Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category

The Guardian Puts Climate Change and Threat to Life On Earth “Front and Centre”

March 9, 2015
"Connection," Antony Gormley

“Connection,” Antony Gormley

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger wrote on Friday about the serious threats faced by life on Earth, contemplation of which has driven his momentous decision as he steps down as editor to focus the work of the Guardian especially on climate change and the eco-crisis–to an even greater degree than the paper has done in the past.  He explains this intensification as an attempt to address the greatest regret he had during the two decades he has edited the paper: “that we had not done justice to this huge, overshadowing, overwhelming issue of how climate change will probably, within the lifetime of our children, cause untold havoc and stress to our species.”

As he explains,

“These events that have yet to materialise may dwarf anything journalists have had to cover over the past troubled century. There may be untold catastrophes, famines, floods, droughts, wars, migrations and sufferings just around the corner. But that is futurology, not news, so it is not going to force itself on any front page any time soon.

Even when the overwhelming majority of scientists wave a big red flag in the air, they tend to be ignored. Is this new warning too similar to the last? Is it all too frightening to contemplate? Is a collective shrug of fatalism the only rational response?”

While the Guardian is running excerpts from Naomi Klein This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Rusbridger does limit the political scope of his comments in this “call to arms” to divestment campaigns rather than direct action or anti-systemic struggle, though he does specify that the Guardian would cover the radical actions taken on 7 March in London to march on Parliament in the run-up to the Paris climate talks this year, COP21.  Rusbridger deserves credit for this shift to a profound examination of the reality of our imperiled life.

An Anti-Authoritarian Analysis of Syria’s Uprising and Civil War

February 24, 2015
A YPG unit outside of Derek, Rojava (Courtesy Rozh Ahmad/MRZine)

A YPG unit outside of Derek, Rojava (Courtesy Rozh Ahmad/MRZine)

Published originally on Anarkismo

ABSTRACT: The devastating civil war that has followed the popular uprising in Syria which began in March 2011 has to an extent drowned out the legitimate grievances of the civil-protest movement against Assad and Ba’athism. This war has been greatly inflamed by support by the U.S. and Israel along with the reactionary Gulf monarchies for anti-Assad rebels on the one hand, and aid provided to the regime by Iran and Russia on the other. In addition, clearly, this geopolitical dynamic has driven the rise of ISIS/Islamic State, and it informs the new war being waged by the NATO-Arab monarch “coalition.” In contrast to the neoliberal authoritarianism of Assad and the reactionary fanaticism of ISIS and associated rebel-groupings, though, the Kurds of northeastern Syria (Rojava) are working to institute a more or less anti-authoritarian society. Hope may be found in this social model, as in the direct action of the uprising.

“Behold where stands the usurper’s cursèd head. The time is free.”

– William Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act 5, scene 8

The popular uprising in Syria that has demanded the fall of Bashar al-Assad and an end to Ba’athist domination since its beginning in March 2011 poses a number of questions for the international left, particularly anti-authoritarians. For one, the Assad regime has long sought to present itself as an Arab State in steadfast resistance (sumoud) to U.S./Israeli designs in the Middle East, as well as a government that is more representative of Arab public opinion, compared with the various Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It is significant, in this sense, that Syria’s official title under Ba’athism has been the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR), a name no doubt adopted as a marker of anti-monarchical distinction.1 The SAR’s progressive stance of resistance to monarchy notwithstanding, Syrian Ba’athism is clearly dictatorial, and it uses democratic centralism to attempt to legitimate its rule. As basic reflection on Assad’s response to the initial uprising makes clear, the Ba’athist State is brutally elitist in both theory and practice.

The profundity of horror of the civil war that has followed the popular mobilizations in Syria is evident, and though not all the violence which has now raged for nearly four years can be attributed to the regime, its choice to respond to the explosion of popular protests in 2011 with ruthlessness no doubt precipitated the armed insurgency that subsequently developed against it. The civil war midwived by this conflict between people and State has taken on a decidedly international scope—for to understand events in Syria itself, one must also consider the geopolitical situation, wherein Syria is allied with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah as part of the “resistance axis” arrayed against the US, Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf States, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Beyond such considerations, transnational jihadist networks from the al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have greatly inflamed the situation, having been born from the flames of this war—though not without considerable foreign support.

As against reactionary currents like al-Nusra and ISIS, progressive movements that have emerged from the activist movement against Assad and the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) show promise in terms of anti-authoritarianism, however much their efforts have seem to have been drowned out by the fighting. Above all, it would seem that the Kurdish libertarian-socialist currents which have grown considerably in northeastern Syria—Rojava—in connection with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) show the most promise in terms of social revolution, though the substantial military aid such forces have received from the US and NATO to help break ISIS’ siege of the border town of Kobanê since last September does raise some questions. An additional factor to consider when reflecting on the reported adoption and partial implementation by the PYD and its sister PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) of anarchist Murray Bookchin’s philosophies of social ecology and libertarian municipalism is that the Kurds of Rojava have enjoyed autonomy from the Ba’athist state since its withdrawal of troops from the area in 2012. As a comrade pointed out in the question-and-answer period that followed the recent presentation by a representative of the Kurdish Anarchist Forum (KAF) on Rojava at the 2014 London Anachist Bookfair, the more central regions of Syria have borne far more repression and destruction, due to the actions of regime and rebels alike.

In sheer terms of scale, it is overwhelmingly the Sunni majority of Syria that has suffered the most during the uprising and war, in light of the disproportionate number of dead and displaced who belong to this majority community. It has been Sunni neighborhoods and villages that have been the primary targets of the Ba’athist regime’s brutal counter-insurgent strategy, which has involved indiscriminate artillery shelling, aerial bombardment, and SCUD missile attacks.2 Different casualty estimates claim between 130,000 and 200,000 people to have been killed in Syria in the past five years, and the UN reports that 9 million Syrians have been displaced by the civil war, 3 million across international borders. Clearly, the war in Syria must be taken as among the most devastating ongoing conflicts in the world.

A Brief History of Modern Syria

To begin to make sense of Syria’s uprising and civil war, one must consider the history of the country and region. Excluding consideration of classical antiquity, the rise and spread of Islam, and the domination of the Levant by the Ottoman Empire, a truncated version of Syrian history would begin from the time of European colonization after the First World War, when the defeat of the Ottomans opened the possibility of self-determination for the Arabs who had previously been subjects of Istanbul. Characteristically, however, French and British imperialists decided themselves to appropriate former Ottoman holdings in the Middle East, dividing these into two regions that were demarcated by the infamous Sykes-Picot Line, agreed to in 1916. Thanks in no small part to the dialectically subversive and colonial machinations of T. E. Lawrence, Britain awarded itself Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine, while France took Syria and Lebanon. In 1920, when French General Henri Gourard entered Damascus after defeating indigenous forces allied to Faisal bin Hussein—a Hashemite royal, related to the present Jordanian King Abdullah II—he is reported to have repaired to the tomb of the world-historical Kurdish general Salah-ad-din (Saladin), located in the Old City, and to have announced, “We’re back!”3 Such imperial arrogance notwithstanding, French colonialism did not survive long in the Levant, as an Arab-nationalist insurrection led by Sultan Pasha al-Atrash raged from 1925-1927, and mass civil-disobedience demanded respect for the popular will in favor of independence in Lebanon and Syria at the end of World War II.4 Though the French military tried to suppress both major uprisings using disproportionate force, it ultimately was forced to recognize that it had lost control of the Levant, and so granted these countries independence (Lebanon in 1943, Syria in 1946)—in a preview of further losses to the French Empire incurred at Dienbienphu in Vietnam and later, during the Algerian Revolution.

Following formal independence and the election to power of Arab-nationalists in Syria, the country joined the Arab League and resisted the expanding Zionist enterprise—though to little avail, in light of the events of May 1948. The Arab Ba’ath (“Renaissance”) Party was founded in 1946 by Michel Aflaq, a Damascene independent Marxist and pan-Arabist, and it enjoyed electoral successes during Syria’s first decade of independence.5 The country engaged in an unprecedented federation with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt under the aegis of the “United Arab Republic,” though this collaboration lasted only three years (1958-1961). In 1963, the Ba’ath Party seized power in a coup, proclaiming the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR), but it was not until 1970 that air force commander Hafez al-Assad took power. It was during this time of Assad’s rise that the Syrian Ba’ath Party was purged of its more radical elements.6 Prior to Assad’s takeover, Syria allied itself with the Soviet Union, this being an alliance that has survived the USSR’s collapse: indeed, the ongoing relationship between post-Soviet Russia and the SAR is key to understanding the “balance of forces” in the present conflict, which has been marked by asymmetrical superiority on the part of the regime, at least in the early period of the uprising and war, before the rise of ISIS. In 2011, Syria was Russia’s second largest export-market for arms (a value of $500 million), and Putin sympathizes with Assad’s presentation of the conflict as a struggle against militant Islamists, for this framing has clear echoes of the counter-insurgent campaign he and Yeltsin have pursued in the Caucasus, especially Chechnya, during the post-Soviet period.7

Special note should be made of the SAR’s foreign policies, since these have accounted for the relative historical and geographical uniqueness of Syrian Ba’athism, and the legitimacy that has been afforded it within many circles. Assad the elder and Assad the younger have kept up the appearance of making up a key part of the “rejectionist front” against the U.S. and Israel, as seen in the 1973 war Hafez al-Assad launched jointly with Egypt against the Jewish State, and the long-standing material and financial support the regime has provided to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Historically, Syrian Ba’athism has supported the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as well as provided safe haven for PKK fighters fleeing Turkish military repression across Syria’s northern border.8 Significantly, moreover, Assad had hosted Hamas since 1999, when it was expelled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, until the coming of the uprising, which led the group to break with the Syrian leader, in accordance with the international Muslim Brotherhood’s position of opposition to the regime. Hamas’s Khaled Meshaal ordered the Damascus headquarters to be packed up in January 2012, and since then, Hamas’s HQ-in-exile has tellingly been based in Doha, Qatar!9 Nonetheless, according to the analysis of Ramzy Baroud, Hamas may in fact be considered now as seeking to mend ties with the Shia resistance axis, in light of a lack of alternative sources of support, particularly as regards relations with neighboring Egypt following the junta’s coup against the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in summer 2013. In turn, the SAR’s historical support for Hamas can in some ways be considered an outgrowth of its opposition to Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a conflict that goes back to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). As regards Lebanon, the Ba’athist alliance with Hezbollah cannot be considered as separate from the regime’s close ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran, with which the elder Assad quickly allied himself upon its establishment in 1979—however strange the image of a secular dictator embracing a fundamentalist Shi’ite clerical regime may be. In part, of course, the Assads’ alliance with Iran has been driven by the split in Ba’athism between its Syrian and Iraqi branches, a division that took place in 1966: Assad supported Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion, and he even sent 1500 troops to aid coalition forces against Saddam during Desert Storm a decade later.10 Significantly, moreover, with regard to neighboring Lebanon, the SAR sent an invasion-occupation force to the country in 1976, supposedly to reduce tensions in the raging civil war, though tens of thousands of troops remained until they were forced out in the wake of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, an act that was widely blamed on the Assad regime. In terms of the politics of occupation, the elder Assad’s support for right-wing Maronite Christian militias against the PLO in the Lebanese Civil War complicated the Ba’athist State’s claim to serve revolutionary ends, even if Israel’s 1982 incursion of Beirut and southern Lebanon was motivated in large part by the prospect of removing Syrian forces from the country.11

Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez following the latter’s death in 2000. The younger Assad (34 at the time) was readily welcomed by the Syrian Parliament, which promptly lowered the minimum age of candidacy for the presidency to accommodate him, and he was “elected” with 97% of the vote in that year. While Bashar al-Assad has no doubt preserved the dictatorial nature of the Ba’athist State, thus carrying over the work of his father, earlier in his reign there was hope that he would bring liberalizing reforms to the SAR. Such hopes were motivated to a degree by the younger Assad’s background, profession, and personal life—he was an opthalmologist, not a military man, and was married to the British-raised daughter of a Sunni surgeon, and for this reason was personally acquainted with life in the United Kingdom.12 The beginning of the younger Assad’s rule thus coincided with the emergence of the ill-fated “Damascus Spring,” a movement that sought to demand that the transition in power from father to son be accompanied by suspension of the State of Emergency Law (live since 1963), the release of political prisoners, and the implementation of liberal electoral reforms. Though Assad ultimately suspended such political reform efforts, he certainly has delivered in neoliberal terms—that is, in terms of serving the domestic and transnational capitalist class. After taking the reigns of the Ba’athist State, the younger Assad opened up the Syrian economy, selling off firms that previously had been State-owned, slashing subsidies for food and energy, and squeezing the financing of social services that had previously benefited the popular classes under the slogan of “Arab socialism.” Besides, in 2001 Assad opened negotiations to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).13 As has been noted, these economic reforms were not matched by a parallel opening in politics. According to Alan George, author of Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom (2003), Assad’s reform proposal was for a “China-style economic liberalization.”14 Ironically, and to an extent reflecting a Marxian dialectic, Assad’s neoliberalism has adversely impacted the living standards of the majority of Syrians, particularly rural residents, many of whom would go on to join the burgeoning popular mobilizations against the regime in 2011, even while it was precisely these elements that had constituted Syrian Ba’athism’s primary social base in previous decades.15 Political reform in the SAR would not come until the first month of the uprising, when Assad was forced to announce the suspension of the Emergency Law and a limited amnesty for political prisoners, in addition to granting citizenship to Syria’s 300,000 Kurds, who to that point had been stateless under Ba’athism.

While Assad’s economic policies are neoliberal and orthodox, given their empowerment of a high bourgeois Sunni class that forms a critical pillar of support for Ba’athism—and in this sense, one sees a clear parallel to post-Soviet Russian society, with the oligarchs and grand capitalists who have supported Vladimir Putin, one of Assad’s closest allies—he has maintained the SAR’s posturing of resistance to US/Israeli and reactionary-Gulf monarch designs in the Middle East. Assad greatly opposed the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the Syrian State has hosted more than a million refugees from that conflict. What is more, Assad facilitated the entry of Sunni jihadists into western Iraq to resist the US occupation.16 Taking these factors into account, and thinking of the SAR’s support for Palestinian and Kurdish resistance movements, a fruitful parallel can perhaps be drawn between Assad and Mu’ammar al-Gadhafi, who during his tenure championed Pan-Africanism and supported guerrilla groups resisting Israel and the West both financially and materially. The difference in fate between these two Arab dictatorships would seem to have to do with timing more than anything else: the unexpected NATO war to topple Qadhafi served as a precedent for Russia and China in terms of any possible repeat-action vis-à-vis Syria at the UN Security Council. After Qadhafi’s ouster, Putin and China would not countenance another opportunistic authorization of use of force by US/NATO forces. In fact, this geopolitical dynamic can to a degree explain the increasingly desperate recourse Obama made in September 2013 to try to commence an open air-bombardment campaign against Assad in the wake of the sarin gas attack in al-Ghouta, outside Damascus: first, POTUS claimed he would—much like his predecessor, on a similar pretext—act unilaterally with force, but he then backed down amidst marked opposition at home and on the international stage. When John Kerry off-handedly observed that the war-drive could be demobilized if Assad gave up his chemicals weapons, Putin’s diplomats jumped at the opportunity, arranging a deal whereby Assad would surrender his non-conventional weapons stocks—though significantly, while not demanding the same of Syria’s Zionist neighbor. This compromise contributed greatly to a de-escalation of tensions, thus averting a Libya-type operation in the Levant, which imaginably would have had similar results in terms of the fate of the regime and Syrian society. Tripoli’s official government has seen it necessary to flee the rampaging fundamentalist Islamists unleashed by NATO; it now bases its operations on a Greek car-ferry off-shore the eastern city of Tobruk.

March 2011: The Beginning of the Uprising

Undoubtedly, many of the initial demonstrations against the regime in 2011 raised legitimate grievances against Ba’athism: its corruption, inequalities, and authoritarianism. As is known, the Syrian uprising came late in the process known as the “Arab Spring,” months after the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen had begun. The popular rebellion started as a response to the imprisonment of several elementary-school boys who had painted the famous saying from the Arab revolts (al-sha’ab yourid isqat al-nizam, “the people want the fall of the regime”) as graffiti on their school in the southern Syrian city of Deraa. When their parents and other local adults mobilized to demand their return, the police are reported to have denied them access, and even threatened that the children would never be seen again. This grave insult to popular dignity catalyzed progressively larger protests in Deraa that ultimately met the bullets of State authorities, in turn leading to the explosion of protests in other parts of the country, first in the traditional anti-Assad bastions of Homs and Hama. (This latter city, comprised of the Sunni majority, was the site of a ghastly repression inflicted by Ba’athist paratroopers in response to an uprising organized there by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982; between 10,000 and 40,000 Syrians were killed.17) Even in Damascus, poor and middle-class individuals and families demonstrated against the regime in the early months of the rebellion, though in Aleppo and Latakia, home to more minorities, protests were less forthcoming.18 In terms of class and geography, the character of the protest movements seems to have been sharply divided between poor rural and urban Syrians, Sunni and secular, from the working classes and middle classes, as arrayed against big business (including and especially the Sunni high bourgeoisie), the military/State apparatus, Alawites, and Assad himself. Christians certainly also have been targeted by chauvinist currents within the opposition, and many have supported the regime from the beginning due to fears of the specter of Islamist domination. Another factor has been the rural-urban divide, with palpable tensions between the better-off, presumably “progressive” urban dwellers of Damascus and the supposedly conservative, peasant background of many regime opponents.19

With reference to this early period of the conflict between people and State, it is important to clearly state that the militaristic and carceral violence imposed by Assad’s regime from above was stark and grossly disproportionate—and arguably, it was consciously so—in light of the detention of ten thousand Syrians in the first six months of the uprising, and a total of nearly sixty-thousand imprisoned since then. Such fascist tactics notwithstanding, regime soldiers and police were attacked and often shot dead at this time as well, most likely by armed Islamist groups who opportunistically took advantage of the destabilization initiated by the popular protests against Assad and Ba’athist domination. Over 100 State security officers were killed in the first month and a half of the uprising, with an additional hundred massacred at Jisr al-Shughour in June 2011. This death-toll on the regime side is certainly orders of magnitude smaller than the number of casualties inflicted on protestors in the early months of the uprising—nearly 2500 are reported to have been killed in the uprising’s first six months alone—but it can help explain the regime’s resort to an iron-fisted response, which its regime propaganda rationalized by playing up the angles of “foreign conspiracy” and “Islamist terrorist gangs.” Assad definitely missed a huge opportunity for de-escalating tensions when he failed to intervene and punish the elements of the security forces who had reacted brutally and contemptuously to the first protests in Deraa, but then again, he may well have believed from the start that only a highly authoritarian approach to dealing with the popular revolt would allow his regime to survive.20

With the passage of time and the transition from popular uprising to insurgency and civil war, as spurred on by regime brutality, the regime’s military-police apparatus took increasingly macabre means to suppress the civil uprising: it began employing artillery against rebel positions and civilian areas alike in fall 2011, followed by aerial bombardment in spring 2012, cluster bombs that summer, and then missiles in the fall.21 Though the cities of Hama and Homs have met with great violence from the regime from the beginning of the uprising, Deraa, Aleppo, Idlib, and the suburbs of Damascus have been subjected to as much devastation, if not more. Intriguingly, it would seem that Assad’s commanders have chosen to rely more on artillery and air-power than the infantry and armored divisions to serve the end of repression, due to the greater risks of defection involved in the use of regular ground-troops, who are overwhelmingly Sunni conscripts.22 Indeed, to ensure the loyalty of the military and security services to Assad, the officer class and intelligence agencies are mostly constituted by Alawites.23

After months of initial civil protest against the regime—some currents of which had demanded mere parliamentary reforms at the outset, but then were subsequently radicalized by the regime crackdown, coming to demand no less than the fall of Assad and Ba’athism altogether—the popular-activist movement was eclipsed by the resort to armed struggle, as prosecuted both by Islamist opportunists and more secular rebels, including thousands of defectors from regime forces, a handful of whom proclaimed the foundation of the Free Syria Army (FSA) in June 2011. In addition to army defectors, it is understood that FSA ranks were filled at the beginning as well by volunteer civilian-militants driven to resist the regime by force of arms. In this sense, the beginnings of the FSA must not be conflated with what the FSA subsequently has become, following the pernicious influences the CIA, GCC, and competing Islamist rebels have had on the FSA brigades. In parallel to the FSA’s armed struggle, an important anti-authoritarian development has taken place among the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) that have managed regions of Syrian territory from which the regime has been expelled during the war. According to the estimation of Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar, the praxis of the LCCs has made the Syrian uprising “the most democratically organized” of all the Arab revolts that began in 2011.24 As a matter of fact, the decision regime forces made early on to dismantle these decentralized units by arresting their principal organizers played an important part in the general shift from civil to armed tactics on the part of increasingly more regime opponents.25

Speaking of the oppositional movements to Assad—besides class considerations, which can again be summarized broadly as pitting the poor and middle classes among the Sunni majority against Sunni capitalists, Alawites, and the regime’s repressive apparatus, religious identification has been a critical factor in the course of the uprising and civil war. Due to the particularities of Syrian Ba’athism, especially the younger Assad’s neoliberal turn, Syria’s rural poor hail overwhelmingly from the Sunni majority (74% of the population), while families and members of the Alawite and Christian minorities (12% and 10%, respectively) have been the most economically privileged groups under Ba’athism, besides the Sunni high bourgeoisie. Though notable exceptions exist to the established trend of Alawite and Christian support for the regime, it generally holds to be true: like the even smaller Druze and Shia minority groups of Syria (4% of the population), Alawites and Christians fear domination by chauvinist interpretations of Islam, like those expressed and affirmed by the majority of the armed groups that have lined up against Assad.26 If one looks to history and especially the present, one can understand such fears: consider the collusion between the Egyptian military and Wahhabis to attack and massacre Coptic Christians after Mubarak’s fall, or ISIS’s ethnic-cleansing operations against Christian Yazidis and Shia in Iraq and eastern Syria.

Islamization of the Anti-Assad Opposition

During this time, early on within the unfolding of the Syrian uprising, the oppositional movement was largely “hijacked” by Islamization and sectarian jihad. The “pro-rebel” narrative on this evolutionary process, which is accepted by some on the left, indeed, is that the regime’s violent repressiveness made a non-violent social transformation of Syria impossible, such that protestors were forced to take up arms. However, as the Angry Arab News Service editor As’ad Abu-Khalil rightly notes, this explanation leaves unclear why the armed insurgency so quickly became dominated by jihadist elements, with the more secular FSA units progressively eclipsed on the battlefield over time. Realizing the fears of many reasonable regime opponents regarding the option for an armed approach to resistance, the option for armed insurgency has brought the imposition of a reified power on the Syrian masses who previously had struggled legitimately against Ba’athist domination, as militarization, sectarianism, and Sunni chauvinism took hold.27 Besides the FSA, one cannot overlook the primacy of reactionary movements like Ahrar al-Sham (Free Islamic Men of the Levant), Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat Islamiyya (Islamic Front), Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), and ISIS itself in this second phase of the Syrian saga. All of these groupings have been heavily influenced by Wahhabism, otherwise known as Salafism, or openly endorse it—this being an extremely intolerant and highly authoritarian interpretation of Islam based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abed al-Wahhab (1703-1792 CE). It is well-known that the opposition driving many of these extremist Sunni groups has been hatred of the SAR’s secularism and the regime’s privileging of Alawites, who are considered by Wahhabis as “nusayris,” or fake Muslims—that is, infidels!

This process toward the militarization and Islamization of the opposition to Syrian Ba’athism has not primarily been an organic Syrian process, as it has undoubtedly been fueled greatly by the influx of thousands of foreign fighters pertaining to these various Islamist gangs and the significant support provided to these in terms of funding, arms, and training by the KSA, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and the U.S./Israel. The degree to which these outside imperialist interests have provided support to the different currents within the anti-Assad opposition has been variable, yet it has been considerable nonetheless: a “conservative” estimate of the quantity of arms supplied to rebels by the US/GCC has been calculated as amounting to at least 3,500 tons, in acccordance with the findings of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad cites estimates that Qatar has provided between $2 and $6 billion to rebel forces in Syria. Officially, the U.S. gave only “non-lethal aid” to Free Syrian Army units in the first couple years of the civil war, though numerous stockpiles of US-made heavy weapons as well as tanks and armored-personnel personnel carriers have made it into the hands of ISIS—“appropriated,” the story goes, as they were by ISIS from other anti-regime forces, as well as Iraqi Army units, who surrendered Mosul so quickly when confronted with IS hordes this past June. Turkey and Jordan both host CIA bases where arms have been “coordinated” and “moderate rebels” trained. Additionally, it has come to light that Israel provides medical aid to rebel fighters injured by regime forces in southern Syria—recall that the Israeli military shot down a regime jet over the Golan Heights in September 2014 that was bombarding al-Nusra positions, and consider that the Jewish State has bombed Syria on at least six separate occasions since the start of the uprising and civil war, with the most recent coming being just in December 2014.28 With regard to the relationship between ISIS and the GCC, it is not necessarily true that KSA and Qatar State interests have funded ISIS specifically, but the evidence does suggest that private interests from these countries, as well as in Kuwait and the UAE, have been seminal in ISIS’ meteoric rise. Besides, what is ISIS but an extreme expression of the “moderate” rebels that have been openly supported by Qatar and the KSA for years? It would seem that, other than for the Kurds and certain elements within what remains of the FSA, the spectrum of armed resistance to Assad is limited to the far-right dimensions of political thought.

Foreign Factors Prolonging and Intensifying the War: Empire and Climate Catastrophe

The Syrian Civil War has been as bloody as it has been drawn-out principally due to the material and financial support of broadly different imperialisms for the two (or three, or four) sides of the conflict**: Russia and Iran supporting Assad on the one hand, and the KSA, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and the US/Israel supporting various rebel factions on the other. Shamus Cooke makes this point knowingly on in a July 2013 piece on Truthout, though he does not name the Russian/Iranian support for the SAR as similarly contributing to the war’s prolongation. To an extent, the different constituent parties on the NATO/GCC side would seem to disagree on exactly which oppositional groups to aid and favor, and there has been some speculation that the US and Israel in fact prefer Assad to any Wahhabi or Salafist movement that could follow him, which would likely be allied to forces like ISIS—such that US/Israeli support for the rebels could be argued as seeking simply to install a solidly pro-Western strong man to replace Assad, perhaps someone like FSA General Salim Idris. This end clearly would serve US/Israeli designs for regional hegemony, as it would GCC interests—the excision or neutralization of a major component of the “resistance axis” in the Middle East. Yet this goal seems very illusory at the present time, when the FSA is greatly weakened in terms of the balance of forces in the civil war. Indeed, many former FSA units have reportedly abandoned the brigades to join the more successful Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Besides the ongoing conflict between people and State, the main military conflict at this time is between the regime and ISIS, with the newly forged NATO-Arab monarch coalition’s air-war against ISIS arguably and ironically serving Assad’s strategic objectives in some ways.

Besides the very real arms and cash provided by the NATO/GCC side to the rebels since the beginning of the uprising and civil war, it bears mentioning that the specifically Saudi ideological influence on the rebel-currents predates the current disturbances by decades. Flush with unimaginable wealth yielded by the exploitation of its massive petroleum-deposits in the late twentieth century, the KSA has long prioritized proselytization of its particularly reactionary interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, throughout the Muslim world, with well-known noxious effects. Saudi Arabia’s support for the Deobandi school of Islam among Pashtun refugees in Pakistan was seminal to the success of the Taliban in taking power in war-torn Afghanistan, a society exhausted in 1996 by more than a decade of Soviet occupation and the years of civil war among Afghans that followed Soviet withdrawal. More fundamentally, of course, the Saudis’ matching of funds and arms supplied by the CIA to the mujahideen via Pakistan during the Soviet occupation itself played a critical role in the strengthening of reactionary, fundamentalist forces in the region. The story is not entirely dissimilar in the case of Syria, where Saudi private and public resources have been directed to chauvinist opposition forces that have to varying degrees now melded into ISIS. Moreover, the KSA’s established sectarianism in supporting Sunnis against Shi’ites and thus presumably Iran—see the Saudi invasion of Bahrain in 2011 to suppress the Sunni-Shia popular uprising against the ruling Khalifa dynasty there, itself being Sunni—has further polluted the geopolitical context of the region, such that Sunnis and Shi’ites increasingly face off against one another on religious lines, as in Iraq, rather than organize jointly against the capitalists, monarchs, Zionists, and other authoritarians. The toxic legacy of the KSA’s Wahhabism in terms of suppressing left-wing and humanist alternatives in the Middle East should be clear for all to see.29 In this sense, it is not terribly difficult to see how aspects of the Syrian and foreign opposition to Assad have been framed primarily in religious terms, with political Islam seemingly resonating far more as an identity of resistance to the regime than leftist sentiments. With this said, however, the decline of regional left-wing forces cannot be blamed exclusively on the KSA, for the Assads clearly have contributed to this dynamic as well, as the US, Israel, and Iran have.30

Another critical aspect to consider in terms of imperial power and oil politics is the role that environmental and geographical factors have played in the development of the uprising and civil war. From 2006 to 2011, Syria suffered an unprecedented drought which in all likelihood follows from the observed decline in Mediterranean winter precipitation over the past four decades, a change which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has attributed to global warming. The drought has been far worse than any experienced during the twentieth century, and has even been described as the worst since the onset of agricultural civilization itself in the Near East. As can be imagined, this new ecological situation has worsened poverty, especially for pastoralists and agriculturalists in Syria’s rural regions, and contributed to a mass-migration of these effective environmental refugees. It has been argued that this ecological-demographic shift, which has involved an estimated 1.5 million people, greatly exacerbated anti-Assad sentiments, and that it would indeed act as a “threat-multiplier” as regards the stability of the regime with the coming of the uprising. Yet it must not somehow be thought that Assad is entirely the innocent victim of climatological chance here—or really, more accurately said, the previous and ongoing legacies of mass-carbon pollution by the West—for his liberalization of the economy itself certainly gave monopoly-capital a free hand in exploiting water reserves with abandon, leading to marked falls in water-table levels and thus greater societal vulnerability to turns of events like a devastating drought that in turn is intensified by anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).

Coming to the present, and to consideration of what could or should be done, an arms embargo for all parties to the conflict could be one means of de-escalating the Syrian Civil War, as would be the renunciation by the US/Israel of a war-footing against Iran, as Richard Falk recommends, in addition to progress toward transforming the Middle East into a nuclear- and weapons-of-mass-destruction-free-zone (NWFZ and WMDFZ).31 Admittedly, is difficult to envision how such steps would realistically be implemented, given the established hegemonic interests on both sides of the conflict, both in terms of Syria itself as well as with regard to Iran behind it. So far, the three iterations of the Geneva conferences on Syria’s future and prospects for reconciliation between Assad and the opposition have accomplished little, as Shamus Cooke has reported. By excluding Iran from the talks and continuing to press forward with new funding for the FSA on the order of $500 million, Obama shows his administration’s lack of interest in seriously working toward a cessation of hostilities—in a parallel to the White House’s reactionary standpoint on a number of other pressing global issues, from support for Israel to dismissal of the increasingly radical recommendations of climate scientists. In terms of the humanitarian and political dimensions of the ongoing drought in Syria, this would only seem to show the acute importance of concerted global efforts to radically reduce carbon emissions as a means of reducing the probability of future recurrences of eventualities like this one, or ones far worse indeed, that could imaginably affect billions of lives. As is clear, though, from any contemplation of the theater of the absurd on hand seen at the Twentieth Conference of Parties (COP20) in Lima, Peru, the global capitalist power-structure is far more interested in upholding its utter irrationality and violence than in dealing in any sort of reasonable fashion with serious existential threats like ACD.

In terms of the war itself, a cease-fire between the regime and rebel forces would be but a minimum demand for progress on the question of Syria’s future. Though such an accord would not resolve issues regarding the ultimate fate of the regime or the importance of demobilization and disarmament—to say nothing of the geopolitical power-struggle—it would seem basic in terms of beginning to attend to the devastation wrought on the Syrian people and the region by this war. Another critical aspect is to ensure that the rights of the country’s minority communities are protected in a future Syria; as has been stated, sectarianism and fears of Sunni majoritarianism have clearly driven many Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Shi’ites to side with the regime.32 Granted, it is true that progress toward respect for cultural pluralism, as toward a resolution of the civil war in general, is now greatly complicated by the rise of ISIS, with the strange dynamic being symbolized by the unexpected phenomenon of NATO/GCC air-forces bombing positions within the delimitations of Syrian territory that are controlled by elements of the opposition they previously had supported against Assad.

**The two principal sides are Assad and ISIS, though the FSA could be considered a third front (one that arguably is on the way out), with the popular civil struggle against Ba’athism a fourth.

The Promise of the Rojava Revolution?

Within the course of the Syrian Civil War, which has self-evidently been so full of darkness, negation, and destruction, one potentially affirming development has been the unfolding of Kurdish autonomy in the northeast of the country, known as Western Kurdistan, or Rojava. There, the PYD and the Kurdish Group of Communities (KCK) have overseen what some observers have hailed as a thoroughgoing social revolution—the “Rojava Revolution”—inspired to some degree by the anarchism of Murray Bookchin. While the revolution is said to have followed Bookchin’s philosophies of social ecology and libertarian municipalism, the KCK has referred to its particular praxis as “democratic confederalism,” or “Kurdish communalism.” These changes are in turn said to have reflected the recent internal reorientation of the PKK, with which the YPD and KCK are affiliated, from a traditional Marxist-Leninist-Maoist perspective seeking national liberation for the Kurds to a more communitarian-anarchist approach reminiscent of that taken by the Zapatistas in southern Mexico. The outcomes that have been reported from KCK communities, particularly thanks to the efforts of the Democratic Society Movement, or Tev-Dem, have been a rise in councilism and direct democracy, an internal supersession of the use of currency and a shift toward cooperative production within the KCK, and a marked emphasis on women’s emancipation and ecological balance.33 Most recently, of course, the fate of the People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) have been in the minds and hearts of observers from around the world, who have watched as ISIS forces progressively surrounded the city of Kobanê on the Turkish border and besieged it for months on end, leading to the forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kurds and concern that the Salafist forces, if victorious, would carry out genocide in the city. Eventually, of course, the US-monarch “coalition” intervened against the ISIS menace as part of the aerial-bombardment campaign it had launched in August 2014: the estimated six hundred imperialist air-strikes targeting ISIS forces in and around Kobanê certainly contributed to the YPG’s victory against the Salafists, which was announced in late January.

The attack by ISIS on PKK affiliates in Rojava—an assault that was ultimately rebuffed by the intervention of NATO air-power—is not the first time these insurgent Kurds have had conflicts with elements opposed to Assad. In late 2012 and early 2013, the PYD and YPG/YPJ were attacked by FSA units, just as they have met with al-Nusra assaults at other times, whereas other FSA brigades have actually supported the YPG/YPJ in defending Kobanê. Relations between the Kurds and the Syrian rebels have not exactly been consistently amicable. In a parallel of sorts to the case with Alawites and Christians, Kurds in Syria—who incidentally are mostly Sunni themselves—have distrusted the mainstream Syrian opposition for being dominated by Arab nationalists who have proven unwilling to clearly ensure the rights of minorities in any post-Assad future for the country.34 A clear parallel can be drawn here with relations between Algerian Arabs and the Berber or Kabyle minority that resides in eastern Algeria, for the Kabyles have resisted trends reflecting Arab chauvinism and centralization of power in significantly militant ways in the half-century following independence from France.35

Nonetheless, despite the socio-political strides made by the PYD, KCK, and YPG/YPJ in Rojava under admittedly non-ideal conditions, skepticism and concerns abound regarding the content and direction of the Rojava Revolution. For one, an anarcho-syndicalist perspective would question the liberal-parliamentary tendencies that certain Kurdish factions have been seen to favor over the councilism of Tev-Dem and the KCK. Anarchists should regard the Rojava experiment truthfully, neither overlooking the trends toward parliamentary social-democracy and centralization in the movement, nor hold it all in utter disdain precisely due to these very tendencies. Beyond that, the recent dénouement in Kobanê, which saw NATO/GCC air-forces launch a continuous four-month bombardment of ISIS positions starting in September, just as the heroic defense had been overwhelmed and the city was in danger of falling, raises questions about the revolutionary character of the self-described Kurdish radicals. If the movement depends on the US military to save it from ISIS, then how anti-imperialist can it really claim to be? On the other hand, one could argue that the US/GCC has a responsibility to protect the town from falling to ISIS forces, given that these hegemonic powers are in fact to varying degrees to blame for the emergence of ISIS—particularly when one considers the constituent parts of the ISIS armory. Nonetheless, and while not overlooking the obvious differences in political orientation between the cases of Rojava and Libya, is this “tactical alliance” between revolution and reaction terribly distinct from the military support given by Obama and the French to the Benghazi rebels who arrayed themselves against Gadhafi? If one welcomes USAF’s intervention to “save” Kobanê, can one really reject the calls made by certain elements in the anti-Assad opposition for a US-enforced no-fly zone over the SAR? David Graeber provoked a great deal of controversy on the left when he suggested in early October—that is, early on within the airstrike campaign—that the West had to provide military assistance to the Kurds in Kobanê, or at least that it should pressure Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan to open the border to resupply the embattled YPG/YPJ and allow in Kurdish reinforcements like the Peshmerga—who were in fact allowed to cross over in late October. Whatever one may think about the morality of imperialist air-strikes defending social-revolutionary processes, the truth of the matter is that the Obama administration now has an “in” with the PYD, and it has reportedly entered into direct talks with the group. Admittedly, the problem is a complex dilemma, with no clear answers.

Conclusion: Historical and Philosophical Implications of the Syrian Uprising

To conclude this discussion on Syria, which so far has been steeped in geopolitics, I would like to turn to some historical and philosophical considerations. The Syrian uprising provides yet another example of mass-popular rebellion demanding participation in the political realm; in this sense, it joins the long list of dignified popular insurrections that have aimed at the institution of People’s Power, as George Katsiaficas has chronicled them. To answer the question posed by Nader Hashemi in The Syria Dilemma (2013)—a question he takes from the left-wing and revolutionary historical tradition—the Syrian people do have the right to self-determination, and their struggle against Ba’athism resembles the earlier struggle against French imperial domination in important ways. However, it is highly questionable that the means to this desired end should be those advocated by Hashemi, in accordance with certain factions in the FSA and their civilian counterpart, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces: that is, a no-fly zone over the SAR enforced by NATO and the GCC, along with increased financial and military support for the “moderate” rebels.36

Another question to ponder is whether the Syrian people have “inherited” the standpoint of sumoud and resistance from Ba’athism—with this being one of the SAR’s few positive aspects. Though the findings of current opinion polls of Syrians, both located inside the SAR and abroad, whether as refugees or as constituents of the diaspora, are unknown to me, it is to be imagined that they do support the Palestinian struggle and oppose US/Israeli/GCC designs for the region. Furthermore, if given the opportunity, it would be hoped that they carry this resistance to a dialectically higher level than what has been exhibited by the Assads, in support of the global struggle for anti-systemic change. Still, the observed collaboration of elements of the anti-Assad opposition and of the Kurdish revolutionaries with the US/Israel complicates matters, to say nothing of the ties between the far-right facets of the opposition enthralled to Wahhabism and their GCC backers.

In terms of political philosophy, the Syrian uprising and civil war present a number of intriguing ideologies to reflect on. Though clearly atavistic in its desire to re-establish a Caliphate in the Levant, ISIS is not strictly medievalist in its approach, as its sleek videos and propaganda style attest to. Moreover, as Murtaza Hussein has argued, ISIS can be considered as sharing more with Leninism, the Maoist Red Guards, and the Khmer Rouge than the early Muslims, given the theory to which it claims adherence, and which it strives to institute: that is, the liberation of the people (or Umma) from above via extreme violence, as waged by a vanguard group. Indeed, this approach would seem to echo that taken by Sayyid Qutb, a leading early member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose “revolutionary” Islamist theory arguably was developed on the foundation of Lenin’s philosophy, with Islam replacing communism as the world-historical resolution to class struggle and human alienation in his account.** On the other hand, the organizational style and underlying philosophies of the YPG and YPJ can be considered to recall Nestor Makhno’s Ukrainian anarchist army, the Makhnovshchina, and the anarcho-syndicalist brigades of the CNT/FAI in the Spanish Revolution. To a lesser extent, certain elements of the FSA could be said to have libertarian elements—not specifically in terms of the political views of many of the affiliated fighters, particularly in light of the mass-defection that has been observed of FSA units going over to groups like al-Nusra and ISIS, but rather in operational style, for the FSA from the beginning was reportedly comprised largely of decentralized and autonomous brigades that resisted an overarching command structure, until this was imposed with the coming of the Supreme Military Command (SMC) in December 2012. At present, according to Patrick Cockburn, FSA commanders receive their marching orders directly from Washington, such that any postulated similarities between the FSA structure and historical anarchist fighting-groups can be said to have been surpassed now in the historical process. As for Assad and Syrian Ba’athism, these can be viewed as variants on the Leninist and Jacobin traditions themselves, if we were to bracket the younger Assad’s neoliberalism for the moment: as in Iraq under Saddam Hussein (and notwithstanding the conflicts between Saddam and the Assads), Ba’athism in the SAR has taken on the form of a secular dictatorship that claims to represent the wishes of the people, both Syrian and Arab as a whole, through a sort of democratic-centralist observation of “the general will,” as conceptualized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Interestingly, it is in this vanguardist sense that Ba’athism and Qutb’s proto-Leninism converge politically, their basic divergence on the role of religion in society notwithstanding. According to its own narrative, Syrian Ba’athism has “stood up” to the supposedly backward and devout attitudes of ordinary Syrians, especially rural folks and Sunnis, and in this way preserved cultural and religious pluralism, relative freedom for women, secularism, resistance to Zionism and US/GCC imperialism, and the “progress” of the Arab nation—or, so the pro-regime argument goes.

I will close by quoting Herbert Marcuse, discussing Walter Benjamin: “To a liberated people, redeemed from oppressive violence, there belongs an emancipated and redeemed nature.”37 While the Syrian uprising and civil war have self-evidently been primarily about social domination and human oppression, the popular struggle and mass-suffering seen in that country can be taken as representative of the times, a microcosm of the brutality visited by late capitalism on humanity and nature alike. Besides the evident human losses involved, the civil war has doubtless also greatly degraded the environment of the Levant, much as other wars have, including that of the Turkish State against the Kurds, as associates of the Cilo-Der Nature Association observe.38 The political struggles in the Levant, which contain liberal, reactionary, fundamentalist, and revolutionary elements aligned against State terror, the police state, and militarism, illuminate the general struggle for a free humanity, which is developing as though embryonically. Without a doubt, the global revolution is made not just for humanity, but also for nature, without which humans cannot live, as the long-standing drought in Syria shows. In fact—again with reference to the recent COP20 conference—the uprising demonstrates what would now seem to be the sole means of interrupting existing trends toward total destruction: that is, direct action, non-cooperation, and civil disobedience. Though repulsed, shackled, and beaten, the humanist-insurrectional Geist seen in the Syrian uprising and the Rojava Revolution holds great promise for radical politics today and into the future: the primacy of reason over tradition and authority, an end affirmed in the ninth century by the Baghdadi heretic Ibn al-Rawandi. I will leave the last word for a famous Kurdish saying, which I have learned from anarcha-feminist Dilar Dirik, speaking on “Stateless Democracy”: Berhodan jian-e!” (“Resistance is life!”)

**As Adam Curtis explains in “The Power of Nightmares,” Qutb sought to apply authoritarian-socialist lines of analysis to the study of the Arab masses, who he thought had inauthentically internalized and accepted capitalist, materialist values from the West that fundamentally conflicted with the “truth” of Islam.

A shorter version of this talk was first presented at the November 2014 Boston Anarchist Bookfair.

1Firas Massouh, “Left Out? The Syrian Revolution and the Crisis of the Left,” Global Communism (2013), 52.

2Emile Hokayem, Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant (London: Routledge, 2013), 57, 192.

3Reese Erlich, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect (Amherst, Massachusetts: Prometheus Books, 2014), 48.

4Erlich, 50-57.

5Ibid 60-61.

6Ibid 61; Gilbert Achcar, The People Want, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) 173.

7Hokayem 172-4.

8Erlich 172.

9Ibid 209.

10Erlich 146-149, 71.

11Massouh, 60; Erlich 67-68.

12Hokayem 22.

13Ibid 26-27, 43.

14Cited in Massouh, 63.

15Achcar 177.

16Ibid 178.

17Ibid 178-179.

18Hokayem 45-49.

19Ibid 54.

20Ibid 40-41.

21Ibid 57.

22Ibid 58.

23Achcar 174.

24Ibid 182.

25Hokayem 69.

26Stephen Starr, Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (London: Hurst and Company, 2012), 29-54.

27Hokayem 81.

28Erlich, 250-255.

29Gilbert Achcar, Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003).

30Massouh, 58-59.

31Richard Falk, “What Should be Done About the Syrian Tragedy?” The Syria Dilemma, eds. Nader Hoshemi and Danny Postel (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2013), 61-75.

32Hokayem 11.

33For more details on the KCK’s accomplishments in Northern Kurdistan (Turkey), please see TATORT Kurdistan, Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan: The Council Movement, Gender Liberation, and Ecology, trans. Janet Biehl (Porsgrunn, Norway: New Compass Press, 2013).

34Hokayem 80.

35David Porter, Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria (Oakland: AK Press, 2012).

36Nader Hashemi, “Syria, Savagery, and Self-Determination: What the Anti-Interventionists are Missing,” The Syria Dilemma, 221-234.

37Herbert Marcuse, Marxism, Revolution, and Utopia: Collected Papers. Volume 6, ed. Douglas Kellner and Clayton Pierce (London: Routledge, 2014), 126.

38TATORT Kurdistan, 158-60.

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Kerala on Human Equality and the Earth as Garden

February 5, 2015

lotus flower

A selection from “The Age of Great Progress” describing the Travancori League, from Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternative-speculative history, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), p. 522:

“The Kerala laughed, looked at Ismail and gestured at the colorful and fragrant fields.  ‘This is the world we want you to help us make,’ he said.  ‘We will go out into the world and plant gardens and orchards to the horizons […] and terrace the mountains and irrigate the deserts until there will be garden everywhere, and plenty for all, and there will be no more empires or kingdoms, no more caliphs, sultans, emirs, khans, or zamindars, no more kings or queens or princes, no more qadis or mullahs or ulema, no more slavery and no more usury, no more property and no more taxes, no more rich and no more poor, no killing or maiming or torture or execution, no more jailers and no more prisoners, no more generals, soldiers, armies or navies, no more patriarchy, no more clans, no more caste, no more suffering than what life brings us for being born and having to die, and then we will see for the first time what kind of creatures we really are.”

Paul Cezanne, "In the Woods"

Paul Cézanne, “In the Woods”

Revolutionary Feminist Kurdish Guerrilleras: Female “State” vs. Islamic State

October 1, 2014

This is a new documentary produced by 60 Minutes Australia that simultaneously explores the hardship imposed on Kurds of Western Kurdistan (Rojava) at the hands of the fascist Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) as well as the revolutionary resilience of the Kurdish self-defense forces (YPG), particularly as expressed by the female-led Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).  Though the program is nominally made by 60 Minutes, it is in actual fact less than half of that in length; additionally, its given title, “Female State,” is rather problematic, given in the first instance that the Kurds–like the Palestinians–have no State to speak of, and especially in light of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) significant reorientation in recent years from a traditional Lenino-Stalinist political perspective stressing national independence to one that approximates social anarchism through autonomous means, or what the revolutionary Kurds themselves call “democratic confederalism.”

The Kurds of Rojava–located in northeastern Syria, if we prefer to speak of geographical in statist terms–have suffered immensely in recent months at the hands of the Islamic State, which seeks to ethnically cleanse the region of the generally secular, anti-authoritarian local population and so gain direct access to the border with Turkey, thus facilitating the further flow of arms and cash that critics suspect has been abetted by the Islamist AKP government in Ankara.  The present reality is that approximately 200,000 Kurds have fled Rojava for Turkey in the past few weeks, with the Kurdish canton of Kobanê radically threatened by Islamic State forces, equipped with tanks, artillery, and other heavy weapons they expropriated from the Iraqi Army which they defeated in Mosul in June, to say nothing of the arms they have stolen from other elements of the anti-Assad opposition or–indeed–received as gifts from Obama’s reactionary Gulf monarch allies.

As Sardar Saadi notes in ROAR Mag, the revolutionary Kurds associated with the YPG/YPJ in many ways echo the inspirational model of anti-authoritarian self-determination provided to the world by the EZLN from Chiapas, Mexico.  This 60 Minutes documentary is a self-explanatory testament to the militant courage exhibited by the feminist guerrilleras of the YPJ.  

Truly, are not the guerrilleras of Kobanê a clear manifestation of the anti-systemic Weltgeist (“World Mind”) today?


Map of ISIS advance toward Kobanê and Turkish border, September 2014

guerrilleras kurdas

Kurdish guerrilleras coordinate strategy

Mobilizing for Justice in the Anthropocene: Autogestion, Radical Politics, and the Owl of Minerva (2/2)

September 18, 2014


[This is part II of an interview on Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press, 2014). Read part I here.]

Also published on Counterpunch, 19 September 2014

In the interviews you hold with Chomsky and Hardt in Grabbing Back, both thinkers point out the irony whereby the so-called “socialist” governments that have been elected throughout much of Latin America in recent years—Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Uruguay, for example—notoriously have in fact been engaged in a significant intensification of the extractivist trends which their neoliberal precedecessors oversaw. This developmentalism has inexorably brought these “Pink Tide” governments into conflict with indigenous peoples, and it certainly has not been auspicious for nature, however much posturing Rafael Correa and Evo Morales like to advance in terms of the “rights of nature.” The fate of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park is emblematic in this sense. As editor of Upside-down World, Grabbing Back contributor Benjamin Dangl has written at length on these tensions. How do you see indigenous concepts like sumak kawsay (“living well”) as realistic alternatives to State-capitalist depredation?

I think the implications of Dangls analysis of extractivism is as important today as, say, Rosa Luxemburgs work on the Accumulation of Capital in the 1910s or David Harveys work on the Limits to Capital in the 1980s, and it fits with some really important thinking going on by people like Silvia Rivera CusicanquiRaúl Zibechi, and Pablo Mamani Ramírez. The Pink Tide governments are interesting to me, because they show how rhetoric centered around land can lead to a kind of fixation on natural resources and infrastructure, which precludes the Prebisch-style development of the Third World. So I wonder, does the focus on the land come about through the export-based economies that were generated by the annihilation of industrial infrastructure vis-à-vis globalization, and does it also reflexively work to thrust into power a so-called populist leadership that makes gains in the social wage by simply speeding up the process?

It seems strange to me that so-called neo-Peronism (if there ever was a populist moniker, that was it) could dismantle and sell Mosconis YPF, a highly technical model of a nationalized energy industry, to the former colonial power, the Spanish oil giant Repsol, for pennies on the dollar while basically forfeiting huge gas fields despite the resistance of the Mapuche, whose land they are destroying in the process. Former Argentine President Carlos Menem became one of the most despised figures in the Latin American Left, but now Kirchner is selling off the Patagonia oil fields to North Atlantic powers and Malaysia while bringing in Monsanto. What if the populist wave has just ridden an exuberant surplus of popular political involvement, and is returning to the kind of elite populism expressed by people like Menem? We might say, let us not be so hasty in condemning the governments of Latin America, because look at what happened with Manuel Zelaya and deposed Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, let alone the Central African Republic. They have to work with global hegemony, and that means either bringing in Chinese investors as in Ecuador, or US investors as in Argentina. But we should not concede the reality and the basis of what made “¡Que se vayan todos! such an important global position.1

In contradistinction to these problems, there is the Indigenous idea of sumak kawsay, as you mentioned, which places spirit and land along the same axes, and is epistemologically less driven to accept the division and privatization of land. It will be interesting to see changes in the ways that this concept is used over the next decade or so. Mahmood shows how the Islamic concept of dawa changed over generations to become tools of more general liberation—both from neoliberalism and from strict gender norms. But signifiers can be hollowed out through capitalism as well, so I think that its also important not to separate concepts from the people who produce them; for example, the ayllus that form Indigenous microgovernments, as Pablo Ramírez calls them, are profound structures that provide an interesting example of popular representation as opposed to the general diplomatic-discursive field of geopolitics.

It is also important to take note of Simon Sedillos excellent work tracking the mapping projects underway by Geoffrey Demarest and the Department of Defense in Colombia and Oaxaca, which are defined by this bizarre concept of geoproperty that mixes old English and Jeffersonian ideals of private property with contemporary land-titling strategies developed by economists like De Soto.2 Geoproperty is the conceptual artifice of a rather brutal strategy that deploys paramilitaries in order to separate Indigenous peoples from their lands, and it works both on a level of what Mignolo calls geography of reason3 and a level of pragmatic force (defoliation, paramilitaries, and militarization). Connecting neoliberalism to geography, James C. Scott notes how, during the commercialization of the ejidos in Michoacán, “the first task of the state has been to make legible a tenure landscape that the local autonomy achieved by the revolution had helped make opaque.”4

It’s here that Guillermo Delgado-P’s article in Grabbing Back becomes so crucial, because it takes back the notions of territory and land, and provides a kind of alter-anthropology that thinks Indigenous cultures with agrarian polyculturalism and a kind of negotiation between the popular concept of the commons and Indigenous practices of conservation. So the challenge for local activists is, perhaps, to create growth from within the “Pink Tide by learning from those who have always existed in a kind of threshold of state practices, and to do this in such a way that is, perhaps, illegible to the great powers in order to dodge the military incursions and counterinsurgency strategies while protecting increasing amounts of land. I find the more autonomized urban structures that sparked the mass movements in Chile in 2012 to be very inspirational along these lines, and in conversation with some of their organizers, I was told that they do have a relatively high level of respect and solidarity with the Mapuche. At the same time, these movements are different on several fundamental levels, and solidarity also becomes a question of recognizing ones limits, keeping the borders open, but understanding that the urban organizer is not the savior of the Indigenous peoples or the rural campesinos. In a sense, this is an inversion of politics in the classical sense, which relies on the polis for its basic way of thinking in Plato and Aristotle, but that is why anarchism today manifests a fundamentally different method of thinking than is possible within a strict adherence to the tradition of Eurocentric thought.

Within your discussion of imperialist history and inter-imperialist rivalries vis-à-vis the global land grab, you suggest that, had the US and France in fact invaded northern Mali in 2013 “for the quite valid reason of combating the human rights abuses being carried out” instead of for naked geopolitical interest, their intervention would have been palatable; furthermore, with reference to the crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR), you write that “[t]he French had every reason [in 2014] to intervene in defense of human rights and CAR’s uranium deposits.” Are you taking a cynical view of “interest” and raisons d’Etat (“reasons of State”) here? What, then, would you say about NATO’s invocation of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine as a pretext for its 2011 “intervention” in Libya?

I wouldn’t call my analysis “cynical,” but I am certainly a materialist when it comes to the “raisons d’Etat” of NATO. You have only to look at the works of Samuel Huntington and the Trilateral Commission or the Bush Doctrine or Obama’s American Exceptionalism to find out what those interests entail. I do not support NATO intervention in Africa, although I share Noam Chomsky’s belief that non-imperialist aid to democratic movements is by no means ethically wrong. What if, for instance, instead of giving military aid to the Egyptian and Turkish governments, the US sent communication equipment and supplies to the protestors in Tahrir Square and Gezi Park?  Of course, the reflexive response is, “Well, that would never happen without some pretty serious strings attached,” but that’s why the transformation of the established order of the US becomes so critical on a global basis.

During the Spanish Civil War, the Republican side was aided by thousands of people throughout Europe and the US who came to fight Fascism. Che Guevara fought with Augustinho Neto against colonial power in Angola, and the French anarchists maintained an eager engagement with the FLN [National Liberation Front] and the ideas of Ben Bella until the Boumédiène regime (recall the Situationist International’s criticism of Daniel Guérin, that his excessive support of Ben Bella made it seem as though “Over a cup of tea, he met the ‘world spirit’ of autogestion).5

NATO intervention in the interests of protecting human rights would not necessarily comprise some form of evil—the problem is, it’s a purely hypothetical situation, which I don’t believe the world has ever seen. Look at the trials of the RUF leaders and Charles Taylor in the new world court two years ago; the RUF was armed and supported by Taylor, who was working with the CIA throughout the 1980s (they even helped him break out of jail), and there is evidence that he was on the US’s payroll until 2001.  Prosecuting people for doing what you pay them to do is obviously propaganda, and that’s what so much of the “humanitarian” military or juridical intervention amounts to.  Let’s face it, the NATO countries always intervene to preserve their “interests,” and I do not believe that these “interests” have ever coincided with rule by the people. Rather, as in Mali and the Central African Republic, the “interests” of NATO coincided with colonialism and control over resources.

I believe that the structure of NATO, itself, is antithetical to popular rule, and I do not believe that NATO can ever “intervene” in defense of human rights without a special interest of preserving capitalist relations in whatever form which, in the larger picture, only serve exploitation and displacement. Obviously NATO involvement in Libya was purely cynical—the operation to take out a cornerstone in Pan-African self-reliance has left Africa more dependent on EU countries than the BRICS—and the same operation has been seen with regards to Mali and CAR.

I would like to dedicate two more questions to your analysis of Middle Eastern history and politics in Grabbing Back. First, you claim Egypt to have been a critical part of the regional US/NATO axis during the Cold War, along with Israel and Saudi Arabia—please clarify what you mean by this. Surely under Nasser, Egypt’s orientation was greatly anti-Zionist, and even under Sadat, Egypt participated with Hafez al-Assad’s forces in the 1973 “Yom Kippur War” against Israel. What is more, Egypt was federated with Syria in the United Arab Republic that lasted for three years, 1958-1961.

I admit I didn’t flesh this point out, largely because of word count constraints and my anxiety about getting bogged down in diplomatic rivalries. First of all, I feel uneasy about saying, “if a country is anti-Zionist, it is not a US ally.” Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have long financed militant struggle against Israel, for instance. Second of all, Egypt was one of those dynamic countries whose conversion to the side of NATO in the 1970s and ’80s was arguably a tipping point in the diplomatic struggle. In the book, I state that Egypt became an ally of NATO during the Cold War, and played an establishing role against the hegemony of Russia in Libya. While Egypt maintained significant antagonisms with Israel until the peace process following the Yom Kippur War, Sadat drew closer to the US, and a terrible fallout between Libya and Egypt ensued (leading to a brief border war in 1977). Sadat’s policies were a turning point in the direction of the Third World and the Non-Aligned Movement, and Gadhafi saw this as a huge problem. Mubarak projected those policies, which were indeed devastating, throughout the 1980s, and after the Cold War “officially” ended around 1989-1991.

Next, on Syria, you rightly situate Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’athist State within the regional “hegemonic bloc” comprised by Iran and Hezbollah that stands against the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and you claim the U.S. to have backed anti-Assad “rebels” affiliated with al-Qaeda in the civil war that has raged for years. While this latter claim has been made by the Syrian State since the very beginning of the uprising in March 2011—as it similarly was made by Gadhafi with regards to the Benghazi “freedom fighters” before he was deposed by NATO—even hegemonic Western news sources now openly concede the point, amidst recent revelations that the U.S. government provided training and arming for the ISIS militants who have established the “Islamic State” in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. Even if the CIA could somehow have performed an accurate screen of anti-Assad rebels and denied support to fundamentalist actors—neither of which conditions would seem to remotely resemble historical reality—it is undeniable that U.S. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar have contributed immensely to the cause of Islamist “rebels” in Syria and—big surprise—the subsequent rise of the Islamic State. Indeed, if ISIS commander Abu Yusaf is to be believed, even the putatively “secular” and “moderate” opposition to Assad manifested in the Free Syria Army (FSA) units have in large part decided to join the ranks of Islamic State partisans; Nafeez Ahmed, for his part, cites Pentagon sources who claim at least 50 percent of the FSA itself to be comprised of Islamic extremists.  It would seem, then, that the conflict is now centered around a regional power-struggle between Assad and the Islamic State in Syria on the one hand, and Nouri al-Maliki’s successor Haider al-Abadi and Iran against ISIS in Iraq on the other, with the Obama administration in the confused position of now drawing up military plans to attempt to crush Islamic State forces. State-fascism against Islamist-fascism, then, as Ibrahim Khair put it at Left Forum this year. What of an anti-imperialist struggle at once opposed to Ba’athist authoritarianism and Wahhabism, as has been endorsed by Syrian anarchists?

Well yes, I completely agree with that call, and I think that Valentine Moghadam makes a great case for a global justice approach in her book, Globalization and Social Movements: Islam, Feminism, and the Global Justice Movement. But then I also think Maia Ramnath makes such an important case in Decolonizing Anarchism for anarchist participation in non-sectarian liberation. Would you say to Swadeshi militants training with anarchists in Paris at the turn of the 19th Century, don’t go back to India and fight in the independence movement, because you know, eventually Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s philosophy of Hindutva will take power through the legacy of Hindu Masahbha, and then the country will be ruled by a kind of “new fascism”? I don’t think so. There is much to be said for figures like Lala Lajpat Rai and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya. They weren’t anarchists and some call them populists, but they helped make Independence a joint effort. There’s always a grey area, and I think we need to support and nourish the movement for liberation. That means taking part in what Antonio Gramsci calls a “historic bloc.”

It’s important to distinguish between progressive and reactionary social movements, but the logic of counterinsurgency policing and the international prison industry complex (Guantánamo Bay being the tip of the iceberg) as well as prevalent social Islamophobia makes this prospect extremely difficult. So we have our work cut out for us in solidarity to fight Islamophobia and militarization within the US while building a mass movement to close the chapter of the War on Terror forever. That means that we, ourselves, need to be fearless in our organizing—we need to dissolve the images of terror being promulgated by the US’s foreign and public relations agencies in a movement of our own autogestion, our own self-management. Hegemony is about how groups are organized to do what and with whom, so it is important to recognize the relationships between movements and their different potentialities. There are always prospects for hope, as identities are diffused and transformed by working and communicating together collectively. Hegemony is not about who wins or who has the power; it is about building and understanding relationships and generating power.

I think we share a common dream beyond BDS (which I strongly support), in what Seyla Benhabib and others have proposed as a “Confederation of Israeli and Palestinian Peoples.” I suppose I am particularly thinking about it through my own perspective based in tendencies advocated by Bakunin and Malatesta highlighting the federalist model of anarchist organization. But what tactics could bring about such a decentralized and engaged political horizon?

Where have such secular projects (the PLO had potential as such) failed and non-secular groups like the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded (at least until Morsi’s ouster)? The Muslim Brotherhood has been tied to all kinds of terrible things, including the CIA and ISIS, but perhaps this is why they deserve further analysis; how did they take power? In his excoriating evaluation of their strategy and tactics, Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm compared the Muslim Brothers to the accion directes terrorist groups of Europe during the 1970s. Their strategy smacks of “their own brand of blind and spectacular activism, also heedless and contemptuous of consequences, long-term calculations of the chances of success or failure and so on.” Their tactics include “local attacks, intermittent skirmishes, guerrilla raids, random insurrections, senseless resistances, impatient outbursts, anarchistic assaults, and sudden uprisings.” Al-Azm downplays some of the deeper organizational models developed by the Muslim Brothers in syndicates and religious networks, and it is significant that he wrote this description before the Arab Spring. That the Muslim Brothers assumed power [in Egypt] so rapidly suggests that what seems spontaneous is not to be underestimated, and that makes it even more interesting. What if Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof had suddenly become president of a united Germany—if only for a year or so—and then acted the way that Morsi had acted? This appears to be a whimsical fantasy, of course, but its the question to which Al-Azms comparison leads us.

I definitely share a common self-criticism that we romanticize resistance, and there is no sense in romanticizing the strategy and tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood, but we should learn about their successes and failures as a kind of “diagnostic of power” to use Abu-Lughods term. How did the insurrectionary strategies of the Muslim Brotherhood benefit from the mass movement organizing, and vice versa? What are the tools that we have to move forward?

It is interesting that you compare Morsi here to a theoretical German State headed by Baader and Meinhof, given the relatively more humane policies Morsi oversaw vis-à-vis Gaza when compared with Mubarak and al-Sisi, and keeping in mind the continuity of Egyptian military power as a stand-in for the very militarism and fascism which sympathizers of the Red Army Faction saw concentrated in the ruling class of the Federal Republic of Germany after Nazism.

Briefly, though, I would comment here to say that the PLO as a secular movement “failed” in its historical acceptance of the Oslo Accords (1993), which it seems to have taken in good faith—while Israel and the U.S. have spent the last 20 years upholding and expanding the former’s colonization of what remains of historical Palestine. That the PLO has since Oslo largely reduced itself to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which manages Area A lands in the West Bank as a police force in the interests of the Zionist State and the Palestinian bourgeoisie, has certainly contributed to its alienation from the Palestinian people, who overwhelmingly consider Mahmoud Abbas a puppet, fraud, and traitor—he has been the unelected President of Palestine for over five years, and he has most sordidly buried the Palestinian request that the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigate Israel’s barbarities during the ghastly “Operation Protective Edge.”  In this way, the PLO’s myriad failures cannot be dissociated from the compensatory surge in recent years of support for Hamas and the general posture of resistance (muqawama) to Zionism, which of course extends beyond Hamas to include the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and other groupings. However, it is unclear that it should be the PLO and its cadre that bear most or even much of the blame for the perpetuation of the Occupation since Oslo, considering the well-known actions of the U.S. and Israel in the past two decades; furthermore, it has been reported that Fatah’s armed wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, has now reactivated itself to engage Israeli forces in the West Bank. Naturally, it is to be imagined that matters would be rather different in Palestine today, had Israel not assassinated Yassir Arafat with polonium in 2004. Now, following “Protective Edge,” and in light of the insult upon injury represented by the Netanyahu administration’s announcement that Israel will be embarking in its single-largest expropriation of Palestinian land in 30 years as revenge for the murder of three Israeli youth which initiated this vicious episode of colonial violence, the situation is most acute, arguably the worst it has been since the beginning of the Oslo period. In Hegelian fashion, we can hope that Israel’s mindless brutality will only accelerate the coming of its downfall—much in the tradition of Rhodesia and other reactionary regimes similarly dedicated to white-supremacism.

Thinking of the children of Palestine—particularly those of Gaza, who are the living embodiment of Naji al-Ali’s iconic Handala character—we are also struck by the plight of the thousands of Central American migrant children who have arrived at the U.S. border en masse in recent months. Aviva Chomsky has stressed the role that imperialist history and present U.S. foreign policy have played in destabilizing these children’s home societies of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, while her father Noam plainly asks why Nicaragua is not included within the list of sender-countries for these children: “Could it be that when Washington’s sledgehammer was battering the region in the 1980s, Nicaragua was the one country that had an army to defend the population from U.S.-run terrorists, while in the other three countries the terrorists devastating the countries were the armies equipped and trained by Washington?” To what extent do you see capital and the global land grab as intersecting with the global “pediatric crisis,” if we can call it that—not only in Gaza or Central America, or in Japan after Fukushima, but throughout the globe? Can the children of the world save the world’s children, as Dr. Gideon Polya asks?

The extent is terrible, because it is not merely the land grabs themselves but the political blowback that continues to have a cascading effect on global politics. In Mali, where an uprising in 2012 was caused in no small part by the liberal land and agricultural policies of the Amadou Toumani Touré government, nearly half a million people were displaced virtually overnight. With the ongoing food crisis in Northern Mali, the effect on children, in particular, is egregious. Ethiopia’s forced villagization program is an even more direct example of the global refugee crisis being created by the thirst for land coming from countries all over the world—including Saudi Arabia, China, India, and South Korea, as well as the North Atlantic countries.

Israel poses an interesting model, because land grabs have been accelerating every year, and as you mention, it reflects not only a kind of economic exigency, but a revanchist, populist sentiment. According to the UN, Israel has made 1,500 new orphans with its Protective Edge, and has made the largest land grab in 30 years in the aftermath. At the same time, Israel really has to be viewed geopolitically in terms of the hegemonic contest between the North Atlantic and the BRICS countries, where the fighting in Syria becomes critical, because Syria manifests Russias cornerstone in the region. The civil war stoked by the US and leading to the exponential growth of IS has led to a refugee crisis with 6.5 million internally displaced people and three million refugees in other states. Over 1.5 million of these Syrian refugees are children, according to the UN.

The US intervention in propelling ISIS to power and supporting the revolt against Assad seems to have been generally based on a desire to control infrastructure and hegemony in the region. So the terrible refugee crisis in and around Syria and Iraq can be viewed ultimately as locked into this New Great Game that has transpired from Afghanistan to Syria as an attempt to control the world’s diminishing fossil fuels, as well as farmland, mines, and other raw materials.

Within the diplomatic crises of warring states, you have an economic model of developmentalism, or “neoliberalism with Southern characteristics,” which leans heavily on extractivism and is propelled forward by the BRICS countries. There is a moral obligation for dewesternization of global hegemony, but it does not extend to a repetition of the mistakes of state capitalism. For example, does a new “development bank of the South” sound like something that will bring more wealth to terribly impoverished countries who really need it? I believe so, yes, and it is also a process of the accumulation of capital; will it not create greater ethnic divides and wealth disparities, as in Gujarat or the events surrounding the World Cup in Brazil? One can’t say, but it seems as though a reversion to “neoliberalism with Southern characteristics” is not an adequate goal.

Most essentially, during this process of land seizures for resource exploitation, people are displaced from the countryside, move to the cities, add to unsustainable food and water systems, and often further displace the urban poor. This works on these interconnected levels of international and domestic crisis, so it would be ridiculous to criticize without acknowledging NATO’s fundamental role in this postcolonial system. Taking action domestically to bring down the one percent, while providing an alternative model for the future.

In terms of Middle Eastern radical politics, the Kurdish freedom movement has certainly undergone a fascinating evolution from affirming the Leninism of yesteryear to now embracing Murray Bookchin’s social ecology, or “democratic confederalism.” In fact, Reflections on a Revolution (ROAR) has just published a lengthy examination of these libertarian-socialist achievements, which would seem to include a conscious rejection of money as an organizing principle, a marked stress on women’s emancipation and participation in society, and even a ban on deforestation and an encouragement of vegetarianism. Arguably, the Kurdish resistance represents among the most encouraging signs of the times, wouldn’t you agree?

It’s not so much a question of whether I support the peshmerga, but what openings are available. In a search for encouraging signs of the times, I think beginning with the Kurdish freedom movement is a fine place to start. In fact, when I was in the planning stages of Grabbing Back, I thought that including a piece about Kurdish liberation would be wise, but it did not work out—but not for lack of trying! It’s a well-known fact that the some of the Kurdish factions have had a rather close relationship with the US and Israel for some time, as has the Kurdish intelligence service, and collaborated against Saddam and Iran. Recall that Saddam used the chemical weapons that Reagan sent him to gas the Kurds, and Madeline Albright came to his defense when he was accused of war crimes. The history of this region is very complex and involves many traumatic moments, which involve a cautious understanding, not only of the organizations and movements, themselves, but of the potentialities within those entities for both autonomous liberation and co-optation by the US armed forces. This is why it’s exciting that New Compass Press recently has published a book about the Kurdish democracy movements, gender liberation, and ecology.

In the epilogue to Grabbing Back, you discuss the Spanish, Algerian, and Mexican Revolutions as luminous historical examples of autogestion, and you identify the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) as a heartening contemporary embodiment of the practice of self-management. I very much agree, and with regards to the focus of your book, I would highlight the EZLN’s recent joint declaration with delegates from the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) against the “plundering of [their] peoples.”  Yet, reflecting on the neo-Zapatista example, you claim it to have been inspired by “the militancy of peasant-led anarchist movements during the Mexican Revolution,” particularly—as is befitting—the indigenous insurgents who formed part of Emiliano Zapata’s Ejército Libertador del Sur (“Liberatory Army of the South”). I would like first to ask whether the original Zapatistas can rightfully be called anarchists. While the Plan de Ayala of 1911 can be said to have anarchistic elements, especially given the stress on devolving lands controlled by hacendados to those who work it, and though Zapata personally was friends with famed anarchist revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón, the General was not necessarily opposed to individual holdings in land, if memory serves, and he is said to have expressed confusion and disagreement with Magón on this very matter.

I don’t want to romanticize Algerian or Spanish autogestion, because there was a lot that didn’t go well. Then again, we can learn from those movements, and understand that perhaps they were a step in the right direction—self-management and mutual aid. I do believe that the EZLN is a heartening model of these kinds of dialectics today—of course, it’s not without its problems, but no group is, and those must be addressed from a constructive position (namely, within their group). My reference to “peasant-led anarchist movements” is, of course, a generalization of a discursive field of very contentious, complex political and social relationships that created the revolutionary movement of Magón and Zapata.

There is a large and ongoing debate about whether or not Zapata was an anarchist, and I find neither side to be completely convincing. Zapata had his own revolutionary persona and program to quote Colin M. MacLachlan, but he was also radically influenced by Magóns indisputably anarchist platform, and remained ideologically close to those anarchist principles. He was also studying Kropotkin while first engaging in land struggles, and remained closer to his troops than Magón to his.

It returns to the question of what makes you an anarchist? Are you an anarchist, because you assert yourself as an anarchist? From what I understand, David Graeber doesnt think so—since anarchism is about praxis, if you carry out anarchist praxis, then you would be an anarchist. Of course, being called anarchist by others does not necessarily make you an anarchist either (unless we are thinking through a Sartrean argument of identity and the Other, as in his fascinating text, Anti-Semite and Jew). But what if your practical work corresponds to anarchist ideas?

Is it not possible to apply a label of anarchist with the little-a as an adjective and not an identity? Godwin, for instance, never used the word anarchy at all, but not only is he universally thought of as an anarchist, he is even called “the father of anarchism,” for having influenced anarchists like Percy Shelley.

Proudhon, as the first person to really popularize and advocate “anarchy” realized its power as just that, an adjective that the ruling class utilized to describe the general order of the masses, the peasants, the workers. He used “anarchy” more as a way of stirring the pot and stoking controversy than as way of setting into order a new ideological regime.

You know, for me, I get sick and tired of the sectarian bitterness around labels. The fact is, Kropotkin called himself a communist and an anarchist communist; Bakunin called himself an anarchist and a socialist; Emma Goldman called herself an anarchist communist, Berkman a communist anarchist; the old IWW folks read Marx, believed in union syndicalism, and appreciated anarchism. I agree with José Rabasa that “When Hardt and Negri define ‘communism,’ we can imagine Flores Magón and Marcos agreeing….” Similarly, I think we can imagine Zapata’s “persona and program” within the general parameters of anarchism—the more “outside” it seems, the better.

For a similar reason, I dont necessarily think anarchism is about the absolute seizure of all individual land holdings, nor does Grabbing Back seem totally in that spirit. In Perrys essay, for instance, there is a general defense of the neighborhood by a black womens neighborhood association, and the women seem to open their homes or belongings to a commons. Their mode of organization is horizontal, and they do not accept fixed hierarchies of leadership. They are already participating in the commons, both intellectually and physically, and thats part of their practical struggle to defend their land; the commons are not a post-revolutionary end point” or a prerevolutionary dogma.  They happen through praxis.

The commons is an idea of participation and collective organization, not of an abstract proprietary system, and I would say that the non-authoritarian struggle for the commons is the basic structure of anarchism. Now if we say, “this person is not anarchist, because they have not proclaimed themselves as such,” I think we are using anarchism as a reductive ideological framework, whereas the concept, itself, is more dynamic.

For the same reason, I think Marx rejected the idea of Marxism. Some people believe that Marx believed in the total communalization of all things on earth, but it is more complex than that. He saw the commune as a collection of heterogeneous social relations with intimate relations to nature—not as property, but as something else (see his discourse on the commune in the Grundrisse, for instance). If you look to Proudhon as well, he says property is robbery, but then how can you hypostasize theft if there is not ownership in the first place? Proudhon defines capitalism as a system of legalized robbery, but it is robbery in a special way—not of private property, but of possession, a rightful sense of what’s due, where the basic structure of value is destroyed. I think there is room for an understanding of possession with dignity; not along the old “mine and thine” paradigm, but along the lines of use value, in particular.

Most collectives function through an assumption of mutual dignity, which appreciates aspects of generative gift giving, barter, and trade. Such mutuality is part of a sense of belonging that is collected and developed through individual contributions. I think that the individual develops out of the social, and not the other way around, but individuals develop different affinities that reshape and transform the social. Hence, unique characteristics are developed, while a collective story is generated. Of course, relationships are at the core, and it is through those relationships that we understand consensus of how things belong, either individually or collectively.

The idea of the the gift in anthropology is really interesting here, because it shows that, while individuals do not necessarily select the things that are given to them, they are said to possess the gift once it is given (and expected to give something back of superior value). Similarly, the usage of money in noncapitalist societies does not hold the same sense of exchange value; it is primarily a use value of exchange that manifests a different feeling of expenditure. I think David Graebers work in Debt: The First 5,000 Years as well as Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value is pretty fascinating in giving insight into these forms of relationship-building baseline communism that dont take away from individual achievement or personal growth.

Also regarding Mexico and the epilogue, you note the dialectical process whereby communal property in land—the ejido system—was enshrined in the 1917 Mexican Constitution yet progressively degraded in fact thereafter by neoliberalism until the coming of NAFTA in 1994, which “effectively liquidated” the power of the ejidos, on your account. Please clarify what you mean by this. I know that the ejidal system continues to provide a robust model of participatory decision-making and substantive equality in land distribution for a great number of indigenous and campesin@ communities in southern Mexico even nowtwo decades after the beginning of NAFTA, the concurrent amendment of Article 27 of the Constitution, and the introduction of land-privatization programs like PROCEDE and FANAR, to say nothing of the state-sponsored terror imposed by paramilitary groups like Paz y Justicia against EZLN sympathizers in Chiapas in the 1990’s.

You are correct, on the one hand, in insisting that we maintain adequacy to the facts regarding the continued struggle of ejidos in general, as many ejidos do still exist and have continued the revolutionary tradition of resistance to illegal land grabs since NAFTA—for instance, in Atenco and Chiapas.

It also depends on how you interpret the law. Manuel Castells believes that the transformation of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution “ended communal possession of agricultural property by the villagers (ejidos), in favor of full commercialization of individual property, another measure directly related to Mexico’s alignment with privatization in accordance with NAFTA” (The Power of Identity, 78). In Life During Wartime, Fatima Insolación claims that the revision of Article 27 “allowed peasants to use their land as collateral for loans. Many farmers took out loans, which they were unable to service due to currency devaluation, the associated cost of living increases, and an inability to compete in the ‘free market.’”6 This is what I consider the greatest aspect of liquidation done through the free market; communal land holdings are turned into capital through loans that are impossible to pay off, so the property is turned over to the banks, which allow aggregation and transnational corporate land grabs. David Harvey marks this process as a kind of “accumulation by dispossession,” linking the “reform” of the ejidos to the subprime market crash and other neoliberal land grabs.7 Public Citizen documents the change after NAFTA, showing that in just ten years, the income of farm workers dropped by two-thirds, while millions of people became refugees from the lack of opportunity, growing violence, and drug wars that emerged particularly in Southern Mexico.

I think that the basic source of disputation is marked by a difference between what we might call the “ejido system” as the formal, constitution-based juridicial system of protection of indigenous land holdings, and what we would think of as a more general ejido system, which manifests traditional landholdings that have been in place since well before the 16th Century. The question of “What to do with ejidos?” has been an issue faced by governing regimes of Mexico since the Spaniards seized power—for instance, the Constitution of 1857, which incorporated the Ley Lerdo, and institutionalized ejidos as civil corporations. I in no way want to claim that there are no more ejidos, or that the power of the traditional form of agriculture has been liquidated. At the same time, Article 27 has been modified in order to privatize and “open up” markets, such that the system as it existed from 1917 until 1991 was transformed or “rolled back” in the words of Roger Burbach to a kind of neocolonial state.

A final question for you, Sasha. You write in the epilogue to Grabbing Back that we may not have much time left, given the profundity of the ecological crisis—a distressing reality that is certainly not lost on your colleague Helen Yost, who pens a moving report about the dignity of resistance to tar sands megaloads in northern Idaho for the volume. For his part, Chomsky has just written a column in which he employs the metaphor of the Athenian owl of Minerva—who begins her flight, as Hegel observed, only with the falling of dusk—as an extra-historical or even extra-terrestrial judge of the course of human history, which may well be coming to a violent end because of catastrophic climate change. Indeed, Chomsky cites Arundhati Roy’s recent note on the receding Siachen Glacier in the Himalayas, the site of various battles between the Indian and Pakistani armies since 1947, as the “most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times”: there, the disappearing glacier is revealing “thousands of empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice axes, old boots, tents and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate” in meaningless conflict. Amidst the depths of negation promised by climate catastrophe, what would you say are our responsibilities as activists committed to human freedom and the health of our Mother Earth? Is it just all for nought—a tale “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

In a Hegelian sense, I suppose it can be said to be a negative process. Then again the Omnis determinatio est negatio [“All determination is negation,” Hegel with Spinoza] returns us to autonomous times and history as “the development of the order of freedom,” as Martin Luther King, Jr., notedI think an important concern is organizing sustainable infrastructure like gardens, tool libraries, schools, and skill shares in our neighborhoods while also reaching out to indigenous communities whose land has been stolen, and who may appreciate mutual aid. What really hits home in Chomsky’s essay is the sense of meaninglessness—I think we create meaning by doing, we actuate meaning, and destruction of our work is an attempt to destroy actual meaningful existence. We perhaps require such a transformative chain of events that one would not even recognize the way of thinking “after the orgy,” as Baudrillard used to say.

What are we going to do after the People’s Climate March? My problem with the Climate Movement in its broadest formulation is that it opens the door to false solutions like agrofuels and fracking for gas, while destroying the land base. Water is a diminishing resource in the world today; we need to defend the land and radically transform the political and economic systems annihilating the planet, and I think that means we need to start thinking climate change beyond the current parameters of the movement and toward genuinely understanding problems of global justice that accompany the acknowledgment of biodiversity and the interconnectedness of all things.

That being said, there’s a tremendous need for mass mobilization to fight imperialism and climate change, which you correctly position in the same category, and that isn’t possible without also truly involving oneself in community efforts against environmental racism and extractive industry, as David Osborne recently noted in a critique of the climate march. We have to avoid the crushing homogeneity of misdirected populism in the sense of supporting or pandering to the conventional parties’ platforms just because they tell us what we want to hear. They have always betrayed their promise to the people, and it’s time to say, “We’ve had enough.” But we also can’t fall into the trap of attacking populism, as such, from an elitist point of view; I agree with Fanon that an idea is liberating insofar as you can use it tactically to recognize “the open door of every consciousness.” Once that door starts closing, it’s time to move on.

Perhaps that idea of the eternal return, what Nietzsche ideated as “how I become who I am,” brings us back to process of revolution in time: we find a kind of satisfaction in growth, but we only find real development in sustainability. All of life is in rebellion against the foreclosure of consciousness that is modernity. Finding another way is also a process of expressing revolutionary joy, and learning how to teach or spread that feeling to others.

1 For a general history of the movement against neoliberalism in Argentina, see the documentary Social Genocide: Memoria Del Saqueo: Argentina’s Economic Collapse, dir: Fernando E. Solanas, (ADR Production, 2004).

2 Teo Ballvé, “The De Soto Dillema: Squatters and Urban Land Tilting,” (The New School University: New York City, Mar 20, 2008).

3 See Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity (Duke University Press: Chapel Hill, 2011), 72.

4 See James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1998), 39n74.

5 For this latter part, see David Porter, Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria (AK Press: Oakland, 2011), 113 [also, Internationale Situationiste, no. 10 (March 1966), 80.]

6 Fatima Insolación, Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency, (AK Press: Oakland, 2013), 189.

7 See David Harvey, The New Imperialism, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2003), 152-161.

Kurdish Anarchists in Umanita Nova: Do the Kurdish People Need a State?

April 22, 2014


This is an excerpt from “Do the Kurdish People Need a State?” as published in Umanita Nova, 20 October 1996

“Therefore we’re saying that it’s a big lie, an inexcusable lie, to say to the world through the mass media that the majority of the Kurdish population is suffering because of a lack of authority, because of the lack of a Kurdish state. The truth is that the poor population of Kurdistan is suffering just like the working class in the rest of the world; in many ways this is caused by the brutal force of the capitalist system and its authority.

It is our task as anarchists to tell workers teachers and students about the position of labour in Kurdistan, not to be so stupid as to just change leaders from Turks to Kurds, from Persians to Kurds, from Arabs to Kurds. We have to learn the lessons of our history and the history of the working class and that the solution is anarcho-communist revolution. This is an enormous, bloody event which needs to be prepared illegally, and must be international, otherwise it is a waste of energy.

The flame of revolt is igniting in the hearts and consciousness of the Turkish, Persian and Arab workers, with students and soldiers who want an end to the power of the war machine, the power of poverty and the power of money.

Our mission is to destroy authority, not to reincarnate it in the name of Kurdistan. Kurdistan and the rest of the world should cultivate life without the state.

Long live the Kurdish language and music!

Long live the spirit of revolutionary anarcho-communism in the Middle East and the rest of the world!

Our objective is to abolish religion, the State, racism and money.

-Kurdish anarchists”

Marcuse, Resistance to the Counterrevolution

January 26, 2014

huey rev suicide

From “The Left Under the Counterrevolution,” which appears in Counterrevolution and Revolt by Herbert Marcuse (Boston: Beacon, 1972), 52-3.

This society strives to impose the principle of nonviolence on the opposition while daily perfecting its own ‘legitimate’ violence, thereby protecting the status quo. Thus the radical opposition faces the problem of the ‘economy of violence’: its own counterviolence is bound to cost dearly, in lives and liberties. What is the political value of sacrifices under these circumstances?

Martyrs have rarely helped a political cause, and ‘revolutionary suicide’ remains suicide. And yet, it would be self-righteous indifference to say that the revolutionary ought to live rather than die for the revolution—an insult to the Communards of all times. Where the Establishment proclaims its professional killers as heroes, and its rebelling victims as criminals, it is hard to save the idea of heroism for the other side. The desperate act, doomed to failure, may for a brief moment tear the veil of justice and expose the faces of brutal suppression; it may arouse the conscience of the neutrals; it may reveal hidden cruelties and lies. Only [ze] who commits the desperate act can judge whether the price [ze] is bound to pay is too high—too high in terms of [zir] own cause as a common cause. Any generalization would be ambivalent, nay, profoundly unjust: it would condemn the victims of the system to the prolonged agony of waiting, to prolonged suffering. But then, the desperate act may have the same result—perhaps a worse result […].”

Distinction must be made between violence and revolutionary force.  In the counterrevolutionary situation of today, violence is the weapon of the Establishment; it operates everywhere, in the institutions and organizations, in work and fun, on the streets and highways, and in the air.  In contrast, the revolutionary force which is destined to terminate this violence does not exist today.  Revolutionary force would be the action of masses or classes capable of subverting the established system in order to build a socialist society.  Examples would be the unlimited general strike, the occupation and taking over of factories, government buildings, centers of communication and transportation, in coordinated action.”


Noam Chomsky, “Who Owns the Earth?”

July 6, 2013

monkeywrench flag

From Truthout, 5 July 2013:

‘That the Earth now desperately needs defense from impending environmental catastrophe is surely obvious to any rational and literate person. The different reactions to the crisis are a most remarkable feature of current history.

At the forefront of the defense of nature are those often called “primitive”: members of indigenous and tribal groups, like the First Nations in Canada or the Aborigines in Australia – the remnants of peoples who have survived the imperial onslaught. At the forefront of the assault on nature are those who call themselves the most advanced and civilized: the richest and most powerful nations.

The struggle to defend the commons takes many forms. In microcosm, it is taking place right now in Turkey’s Taksim Square, where brave men and women are protecting one of the last remnants of the commons of Istanbul from the wrecking ball of commercialization and gentrification and autocratic rule that is destroying this ancient treasure.

The defenders of Taksim Square are at the forefront of a worldwide struggle to preserve the global commons from the ravages of that same wrecking ball – a struggle in which we must all take part, with dedication and resolve, if there is to be any hope for decent human survival in a world that has no borders. It is our common possession, to defend or to destroy.

“Autonomy: An Idea Whose Time Has Come” by Jérôme E. Roos

June 26, 2013


I would like here to share a link and PDF copy of Jérôme E. Roos’ recent essay, “Autonomy: An Idea Whose Time is Come,” as published originally on ROAR (Reflections on a Revolution) on 23 June.  It is a very excellent essay appraising the present situation of anti-systemic struggle and the various promises of autonomous social relations.  It is optimistic, noting that the future possibilities of popular, democratic self-management–as expressed via the council system–lie presently within the diverse set of anti-capitalist modes of being seen throughout the globe.  The author cites the Paris Commune, revolutionary Barcelona (1936), and the example of the Good-Government Councils of the EZLN as “concrete forms” of autonomous examples.

Unfortunately, Roos is mistaken in claiming that the Commune of 1871 held out for almost a year against the French military–far less time than that, just over two months!

In solidarity

Autonomy” (PDF)

Reform and Revolution at Left Forum 2013

June 15, 2013

First published on Counterpunch, 14 June 2013

This year’s Left Forum, held from 7 to 9 June at Pace University in lower Manhattan, was a rather impressive conference, one that arguably lived up to the Forum’s self-ascribed description as the “largest [single] gathering in North America of the US and international Left.”  Rather justifiably, this year’s theme at Left Forum was “Mobilizing for Ecological/Economic Transformation”; a great number of the panels and plenary sessions exhibited during the weekend reflected this dual sense of urgency well.  As is to be expected from a large-tent meeting of “civil libertarians, environmentalists, anarchists, socialists, communists, trade unionists, black and Latino freedom fighters, feminists, anti-war activists, students, and people struggling against unemployment, foreclosure, inadequate housing, and deteriorating schools,” though, the diversity of voices presented at this year’s Left Forum included some perspectives that were more palatable than others.  In this sense, the Forum exemplified the long-standing tensions among leftists between agitating and mobilizing for reform as against revolution, and vice versa.  While I reiterate my admiration and respect for most of the speakers and intellectual positions I encountered during the Forum’s weekend, it should be clear which perspectives I found to be more legitimate, as the reader progresses through this report-back I have made of the particular events I attended over the Forum’s three days.

The Forum’s double theme of ecology and economy were met with considered reflection during the Forum’s very first event, its opening plenary, which took place Friday evening.  Nancy Holmstrom, the session’s chair, emphasized the historical progression reflected in the Forum’s decision this year to take up ecology as central to its theme—an unprecendented step in the conference’s nearly decade-long history.  She observed clearly that climate change and the environmental crisis writ large first and foremost threaten the lives and livelihoods of people of color, women, and the working classes, especially for those who reside within “less-developed” contexts.  Recalling Earth First’s slogan that there can be “no jobs on a dead planet,” she gently rejected the (anti)catastrophist line formulated by Sasha Lilley and co. which makes it taboo to speak of impending ecological doom out of fear of alienating the populace at large, hence driving it even further from the radical political engagement that would be necessary to avert the self-destruction impelled by capital.  Though Holmstrom claimed that there are likely deep-seated denial mechanisms governing much of popular thinking on the environmental crisis, she optimistically pointed to recent findings which exhibit greater concern regarding these matters.  In this way, she invoked a specter of optimism and affirmation for the remainder of the three-day event.

The plenary proper began with an intervention by Christian Parenti, author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011); he entitled his talk “What Climate Change Implies for the State.”  Quite plainly, he here asserted that the Left should adopt a strategy of recovering and reclaiming the territory of the State, “reshaping” it toward the end of an all-out short-term mobilization to resolve the threat of climate destruction.  Noting the situation to be “bleak” and perhaps even “apocalyptic,” Parenti warned that it already may be too late to prevent self-propelling catastrophic climate change and the Venus effect that Jim Hansen writes about: a 1000-year period of unchecked warming that delivers Earth into a Venus-like state that would destroy all possibilities for life.  As against this, however, Parenti claimed a short window of opportunity during which we might still have the chance to respond effectively to the climate challenge, by mandating progressive 10% reductions in carbon emissions annually.  Returning to his initial comments, Parenti insisted that the means to this end must be the State; complaining that the neo-liberal turn in recent decades has erased statist strategies from left-wing thought, he rather strangely then proceeded to theorize that the State’s primary role within the emergence and stabilization of capitalism has been to facilitate the exploitation and destruction of nature by capitalists.  Somehow, apparently, this same mechanism could be used totally to invert this fundamental role he sees within the forseeable future: developing his idea of a “shadow socialism” as reflected in the history of the State apparatus (a thesis he takes from a forthcoming book), Parenti listed the numerous contributions the U.S. government has made to industrialization and expansion following 1776: the building of canals and railroads; the opening-up of vast tracts of land (no mention of genocidal policy vs. indigenous inhabitants of said lands); support for the rise of aviation, public education, the New Deal; and the prosecution of warfare.  He then argued that the U.S. contribution to climate catastrophe could be brought under control simply by applying the 1970 Clean Air Act: in his words, “we’re [just] waiting for numerous rules from the EPA.”  Parenti proposed a vision whereby the Post Office mandate its entire ground-fleet to switch from conventional engines to electric ones, suggesting that this would reduce the general price of electric cars and so help that transition along….  Naturally, no consideration of the theory of State or regulatory capture was made by Parenti, and it remains unclear what his suggestions mean practically: vote Hillary in 2016, or what?  In closing, he acknowledged that his recommendations were clearly very far from radical or revolutionary, but he insisted that the Left desperately needs to come up with “realistic solutions” to the climate crisis, and that any strategy of merely “being outraged” or “invoking the righteousness of our cause” will fail totally.

Christian Parenti, sipping his Starbucks and singing praises of the State

Similar in scope and orientation were the comments made by former presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein, the second speaker for the opening plenary.  Describing her discourse as “political medicine” of sorts, Stein called for a generalized exercise of the power of ordinary people against “the 1%.”  Listing the numerous recent popular upsurges seen in North America—for example, the international day of action against Monsanto, ongoing strikes by fast-food workers, student agitation in Montreal—she held out the hope that a popular movement from below might arrive “just in time” to stave off environmental breakdown.  Inverting the infamous posturing of the Iron Lady, Stein declared that climate science shows us that no alternative exists but to break with the status quo—as illustrated in the half-million who perish annually from climate change, the thousand children dying every day.  Expressing concern that megadroughts are now the “new normal”—she mentioned the raging wildfires seen to the north of Los Angeles in May, and alarmingly worried that the “livestock needed to feed humans” would be imperiled by future heat-waves, even if air-conditioned human spaces were not (no veganism here)—Stein called for systemic transformational change to be effected at an “emergency rate.”  The means?  For her, the option remains the Green New Deal she had formulated during her presidential campaign, which would create 25 million jobs, stop oil wars, codify the rights to work and to unionize, cancel student debt, and provide Medicare and free tuition for all.  She noted that she sees what might be an “unstoppable force for change” in the 1/3 of black males administered by the criminal-justice system, together with the presently unemployed and the millions of essentially “indentured servants” who graduate from college highly indebted.  Noting that the “real catastrophe” is the myth of powerlessness, Dr. Stein called on us all to assert our power in the streets and in the voting booths.

Certainly the most stimulating of the three interventions at the opening plenary came from renowed world-systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein, who spoke last.  He began by asserting that, like organisms, all social systems have lives, and that the capitalist system will not—cannot—possibly survive much longer.  (When this claim was met with resounding audience applause, Wallerstein, ever the scientific Marxist, quickly clarified that such a declaration was simply a factual statement, rather than a projected desire.)  Stipulating that the general hope of humanity is to achieve “relative democracy” and “relative egalitarianism,” Wallerstein noted that there exists no democratic State in the present world-system, and that no such State has ever existed.  Counterposing the “spirit of Davos” with the “spirit of Porto Alegre,” he hypothesized that the capitalist world-system will inevitably be altogether replaced by another system (or a multiplicity of systems) by 2050; Wallerstein calculated that the odds are approximately 50/50 for the egalitarian and democratic Geist to win out against hegemonic power.  Hanging over the chance for revolutionary social transformation, however, are the “three imponderables” Wallerstein soberly identified, all of them outgrowths of the logic of capitalism: environmental crisis, pandemics, and nuclear warfare.  The first of these is associated with the inherent operation of capitalism, claimed the professor: for capitalists to internalize the externalized environmental costs of production, profit and hence growth would be impossible.  Similarly, he argued, the specter of pandemics finds its basis in highly unequal access to healthcare, while the possibility of a “Dr. Strangelove” event precipitated by some particular “nut” grows more likely under Wallerstein’s prediction of expanding nuclear proliferation in the coming decades, as the acquisition of such weapons responds to defensive needs amidst the imperialist onslaught.  Wallerstein clearly declared the “figures” on climate change to be “devastating”; the question is whether the imponderables will explode before the conclusion of the stipulated transition to more humane social systems by 2050.  Endorsing the Andean conception of sumak kawsay (buen vivir, or “good living”), Wallerstein argued that economic growth should be seen as cancerous rather than virtuous, and he insisted that future civilizational change will require a decline in overall standards of living—if these are to be measured by “wealth” in commodities.  In conclusion, the point for Wallerstein is for us to reflect rationally and carefully on our values, and on what realities we want to preserve, and which we would like to jettison.  He closed by emphasizing that no solution is possible within the strictures of the capitalist world-system.

Immanuel Wallerstein predicting capitalism’s inevitable demise within 4 decades

The more than 350 panels offered at Left Forum 2013 began on Saturday morning.  During the first session, my comrades and I presented on the “Theory of One-Dimensional Society, the Specter of Climate Collapse, and Prospects for Social Transformation.”  We began the session by showing the infamous calving event off the Greenland ice sheet as captured in the 2012 film Chasing Ice; the film-maker’s juxtapositioning of the ice break-up with scaling of a similar event in lower Manhattan proved rather instructive, given the physical location of the event.  As chair, I introduced the panel and opened by presenting and briefly evaluating Herbert Marcuse’s theory of the one-dimensional society, as developed in One-Dimensional Man (1964) and previous essays: essentially, that monopoly capitalism is unique as a social system in that it largely erodes the function of the imagination and hopes for a better reality by promoting instrumental reason in place of critical rationality, in addition to the mass consumerism which creates artificial needs that tie subordinated classes into the Establishment, with the resulting empirical failure of the proletariat to smash capital.  I did however note limitations to the application of Marcuse’s theses in the present day, given for one that American-style capitalism is surely failing to “deliver the goods” to the general population of the U.S., given soaring poverty rates and other indicators of social hardship, and in light of well-established public-opinion polls which demonstrate significant differences in orientation among U.S. residents in comparison with established governmental policies on a number of issues, environment among them.  I then questioned whether the issue was a matter of providing a practical opening for popular, dissident opinion to be expressed in policy-making; aligning myself with Takis Fotopoulos and Max Horkheimer (at the latter’s most optimistic), I theorized that the worrying apathy exhibited in the U.S. main on the climate and a number of other pressing matters could perhaps well be overturned with the advent for example of workers’ councils and community decision-making structures.  Next, my comrade Jani Benjamins invoked Jacques Ellul and warned of Western “technique” which has essentially colonized the entire world, directing everything to the end of production; he quite sensibly observed that historical considerations show clearly that the presently overdeveloped social relations seen in capitalist societies are very far from necessary or desirable.

My friend Sky Cohen then intervened, commencing his presentation with a clear repudiation of the main thesis of Catastrophism: he asserted that it is precisely because we are not dealing with the horrific realities of climate change that we remain apathetic, and that it would be entirely unproductive for radicals to isolate ourselves from the conversation, as the authors of that volume would seem to suggest.  He noted the trajectory of human population growth from 2 to 7 billion over the past century, not to promote any Malthusianism, but rather to warn of the immense number of persons considered by hegemonic power as “surplus populations” whom these power-groups effectively expect to be sacrificed to the altar of growth and profit.  Sky then mentioned the negating studies showing a 90% decline in Caribbean coral reef cover and mentioned the ongoing droughts in the U.S., as well as the frightening wildfires that have raged in southern California.  Given prevailing trends, Sky cautioned, hundreds of millions of Southern peoples are likely to be displaced from their homes over the coming decades; in light of what seem to be the new (disastrous) ecological constants, he expressed his impatience with the often “hyper-utopian” hopes projected by many anarchists against the very real trends tending toward annihilation.  He mentioned the 3500 deep-water oil wells scattered around the globe, questioning to what degree a successful post-capitalist revolution could effectively avoid the ecological disaster represented by each such oil-rig, and he tragi-comically noted that, while the Keystone XL pipeline meets with legitimate resistance, the largest oil spill in history—the highway and transportation system of the U.S.—is met without question, and in fact is celebrated and embraced.  Lastly, Quincy Saul declared his agreement with many of the previously made points, asserting that we must as a movement tell the truth, even if the prospect of mobilizing to avert catastrophe seems a desperate one.  He noted that most people remain entirely untouched by the goings-on at Left Forum, and indeed that the one-dimensional society pervades even (and especially) so-called activist spaces.  Quincy declared boldly that there exists no real left or climate movement in the U.S., and he asked why it is that we are failing to accomplish anything in these terms.  The specter of extinction—including human extinction—he asserted, is not primary in our minds, yet he observed that the work of an anti-capitalist movement has seemingly never been easier, for to continue with economic growth obviously implies suicide.  Painting the panorama as a largely “ghastly” one, Quincy nonetheless declared that we must not succumb to despair or cynicism, but rather seek to build revolutionary movements amidst the likely go-ahead that will be given to projects like Keystone XL, and advocate a generalized reduction in consumption levels to approximately those now enjoyed by the middle classes of presently developing societies.

For the second session on Saturday, I attended the panel “Jean-Paul Sartre Revisited in a Time of Crisis,” chaired by Elizabeth Bowman of the Center for Global Justice and the Radical Philosophy Association.  Professor Joseph Catalano of Kean University spoke first, presenting among other points Sartre’s famous argument that the world’s state is as it is because of the way we are—that is to say, that we tolerate the hegemonic powers which oversee generalized destruction and brutality, and hence we confront the world we deserve.  Catalano claimed Sartre as postulating that, if millions perish due to poverty and war, it is our own responsibility; he also clearly established Sartre’s belief in the presence of radical evil, particularly among the most affluent classes, who exhibit hatred for common people in their desire to uphold their privileges amidst mass social misery: capitalists “love to kill.”  Bowman spoke next, focusing her comments on Sartre’s unpublished manuscripts on ethics from the mid-1960’s.  She opened by noting Sartre’s reaction to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, which was to claim that humanity could either continue on its present path or destroy itself entirely.  Developing from his anxiety regarding nuclear warfare, Bowman argued, Sartre then came to conclude that each person must assume zir responsibility for the fate of human history; echoing Immanuel Kant, Sartre came to hold that, in whatever action we take, we present a maxim by which we believe humanity should act in general (“Morality and History”).  According to Bowman, Sartre’s vision of a future society importantly features an absence of power relations, and he argues that this society should be developed autonomously rather than by diktat—that is, not at the behest of a Party.  Bowman concretely asked how it is that we might get everyone collectively to decide to stop shopping, so as to bring down capital, and she pointed via Sartre to the problem of self-subordination to given social systems: noting Sartre’s enthusiasm for the Algerian Revolution, she cited Sartre’s belief that social change will come about when the chance of dying in struggle against the system becomes less than that of dying by continuing to follow the orders handed down by the system’s administrators.

Next on the Sartre panel was Bob Stone, who reflected on Sartre’s 1964 Rome lecture at the Gramsci Institute which examined the idea of an “integral humanity.”  Stone explained that Sartre found two contemporary political models particularly inspiring for action: the French Resistance to Nazi occupation, and the Algerian Revolution.  Both attempts began as clandestine means to awaken the working class to its task of liberating humanity from oppression altogether, as through individual assassination campaigns, yet they developed later into centralized armies.  Stone spoke to the “negative totalizers” which radically threaten the present continuation of Sartre’s hopes for universal human emancipation, with nuclear war and ecocide being the most dire of these.  Indeed, recalling Günther Anders (though not mentioning him by name), Stone described humanity itself as a whole as now being the oppressed, against Marxian analyses which privilege consideration of the proletariat: we all are the “us-objects.”  Stone’s concept of these “negative totalizers” stressed that these are human creations and hence contingent realities that can be reversed; he called for a new Bastille, and optimistically asserted that, thanks to technology, humanity presently has a better capacity to coordinate generalized uprisings than was the case during Sartre’s lifetime: if between 10 and 40 million protested the impending Iraq invasion on 15 February 2003, then surely these same persons (and more) can organize a global general strike!  Lastly on this panel, Matthew Ally spoke to socio-ecological perspectives on Sartre, examining the intertwining trends of anti-humanism within much of environmentalism and the anti-ecological sentiments seen in much of humanism.  Though Sartre clearly cannot be reclaimed as a pioneering ecologist—as Ally noted, Simone de Beauvoir is on record as having remarked that Jean-Paul much preferred the concrete world of cities to nature, and Sartre himself wrote in his 1965 manuscripts that the natural world must be “subjected […] to human desires without reciprocity”—his toxic anthropocentrism, instrumentalism, and exceptionalism remain important philosophical residues which continue to necessitate interrogation and abolition today.

During Saturday’s lunch break, noted anarcho-syndicalist and linguist Noam Chomsky gave a public address at the Forum.  Sadly enough, much of his commentary constituted repetition of many of his other recent speeches and articles (see, for example, here), so if the reader is familiar with these interventions, little new will be presented in this brief summary of his talk.  Nonetheless, to share: Chomsky analyzed what he calls “really existing capitalist democracy” (RECD), which contradicts substantive notions of democracy—participatory, direct, and so on—and in fact mirrors mainstream liberal-democratic theory, which (like Leninism) holds that the general populace must be excluded from decision-making processes and regimented so as to support the status quo, or at least refrain from interfering with it.  Following some initial comments on the current state of U.S. politics, which Chomsky cautiously warned to bear resemblances to late Weimar Germany, he asked how the future fares under continued conditions of RECD: doubtlessly, highly grim.  The two “dark shadows” which threaten the future are those of environmental catastrophe and nuclear war.  The first such threat is “obvious,” one that is being exacerbated “enthusiastically” by the advanced-capitalist settler-colonial societies on the one hand and, says Chomsky, resisted on the other by so-called “primitive” societies.  Each day’s environmental indicators as reported in the press show the “lunacy” of RECD, which for Chomsky in fact represents its self-described “rationality.”  While Chomsky warned that there exists no “guardian angel” to ensure that the material conditions for decent survival not be utterly destroyed by capitalism, he did note that the U.S. public is close to the international norm in its expression of concern for the environment and advocacy of measures to prevent its collapse, as revealed in public-opinion polls.  With regard to nuclear war, Chomsky alarmingly mentioned that this specter came close to conflagration just two years ago, during the covert operation to assassinate Osama bin Laden: Obama had ordered the SEAL team sent to kill OBL to use all necessary force to escape, even and especially if such force would have to be directed against the Pakistani military, which of course was not apprised of the clandestine strike beforehand.  Chomsky asserted that war could well have resulted, had the SEAL team been located, and that this war could have surpassed the nuclear threshold.  That it did not was a matter of luck.

In terms of Iran, Chomsky sensibly proposed that a rational alternative to the controversy over uranium enrichment and U.S./Israeli threats of attack would be to establish a nuclear-weapons free zone in the region (NWFZ), yet he noted that progress toward this end was subverted most recently when Obama cancelled the December 2012 conference on the subject that was planned to be held in Helsinki.  Chomsky similarly positioned U.S. anxiety over China’s expansion of its military in its governing assumption that it owns the world—as reflected in the question posed among mainstream thinkers of who “lost” China to revolution in 1949.  Chomsky closed by noting that soon there will be celebrated the eight-hundredth anniversary of the Magna Carta, which famously included the Charter of Liberties as well as the Charter of the Forests—the latter, less well-known, endorsing the idea of commons as against private depredation.  In contrast to Garrett Hardin and other capitalist apologists, Chomsky asserted that it is the indigenous who protect the Earth’s systems, and that the Latin American example of “liberation” from the “lethal grip” of imperialism via the Pink Tide governments that have arisen over the past decade should prove inspirational.  Channeling Martin Luther King, Jr., Chomsky ended by observing that while one trend in human history tends toward oppression and destruction, its inversion—which Chomsky implied to carry more weight—seeks justice, freedom, “and even survival.”


It is a pity that I arrived late to the panel I chose for the subsequent (third) session, “A New World in Our Past: Using Anarchist History Today.”  My lateness meant that I missed all of James Birmingham’s presentation on anarchist archaeology (or anarchaeology) and most of Cam Mancini’s words on current Wobbly (I.W.W.) strategy.  However, I did catch the comments made by Wayne Price, author of The Value of Radical Theory (2013) and Anarchism & Socialism: Reformism or Revolution? (2010).  Price gave a historical analysis of the most recent sustained anarchist upheaval in the United States, which took place during the Sixties (which in fact amount to the years 1955-1975, as he claimed).  The various experiences of anti-authoritarian left groupings during these decades showed, in Price’s estimation, the often large impacts that small groups of radicals can have—Price compared the legacy of the Sixties to that of the radical abolitionists before the Civil War.  He shared the seemingly little-known fact that there was registered more opposition to the Vietnam War among working-class persons than on college campuses, and he examined the dialectical process whereby the shattering decolonization efforts undertaken by Third World masses called into question the priorities of many middle-class students and activists within the U.S.—yet the successes evinced by these national liberation forces often served to legitimize Leninist and Stalinist ideologies among U.S. radicals, to the detriment of anarchism.  Price foresees another economic crash on the horizon, one that will bring about generalized suffering, and he predicts that a future mass-movement will be a combination of the class-struggle radicalism of the 1930’s and the New Left of the 1960’s.  Concretely in these terms, he mentioned the 2005 transportation workers’ strike in New York City, which effectively shut down the city: if this model were to be replicated, supported, and intensified, he argued, its effects on finance capital could be considerable!  For his part, the panel chair Adam Quinn shared some of his findings from research into historical anarchist-immigrant communities in the U.S.: he hypothesized that many such immigrants espoused anarchist philosophies both because of their previous exposure to strong anarchist movements in their mother countries (e.g. Italy and Spain) as well as in response to their experiences with the worst aspects of the statist bureaucracy in the U.S..  Mentioning the recuperation by secular Jewish anarchist-immigrants of traditional Jewish holidays, Quinn envisioned similar proposals for leftists today, toward the end of expressing greater joie de vivre.  He also regulated Price in the question-and-answer period, when the latter misrepresented the neo-Zapatistas’ original attempt to catalyze a social revolution throughout Mexico with their January 1994 insurrection.

The first session of the Forum’s third and final day saw an especially exciting panel, hosted by Social Medicine: “Health Care Struggles in Embattled Communities: Critical Historical Lessons, Political Continuities—Black Panther Party, Harlem; Young Lords, Lincoln Hospital/South Bronx—and Beyond.”  This event began with the words of Professor Alondra Nelson, author of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (2011).  Beginning with the projection of the famous image of Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton dressed in leather jackets, with the latter brandishing a shotgun, Nelson declared that the leftist romance which has focused on the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) armed self-defense campaigns has in fact served to eclipse its efforts to promote justice in healthcare.  Indeed, Nelson shared that the BPP’s 1972 revision of its original ten-point platform included new demands for “completely free health care for all black and oppressed people” as well as “mass health education and research programs” designed to “give Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information.”  In this sense, the BPP’s vision was not limited merely to a sort of welfare-state improvement in access to medical care, but rather based itself in the chance to develop self-determined healthcare systems.  Nelson importantly situated the BPP’s strides in calling for revolutionary medicine within the established history of racism in the medical sphere as directed against blacks, from the Black Cross Nurses’s association, which was to form the basis for the health-care infrastructure of the new nation-state envisioned by Marcus Garvey, to Fannie Lou Hamer’s denunciations of sterilization campaigns as well indeed as the medical neglect to which Huey Newton was subjected after being shot by police in 1967.  The professor also mentioned international influences on the BPP’s health activism: the examples of Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon, in particular, as well as the Maoist barefoot doctors campaigns, with which BPP militants were well-acquainted from their frequent visits to Red China.  Nelson noted that, at its height, the BPP was running campaigns that claimed to be testing tens of thousands for sickle-cell anemia, and that it stipulated that it have a clinic operational in each of its national chapters; additionally, she explained that the Panther’s newletters often straightforwardly presented scientific and medical information, without any sort of patronizing simplification.  She closed her presentation by noting that the BPP’s health-care activism lives on through such examples as the Carolyn Downs Medical Center in Seattle, as in that of the Common Ground clinic set up in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Professor Alondra Nelson ties the Panthers’ health activism into their reading of Fanon

After Nelson, Cleo Silvers spoke, having been a participant in the world-historical takeover by workers of the Mental Health Services department of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx in 1970.  The occupation lasted just under a month, said Silvers, and this has been the first and only time such a thing has happened, at least within the U.S.  Shepard McDaniel of the People’s Survival Program then spoke to the role played by the Lincoln Detox Program in the occupied hospital, an initiative that sought to use acupuncture and other holistic methods to stem the tide against heroin abuse in the local community.  One audience member stressed that the Panthers’ health-care model has been fruitfully reproduced in many other contexts, especially on the global level—e.g. among the Zapatistas.

Following the Panther healthcare presentations, I attended another excellent panel: “Political Ecologies of Developmental Terrorism: Neo-Liberalism and People’s Resistance in India,” as organized by the Sanhati organization.  Partho Ray opened by discussing agricultural and environmental matters in India, following the turn to neo-liberalism taken by the Indian State in the late twentieth century.  He observed precipitous ecological decline with the onset of trade liberalization and the attendant shift to cultivation of cash crops, together with the introduction of genetically modified seeds owned by Monsanto and co.  As has been noted on these pages recently, Ray estimated that 300,000 Indian agriculturalists have taken their lives over the past two decades due to indebtedness, failed crops, and increases in the prices of farming inputs.  He warned that, while U.S.-India cooperation on nuclear matters is infamous, the less well-known joint Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture seeks explicitly to propagate the U.S. agricultural model in India, where some 70% of the population is involved in agricultural production—the KIA board, Ray reports, includes such luminaries as Walmart and Monsanto.  As against these trends, Ray pointed to the development of ecological alternatives within the janatana sarkars established in the regions of land liberated from governmental control by Maoist rebels.  Speaking to nuclear energy policy in India, Rajeev Ravisankar observed that the toxic origins of nuclear power in the country—the erection of the Tarapur reactor in 1963—were helped along by Bechtel and General Electric; he finds the development of nuclear-weapons capacity by the Indian State to be little more than an exercise in nationalist chauvinism, particularly with the 1998 expansion in such capacity, as overseen by the BJP.  Ravisankar rightly noted stark inequalities in India’s turn to nukes: while the development of nuclear power and arms prove highly profitable to the wealthy, and project images of virility to boot, it is ordinary Indians who must suffer from the effects of nuclear waste, mining for thorium and uranium, and the specter of accidents.  Ravisankar warned of present plans to construct the largest nuclear plant in the world in Jaitapur (9000 MW), and he explored the controversies over the ongoing Koondankulam project in coastal Tamil Nadu in detail.  Ironically enough, plans for the Koondankulam plant were first agreed to in 1988 between Rajiv Gandhi and Mikhail Gorbachev—this, two years after the Chernobyl catastrophe!  The heroic mass-resistance exhibited in recent years to the planned Koondankulam plant seeks physically to block the designs of the “rich capitalists, multinational corporations, imperial powers, and global mafia,” in the words of S.P. Udayakumar, in favor of the well-being of humans and nature alike—no matter what the State says, accusing protestors of being manipulated by foreign powers!

Following Ray and Ravisankar, Sam Agarwal described the “largest land-grab since Columbus” that is being prosecuted in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, an entity that was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000 explicitly for the purpose of facilitating mineral exploitation.  There can be no doubt that Chhattisgarh is well-endowed in natural resources: its territory contain substantial quantities of tin, iron ore, uranium, and diamonds, all of which have stimulated the appetites of parasitical multinational companies.  One of the major problems within this process is the fact that nearly a third of the state’s population is adivasi, or indigenous, and that most of Chhattisgarh’s mineral wealth is concentrated in regions that are themselves largely populated by adivasis, who observe collective notions of property.  Indeed, Agarwal reports that a full 40% of the state’s adivasi population has been forcibly displaced in recent years to make way for mining operations!  What is more, this mass-mineral exploitation also implies devastating deforestation policies, with an estimated 78% of forests in the state’s Korba district affected by mineral development.  Agarwal argues that federal mining regulations are simply fradulent: the protections they stipulate are regularly ignored, and adivasi gram sabhas (popular assemblies) often meet with violence and coercion intended to grant consent to companies’ designs for surface mining.  Furthermore, the salwa judum paramilitary militias are estimated to have destroyed some 644 villages, affecting over 350,000 adivasis.  Despite these depressing realities, Agarwal holds out the hope that people’s power can work to block the continuation of mining devastation, as in the case of the Rowghat iron-ore mine, where the power of the Naxalite insurgency has effectively prevented the carrying out of mining.  Finally, Siddharta Mitra explored similar issues as seen in the western Orissa mountains (Niyamgiri), where the Dongria Kondh people confront the London-based Vendanta corporation, which desires to mine bauxite from the highly biodiverse hills where they reside.  As in Chhattisgarh, the process is plagued with fraud, whereby Vedanta on the one hand accepts the decisions of the gram sabhas of adivasis residing in elevations below those they desire for the mining, and the State on the other hand fabricates countless charges of sedition against indigenous resistors, and moreover besieges their communities.

Perhaps the most disastrous panel I encountered at Left Forum this year was “How to Solve the Israel-Palestine Conflict: 0, 1, or 2 State Solution.”  First-off, no speaker on the panel even considered a no-state solution to the crisis, so I am unsure why that option was mentioned in the title.  Beyond that, the panel (excluding the chair, who merely moderated) consisted of three Jewish Americans, two of whom defended at least in an interim period the existence of Israel, and only one Palestinian.  Regarding the relative absence of indigenous Palestinian voices at the discussion, though, Norman Finkelstein (being one of the panelists) clarified that all Palestinians who had originally been invited to speak had refused to do so, and that the sole Palestinian present at the actual panel, attorney Lamis Deek, was a late addition.  In his comments, Finkelstein reiterated the line he has developed in recent years, namely that while the mass-mobilization of Palestinians themselves to force Israel’s hand in ending the occupation is a necessary and critical condition of a just resolution, it is not sufficient, in that international public opinion must also support them.  He argued that the question surrounding Israel-Palestine should not be framed as one associated with personal preferences, but rather pragmatism: the international consensus, to which the U.S., Israel, and a few assorted members of the Pacific island “mafia” constitute the only dissenters, is for a two-state solution.  Finkelstein claimed that those who, like the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) campaign, claim to invoke international law for their cause cannot pick and choose which aspects of such law they desire to see implemented—international law as presently formulated supports Israel’s right to exist, in sum, and thus militates against contemplation of a one-state solution.  Self-described lesbian socialist Sherry Wolf spoke next, showering praise on BDS for having aided in presenting a counter-narrative to ruling ideas on the Israeli State; among other things, she asserted that a two-state solution would enshrine the legal discrimination suffered by Arab Israelis.  Generally, she expressed dismay at “realist” approaches to the conflict, such as those that favor two states; citing the example of the Egyptian Revolution, she stressed that, had the protestors begun from “practical” premises, Mubarak would likely still be in power!  Professor Stephen Shalom followed, arguing that even if the Palestinians were to achieve a one-state solution, it would still be unjust, assuming it kept the capitalist mode of production intact.  So while he hopes ultimately for a binational solution in the future, in addition to a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and imperialism, Shalom feels that practically it is already difficult enough to achieve something approximating a legitimate two-state solution—meaning one that is not a mere archipelago of bantustans—and that mobilizing for one state would prove exponentially harder.  Deek spoke next (last), noting that Israel is not fighting for its survival, but rather for the maintenance of the privilege of domination it exerts over the indigenous Palestinians.  She declared passionately that Palestinians will not renounce their rights to return to the lands from which they were expelled 65 years ago, nor that they should be asked to do so.  In her opinion, the present state of Gaza shows the future of a two-state solution; for her, the question should not be one of convenience, but rather justice.

The question-and-answer period for this panel was entirely a mash-up:  a great deal of yelling, interruptions, mischaracterizations, evasions.  Following his comments at the beginning of the panel, Finkelstein remained silent under the very end of the discussion period, when he remarked that any movement that seeks to engage a general audience would do well to invoke international law, and that posturing by making nice-sounding claims in a small room at the Left Forum is an entirely different matter.

Norman G. Finkelstein stoically weathers the storm as the room around him descends into acrimony

The final event at Left Form 2013 was the closing plenary, which featured renowned Marxian ecologist John Bellamy Foster, German anti-systemic theorist Tadzio Müller, and Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera.  The mere fact that García Linera was invited to speak at the Forum remained a source of controversy throughout the three days of the conference, given his role in the violent repression of a May 2013 general strike targeting the Morales regime for its failures to live up to its supposed commitment to socialism and notions of buen vivir, not to mention a similar repression in 2011 of indigenous protestors opposed to the State’s plans to construct a highway through the TIPNIS park reserve.  On the other hand, of course, the Forum’s organizers were seemingly pleased that Morales had in April 2010 hosted the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, as a counter-summit to the official negotiations that have meaninglessly been held by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for two decades now.

Foster opened his comments, entitled “The Epochal Crisis,” by noting that finance capital dominates the entirety of the world economy at present; he observed that economic growth rates within the Triad (U.S./Canada, Europe, and Japan) have been slowing down over the past decades, and likely will continue to slow in those to come.  As was to be expected, he here restated his theory of Marx’s conception of the “metabolic rift,” whereby capitalist agriculture depletes the Earth’s soil of its necessary minerals—a symbol of its larger disruptive effects in ecological terms.  Quite simply, Foster declared that the majority of production under capitalism is simply waste, and relatedly that it is the global South which bears the brunt of ecological exploitation today.  He once again invoked his theory of the “environmental proletariat,” mentioning that China’s Pearl River delta is among the world’s most industrialized regions, yet, like Bangladesh, is threatened greatly by future sea-level rise.  Foster speculated that, with the intensification of the effects of climate change, those proletarianized by capitalism will engage in mass struggle—left unanswered is the puzzling question of how it is that this “eco-proletariat” might intervene effectively, given that it will likely be far too late if it does not act, insofar as it can, before the ocean’s levels rise by several meters.  He outlined a vision taken from David Harvey that calls for “co-revolutionism” between ecological and economic concern, and closed by stating that he was “honored” to present at the plenary with his co-panelists, whom he claimed to have “done more to advance” these visions than he had.  Apparently the contemporary critique of “socialist” productivism escapes the good professor.

In my view, Tadzio Müller’s comments, which followed those made by Foster, were at once explosive and justified, proving in this sense to be a good corrective to the relative lack of criticality espoused by larger-name celebrities present at Left Forum, from Christian Parenti to Foster himself.  Müller began by warning the audience that, rather than celebrate or engage in comforting left-wing delusions, “we do need to worry, quite a lot.”  In general terms, he argued, humanity is losing, and “losing big”: though movements against austerity have arisen to combat neo-liberal designs in southern Europe, for example, they have had few successes in actually preventing such reactionary policies from being implemented.  Similarly, claimed Müller, we cannot expect the miraculous transformation of millions of Euro-Americans to militant socialism; the ongoing economic crisis, which might have catalyzed such changes, manifestly has failed to do so.  Given this negating state of affairs, Müller observed that the question is one of identifying a leverage point, as from physics: that is, given a limited ability of leftist movements to “project force,” such groupings should expend their anti-systemic energies in an effective manner.  One concrete example Müller presented was that of the ongoing energy transition seen in Germany in recent decades, a development that was accelerated after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, when mass-mobilizations in the streets forced the rightist, neo-liberal Merkel regime to commit to the phasing out of nuclear energy over the short term.  Today, a full 20% of the country’s total energy comes on average from renewables sources—and this figure can reach 100% on especially sunny days.  Moreover, up to 2/3 of this energy is owned at the local level, rather than by large corporations.  For Müller, renewable energy by its design inherently lends itself much more to decentralized notions of politics, and so in his opinion this development, which he terms the most positive socio-ecological transformation seen in any industrialized society, merits a great deal more reflection and, indeed, reproduction.

Then came the vice president’s turn to speak.  Immediately upon taking to the podium, a large portion of the right-hand side of the orchestra seating exploded, holding up signs and banners calling for the release of prisoners arrested during the repression of May’s anti-government protests and condemning any yanqui intereference in Bolivia’s internal politics.  García Linera continued with his prepared comments, unfazed, not even deigning to afford eye contact with his dissident compatriots, who by phenotype far more closely resemble the country’s indigenous majority than he.  The VP droned on about the formal and informal subsumption of labor to capital, and other revelations he had supposedly come to in his years working by Morales’ side.  I decided to leave prematurely, disgusted by his arrogance.  As I exited the auditorium, there were his Escalades, loyally awaiting the return of the vice head of State.



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