As long as humans have been gathering and cooperating in relatively stable sedentary complexes, issues of social composition and functional governance have been discussed, debated, and often violently contested. Interest in patchwork, then, can (and I argue should) be viewed as a reinvigoration of a long-standing focus on social organization and intentional forms of collective living.
Key here is the notion of intent. One of the prerequisites for such a reinvigoration is the formation of a collective subject willing and capable of implementing such a program, a radical subject particular to a thought-world, a discursive practice, a geographical region, a common history and ethnicity. These are local factors that come to the fore in an era of global breakdown and of uneven development and unequal distribution of resources, of diverse cultural and religious affiliations and unequal distributions of economic and military power. In an earthquake large things break into small pieces. If such a fate also awaits global and regional systems then, for the most part, local communities will have to fend for themselves.
How might such a local subject arise? It may seem to us, more or less gated into fortress Europe and fortress America, that such a radical subject is unlikely to appear on our horizon. As difficult as it is to accept the reality of collapse we find it even more difficult to envision a political subject free of the inertia and cynicism which we seem unable to escape. And yet, such a subject, particular to a small corner of the globe, has already come into existence and is collectively engaged in an experiment that has anticipated our concerns for a future in which “global wyrding ” will be the norm.
The technicalities (so to speak) of how that particular subject arose (or any subject for that matter) are complicated by historical, geographical and cultural particularities that cannot be airbrushed out by philosophical theorising and generalisation. Never-the-less, there are rich philosophical resources to be deployed in trying to understand how a subject comes to appear in a discursive/social world. That said, the following caveats seem to me essential: any description of the way a subject arises in a world is itself a discourse operating in a world. No form of subjecthood encompasses the human, not because there is an excess as such but because the human never enters into a discourse or practice, but is the groundless ground for all discursive practices. This, of course is not an ontological statement, much less a scientific one, but an axiom which allows an operation in and on subjects and worlds, challenging authorities from a position of ontological and epistemic poverty and philosophical/heretical refusal.
If the deployment of such an axiom seems arbitrary and groundless that is because philosophy just is the act of positing a foundational concept – being – that arbitrarily subsumes human discourse and practice into an all-encompassing ground, at once transcending and incorporating itself in an act of philosophical auto-donation. The outcome is always a transgression against the human and not only in theory, since theories of the human just are the raw material for ideological and discursive social practices which, eventually, become institutionalised as habitual, recursive structures of oppression.
“From the delegitimization of traditional political aggregates (i.e, the nation-state), via brutalizing austerity measures and rise of corporate control, to the internal crises of capitalism, brought forth by predatory finance practices, labor precarity and the stagnation of wages, to the cognitive and social effects of mass media technology in a so-called “post-truth” era – everywhere in this unevenly distributed globalized civilization dissolution and alienation seem to be the prevailing tendency.” (Michael James)
Hasn’t it always been so, in one form or another, at least since the triumph of the industrial revolution, for the majority of humans on the planet?
The brutality and destructive potential of capital was already common knowledge when Blake published his epic poem”Milton” in 1808, referencing in a preface “those dark satanic mills”. By 1848 Marx and Engels had theorised the nature of the industrial process and its destruction of a homogeneous and predictable structure of social relation, such as it was in feudal times. In an oft quoted passage from the Communist Manifesto they outlined the world shattering implications of the dynamo at the heart of the capitalist machine:
“All that is sacred will melt into air”
Essentially, all humanised socially useful relations will be subsumed under the exchange relation, resulting in the spiritual and psychical pauperisation of the majority in the interests of the minority.
For workers, – the workers described, for example, in Engel’s Conditions of the English working class– that subsumation was already an accomplished fact. The workers had already suffered, generation in, generation out, those conditions predicated now on the climate crisis; those conditions which were structured into the process of the appropriation of the bodily and mental energy of the worker, resulting in their psychical and psychological destruction and the creation of a already dystopian industrial urbanisation so well described by Dickens, among others.
No matter that, in a outcome unforeseen by Marx or Engels, the general worldwide crisis of capitalism resulted in two world wars and a form of totalitarian state socialism. No matter, in other words, that radical analysis, premised on a form of dialectical theorising, was inadequate to the historical process. We have arrived late, non-the-less, at a disastrous turn, but without the possibility of a negation and synthesis understood as interior to the capitalist process and expressed in a worldwide struggle for political and economic emancipation, a struggle in which the workers were destined to be the victors by way of a necessary determination interior to the development of capitalist relations. We arrive here after the obscenity of two world wars, the wilful extermination of nine million people, the wilful obliteration of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and subsequent untold cycles of imperialist brutality and destruction. Surely Marx has been vindicated in his diagnosis of capitalism’s ills, if not in his prediction of the way the inevitable world holocaust would work itself out?
If the truth be told, the post war era and its technological/consumerist superstructure, what Badiou rightly names the era of “democratic materialism”, was a postponement of yet another round of collapse conditioned on cycles of crisis and boom. Outright collapse was postponed only as long as American and European workers continued to be interpellated into a “naturalised” version of neo-liberal ideology. That compromise is the lynch pin on which hangs the cohesion and staying power of capitalism. The coming climate crisis, which is undeniably intertwined with the acceleration of capitalist production, will exasperate the antagonisms and contradictions internal to the capitalist mode. One of the consequences will be the undoing of transnational alliances and treaties as the unequal relation between interests is expressed in an attempt by the imperial powers to impose their will on those nations under their “sphere of influence”. We are already seeing such an outcome play out before our eyes. A confrontational mode of international relations has resumed, after the hiatus afforded by the fall of state socialism and the ensuring realignment and consolidation of new orders of power and market share. We are already seeing a ratcheting up of threats and counter treats with all of the ensuing dangers, including the danger of all out nuclear war.
The immediate danger for humanity then is not an anonymous international financial elite ( a trope beloved of the neo-right) but a very old fashioned bootin your faceand greedy class of American and European Imperialists. They and their representatives can be named, after all. The results of their murderous policies are everywhere to be seen. Capitalism has nowhere appeared as anything other than co-joined at the hip to the nation state. Globalisation and technological acceleration has nowhere dissolved a state; even the weakest link in the “family”of nation states that make up the “global community” has managed to survive proliferation and globalisation, including those states designated failed by western liberals- Yemen, chad or Somalia for example.
For almost a century it is true, whole worlds have been destroyed ad hoc in the interests of anonymous “western” stockholders; whole cultures, economies, political superstructures, histories, modes of living have disappeared down the black hole of capitalist accumulation; whole peoples have been swallowed up in an unending holocaust while the western working and middle classes benefited from a mechanism of distribution enabling, for a short time, the export of the human cost of capitalist exploitation to the third world. What has survived this third world pauperisation, though, are the local institutionalised proto-capitalist structures that make globalisation possible. Under this regime even the poorest countries developed a class of capitalist and state middlemen charged with facilitating the imperial plunder of national resources and the implementation of programs of world-bank sponsored “development” another name for the imposition of the market economy in the interests of stockholders, overseen by a regime of international trade and legal frameworks ensuring, for the most part, American and European corporate interest.
Now it seems American and European workers will be forced to calculate the cost in terms of their own sweat and blood. We will have arrived by a circular route to the place we started out from, described rightly by Blake all those years before as the site of a “satanic mill”, a machine for the grinding of humans into dust, now made global in the interest of a very identifiable coalition of Imperial powers .
All that is sacred has already melted into air, for some at least. All of this was already worked out in the grinding to dust of whole generations of European and American workers in the service of corporate profit; in those early years, of course, the wilful organization of mass famine in Ireland or India was plain to see. Few members of the ruling class made excuses. The majority of human beings were, after all, sub-human; the enslavement of the African and the replication on that continent of cycles of famine, pauperisation and extermination, only seemed to confirm that diagnosis. It is still the true ideology of the imperialists, re-emerging after a period of liberal hegemony enabled on the redistribution of surpluses no longer available. No anonymous economic forces brought us to the point we are at: economic forces just are the collective and individual ideological practices of humans in positions of privilege and power.
If we arrive now at the point where we in the west must confront the prospect of the disintegration of society into a form of resilient patchworking, this is only because we were deaf to the cries of the dispossessed on other continents; we immunised ourselves to the patchworking out of existence of whole cultures enabled on the transnational mechanisms of the global market in commodities, money and labour. Has not European and American capitalism, for centuries now, left the Arab, the Persian, the African, the Asian and the South American to survive by way a resilient patchworking of what was left in the aftermath of imperial plunder? Starve, or “develop” home grown versions of the system of capitalist exploitation under the authority of the world bank, another name for American and European national class interest. That was and still is the “new deal” offered to the world.
Again, if the truth be told, the millions upon millions of the poor are already expert at patchworking. Their resilience is, as ever, remarkable and unremarked upon, their creativity everywhere in evidence and nowhere appreciated. They must smile at our newfound interest in what for them has always been a matter of surviving the aftermath of the destruction of their livelihoods in the interest of imperial power. Perhaps we should apprentice ourselves out to the masters in resilience and patchworking: to the people of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chad, Somalia and Yemen, to name only the more recent mediated sites of Imperial apocalypse. I say this in all seriousness. One of the most interesting “patches” is, after all, being heroically defended even as we speak. I mean, of course, the enclave of Rojava.
There is no need to go into detail about the establishment and consolidation of the radically Anarcho-Communist system put in place by Abdullah Ocalan’s armed resistance, utilising a visionary mergence of neo-Marxist and Anarchist politics, for the most part developed in its general form by the American activist Murray Bookchin. Who could have foreseen such a turn: a man, Ocalan, committed over decades of theoretical explication and political practice to a form of dogmatic Marxist Leninism is subjected to years of imprisonment. He encounters the writings of the activist Bookchin, speaking out of a long tradition of American communist practice. The result is an about face and the implementation of an anarchist vision of democratic municipalism conditioned on radical economic and social reorganisation. What Marxist science of “unobservable theoretical entities” could ever have predicted such an outcome, or deduced such an outlandish but empirically incontestable fact from its set of “laws of social development”?
Suffice to say that this living example of “patchworking” is at the moment threatened with destruction following Trumps decision on withdrawal and Erdogan’s determination to exterminate Kurdish resistance.
On a more general level the existence of such a radical experiment shows that salvage patchworking as a conscious collective alternative must function on many interacting levels – at the scientific/techno/economic level as much as the philosophical/political/administrative level – if it is to be viable in the context of the structural breakdowns and geo-political fragmentation forecast on the effects of climate change. In Rojava we have a functioning social and cultural laboratory in which radical patchworking, in all of its complexity, is being put to the test.
“Successful patches will be those that have already done the work of building-in capacities for resilience – be it viable food and water sources, maintainable energy and fuel supplies, interpersonal trust and bonding, or patch security systems. Successful patches will be open to relinquishing reliance on pre-collapse technology, social practices and norms; and engage in ongoing efforts to restore much needed equipment, infrastructure and abilities that afford the procurement and protection of required resources.” (Michael James)
This is, I contend, a good description of what has been going on in Rojava for years, as the enclave was put to the test by internal contradictions, practical deficiencies in resources and knowledge and external aggression. For the most part it has withstood that test, a remarkable feat considering the many deadly challenges it faced and continues to face to it’s very existence. Not least a relentless onslaught from ISIS fighters and Islamic fundamentalists in general.
I urge anyone reading here to examine the Rojova experiment as one viable alternative to the current organization of society. Rojava has succeeded in addressing all of the fundamental scenario’s that would confront a society in the throes of breakdown-economic inequity, undemocratic distribution of social and political power, interpellation into moribund and destructive ideologies, cultural and ethnic antagonism, religious division, gender and race discrimination and a host of technical and administrative problems to do with shortages of materials and knowledge deficits.
“In contrast, the smaller-scale retropatch would instead be oriented towards local food production, traditional forms of collective organization, the use of primitive materials, developing strong peer-to-peer interpersonal bonds, and working to stabilize and protect valuable resources and lands within their extended domain. Retropatches would be low-tech, and comprised of relatively small populations. The advantages of such a model actualized should be relatively obvious, given what I have already outlined, but the this model and way of life would certainly not be without problems – with issues of security, energy acquisition, reliance of unpredictable and volatile weather condition, and an inability to ameliorate droughts, wildfires, etc…” (Michael James)
To my mind this is a description of an entity already in existence and, more than likely, about to engage (yet again) in a fight for it’s survival as Turkish forces converge on it with the purpose of making sure that the contagion of viable Anarcho-Communist salvage patchworking does not spread across the region, offering a prototype of social organisation to the people of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kurdistan and Libya in particular.
“With a focus on scavenging, salvaging and re-purposing viable technologies and valuable materials, restoring (where possible) existing infrastructure and community-enriching processes, generating local subsistence while trading surplus with other regions, and working with the materials and systems at-hand the salvagepatch approach activates interests and skills rooted in survival, compromise, pragmatism, agility, and utility – while promoting the ‘letting go’ of obsolete social and psychological attachments, and previous dependencies on large-scale and mid-range economic processes that no longer exist.” (Michael James)
Rojava has already implemented, in a situation of dire external threat from ISIS, much of the vision outlined here, despite having to contend with deep-seated religious and ethnic antagonisms within it’s own population. That being so, surely the defence of the Rojava experiment should be our battle cry for the future if we are serious about the notion of patchwork?
You can find information about the situation confronting the enclave of Rojava here