspired leaders—whether Founding Fathers, or Fiihrers—who embody the popular will), and the left-wing solution (constitutional orders usually gain their legitimacy through violent popular revolutions) lead to endless practical contradictions. In fact, as sociologist Michael Mann has hinted (1999), much of the slaughter of the twentieth century derives from some version of this contradiction. The demand to simultaneously create a uniform apparatus of coercion within every piece of land on the surface of the planet, and to maintain the pretense that the legitimacy of that apparatus derives from “the people,” has led to an endless need to determine who, precisely, “the people” are supposed to be.

In all the varied German law courts of the last eighty years—from Weimar to Nazi to communist DDR to the Bundesrepublik—the judges have used the same opening formula: “In Namen des Volkes,” “In the Name of the People.” American courts prefer the formula “The Case of the People versus X” (Mann 1999: 19).

In other words, “the people” must be evoked as the authority behind the allocation of violence, despite the fact that any suggestion that the proceedings be in any way democratized is likely to be greeted with horror by all concerned. Mann suggests that pragmatic efforts to work out this contradiction, to use the apparatus of violence to identify and constitute a “people” that those maintaining that apparatus feel are worthy of being the source of their authority, has been responsible for at least sixty million murders in the twentieth century alone.

It is in this context that I might suggest that the anarchist solution— that there really is no resolution to this paradox—is really not all that unreasonable. The democratic state was always a contradiction. Globalization has simply exposed the rotten underpinnings, by creating the need for decision making structures on a planetary scale where any attempt to maintain the pretense of popular sovereignty, let alone participation, would be obviously absurd. The neo-liberal solution, of course, is to declare the market the only form of public deliberation one really needs, and to restrict the state almost exclusively to its coercive function. In this context, the Zapatista response— to abandon the notion that revolution is a matter of seizing control over the coercive apparatus of the state, and instead proposing to refound democracy in the self-organization of autonomous communities—makes perfect sense. This is the reason an otherwise obscure insurrection in southern Mexico caused such a sensation in radical circles to begin with.

Democracy, then, is for the moment returning to the spaces in which it originated: the spaces in between. Whether it can then proceed to engulf the world depends perhaps less on what kind of theories we make about it, but on whether we honestly believe that ordinary human beings, sitting down together in deliberative bodies, would be capable of managing their own affairs as well as elites, whose decisions are backed up by the power of weapons, are of managing it for them—or even whether, even if they wouldn’t, they have the right to be allowed to try. For most of human history, faced with such questions, professional intellectuals have almost universally taken the side of the elites. It is rather my impression that, if it really comes down to it, the overwhelming majority are still seduced by the various ugly mirrors and have no real faith in the possibilities of popular democracy. But perhaps this too could change.

David Graeber

Graeber possibilities

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Robert Graham: Anarchy and Democracy

My most recent post was from a group of Brazilian anarchists advocating direct democracy in response to the current political crisis in Brazil. Whether anarchists are or should be advocates of direct democracy is a matter of long-standing debate, going back to the origins of anarchism as a political (or anti-political) movement in the 19th century. Previously, I have posted a number of contributions to this debate from both anarchist advocates of direct democracy and those who argue that anarchy dispenses with all forms of government, including directly democratic ones. The Center for a Stateless Society is currently hosting an online symposium on this subject. I have written on this topic over the years, advocating a form of what I call “associational” direct democracy that rejects simple majority rule, drawing on the ideas of the feminist political theorist, Carole Pateman (see for example, “The Role of Contract in Anarchist Ideology,” in For Anarchism (1989), ed. David Goodway). Recently, I contributed a piece to the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, in which I discuss the historical origins of the debate and some of the more theoretical issues, including the development of anarchist conceptions of direct democracy that seek to transcend a simple majoritarian decision-making model.

Anarchy and Democracy

The relationship between anarchy and democracy has always been ambivalent. Both concepts have had many different interpretations, both positive and negative. Anarchy is equated with chaos, a “war of all against all,” and terrorism. Democracy is equated with “mobocracy,” one step away from tyranny, or simply as a sham. But when conceived in a more positive light, anarchy and democracy share some similar characteristics, particularly when democracy is conceived as a form of social organization that gives people the power to participate directly in the making of the decisions regarding their own lives, workplaces and communities, instead of that decision-making power being given to “representatives” who then make those decisions, allegedly on the people’s behalf. Anarchy and direct, as opposed to representative, democracy, both seek to realize a social form of freedom in equality and equality in freedom. Both therefore are subversive of the existing social order.

But the tension between anarchy, which seeks to reject all rule, and even direct democracy, which purports to provide for collective self-rule, remains. And this tension is something that anarchists have grappled with since the time of the 1789 French Revolution.

During the French Revolution, there was open conflict between the supporters of representative government, or “parliamentarianism,” and advocates of direct democracy, and between them and the advocates of revolutionary dictatorship. The proponents of parliamentary democracy advocated a system by which people (usually just male property owners) would elect representatives who would then form a government that would rule over everyone (including those without any right to vote, such as women and workers). The proponents of direct democracy advocated that everyone should be able to directly participate in political decision-making by voting on policy matters in their own assemblies, neighbourhoods, districts and communes. Both groups were inspired by the French political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

In his book, The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau developed two related arguments which both his later followers, and many of his critics, including anarchists, often conflated. His first purpose in the book was to provide a rational justification for authority by means of the notion of a “social contract” that everyone must be assumed to have entered into in order to create a system of government that would guarantee everyone’s rights and freedoms. Anarchists later denounced this argument on historical and theoretical grounds, because the social contract was entirely hypothetical, and because the system of government that everyone had purportedly agreed to did not and could not guarantee everyone’s rights and freedoms. In reality, governments acted in the interests of the small minority of the rich and powerful, guaranteeing the exploitation and domination of the masses.

But what many anarchists failed to fully appreciate was the second part of Rousseau’s argument, namely what sort of government would guarantee everyone’s rights and freedoms. And in this regard, Rousseau advocated a system of direct, not parliamentary, democracy, despite the claims of many of his so-called followers, including some of the Jacobins during the French Revolution. In a noteworthy passage regarding the English system of parliamentary government, Rousseau wrote that: “The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing. The use it makes of the short moments of liberty it enjoys shows indeed that it deserves to lose them.”

However, Rousseau’s notion of direct democracy was unitary, based on his notion of the “general will,” which led him (and his followers) to reject direct democracy conceived as a federation of directly democratic associations, and to the idea that you can “force people to be free,” by forcing them to conform to the “general will,” as expressed by the majority, which purportedly expressed their real wills. The Jacobins used these kinds of arguments to justify banning trade unions in France during the Revolution, and any other kind of association which could challenge their power.

But other people took Rousseau’s ideas in a more libertarian direction. During the French Revolution itself, the people of Paris created the “Commune of Paris,” based on general assemblies in each district, where people would vote directly on political matters. The anarchist communist, Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) later argued that this was an example of “the principles of anarchism” being put into practice. Jean Varlet (1764-1837), a French revolutionary who denounced the Jacobin dictatorship, argued that only the people in their directly democratic assemblies could express the “general will,” and that anyone delegated the task of representing the views of the assemblies must be subject to recall so that they could not substitute their “individual wills” for the will of the people.

Working people in Europe began to create their own nascent trade union organizations, such as mutual aid societies and societies of “resistance,” in order to pool their resources and to coordinate actions against their employers. In France, a practice of direct democracy developed within many of these organizations, with the general members directly voting on policy matters, and any elected officials being subject to recall if they did not act in accordance with the membership’s wishes.

By the 1840s, when Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) first gave explicit expression to anarchist ideas in France, there were numerous workers’ societies and associations that practiced some form of direct democracy. Although Proudhon distinguished anarchy, “no government,” from democracy, “self-government,” when he came to propose alternative forms of social organization as a positive form of “anarchy” to replace existing economic and political institutions, he included directly democratic forms of organization with recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates, such as the “People’s Bank” that was to replace the Bank of France. With respect to large scale enterprises, he advocated a form of workers’ self-management, where the workers would manage their workplaces on a directly democratic basis.

But Proudhon was aware of the problem of adopting a system of simple majority rule, even in directly democratic organizations. In contrast to Rousseau, he advocated voluntary association and federalism. Individual workers (or anyone else) could not be compelled to join an association, and both individuals and groups that federated with other groups would be free to secede from their respective associations and federations. Consequently, someone or some group that found themselves continually in the minority on votes within an association or federation would be able to leave the group and to form or join another one composed of people with more similar views. But a tension remained regarding whether within a particular group the minority could be forced to comply with a decision by the majority.

When followers of Proudhon (many of whom, admittedly, were not anarchists), began trying to organize an international association of workers in the 1850s and early 1860s, culminating in the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864, this practice of working class direct democracy had become well established in France. The Proudhonist members of the International saw it as a voluntary international association of workers’ organizations that should be based on Proudhon’s notion of federation, with no central governing power. The International’s so-called General Council was to be an administrative, not a governing body, and all policy matters were to be decided by recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates at the International’s annual congresses.

Karl Marx (1818-1883), who was on the General Council, fundamentally disagreed with this approach, which eventually led to the split in the International in 1872 between Marx and his supporters, and the “federalists,” “anti-authoritarians,” and “anarchists.” Marx tried to turn the General Council into a governing body that could impose policies on the members and groups belonging to the International, and expel anyone who did not comply with them. He opposed any attempts to turn the General Council into a council of delegates mandated by the member associations, such that the General Council became (at best) a representative body, not a directly democratic one. One of the policies Marx tried to impose, despite the opposition of the majority of the International’s member groups, was the requirement that they create working class political parties that would participate in existing systems of representative government, with the object of “conquering” political power.

It was through the conflict with the Marxist approach to the internal governance of the International, and Marx’s imposition of a policy committing the International’s member groups to participation in parliamentary politics, that many of Marx’s opponents in the International began to identify themselves as anarchists. In the process, they came to develop new, and sometimes diverging, ideas about the relationship between anarchy and democracy.

Michael Bakunin (1814-1876) is a case in point. Prior to joining the International in 1868, Bakunin had sketched out various revolutionary socialist programs advocating an anarchist form of direct democracy. For example, in his 1866 program for the “International Brotherhood” of revolutionary socialists, Bakunin advocated a federation of autonomous communes, within which individuals and groups would enjoy full rights to freedom of association, but envisaged these federations eventually being replaced by federations of workers’ associations “organized according to the requirements not of politics but of production.” These views were very similar to Proudhon’s and the more radical Proudhonist elements in the International, although they did not yet identify themselves as anarchists.

What some of them eventually came to share with Bakunin was a concept of anarchy as a form of what I would describe as “associational” direct democracy – direct democracy conceived as an association (or federation) of associations without any central authority or state above them, with the member groups, each with its own directly democratic decision-making procedures, coordinating their activities through voluntary federation with other associations, using recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates at the higher levels of federation in order to pursue common courses of action.

However, as a result of Marx’s attempts to turn the International into a top-down organization with the General Council acting as its executive power, Bakunin and some other Internationalists began to develop a critique of federalist organization that raised issues regarding associational direct democracy, both in terms of the manner in which the federated groups could coordinate their activities while preserving their autonomy, and in terms of the internal organization and decision-making procedures within the associated groups.

Bakunin and others argued that the only way to prevent a higher level coordinating body, such as the General Council, from being transformed into an executive power, is to do away with such coordinating bodies altogether. Instead, the various associations would communicate directly with each other in order to coordinate their activities, including the organization of policy conferences or congresses, where delegates from the various groups would debate the issues of the day, such as the revolutionary general strike v. the revolutionary commune, anarchist communism or anarchist collectivism, propaganda by the deed and insurrection.

When the anti-authoritarians, federalists and anarchists reconstituted the International, they compromised on this issue, agreeing to have a coordinating correspondence bureau, but the seat of the bureau was to rotate from one federation to another each year. More importantly, the anti-authoritarian International decided that any policies endorsed at an International congress would not be binding on the member groups. It was up to each group, and its members, to ultimately determine which policies they were to adopt. This was meant to ensure that it was the members themselves, through their own directly democratic organizations, who would make the policies they were to follow, rather than delegates at international congresses, even if the latter were supposed to be subject to imperative mandates (which the delegates could violate, as had happened at the 1872 Hague Congress, when some delegates from federalist sections sided with the Marxists, contrary to their mandates).

But if policies endorsed at a congress of delegates subject to imperative mandates, and to recall if they violated their mandates, could not be binding on the member groups, whose own members were to decide these issues, then how could policies adopted by the members of the constitutive groups be binding on other members of these groups who did not vote in favour of them? Bakunin, for one, began to develop a critique of binding policies, or legislation, even if they were decided by a directly democratic vote. This led to the idea that voting should be replaced by “free agreement,” and to the development of anarchist theories of organization based more on notions of voluntary association than on notions of direct democracy. Anarchy and democracy began again to be conceived as distinct, rather than complimentary, concepts, mainly by anarchist communists, such as Elisée Reclus (1830-1905), Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) and Kropotkin.

Writing about the Paris Commune of 1871, Kropotkin suggested that the Commune had no more need for an internal government than for a central government above it, with the people instead forming “themselves freely according to the necessities dictated to them by life itself.” Rather than a formal structure of even directly democratic assemblies federated into a commune or city-wide organization, then regional, national and international federations, there would be “the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, for all imaginable aims; ever changing, ever modified associations which carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which answer to the multiple aspirations of all.”

While some of the anarchists and socialists in the anti-authoritarian International began to move toward a “communalist” position, such as Paul Brousse, Gustave Lefrançais and Adhemar Schwitzguébel, advocating participation in municipal elections and the creation of socialist communes, Elisée Reclus and other anarchist communists rejected that approach, reminding everyone that they were “no more communalists than statists; we are anarchists. Let us not forget that.” As Malatesta later put it, “anarchists do not recognise that the majority as such, even if it were possible to establish beyond doubt what it wanted, has the right to impose itself on the dissident minorities by the use of force.”

In various parts of Europe, some of the anarchist communists opted for small groups of anarchist militants with no formal networks or federations, with decisions being based on the free agreement of each member. In Spain, the majority of the anarchists continued to advocate the use of revolutionary trade unions and to utilize a directly democratic federalist structure with recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates at the higher levels of the federations. According to the anarchist historian Max Nettlau (1865-1944), the anarchist communist groups in France, which today would be described as “affinity groups,” remained isolated from the people; there was a “fine flowering” of anarchist ideas, “but little concern for the fruit that should issue from the flower.”

There was a return to more federalist forms of organization based on directly democratic base groups when anarchists again turned their focus on working class movements for self-emancipation, leading to the rise of revolutionary and anarchist syndicalist movements prior to the First World War. During revolutionary upheavals, workers began to create their own political structures, many of which had directly democratic structures, in opposition to existing governments.

Anarchists participated in the first soviets during the 1905 Russian Revolution, and again in the soviets that arose during the 1917 Russian Revolution. But there were concerns that the soviets functioned more like workers’ parliaments, with many of their members representing the platforms of their respective political parties rather than the views of the workers they were supposed to represent. This led some of the Russian anarcho-syndicalists to advocate a new form of directly democratic organization: the factory committee or council. Anarchists in Italy and Germany also supported the factory and workers’ council movements there. During the Spanish Revolution (1936-1939), yet another directly democratic form of self-governance arose under anarchist impetus, the libertarian “collectives,” in which all members of the community participated regardless of their role in the production and distribution process.

Anarchists critical of the notion of majority rule, even in directly democratic organizations, such as Malatesta, nevertheless participated in these movements, seeking to push them as far as they could go. This was also the approach advocated by Kropotkin. Despite having anarchy as their goal, where social relations and collective decision-making would be based on free agreement and voluntary association, they recognized that directly democratic popular organizations were a step toward that goal.

In the 1960s, Murray Bookchin argued for directly democratic community or neighbourhood assemblies, that would enable everyone to participate directly in policy making, as the political basis for a decentralized ecological form of anarchism. But he also saw a positive role for both affinity groups, which would act as revolutionary “catalysts” and would also form the “cell tissue” of an eco-anarchist society, and factory or workplace councils through which workers would manage their own workplaces. Later he became more narrowly focused on the concept of directly democratic municipal government, which he called “communalism,” and eventually rejected the anarchist label altogether.

During the anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s and 80s, among the more radical “second wave” feminist movements of the same era, and then the so-called “anti-globalization” and “Occupy” movements of more recent years, anarchists have sought to create affinity group based social movements that coalesce into broader networks or webs, creating an amalgam of social forms that combine affinity based small group organization with various forms of direct democracy and voluntary federation, similar to what Bookchin had advocated in the 1960s.

But contemporary anarchists, such as David Graeber, conceive of direct democracy in broader terms than Bookchin, recognizing that there are “Non-Western” forms of direct democracy that are more consensus based, in contrast to systems where decisions are ultimately based on a majority vote. Feminist political theorists, such as Carole Pateman, have also criticized simple majority rule within directly democratic forms of organization, arguing that those in the minority cannot be forced to obey, as this would reintroduce domination within the groups.

Yet the debate about whether anarchy and democracy are compatible continues. One can argue for more sophisticated decision making processes that are more inclusive and which are meant to prevent the domination of directly democratic groups by powerful personalities, or simply by those who are more active or have greater stamina; or one can argue that the concept of “democracy” has become so corrupted that anarchists should no longer make any use of it.

But one could just as well argue that the concept of “anarchy” has become so twisted in the popular imagination that its negative connotations now outweigh the positive to such an extent that the concept should simply be abandoned. It really depends on the concrete circumstances in which you find yourself. Rather than arguing about which labels to adopt or promote, perhaps it would be better to work with others in creating non-hierarchical organizations in which everyone really does have an equal voice, and then see where they can take you.

Robert Graham

2015: Year in Review

Circle A

Just got my annual report from WordPress. During the past year, my three most popular posts were “Libertarian Revolution in Rojava,” David Graeber’s “There is a real revolution in Rojava,” and “Further Reflections on the Revolution in Rojava” by Janet Biehl. For more recent stories about the Kurdish struggle for self-determination, particularly for women, see this article in the Washington Post, and this article in the Huffington Post regarding Murray Bookchin’s continuing influence among the Kurds. Here is an excerpt from an article from last fall by Carne Ross on the situation in Rojava, noting the war that Turkey is waging against the Kurds, a war largely ignored by the mainstream media, which likes to pretend that Turkey is helping in the fight against ISIS. The full article can by found here on Ross’ blog. I included material from Kurdish anarchists and Janet Biehl’s interview with Kurdish “democratic confederalists” in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

anarchy_rojava_STIM

Power to the People of Rojava

I visited Rojava last month while filming a documentary about the failings of the western model of democracy. The region covers a substantial “corner” of north-east Syria and has a population of approximately 3m, yet it is not easy to get to. The only passage is by small boat or a creaky pontoon bridge across the Tigris from Iraq.

Turkey has closed its borders with Rojava, preventing all movement from the north, including humanitarian supplies to Kurdish-controlled areas. To the south, in Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government does not make access easy; permits for journalists are not straightforward and, we were told, repeat visits are discouraged.

The isolation is not only physical. Turkey regards the Syrian Kurd YPG militia that is fighting the jihadi organisation Isis in Rojava as synonymous with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a longstanding enemy inside Turkey. The YPG’s advance against Isis along Syria’s northern border has been halted by the declaration by Turkey of a so-called “safe zone” to the west of the Euphrates between the front line and the Kurdish-controlled canton of Afrin in the north-west. For the Kurds, the motive seems transparently clear: to prevent the formation of a contiguous area of Kurdish control along Turkey’s southern border.

The KRG, which collaborates with Turkey against the PKK, has also been reluctant to support the YPG, even though they share a common enemy in the shape of Isis. Turkey has likewise pressured the US to eschew the Syrian Kurds, although in the past few days Washington has come out in more open support, including delivering arms supplies to the YPG. Meanwhile, the Kurds maintain an uneasy truce with the Syrian regime, which keeps two small bases in Rojava but otherwise has no military presence here — a tacit deal whereby the Kurds control the territory in return for not fighting the regime.

Those journalists that do get here naturally gravitate to the front lines like the devastated city of Kobani; similarly, images of the photogenic young women who make up the female Kurdish militia, the YPJ, are more eye-catching than the village hall meetings that comprise the reality of an innovative grassroots democracy. But it is in those dusty assemblies across Rojava that a democratic revolution is taking place.

Carne Ross, October 2015

Emma Goldman "Happy New Year"

Emma Goldman “Happy New Year”

The Fight for Kobane Continues

Turkish anarchists in support of the Rojavan Revolution

Turkish anarchists in support of the Rojavan Revolution

Previously, I posted material by David Graeber and Janet Biehl on the libertarian social revolution in Rojava, the region in northern Syria where the city of Kobane was under attack by ISIS militants. Here, I reproduce an edited version of a January 2015 radio interview with members of the Turkish revolutionary anarchist group, DAF (Revolutionary Anarchist Action), regarding the situation in Rojava and the support Turkish anarchists have been providing there. In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included material by Kurdish anarchists from the 1990s proposing a social revolutionary anarchist approach for the Kurds, and an interview Janet Biehl did regarding the movement for “communal democracy” among the Kurds.

kobanesolidarity_oct11_4

The people living in the [Rojava] region are mostly Kurds, who have been living there for hundreds of years. This region has never been represented by a state. Because of that, the people of the region have been in struggle for a very long time. The people are very diverse in terms of ethnicity and religion: there are Kurdish people, Arabic people, Yazidi people, and more. One of the major Kurdish people’s organizations in Turkey and Iraq is the PKK, and the PYD in Syria is in the same line with the PKK. As for military organizations, there are the YPJ and YPG, the men’s and women’s organizations. Against these organizations stand ISIS, the Islamic gangs, in which Al Nusra is involved. These are the radical Islamists. There is also the Free Syrian Army, a coalition of many different groups; they are supported by the capitalist system, but they are not as radical as ISIS. And there is the Turkish state, and Assad’s Syrian state, who are on the attack. In northern Iraq, there is also a Kurdish state, under the KDP of Barzani, which is ideologically the same as the Turkish state, but ethnically a bit different.

The PKK has a bad reputation in the West because of their past. Twenty years ago, when it was founded, it was a Marxist-Leninist group. But a few years ago, it changed this completely and denounced these ideas, because the ideas of their leader changed and so did the people. They went towards a more libertarian ideology after reading the works of Murray Bookchin and on account of some other factors in the region. To understand the situation today, it is also important that in the beginning, the PKK was not so ideological. It did not grow up as an ideological movement, but as a people’s movement. This is another factor explaining how it has developed in this direction.

The Rojava revolution was proclaimed two years ago. Three cantons declared their independence from the state, from Assad’s regime. They didn’t want any kind of involvement with any of the internationally supported capitalist powers. This successfully opened up a third front in the region. It was a moment when the states in the region lost power.

This began as a project of the Kurdish struggle. It involves directly democratic practices like people’s assemblies, and it is focused on ethnic diversity, power to the people, and women’s liberation, which is a big focus of the Kurdish movement in general, not just in Rojava. They formed their own defense units, which are voluntary organizations just made up of the people who are living there.

DAF

DAF [Revolutionary Anarchist Action] advocates a revolutionary perspective; we call ourselves revolutionary anarchists because we want anarchism to be socially understood in our region, because in this region anarchism doesn’t have any tradition or history. Our first aim is to spread the ideals of anarchism into the social fabric of our society, and for us the practice is more important than theory. Or rather, we build our theory on our practice as revolutionary anarchists.

We are against all forms of oppression. We focus on workers’ movements and people’s movements that are oppressed due to ethnicity, we stand in solidarity against women’s oppression, and we are active in all of those movements. In Rojava, we were in touch with participants in the revolution since it started; when the resistance began in Kobanê, we immediately went to the region; our comrades organized solidarity actions on both sides of the border. We still have people there on a rotating basis, and we are still organizing actions. For example, recently, our women’s group organized an action in which they called for conscientious objection in support of the Kobanê resistance.

The Turkish state has been attacking Kobanê from the west. In their discourse, the Turkish state sounds like they are against ISIS, but in practice it permits material resources, arms, and people to pass through the border, and it has been attacking the villages on the border. These villages are not very separate from Kobanê; it’s the same families and a lot of people from Kobanê pass through there when they are injured or if they want to join the struggle from the Turkish side of the border. So our comrades are staying in the villages and participating in all the actions in the communes, doing logistical support for the refugees and for injured people.

Lately, other parts of Rojava have been attacked. If you remember months ago when ISIS first attacked the Yazid people, the Yazids were forced to flee from their cities, and they were saved by the YPD fighters. Afterwards, ISIS was repelled. Last week, the Yazid people have formed their own defense units, similar to those in Rojava. So the struggle is growing in the region, with self-defense and the idea of direct democracy gaining more support.

Also, on the Turkish side of the border, the war is getting harsher. The government is using more violence against the Kurdish resistance. Again, last week, the police attacked and murdered a 14-year-old kid. This shows that the struggle will continue in a more violent way. This matter is not just limited to this region; you can see from the recent attacks on the journalists in France that this has to be taken very seriously on the international level, especially by revolutionaries. This also shows the importance of the Rojava revolution against ISIS and radical Islamism. I think that international support would mean taking more actions locally against the real powers that are supporting ISIS.

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DAF has been in solidarity with the Rojava Revolution since it was declared over two years ago. Our comrades have been there since the first day of the Kobanê resistance, in solidarity, to the best of our ability, with the peoples’ struggle for freedom. We always knew that Kobanê would not fall and it didn’t fall, contrary to what mainstream media reported a hundred times since the resistance began. One month ago, ISIS controlled 40% of Kobanê, now it’s 20% and they are backing off. [Since this interview was conducted, ISIS has been completely driven out of Kobanê.] Given that ISIS is losing their battles with other forces in the region and getting weaker, we can say that the Kobanê resistance was successful.

The resources and skills would be different for every specific struggle. The level of oppression and violence are different in every region and the skills for resistance are best built on direct experience. However, the skills of organization and the culture of sharing and solidarity are at least as important as any particular skills for resistance. These are almost universal. DAF has built its own experience on the culture of the commune and struggle against oppression as well as a long-term relationship of mutual solidarity with the Kurdish people and other struggles for freedom in Anatolia and Kurdistan…

The Turkish state has had to take steps backward in relation to the resistance in Kobanê. It has stopped openly supporting ISIS, although it is still supporting ISIS behind the scenes. It had occupying plans in the name of creating a “security region,” which included military intervention to weaken the Kurdish struggle and also attacking Assad’s forces in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria. These plans have failed.

The solidarity actions carried out by social movements for liberation spread around the world to an extent that was unseen in recent years. This international solidarity was an important factor in the success of the Kobanê resistance. Rojava is another example proving that people can make a revolution without a vanguard party or a group of the elite, even where there is no industry. And this can happen in a place like the Middle East, where struggling for freedom means fighting against all kinds of oppression, including patriarchy as well as massacres based on ethnicity and religion.

It is obvious that the actions of Islamic State benefit the powers (economic and political) that have goals in the region. These could be direct or indirect benefits that strengthen the hand of these powers. For example, a radical Islamist group is useful for Western economic or political powers to make propaganda about defending Western values. Islamic terror is one of the biggest issues that Western countries make propaganda about. Moreover, it is also a political reality that some countries, including the US, have agreements with these fundamentalists. This is the 50-year-running Middle East policy of Western countries.

DAF in Kobane

DAF in Kobane

The Turkish state expressed a negative view of the Islamic State in every speech of its bureaucrats. But we have witnessed real political cooperation of the Turkish state with the Islamic State in relation to the resistance in Kobanê. So in this situation, it appears that they are supporting Islamic State but they are claiming that they are not supporting it.

The Turkish state has been providing large amounts of arms, supplies, and recruits to ISIS ever since the time when it was part of the globally supported Free Syrian Army. This support continues surreptitiously, since politically the Turkish state had to seem to be against ISIS after the resistance in Kobanê succeeded. Our comrades at the Turkish border with Syria are still reporting suspiciously large transports crossing it. The Turkish state has strong relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, and their joint long-term goal is to gain more power in the region by eliminating Assad’s authority. ISIS is their ally in this respect also…

US airstrikes began very late, after it was evident that Kobanê would not fall, and they were not critical. The bombings also hit the areas in YPG control “by mistake.” And some ammunition landed in the hands of ISIS also “by mistake.”

The success of the Kobanê Resistance can only be attributed to the self-organized power of the people’s armed forces. Because of this strong resistance, as well as extensive international solidarity, the US and its allies had to take steps backward. The bombings and media coverage are part of the political maneuvers against the revolution that will try to destroy it by including it. However, the Rojava Revolution is part of a long history of Kurdish people’s struggle for freedom. Its insistence on being stateless, its gains in the liberation of women, etc. are not coincidences. The challenge is to communicate the values created in the Rojava Revolution and the political reality of wartime conditions…

The people’s self-defense forces in Rojava include all ages, both men and women (who are already legendary fighters) from all ethnic and religious backgrounds in the region. The hierarchy created in the armed struggle of the guerrilla [army] does not necessarily mean an exclusive authority in the social structures created by the revolution. This awareness is a part of the Rojava peoples’ struggle for freedom…

The importance of the Rojava Revolution is the revolutionary efforts that are becoming generalized. This is a mutual process in which the people of Rojava are becoming aware about social revolution and at the same time are shaping a social revolution. The YPG and YPJ are self-defense organizations created by the people. The character of both organizations has been criticized in many texts as authoritarian.

Similar discussions took place among comrades in the early 2000s in reference to the Zapatista movement. There were many critiques of the EZLN’s authoritarian character in the Zapatista Revolution. Critiques about the character of the popular movements must take into account the political reality. As DAF, we would frame critiques on the process that are based on our experiences, and which are far from being prejudgments about the Kurdish movement. So there is no cooperation with any authoritarian structure, nor will any authoritarian structure play a role in social revolution.

The Rojava Revolution is indeed made by peoples with at least four different ethnic and three different religious backgrounds, who are actively taking part equally in both military and social fronts. Also, the people of Rojava insist on being stateless, when there is already a neighboring Kurdish state in place. Kurdish ethnic identity has been subject to the denial and oppression policies of all the states in the region. Raising oppressed identities is strategically important in peoples’ struggle for freedom, but not to the extent that it is a device of discrimination and deception. This balance is of key importance and the Rojava Revolution has already proved itself in this respect. DAF also finds that the values that the people of Chiapas have created in their struggle for freedom align with anarchism, although “culturally anarchist” would not be a term we would use.

The Rojava Revolution has been developing in a time when many socio-economic crises appeared around the world: Greece, Egypt, Ukraine… During the first period of the Arab Springs, the social opposition supported this “spring wave.” After a while, these waves evolved into clashes between fundamentalists and secular militarist powers. So the revolution in Rojava appeared at a conjuncture when the social opposition had lost their hopes in the Middle East. Its own international character and international solidarity will spread this effort—first in the Middle East, then around the world…

[O]ne of the biggest issues to understand the political culture of the Middle East is to recognize its unique character. Religion has a unique effect in the political agenda of the East. Not just for the Rojava Revolution, but across the board. DAF’s perspective on international politics is based on an understanding of relations of domination between social, economic, and political forces which cooperate and clash from time to time according to convenience, all of which are useless for oppressed people.

Interview with a member of DAF on the Slovenian anarchist radio show Črna luknja in early January 2015
Link: http://www.ainfos.ca/en/ainfos30977.html

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Janet Biehl: Further Reflections on the Revolution in Rojava

YPJ fighters

YPJ fighters

Continuing my coverage of the situation in Rojava with eyewitness reports from Janet Biehl and David Graeber, here I reproduce an edited interview with Janet Biehl where she provides some more detailed information regarding what is happening there. The unedited interview can be found at: http://www.biehlonbookchin.com/poor-in-means/. Biehl continues to highlight the influence of Murray Bookchin and the similarities between his ideas and what is being accomplished in Rojava. In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included selections from Murray Bookchin and David Graeber on direct democracy, as well as excerpts from an earlier interview Janet Biehl did with a member of the Kurdish movement for communal democracy and autonomy.

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Poor in Means But Rich in Spirit

Rojava seemed to me to be poor in means but rich in spirit. The people are brave, educated and dedicated to defending their revolution and their society. Their revolution is grassroots-democratic, gender equal, and cooperative. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The people of Rojava are showing the world what humanity is capable of.

Rojava’s system is similar to Bookchin’s ideas in the most crucial way: power flows from the bottom up. The base of Bookchin’s system is the citizens’ assembly. The base of Rojava’s is the commune. One of my questions before arriving was whether Rojava’s communes were assemblies of all citizens or rather meetings of their delegates or representatives in a council. But I found out that the communes are made of up a neighborhood’s households, and that anyone from those households may attend and participate in a meeting. That’s an assembly.

Another similarity is that in both systems power flows upward through various levels. Citizens’ assemblies can’t exist in isolation–they have to have a mechanism by which they interconnect with their peers, yet one that remains democratic. Rojava’s solution is the people’s council system that rises through several tiers: the neighborhood, the district, the city, and the canton. Bookchin, by contrast, spoke of towns and neighborhoods confederating. Murray called the broader levels “confederal councils,” where as in Rojava they are called people’s councils at every level, or even “house of the people.”

In both cases they are made up of mandated delegates, not representatives as in a legislature. Rojava’s delegates–called co-presidents–convey the wishes of the people [at] the next level up–they don’t act on their own initiative. So that’s another similarity. In Rojava, the people’s councils aren’t made up only of co-presidents from the lower levels; they also comprise people elected to enter at that level. The councils seem to be quite large. I think that’s a good idea.

In addition to the council system, Rojava has a transitional government in place as well, a built-in dual power. The council system is separate from it but also carries the wishes of the people into it, through various mechanisms.

Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin

Bookchin wrote extensively about the revolutionary process, in his histories of revolutionary movements. You can’t make a revolution just any day, he would point out; history has to be on your side; only at times does a “revolutionary situation” develop, when it’s possible to change the system. He lamented that all too often, when a revolutionary situation came around, the revolutionaries weren’t ready for it. They longed for an opportunity to make change, but they did not organize in advance, and so when the revolutionary situation developed, they missed their chance.

Rojavans did not make the common mistake. They prepared for decades before the revolutionary situation happened,building counterinstitutions, creating a structured counterpower. The Qamislo massacre of 2004 taught them that they had not prepared sufficiently, so they intensified their preparations. So when the revolutionary situation came in 2012, they were ready. When the regime collapsed, leaving a power vacuum, the counterinstitutions were in place to take power, and they did.

Rojavans understand something else Murray argued too, about power. The issue is not to abolish power–that can’t be done. The issue, is rather, to define who has the power: will it be a regime, or will it be the people? Rojavans understood when the moment arrived that power was theirs for the taking, and they took it. He would have applauded heartily.

And finally, I think he would have commended the work of Tev-Dem, a movement of civil society organizations established in order to create the council system–communes and other institutions of democratic self-rule. I think he would have commended Rojavans’ imagination in inventing a movement whose purpose is to create democratic self-government…

Rojavan women

Rojavan women

Misogyny is deeply rooted in the Middle East. Women have fewer rights there than almost anywhere else in the world. Their intelligence and value are denigrated. They may be married while still girls. Their husbands can beat them with impunity, and husbands can have plural wives. And when a woman is sexually abused, her male relatives blame her and may commit an honor killing or even coerce her into committing an honor suicide. She is often excluded from education and from working outside the home, and she is certainly forbidden to participate in public life.

In Rojava this grim condition is undone, as the whole society is committed to creating equality for the sexes. Girls are educated along with boys. They can choose any profession. Violence against women is forbidden. A woman who experiences domestic violence can bring the problem to a public meeting, where it is discussed and investigated. Above all they may participate in public life. In Rojava’s democratic self-government, a meeting must consist of 40 percent women. The institutions have no individual heads–they must always have two co-presidents, one man and one woman. An elaborate series of women’s councils exists alongside the general councils. Women’s councils have veto power over decisions that affect women. Rojava’s defense forces consist of units for men and units for women.

In many places we were told that Rojava’s revolution is a women’s revolution; that a revolution that does not alter the status of women really isn’t a revolution at all; that transforming the status of women transforms the whole society; that freedom for women is inseparable from freedom of society; and even that women are “the main actors in economy, society, and history.” Such ideas are taught not only in the women’s academies and the Mesopotamian Academy but also in, for example, the academies that train the defense and security forces. At the Asayis academy in Rimelan, we were told that half the educational time is dedicated to equality of the sexes…

rojava commune

Rojava’s social contract affirms the inclusion of all minorities, by name. When we met with Nilüfer Koc, co-president of the KNK, she defined Democratic Autonomy not in terms of democracy but expressly as “unity in diversity.”

We met a group of Assyrians in Qamislo, who explained to us that the Baath regime had recognized only Arabs as the sole ethnicity in Syria. Like Kurds, Assyrians had no cultural rights and were barred from organizing a political party. But in the summer of 2012 the revolution founded the self-government, and since then the Assyrians have experienced both improvements in their condition. The revolution established three official languages; Kurdish, Arabic, and Soryani (the Assyrians’ language). Assyrians even have their own defense unit, the Sutoro.

Of course, our delegation couldn’t examine the whole society under a microscope. But we asked the group of Assyrians what difficulties they experienced with the self-government. They responded that they have no difficulties. They participate in the people’s councils at all levels. We learned that in the transitional government each minority must have 10 percent of the seats in parliament, even when they don’t have 10 percent of the population. That’s positive discrimination.

Most important, the Assyrian women have organized themselves. They believe that women are essential to democracy, and that democracy is essential to women. “Self-government means,” said one Assyrian woman, “that women are more effective and can participate and can learn to become leaders. … We have in common with Kurdish women the wish to defend the society. … We have relations with Kurdish and Arab women … The Assyrian Women’s Organization also includes Arab women. We want to improve the condition of all women in this area, not only Assyrian women.”

It is one further splendid aspect of this “women’s revolution”: women of all ethnicities share the same problems from traditional society. In Rojava the equality of the sexes ties women together across ethnic lines, bringing everyone closer together.

a female Asayis

a female Asayis

Rojava has been fighting a long, grueling war of self-defense against ISIS, and to that end the self-government maintains defense forces (YPG, YPJ) and security forces (Asayis). Arming these men and women, providing them with food and uniforms, and meeting other military needs consumes 70 percent of the budget. The remaining 30 percent goes to public services. Rojava considers health and education to be basic human needs, and on that slim budget, it finances public systems for both.

The main economic activity in Cizire is agriculture. With its fertile soil and good growing conditions, the canton is rich in wheat and barley. Before the revolution it was the breadbasket of Syria. Notably, the Baath regime declined to build processing facilities in Rojava, even flour mills. The self-government built one only recently, at Tirbespiye, and now provides flour for the whole canton. Bread remains the staff of life–each household gets three loaves of bread a day, which the self-government provides at 40 percent below cost.

Flour mill in Tirbesiye

Flour mill in Tirbesiye

For the last two years the self-government has supplied seeds to the farmers, and diesel for their machinery, so they can continue to cultivate their lands. The self-government has also created local companies to develop infrastructure and to build roads. And it finances the refugee camps in the Kurdish areas. Humanitarian institutions are present there too, but only symbolically–they don’t finance electricity, water, or education, because Rojava is not internationally recognized; the agencies have to work through the KRG and Damascus, which doesn’t allow it. So Rojava must provide for them. The result is an economy of survival. Electricity and clean water are in limited supply.

Some Rojavans earn wages, but many work on a voluntary basis; still others just make their living, say, from a cow. “We consume bread together,” Hemo said, “and if there is no bread, we do not get bread.”

A sewing co-op in Rojava

A sewing co-op in Rojava

Still, at the top of the economic development agenda is the creation of cooperatives, in Rojava’s “community economy.” “Our political project and our economic project are the same,” said Abdurrahman Hemo, an adviser for economic development in Cizire canton. For two years Cizire has been promoting cooperativism through academies, seminars, and community discussions, and is building them in different sectors. Most of the cooperatives are agricultural, but others are springing up in trades and construction.

Rojava collects no taxes from its people, and receives a small income from the border crossing at Semalka. But most of Rojava’s income by far comes from Cizire’s oil. The canton has thousands of oilfields, but at the moment only 200 of them are active. Once again, the Baath regime exploited Cizire’s raw materials but refused to construct processing plants. So while Cizire has petroleum, it had no refineries. Only since the revolution has the self-government improvised a large refinery to produce diesel and benzene, which are sold cheaply in the local economy. Diesel is now cheaper than water–it fuels the small generators that provide power in much of Cizire. But the canton exploits petroleum only for its own use…

Rojava shares a long border with Turkey, and several border crossings exist. But they are officially closed now, since Turkey embargoes Rojava both politically and economically. The KRG observes Turkey’s embargo, although it has relaxed in recent months to allow trade through the Semalka crossing. But because of the virtually complete embargo, Rojava must build everything itself from local materials. It gets no investment from outside–all production and all consumption are domestic. Self-sufficiency is not ideology–it’s an economic reality.

The principles of democratic autonomy are anti-capitalist, but Rojava has in any case no economic surplus that can be used to develop the economy. The economic development adviser, Hemo, is seeking outside investment. “We want to be self-sufficient,” he told us, “but to develop quality of life, we need some kind of industry.” Rojava needs a power plant and a fertilizer factory. But the cooperative economy can’t finance industry at that level, he told us. “We need help from outside, private or public, so we can build our social economy together.”

In what is called the “open economy,” outside investment is welcomed as long as it conforms to the social nature of Rojava’s “community economy.” Without outside investment, Hemo believes, Rojava can survive maybe only another year or two. But although Rojava must industrialize, it must not create a state economy, or a centralized economy. Even with outside investment, it should remain locally organized: “We need a common economy, and factories should be communally owned.”

But outside investment is lacking, because Rojava’s existence is not internationally recognized. Potential investors have no legal access–they have to go through the KRG and Damascus. And they have no physical access–the absence of border crossings with Turkey. To survive, Rojava needs openings to the outside world. It seems clear that Turkey must open its borders and allow this noble and high-minded project to continue.

Janet Biehl, December 2014

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David Graeber: There is a Real Revolution in Rojava

Revolution in Rojava

Revolution in Rojava

In this post I reproduce an edited version of an interview with David Graeber that was recently published in Turkish by the daily paper, Evrensel. Graeber was part of the group that included Janet Biehl which recently visited Rojava to eyewitness what is happening there. I have already posted some of Biehl’s initial impressions, and previously reproduced Graeber’s call for support for the people of Rojava. In this interview, Graeber emphasizes that a genuine anti-capitalist libertarian revolution is taking place in Rojava, and criticizes those on the left, including the more sectarian anarchist groups, who can only criticize what is going on, when the people of Rojava desperately need our help. I included some selections by David Graeber on the “new anarchism” and anarchist alternatives to representative democracy in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I also included several selections from Murray Bookchin in Volumes Two and Three, where he developed his ideas regarding a libertarian form of direct democracy based on community assemblies. The unedited version of the interview with David Graeber can be found here.

Revolutionary Women in Rojava

Revolutionary Women in Rojava

A Genuine Revolution

If anyone had any doubt in their minds about whether this was really a revolution, or just some kind of window-dressing, I’d say the visit put that permanently to rest. There are still people talking like that: This is just a PKK (The Kurdistan Workers’ Party) front, they’re really a Stalinist authoritarian organization that’s just pretending to have adopted radical democracy. No.

They’re totally for real. This is a genuine revolution. But in a way that’s exactly the problem. The major powers have committed themselves to an ideology that says real revolutions can no longer happen.

Meanwhile, many on the left, even the radical left, seem to have tacitly adopted a politics which assumes the same, even though they still make superficially revolutionary noises. They take a kind of puritanical ‘anti-imperialist’ framework that assumes the significant players are governments and capitalists and that’s the only game worth talking about. The game where you wage war, create mythical villains, seize oil and other resources, set up patronage networks: that’s the only game in town.

The people in Rojava are saying: We don’t want to play that game. We want to create a new game. A lot of people find that confusing and disturbing so they choose to believe it isn’t really happening, or such people are deluded or dishonest or naive.

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I find it remarkable how so many people in West see these armed feminist cadres, for example, and don’t even think on the ideas that must lie behind them. They just figured it happened somehow. ‘I guess it’s a Kurdish tradition.’ To some degree it’s orientalism of course, or simple racism. It never occurs to them that people in Kurdistan might be reading Judith Butler too. At best they think ‘Oh, they’re trying to come up to Western standards of democracy and women’s rights. I wonder if it’s for real or just for foreign consumption.’ It just doesn’t seem to occur to them they might be taking these things way further than ‘Western standards’ ever have; that they might genuinely believe in the principles that Western states only profess.

The reaction in the international anarchist communities has been decidedly mixed. I find it somewhat difficult to understand. There’s a very substantial group of anarchists–usually the more sectarian elements–who insist that the PKK is still a ‘Stalinist’ authoritarian nationalist group which has adopted Bookchin and other left libertarian ideas to court the anti-authoritarian left in Europe and America.

It’s always struck me that this is one of the silliest and most narcissistic ideas I’ve ever heard. Even if the premise were correct, and a Marxist-Leninist group decided to fake an ideology to win foreign support, why on earth would they choose anarchist ideas developed by Murray Bookchin? That would be the stupidest gambit ever. Obviously they’d pretend to be Islamists or Liberals, those are the guys who get the guns and material support.

Anyway I think a lot of people on the international left, and the anarchist left included, basically don’t really want to win. They can’t imagine a revolution would really happen and secretly they don’t even want it, since it would mean sharing their cool club with ordinary people; they wouldn’t be special any more. So in that way it’s rather useful in culling the real revolutionaries from the poseurs. But the real revolutionaries have been solid.

There were so many impressive things [in Rojava]. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anywhere else in the world where there’s been a dual power situation where the same political forces created both sides. There’s the ‘democratic self-administration,’ which has all the form and trappings of a state–Parliament, Ministries, and so on–but it was created to be carefully separated from the means of coercive power.

Then you have the TEV-DEM (The Democratic Society Movement), driven bottom up by directly democratic institutions. Ultimately–and this is key–the security forces are answerable to the bottom-up structures and not to the top-down ones.

One of the first places we visited was a police academy (AsayiÅ). Everyone had to take courses in non-violent conflict resolution and feminist theory before they were allowed to touch a gun. The co-directors explained to us their ultimate aim was to give everyone in the country six weeks of police training, so that ultimately, they could eliminate police.

I think most movements, faced with dire war conditions, would not nonetheless immediately abolish capital punishment, dissolve the secret police and democratize the army. Military units for instance elect their officers.

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The President of Cizire canton is an Arab, head of a major local tribe in fact. I suppose you could argue he was just a figurehead. In a sense the entire government is. But even if you look at the bottom-up structures, it’s certainly not just the Kurds who are participating. I was told the only real problem is with some of the ‘Arab belt’ settlements, people who were brought in by the Baathists in the 50s and 60s from other parts of Syria as part of an intentional policy of marginalizing and assimilating Kurds. Some of those communities they said are pretty unfriendly to the revolution.

But Arabs whose families had been there for generations, or the Assyrians, Khirgizians, Armenians, Chechens, and so on, are quite enthusiastic. The Assyrians we talked to said, after a long difficult relation with the regime, they felt they finally were being allowed religious [freedom] and cultural autonomy.

Probably the most intractable problem might be women’s liberation. The PYD and TEV-DEM see it as absolutely central to their idea of revolution, but they also have the problem of dealing with larger alliances with Arab communities who feel this violates basic religious principles. For instance, while the Syriac-speakers have their own women’s union, the Arabs don’t, and Arab girls interested in organizing around gender issues or even taking feminist seminars have to hitch on with the Assyrians or even the Kurds.

It is absolutely true that the US and European powers will do what they can to subvert the revolution. That goes without saying. The people I talked to were all well aware of it. But they didn’t make a strong differentiation between the leadership of regional powers like Turkey or Iran or Saudi Arabia, and Euro-American powers like, say, France or the US. They assumed they were all capitalist and statist and thus anti-revolutionary, who might at best be convinced to put up with them but were not ultimately on their side.

Then there’s the even more complicated question of the structure of what’s called ‘the international community,’ the global system of institutions like the UN or IMF, corporations, NGOs, human rights organizations for that matter, which all presume a statist organization, a government that can pass laws and has a monopoly of coercive enforcement over those laws. There’s only one airport in Cizire and it’s still under Syrian government control. They could take it over easily, any time, they say. One reason they don’t is because: How would a non-state run an airport anyway? Everything you do in an airport is subject to international regulations which presume a state.

[ISIS] can’t be seen to lose. Their entire recruiting strategy is based on the idea that they are an unstoppable juggernaut, and their continual victory is proof that they represent the will of God. To be defeated by a bunch of feminists would be the ultimate humiliation. As long as they’re still fighting in Kobane, they can claim that media claims are lies and they are really advancing. Who can prove otherwise? If they pull out they will have admitted defeat.

It seems [Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish leader] has shifted from an anti-Kurdish, anti-Assad policy to an almost purely anti-Kurdish strategy. Again and again he has been willing to ally with pseudo-religious fascists to attack any PKK-inspired experiments in radical democracy. Clearly, like Daesh (ISIS) themselves, he sees what they are doing as an ideological threat, perhaps the only real viable ideological alternative to right-wing Islamism on the horizon, and he will do anything to stamp it out.

Rojava-Car-MAIN

At the moment things look surprisingly good for the revolutionary [Kurdish] forces. The KDG even gave up the giant ditch they were building across the Rojava border after the PKK intervened to effectively save Erbil and other cities from ISIS back in August. One KNK person told me it had a major effect on popular consciousness there; that one month had done 20 years worth of consciousness raising. Young people were particularly struck by the way their own Peshmerga fled the field but PKK women soldiers didn’t. But it’s hard to imagine how the KRG territory however will be revolutionized any time soon. Neither would the international powers allow it.

I think the Kurdish struggle is quite explicitly anti-capitalist in both [Turkey and Rojava]. It’s their starting point. They’ve managed to come up with a kind of formula: One can’t get rid of capitalism without eliminating the state, one can’t get rid of the state without getting rid of patriarchy. However, the Rojavans have it quite easy in class terms because the real bourgeoisie, such as it was in a mostly very agricultural region, took off with the collapse of the Baath regime.

They will have a long-term problem if they don’t work on the educational system to ensure a developmentalist technocrat stratum doesn’t eventually try to take power, but in the meantime, it’s understandable they are focusing more immediately on gender issues. In Turkey, well, I don’t know nearly as much, but I do have the sense things are much more complicated.

I’ve spent my life thinking about how we might be able to do things like this in some remote time in the future and most people think I’m crazy to imagine it will ever be. These people are doing it now. If they prove that it can be done, that a genuinely egalitarian and democratic society is possible, it will completely transform people’s sense of human possibility. Myself, I feel ten years younger just having spent 10 days there.

There were so many striking images, so many ideas. I really liked the disparity between the way people looked, often, and the things they said. You meet some guy, a doctor, he looks like a slightly scary Syrian military type in a leather jacket and stern austere expression. Then you talk to him and he explains: ‘Well, we feel the best approach to public health is preventative, most disease is made possible by stress. We feel if we reduce stress, levels of heart disease, diabetes, even cancer will decline. So our ultimate plan is to reorganize the cities to be 70% green space.’ There are all these mad, brilliant schemes. But then you go to the next doctor and they explain how because of the Turkish embargo, they can’t even get basic medicine or equipment, all the dialysis patients they couldn’t smuggle out have died. There’ a disjuncture between their ambitions and their incredibly straightened circumstances.

The woman who was effectively our guide was a deputy foreign minister named Amina. At one point, we apologized that we weren’t able to bring better gifts and help to the Rojavans, who were suffering so under the embargo. And she said: ‘In the end, that isn’t very important. We have the one thing no one can ever give you. We have our freedom. You don’t. We only wish there was some way we could give that to you.’

I am by temperament an optimist, I seek out situations which bear some promise. I don’t think there’s any guarantee this one will work out in the end, that it won’t be crushed, but it certainly won’t [last] if everyone decides in advance that no revolution is possible and refuse to give active support, or even devote their efforts to attacking it or increasing its isolation, which many do.

If there’s something I’m aware of, that others aren’t, perhaps it’s the fact that history isn’t over. Capitalists have made a mighty effort these past 30 or 40 years to convince people that current economic arrangements–not even capitalism, but the peculiar, financialized, semi-feudal form of capitalism we happen to have today–is the only possible economic system. They’ve put far more effort into that than they have into actually creating a viable global capitalist system. As a result the system is breaking down all around us at just the moment when everyone has lost the ability to imagine anything else.

I think it’s pretty obvious that in 50 years, capitalism in any form we’d recognize, and probably in any form at all, will be gone. Something else will have replaced it. That something might not be better. It might be even worse. It seems to me for that very reason it’s our responsibility, as intellectuals, or just as thoughtful human beings, to try to at least think about what something better might look like. And if there are people actually trying to create that better thing, it’s our responsibility to help them out.

David Graeber, December 2014

kobane solidarity

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

David Graeber: Bullshit Jobs

Help-Desk-jobs

Here is a piece by David Graeber from the online Strike magazine, which even elicited a rebuttal from that venerable organ of capitalist propaganda, The Economist. The loss of meaningful, productive work is something that both Paul Goodman and Noam Chomsky have often commented on. I included pieces by Goodman and Chomsky in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas and by Chomsky and Graeber in Volume Three: The New Anarchism (1974-2012).

capitalism

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Why did Keynes’ promised utopia – still being eagerly awaited in the ‘60s – never materialize? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ‘20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.

So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be).

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

work to live_2

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done – at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does.

I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.

useful_work_v_useless_toil.large

Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate objections: “who are you to say what jobs are really ‘necessary’? What’s necessary anyway? You’re an anthropology professor, what’s the ‘need’ for that?” (And indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure.) And on one level, this is obviously true. There can be no objective measure of social value.

I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, “taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.” Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely. Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralyzing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyze London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorized stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.

David Graeber

Food Service Workers on Strike for a Living Wage

Food Service Workers on Strike for a Living Wage