While crisis – be it terrorism and insurgency, financial turmoil, collapsing legitimacy of governing structures, or a destabilized ecological system – has frequently been the golden opportunity for deeper implementations of the neoliberal consensus, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party are revealing that even in the most chaotic and dangerous of times, there is always the ability to experiment with new modes of living and becoming.
By David Graeber and Pinar Öğünç/ December 26, 2014
Mentioning his father who volunteered to fight in the International Brigades in defence of the Spanish Republic in 1937, he asked: “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?”
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I’m always puzzled by suggestions that left to our own devices (say free of direct oppressive governmental oversight) we could be radically different as human-beings, critters who could somehow overcome their differences in interest/neuroses/temperaments/etc. This isn’t to say that all forms/instances of organization are the same (clearly they are not) but that we would have to be radically different critters to avoid the usual traps of power-plays, miscommunication and such that plague all attempts at organizations over time.
saskia has more faith than i:
Following this interview and another account by Graeber on his 10 days in Rojava anarchists- including those closer to the region- expressed scepticism over Graeber’s account. The result was a kind of conversation of stupidity in which Graeber was accused of being a Western 1930s Stalin apologist and Graeber being (what I’m informed is) typically over reactive in return- for instance I seem to have been blocked by him on social media; the only reason I can think of for this, as we;ve never interacted, is that I blog for libcom where this argument took place.
I will link to that exchange here but will reproduce the parts of it that are any value separately in this thread.
Dec 30 2014 00:01
“Evidence? The reason I said the revolution was anti-capitalist was because every single person I talked to said that they were anti-capitalist and considered capitalism to be the revolution’s ultimate enemy. Many stated the explicit formula: “you can’t get rid of capitalism without getting rid of the state, you can’t get rid of the state without getting rid of patriarchy.”
Dec 30 2014 01:29
Maybe rather than just scoffing at people who are actually engaged in daily revolutionary struggle, you might want to check out some of the voluminous literature produced by the Kurdish movement on this subject. I was hardly going to map out a detailed economic analysis in an interview where I wasn’t even asked any questions about the subject anyway. But if you’re actually curious – I suppose there’s some possibility you might be – I could make a brief introductory list
* the economy of Rojava in general and Cizire especially was of an artificially dependent agrarian economy which suppled wheat, cotton, but also petroleum to be processed elsewhere in the country (there were no mills or refineries in Cizire itself.) Roughly half of land and other resources were state owned but run effectively as private fiefdoms by various government officials or members of their family; otherwise there was a bazaar economy supplying basic needs, much of it made up of black market or smuggled goods. After the revolution the bourgeoisie almost universally fled, and Baathist-owned land and buildings were taken under public control and distributed either to local communes, which exist on each neighbourhood level, and are organised on directly democratic lines, or to municipalities governed by delegates chosen by the communes. These are allocated to various projects, ranging from Academies for popular education, to cooperatives. There have also been efforts to create publicly run mills, refineries, dairy processing plants, and the like to process raw materials that had previously had to be sent off to facilities in other parts of Syria.
* the academy system is a key part of the economic strategy, offering 6 week intensive courses in various forms of expertise that had previously been monopolised by the Baathist, which was very much a rule-by-experts style of administration. There is a conscious strategy of deprofessionalization of knowledge to prevent the emergence of new technocratic classes. Economic academies not only train in technical knowledge but emphasise cooperative management and aim to disseminate such skills to as much of the population as possible.
* The aim is to connect cooperatives directly to one another so as to ultimately eliminate the use of money entirely in the cooperative sector.
* in addition to the collectives and cooperative sector there’s an “open economy” sector which includes the existing bazaar economy, which, however, now falls under the ultimate authority of the local communes which intervene to enforce price ceilings on anything considered an essential commodity. Since there is a strict economic embargo on Rojava, most of the goods available in the bazaars are actually smuggled in from elsewhere, so it’s not surprising it remains largely in private hands. Key necessities (mainly wheat and petrol that are produced locally) are distributed free to local communes and collectives, by a central board.
* We asked about trade unions but were told that since the “open economy” section is basically commercial, consisting of small shops, or even people selling things in front of their houses, and almost all production is in the hands of worker-owned collectives, this wasn’t a priority. There was, however, a women’s union which aggressively organised for the rights of caring labor, paid and otherwise.
* a few indigenous capitalists do exist and have not been expropriated though; some are even part of the formal (largely Potemkin) “self-administration” government; the language used to justify this was that the revolution aimed to “change the ground under which they operated” by shifting the way the economy as a whole functioned, and to change the structure of political power so as to make it impossible for them to translate economic advantage into political influence, and thus ultimately, to continue to operate as capitalists in the long run.
* the unusual aspect of the class discourse was the idea that women themselves constitute the original proletariat (arguing here from the German Ideology, etc), and that class differences between men are less applicable between women. This goes along with the formula that capitalism depends on the existence of the state and the state depends on the existence of patriarchy. The elimination of what was often referred to as “capitalist modernity” was seen as having to involve an attack on all three simultaneously. For instance, the family was seen as the primary place of production, production being primarily of people, and only secondarily of material wealth (reversing the idea of production and social reproduction), and women as the primary exploited class within that system; the solution they are trying to put into practice is to undermine both the possibility of a reimposition of state authority and of patriarchy simultaneously by devolving the means of coercive power into the local directly-democratically organised communes (security forces are answerable to the “peace and consensus” working groups of each commune, and not to the formal “government”) and ensuring that both the security forces themselves and the communes are composed of women. The emphasis on giving women military and weapons training is not a matter of war-time expedience; people actually insist it is a key part of how they conceive a broader anti-capitalist project for the transformation of social production which would make it impossible to restore a top-down capitalist economic system.
Well, that’s for starters. There’s much, much more
Dec 30 2014 12:13
No it took me that long to actually go there, idiot. Wow. Three up-votes for the paranoid narcissist who thinks I’m making things up to impress him.
Do you honestly believe that hundreds of thousands of people engaged in a revolutionary struggle, not to mention daily fighting for their lives against fascists armed to the teeth by imperial powers and sent to kill them, are really going to be sitting around plotting and scheming ways to convince YOU that they’re really communist enough? Actually they’re a lot more busy downplaying the fact that they’re anti-capitalist at all when dealing with the “international community” – since just being known to be democratic-confederalist feminists has already set all region powers against them.
This reaction is a perfect embodiment of the “loser left” phenomenon I talked about in the interview. I am increasingly convinced that people like this don’t actually want to see a revolution at all. Anyone who had the faintest desire to see a libertarian communist revolution happen would, if told that, say, a formerly Marxist party had abandoned their previous ideas and adopted an anti-state position, let alone that they were actually trying to build a society based on anti-state, anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchy politics, would not immediate react with scorn, hostility and desperate efforts to prove it wasn’t, couldn’t, really be true. Obviously healthy skepticism and constructive criticism is a good thing. The TEV-DEM people in Rojava were constantly asking us be more critical, to warn them of likely upcoming problems. But what I’ve seen is not that. What I’ve seen is passionate denunciation based not on specific evidence that there’s something to denounce, but lack of absolute proof there isn’t. To me the only explanation of such odd behaviour is that the possibility of a real revolutionary movement is actually a threat to them – since revolutions are necessarily messy, complicated, impure, and above all, mean the involvement, on equal footing, of massive numbers of just the sort of ordinary people who said revolutionaries claim to speak for, but actually, don’t really want coming to their meetings. Sorry. But it’s very difficult to figure out any other interpretation for people who claim to be libertarian communists screaming in rage the moment something that looks like a libertarian communist revolution actually appears.
Dec 30 2014 13:22
I think the anti-nationalists (of which I’m one) might do well to go back to first principles here. The problem with nationalism is it’s (a) a cross-class formation and (b) unites behind an existing – or prefigures a future – state. If it’s the case that the withdrawal of the Syrian state from Rojava meant the propertied classes fled and the PYD forces aren’t constructing a new state apparatus, then it would seem that the off-the-shelf critique of nationalism misses the mark.
That’s a big if, because the absence of a ruling class in Rojava wouldn’t preclude their return or the formation of a new one in party-state form, nor would it mean the PKK isn’t a cross class force in the wider sense of being financed by a cross-class national/diasporic base, participating in Turkish state elections via its various uncriminalised proxies etc.
It would be very good news if murderous nationalist gangs could turn into forces for genuine liberation. But I think it’s pretty much unprecedented for that to happen (EZLN, possibly?), and it’s certainly far more common for leftist guerrilla forces to reconcile themselves to state power (e.g. Nepalese Maoists) or become proxy forces for regional/global powers. It would be helpful if supporters of the PYD wouldn’t treat skepticism as absurd, “colonial” etc. The burden of proof is with those claiming something unprecedented is happening. It certainly isn’t self-evident.
More generally I think this is important because these kind of scenarios – state withdrawal or collapse leading to some combination of self-organisation or prior organised forces stepping in – are likely to become more common. If you look at the regions already feeling the pressure of climate change – sub-Saharan Africa, Syria/Iraq – it seems like states are either abandoning rural populations to droughts and/or losing control of regions to insurgencies (political islamist ones in these cases).
This is far from a classical revolutionary scenario of an insurgency of the dispossessed overthrowing the state, it’s more the state abandoning the population to deteriorating conditions and various murderous gangs. We know from ‘disaster communism’ that sudden crises and absence of state power often leads to self-organisation, mutual aid, and social experimentation.
The claims that there are such experiments ongoing in Rojava and that the PKK/PYD is a nationalist organisation aren’t mutually exclusive; either claim could be true or false independently of the other. So proving the PYD are nationalists doesn’t establish there’s nothing worthy of support in Rojava, nor does establishing there’s interesting social reorganisation going on in Rojava establish the PYD aren’t nationalists (who may, e.g. reimpose private property and turn their monopoly of force into a classical state once the immediate conflict allows such a consolidation).
I can see why people might be skeptical of Graeber’s account, given as he was an outspoken supporter before his visit. But it’s the first detailed information of what’s actually happening in economic terms I’ve seen from people saying there’s a revolution going on. So it makes sense to apply usual critical faculties to a source; try to corroborate claims, to identify opposing accounts, triangulate what’s agreed even among opponents and what’s in dispute etc.
I think this all makes my earlier point, divided we stand…
Some additional resources
Articles, books, etc: http://peaceinkurdistancampaign.com/resources/kobane-the-rojava-revolution-and-the-kurdish-struggle-useful-resources/
Articles, videos: http://anarchism.pageabode.com/anarcho/kropotkin-new-article-talk-london-18102014
4 part video of a public meeting from December 14 2014 Rojava: Stateless Democracy & Democratic Autonomy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5I99PwjC1yQ&src_vid=9YgCYdJncmc&feature=iv&annotation_id=annotation_1659779643
Yeah, I don’t think many people are operating under the illusion that in the void of contemporary power structures we’ll enter into a utopian space free from violence, calamity, or even interpersonal competition and bids for exploitation – such mentality writes an idealistic essentialism into the human condition. We do stand divided, but regardless of this, experimentation with new forms of governance, crisis management and being together is a must. What is the alternative? Accepting whatever comes down the pipe and letting go, drifting more and more into the catastrophic void? For that reason I find the debate on Libcom so interesting, and how indicative of left-wing/anarchist debate it is in general. It always comes down to the optimists (like Graeber, in this case) and those who pick at these developments, criticizing them for being not communist enough, not anarchist enough, not anti-capitalist enought, etc. The thing is that in the search for praxis we can’t contain ourselves in theory, academic debate, and the like; we need to look to real-world struggles, the steps people are taking, the theories that drive them and the material conditions (economic, political, religious, ecological) that underscore these theories. Even if the PKK still embodies aspects of a Third World nationalist program, or if they operate with some market structures entact, this isn’t terribly important at this stage (in my opinion): what is important is following whats going on and seeing where it leads and if it contains immediate relevancy in other areas. That they incorporate a kind of post-state governance, ecological concerns and gendered politics into their program is fantastic (at least it appears so from afar, admittedly).That these are taking root in wartime is something that should give us pause (it does seem interesting that their ‘anarchist turn’ is being correlated to the ISIS conflict. Maybe I’m mis-remembering, but I recall having read about their Bookchin-esque politics prior to this conflict. But then again, ISIS had a presence in the region quite a while before it gained traction in the Western media).
Instead of the Spanish anarchists, a more apt comparison may be the Zapatistas, especially given how the people of Rojava actively cite them as an example. The events in Chiapas are very much the October Revolution for our “post-socialist” world, pretty much inventing the template for how insurrectionary struggles has proceeded in the years sense (horizontal organizing, plays with the notion of identity, the heightened role of media and information technology, circumvention of the state, aspirations for a commons, tactical maneuvers based on the ambiguous role of transnational NGOs, etc.) Many have criticized the Zapatistas along the same lines as Rojava is now – failures to comply with theoretical orthodoxy (particularly Marxists), inability to create a wider transformation in the general economy and the failure to foment revolution on a grand scale. Yet again, the Zapatista moment was a reaction to a particular set of existential coordinates – the prior failures of the left, the collapse of the communist alternative, the implementation of NAFTA and the early hegemony of neoliberalism in general – while also providing a certain catalyst for a whole global resistance, from the WTO protests in Seattle to the Tute Bianche and the Carnivals Against Capitalism, not to mention the first major uses of swarming, netwar, and hacktvist tactics like DDOS. Whether or not the events and Rojava could spur something like this remains to be seen, but its very existence points to something important – even if today we’re meant to think through ontology (as demanded by the anthropocene), we need to de-ontologize our politics, shed the fundamentalism that still clings to critical thought and practice, and see the ways active experimentation is going.
well I think that the purity-testing is tied to a utopian wishful thinking but leaving that aside I’m certainly with you on
“The thing is that in the search for praxis we can’t contain ourselves in theory, academic debate, and the like; we need to look to real-world struggles, the steps people are taking, the theories that drive them ( and the material conditions (economic, political, religious, ecological) that underscore these theories”
except of course that I don’t think that theories can/do drive anything/one (we should of course attend to speech-acts and such that may include the use of bits and pieces of theoretical works), so yes back to the rough ground (no more drone’s eye views) and into the thick of things.