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What Were Stalin’s Real Crimes? Critique of “A Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin (Part II/III)

November 15, 2018
Fergana

The meaning of forced collectivization: an irrigation project in Fergana, Eastern Kazakhstan, 1935 (courtesy David Goldfrank)

“It is in the nature of ideological politics […] that the real content of the ideology […] which originally had brought about the ‘idea’ […] is devoured by the logic with which the ‘idea’ is carried out.”

– Hannah Arendt1

What’s the biggest problem with the “criticisms” of Stalin raised by the “Proles of the Round Table”? That they are so disingenuous and anemic. One of the three critiques raised—about Spain—in fact isn’t critical of Stalin, while we’ve seen (in part I) how the “criticism” on deportations is entirely misleading. A related question might be to ask how it looks for two presumably white U.S. Americans to criticize Stalin for some (1-2%) of his deportations of ethnic Germans, but not to do so when it comes to the dictator’s mass-deportations of Muslims, Buddhists, and other indigenous peoples. At least Mao Zedong judged Stalin as being “30 percent wrong and 70 percent right.”2 For Jeremy and Justin, though, Stalin appears to have been at least 90%, if not 95%, right. Maybe we can soon expect the “Proles of the Round Table” Patreon to begin selling wearables proclaiming that “Stalin did nothing wrong.”

Besides the aforementioned Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the May Days, and the mass-deportations of ethnic minorities, let’s now consider five of Stalin’s real crimes.

1. “Socialism in One Country”: Stalinist Ideology

His revision, together with fellow Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin, of the tradition of socialist internationalism to the reactionary, ultra-nationalist idea of “socialism in one country.” Stalin and Bukharin arrived at this conclusion to compete against Lev Trotsky’s rival concept of “permanent revolution,” which calls first for a European and then global federation of socialist republics. This Stalinist doctrine, which demanded that the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy be considered first within the Third International (or Comintern), can explain both the General Secretary’s demand to crush the anarchists in Spain in 1937 and his effective facilitation of Hitler’s rise to power by means of the disastrous Comintern policy that considered the social-democratic (that is, non-Stalinist) opposition to Hitler to be “social-fascist.” The General Secretary would only reverse course and endorse a “Popular Front” strategy after Hitler had taken power.3 Stalinist ultra-nationalism finds contemporary purchase among neo-fascist, national-Bolshevik movements, whereas—perhaps ironically—the Comintern doctrine on “social fascism” has echoes today among ultra-leftists disdainful of coalition-building with more moderate political forces (e.g., as in the 2016 U.S. presidential election). Moreover, Stalin’s preference for “socialism in one country” can help us understand the Soviet Union’s continued sale of petroleum to Mussolini following this fascist’s military invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935.4 Within this same vein, and anticipating the affinity of today’s neo-Stalinists for campist “analyses” of international relations, Moscow variously supported the feudalist Guo Min Dang (GMD) in China, the Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Iranian Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Afghan King Amanullah Khan, and Ibn al-Sa’ud (founder of Saudi Arabia) during this time on the grounds that these leaders staunchly opposed the West, despite their great distance from any kind of socialist paradigm.5

Civilizatsia

Courtesy Voline, The Unknown Revolution

2. Stalinist Imperialism

His “Great-Russian” chauvinism, as manifested in his brutally imperialist policies toward ethnic minorities—particularly the deportations of Muslims (as mentioned above in part I)—and other subject-peoples of the former Tsarist empire, whose colonial project Stalin enthusiastically embraced. Though Georgian by origin (his birth name was Ioseb Jughashvili), Stalin (whose Russian nom de guerre means “man of steel”) was “the most ‘Russian’ of the early leaders” who advanced not only “socialism in one country,’ but […] a socialism built on a predominantly Russian foundation.”6 According to Dunayevskaya, Stalin’s “national arrogance” was “as rabid as that of any Tsarist official.”7 In contrast to his mentor and supervisor Vladimir I. Lenin, who at least formally supported the right of self-determination for the oppressed nationalities of the Tsarist empire while greatly violating this principle in practice, Stalin was openly imperialist on the national question: according to the terms of this relationship, the colonies were to be “plundered for raw materials and food to serve the industrialisation of Russia.”8 It therefore remains clear that, under the Soviet Union, “Russia was not a nation state but an empire, an ideological state. Any definition as a nation-state would probably have excluded at least the non-Slavs, and certainly the Muslims.”9 Accordingly, the official history taught in Stalin’s USSR rehabilitated the mythical Tsarist narrative that the Russian “Empire had brought progress and civilisation to backward peoples.”10

Map_of_the_ethnic_groups_living_in_the_Soviet_Union

Ethnographic map of the former Soviet Union. Date unknown

In Georgia, a former Tsarist-era colony located in the Caucasus Mountains, the social-democratic Menshevik Party declared independence in 1918 to found the Georgian Democratic Republic, otherwise known as the Georgian Commune, wherein parliamentary democracy and a relatively collaborative relationship among the peasantry, proletariat, and political leadership lasted for three years, until Stalin and his fellow Georgian Bolshevik Sergo Ordzhonikidze organized a Red Army invasion in 1921 which crushed this courageous experiment in democratic socialism. The errant ex-colony of Georgia was thus forcibly reincorporated into the ex-Tsarist Empire—by then, the “Transcaucasian Federated Soviet Republic,” part of the Soviet Union.11 Besides Georgia, this “Transcaucasian Federated Soviet Republic” would include Azerbaijan and Armenia, which had also been occupied by the Red Army in 1920.12

In the Muslim-majority provinces of Central Asia, otherwise known as Turkestan, the poorest region of the former Tsarist Empire, Lenin and Stalin sided with the interests of the Russian settlers against the Muslim peasantry.13 In Orientalist fashion, the Bolsheviks considered Central Asia’s “Muslims as culturally backward, not really suitable to be communists and needing to be kept under a kind of tutelage.”14 Yet in light of the sustained Basmachi revolt waged by Muslim guerrillas against Soviet imperialism in the first decade after October 1917, Stalin also recognized the significant threat these colonized Muslims could pose to the Soviet Union—hence his active discouragement of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism by means of cutting off the USSR’s Muslims “subjects,” many of them ethnically and linguistically Turkic, from the rest of the Ummah (Islamic global brotherhood or community) abroad. An early 1930’s law punishing unauthorized exit from the USSR made observation of hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, quite impossible.15 The expulsion from the Communist Party (1923) and subsequent imprisonment (1928) of the Volga Tatar Sultan Galiev, a pan-Islamist “national-communist” who envisioned organizing the Turkic Muslims into a fighting force against Western imperialism, followed a similar logic.16

In the Stalinist conception, the numerous subject-peoples of the Soviet Union could be classified hierarchically according to their “stage of development,” as based on their mode of production and whether or not they had a written language, such that supposedly more ‘advanced’ peoples would qualify as ‘nations’ that were granted the status of “Soviet Socialist Republic” (SSR), whereas “less developed” peoples would be granted “Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics” (ASSR), while those without written languages would be placed in “Autonomous Regions” (AR), or “National Territories” (NT). In 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, there existed 14 SSR’s, 20 ASSR’s, 8 AR’s, and 10 NT’s in the USSR.17

Soviet_Union_Administrative_Divisions_1989

Map of Soviet administrative subdivisions, 1989. Notice the numerous ASSR subdivisions in Central Asia

This systematic atomization of oppressed nationalities followed Stalin’s “principle of the dual bridgehead,” whereby the State would favor those minorities that could assist the USSR in expanding its reach while repressing other minorities whose existence could serve as a “fifth column” for the USSR’s rivals. In part I of this critique, we saw how this rationale played out in Stalin’s mass-deportations: the General Secretary felt justified in forcibly transferring the Turkic Muslim Meskhetian people, among others, because they were supposedly too close to the Turkish State headed by Kemal Atatürk. Furthermore, this principle can be gleaned in the Soviet Communist Party’s initial favoring of Uzbeks over Tajiks beginning in 1924, followed by a 180° shift in perspective upon the overthrow of Afghanistan’s King Amanullah (a Pashtun) by Bacha-i Saqqao, a Tajik, in 1928—leading to the proclamation of the Tajikistan SSR in 1929.18 The capital city of Dushanbe was subsequently renamed as “Stalinabad.”19 In addition, whereas the Communist Party favored its own Kurdish minority, some of whom included refugees, because it could use them in the future as pawns against Iran and Turkey, it had refused to support Kurdish and Turkmen rebellions abroad against Turkey and Iran in 1925. Above all, Stalin’s nationalities policy achieved its greatest “success” in its complex partition of Turkestan by means of the drawing-up of borders that were defined along ethno-nationalist lines: just look at the region’s current borders (see map above), which are based on those concluded by Stalin’s regime. In thus pitting Central Asia’s mosaic of different ethno-linguistic groups against each other, Stalin definitively laid the pan-Islamist specter to rest.20 Dunayevskaya’s observation here seems apt: it was in Stalin’s “attitude to the many [oppressed] nationalities” that the General Secretary’s “passion for bossing came out in full bloom.”21

soviet imperial mural

A Soviet mosaic in Karaghandy, Kazakhstan (Courtesy The Guardian)

Stalin’s imperialist assertion of power over Central Asia, which imposed the collectivization of cattle herds and the nationalization of bazaars and caravans managed by indigenous peoples while promoting Russian settlements, resulted in famine and revolt.22 It involved a high-modernist assault on Islam in the name of emancipating women and remaking traditional patriarchal Turkic social relations, as we shall examine in more detail in the third part of this response.

Regarding Ukraine, see the section on Jeremy and Justin’s Holodomor denial in the third part of this response. Briefly, Jeremy’s Russian-chauvinist attitude toward all matters Ukrainian comes through at a fundamental linguistical level when he refers to Ukraine as “the Ukraine.” This formulation, like the Russian «на Украине» (“in the Ukraine”), is an imperialist way of referring to the country, which is not just a colony of Russia or the Soviet Union (as in, “the Ukrain[ian province]”). The proper way is to refer just to Ukraine, as in the Russian equivalent «в Украине» (“in Ukraine”).

Such attitudes are shared by Ó Séaghdha, who falsely claims Ukraine today to be a “bastion of the far right and neo-Nazism,” just as Justin compares “Ukrainian nationalists” to the U.S.-based Proud Boys. One’s mind is boggled: as of July 2018, the ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party had only 6 seats, or 1.3%, in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, while in both rounds of elections held in 2014, Svoboda and Right Sector alike gained less than 5% of the vote.23 In fact, Ukraine has held its first major LGBT Pride marches following the Euromaidan protests which overthrew the Putin-affiliated President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Meanwhile, by focusing on the supposedly ‘fascist’ Ukrainians,24 Ó Séaghdha and his guests deny the global reach of Putin’s neo-Nazism, from his 2014 occupation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine and his subsequent mass-detention of Crimean Tatar Muslims, including in psychiatric hospitals, to his regime’s criminalization of homosexuality, decriminalization of domestic violence, and genocidal intervention in support of the Assad Regime in Syria—to say nothing of his mutual affinities for the Trump Regime. How ironic is this misrepresentation, then, considering that Ukraine was the “centerpiece of Hitler’s vision of Lebensraum.25

Soviet harvest

A typically socialist-realist depiction of a collective farm celebration, by Arkady Plastov (1937): presumably, this is how neo-Stalinists and ‘Marxist-Leninists’ idealize the outcomes of forcible collectivization in the Soviet Union.

3. Stalinist State-Capitalism

His advocacy and implementation of state capitalism in the Soviet Union, whereby the basic relationship of exploitation between capital and labor persisted after the Russian Revolution, with the difference that capital in this case was managed and expanded by the Communist Party bureaucracy rather than the private capitalist class.26 Upheld by the Army and police, the Soviet economy reduced workers to mere slaves: during the existence of the USSR, workers could not regulate, choose, or control their overseers and administrators, much less anticipate not having any, as through anarcho-syndicalist organization, or autogestion (самоуправление). In the USSR,

“[t]he State [wa]s [the worker’s] only employer. Instead of having thousands of ‘choices,’ as is the case in the nations where private capitalism prevails, in the U.S.S.R. (the U.S.C.R. [Union of State-Capitalist Republics: Voline]) the worker ha[d] only one. Any change of employer [wa]s impossible there.”27

Following the Revolution, “[f]or the Russian workers, […] nothing had changed; they were merely faced by another set of bosses, politicians and indoctrinators.”28

Peasants under Stalin were similarly reduced to serfs, particularly during and following the forced collectivization process that began in 1928. Continuing with the precedent of the Bolshevik policy of “War Communism,” which had involved considerable extraction of grain and the conscription of young men from the peasantry, Stalin declared war on the countryside, expropriating all lands held by these peasants and concentrating these into kolkhozi, or “collective possessions,” and sovkhozi, or State farms, which were to be worked by the peasants in the interests of the State.29 This nationalization did not discriminate between “rich” peasant, or kulak, and poor—in contrast to the misleading presentation Jeremy and Justin make of Stalin’s forcible collectivization campaign. The “Proles of the Round Table” deceptively explain the emergence of the “kulaks” by referring to the Tsarist Interior Minister Peter Stolypin’s land reforms of 1906, while saying nothing about Lenin’s “New Economic Policy” of 1921, which formally reintroduced private property. They also completely misrepresent Stalin’s collectivization policy, which proceeded at the points of bayonets, as a natural outgrowth of the traditional peasant commune (mir or obshchina), which had resisted the Tsarist State for centuries. In fact, it was arguably through Stalinist forcible collectivization that the Russian countryside fell under the control for the first time.30 As peasant resistance to this “total reordering of a rural civilization from the top down” mounted, including an estimated 13,000 “mass disturbances” just in 1930, Stalin’s regime resorted to atrocious counter-insurgent tactics to bring the countryside to heel, including mass-executions, reprisals, and the resulting famines of 1931-1933 in Ukraine, South Russia, and Kazakhstan.31 The Stalinist regime conveniently expanded the definition of exactly who was a “kulak” from a class-based to a political definition, such that even poor peasants who opposed forcible collectivization could be labeled “kulaks” and deported to Siberia, the Far North, and Central Asia, as about 1.8 million peasants were in 1930-1931. As during the numerous other episodes of mass-deportations devised by Stalin, mortality rates among “dekulakized” peasants were high.32

Puzzlingly, the “Proles of the Round Table” claim this collectivization to have been “extremely successful” in providing “stability” by the mid-1930’s, the resistance of at least 120 million peasants to the Terror campaign and the “excess mortality” of between 6 and 13 million people such Terror caused during this period notwithstanding. By precisely which standards can this campaign have said to have been “successful”? The historian Catherine Evtuhov observes: “From any humane perspective, the terrible costs were far greater than the rewards.”33 In contrast, Jeremy and Justin either do not recognize the brutality of the Stalinist regime’s campaign, or they simply explain away mass-death during collectivization as resulting from natural disasters—thus ‘naturalizing’ the Soviet regime’s contributions to famines—and/or “kulak resistance.” By so easily dismissing mass-death, they imply that the millions of poor peasants who were destroyed as a result of forcible collectivization deserved such a fate.

Jeremy and Justin are very insistent on arguing that the deaths associated with collectivization were “not due” to Stalin’s policies—against both logic and evidence. They have nothing to say about Stalin’s reconstitution in 1932 of the Tsarist-era internal-passport system, or propiska, in order to tightly control the movements of the Soviet peasantry and proletariat during forced collectivization. Upon its proclamation in December 1932, such “passportization” was effected and mandated in “towns, urban settlements, district centers, and Machine and Tractor Stations, within 100-kilometer radiuses around certain large towns, in frontier zones, on building sites and state farms”: it thus openly revoked the freedom of movement of the majority of the Soviet population, including peasants and ethnic minorities.34 With this in mind, it would appear that the “Proles of the Round Table” do not to want to concede the possibility—and reality—that Stalin’s “dekulakization” campaign involved the oppression and dispossession of many poor peasants, whether these were insurgents against whom the State retaliated for defending their communities against Stalinist incursion or simply peasants whom the parasitic bureaucracy considered mere objects of exploitation and either killed outright or left to die during forcible collectivization—thus reflecting the extent to which internal colonialism characterized the Stalinist State.35

Indeed, Stalin’s “dekulakization” campaign followed a very clearly state-capitalist rationale, both requiring and (once established) providing mass-labor inputs. Based on the economic theory of Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, Stalin’s massive State project to centralize the peasantry so as to more deeply exploit it represented the phase of “primitive socialist accumulation” that was considered as necessary to finance a rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union. In parallel to the colonization of the New World, the enslavement of Africans, and the enclosure of the commons by which capitalism arose as a historical mode of production,36 Preobrazhensky essentially argued that the Soviet State must exploit the peasants and use the surplus value extracted from them to accelerate the growth of capital and industry.37 This brutally mechanistic logic, which has served as the model for similar industrialization processes in countries led by Stalinist bureaucracies such as Maoist China and Ethiopia under the Derg,38 openly exhibits Marxist-Leninism’s fundamental bias against the peasantry, whether “kulak” or otherwise. Such bias was clearly on display on Ó Séaghdha’s podcast, given the embarrassing side-comments about “comrades cuddling” during the horrors of forced collectivization, and Jeremy and Justin’s astonishing conclusion that this collectivization which took the lives of millions of poor peasants had been “extremely successful.” These Stalinists thus appear to have no class analysis of the peasantry, instead considering them all as reactionaries and “capitalists” whose oppression and destruction signifies progress. They malign the peasants and laugh over their corpses while saying nothing about the conditions of “second serfdom”—represented by barshchina (State labor requirements), extraction, and low pay—that formed the basis of Stalinist industrialization.39

Within Soviet class society, according to Voline (writing in 1947), there existed approximately 10 million privileged workers, peasants, functionaries, Bolshevik Party members, police, and soldiers (comprising approximately 6% of the population of the USSR/USCR), as against 160 million effectively enslaved workers and peasants (or 94% of the USSR/USCR’s population).40 The basic structure of the Soviet Union, on Paul Mattick’s account, was “a centrally-directed social order for the perpetuation of the capitalistic divorce of the workers from the means of production and the consequent restoration of Russia as a competing imperialist power.”41 This ‘total State’ “resembled an army in terms of rank and discipline,” and atop it all “lived Stalin, moving between his Kremlin apartment and his heavily guarded dachas. He and his cronies indulged themselves night after night, in between issuing commands and execution orders, feasting and toasting in the manner of gangland chiefs.”42

child labor

The meaning of forcible collectivization: child labor on an irrigation project in Fergana, Eastern Kazakhstan, 1935 (courtesy David Goldfrank)

4. The GULAG Slave-Labor Camp System

The deaths of the conquered are necessary for the conqueror’s peace of mind.” Chinggis Khan: a phrase of which Stalin was fond (Evtuhov 676)

His regime’s founding (in 1930), mass-expansion, and vast utilization of the GULAG slave-labor camp system, known officially as the “State Camp Administration,” which played a central role in the General Secretary’s “Great Purge,” otherwise known as his “Terror.” These purges served the goal of “ensur[ing] the survival of the regime and Stalin’s position as its supreme leader” by eliminating the remaining “General Staff of the [Russian] Revolution” as well as the workers, peasants, and intellectuals who resisted Stalin’s state-capitalist plans.43 The General Secretary’s insistence on obedience, his paranoid vengefulness, his equation of any kind of opposition with treason, and the fear felt by Communists that the Soviet Union was militarily encircled, particularly in light of a newly remilitarized and fascist Germany, can help explain the Terror, which involved the arrest of at least 1.5 million people, the deportation of a half-million to camps, and the execution of hundreds of thousands. The total camp population reached 2.5 million in 1950.44

As Yevgenia Semënovna Ginzburg’s memoir Journey into the Whirlwind attests to, the GULAG system was designed in such a way as to partially recoup the financial losses involved in the mass-imprisonments which followed from Stalin’s Purges of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: instead of summarily being executed or idly rotting away in prison, many detainees were forced to work for the State with little to no material compensation. Ginzburg shows as well that political prisoners suffered greater discrimination in access to health services, nutritional intake, shelter, and types of labor performed in the GULAG, relative to other convict groups: the ‘politicals’ were always assigned hard labor. Many GULAG prisoners died performing slave-labor, whether clearing forests or constructing railroads: such was the fate of numerous enslaved prisoners forced to construct the Moscow-Volga Canal from 1932-1937.45 Within the Magadan camp located in Eastern Siberia where Ginzburg was held, the discrepancy between the housing conditions of Hut No. 8, a “freezing cold” “wild animals’ den” where the female political prisoners lived, and the abodes of those convicted for lesser offenses, in which lived individuals with “healthy complexions and lively faces” enjoying “blankets in check patterns” and “pillows with hemstitched linen covers,” clearly illustrates the discrimination.46 This same dynamic seems to explain the contrast in appearance—and physical comfort—among the female slave-labor teams assigned to the Kilometer 7 work site: the “peasant women” “had managed to keep their own coarse scarves” and some of the “ordinary criminals” had sheepskin coats, while the political prisoners “had not a rag of [their own]” and wore footwear which was “full of holes [and] let in the snow.”47 Ginzburg’s fellow inmate Olga was therefore right to anticipate that Stalin’s regime would expand the use of “hard-labor camps” in the wake of the downfall of NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov in 1939, especially considering that the majority of those imprisoned by Stalin were of prime working age.48

In a reflection of the maxims of Stalinist state-capitalism, Ginzburg reports that the slave-labor system to which she was subjected in the GULAG would dole out food only in proportion to the output that a given team would achieve. For teams like hers comprised of intellectuals and ex-Party officials who lacked experience with manual labor, then, this dynamic would result in a downward spiral of production—and welfare, since they were unable to achieve a basic threshold for production which would allow them access to the very food they needed to maintain and increase production in the future.49 Yet slave-laborers were sometimes provided with food relief if mortality rates were deemed ‘excessive.’50 Ginzburg’s memoirs thus suggest that, as far as political prisoners were concerned, the GULAG system was designed to torment such ‘politicals’ by maintaining them at a minimal level of sustenance, rather than starving or otherwise killing them outright.

On a more positive note, Stalin’s death in March 1953 brought “hope [to] the [inmates of the GULAG] camps,” inspiring both the June 1953 workers’ uprising against Stalinism, which not only overthrew State power in several cities and work-sites in East Germany but also involved workers’ liberation of prisons and concentration camps, and the unprecedented strike by political prisoners at the Vorkuta slave-labor camp which followed just two weeks later.51 Dunayevskaya comments in a manner that remains completely germane today that both of these episodes represented an “unmistakable affirmative” response to the question of whether humanity can “achieve freedom out of the totalitarianism of our age.”52

5. Assassination of Trotsky

What specific characteristics in a man enable him to become the receptacle and the executor of class impulses from an alien class[…]?” – Raya Dunayevskaya53


His ordering of the assassination of Lev Trotsky, as carried out by the Spanish NKVD agent Ramón Mercader in Trotsky’s residence in Coyoacán, Mexico, in August 1940. Whereas there is little love lost between us and the “Old Man,” as Trotsky was known, given his status as the butcher of the Kronstadt Commune, the would-be executioner of Nestor Makhno, an advocate of the militarization of labor, and an apologist for State slavery54—still, Stalin’s brazen attempts to assassinate him in Mexico City not once but twice remain shocking in their brutality to this day. They may well have inspired the commission of similar atrocities on the part of the C.I.A.,55 the Israeli Mossad, and even Mohammed bin Salman’s recent murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

First, on May 24, 1940, the Mexican surrealist and muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros led an assassination-squad in an assault on Trotsky’s fortified family residence, which the exiled Bolshevik leader had been granted by Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas, who had afforded him asylum and personal protection. Mercader represented Stalin’s back-up plan. Having adopted an elaborate “deep-cover” false identity as “Jacques Mornard,” a Belgian aristocrat unconcerned with political questions, Mercader had seduced and used Sylvia Ageloff, herself a leftist Jewish intellectual from Brooklyn connected through her sisters to Trotsky, for two years to get close enough to facilitate both assassination attempts. While the complicity of “Jacques” in the first plot remained undetected, this was only possible because Siqueiros’ team captured and murdered Trotsky’s young American security guard Robert Sheldon Harte, whom Mercader knew and also used to gain access to Trotsky’s residence in the early morning of May 24. Yet a combination of luck; quick-thinking by Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s wife, who isolated and shielded her partner’s body from the would-be assassin’s bullets; and the imprecise strategy to kill Trotsky that morning ensured his survival.56 Nevertheless, following a dry-run to assassinate Trotsky in his study using an ice-pick on the pretext of discussing a political article he had begun to write, Mercader invited himself back to Trotsky’s residence on the hot summer day of August 20, 1940, to discuss some revisions he had supposedly made to improve the same article. Concealing his ice-pick under a heavy raincoat, Mercader provoked Natalia Sedova’s suspicions about his presentation:

Yes, you don’t look well. Not well at all. Why are you wearing your hat and raincoat? You never wear a hat, and the sun is shining.”57

Nevertheless, despite Natalia Sedova and Trotsky’s own intuitive misgivings, this Stalinist agent did ‘succeed’ in assassinating the exiled Bolshevik that day—precisely by burying an ice-pick into Trotsky’s head from behind, as the “Old Man” was distracted turning the page while reading the very essay Mercader had brought him:

The moment was rehearsed. Wait until he finishes the first page, [NKVD officer] Eitington had coached. Wait until he is turning the page, when he will be most distracted.”58

What a fitting allegory for Leninism and Stalinism: conflict-resolution according to the principle of “might makes right.”59 Trotsky’s fate also openly displays Stalin’s anti-Semitism: in so ruthlessly murdering his primary political rival, a world-renowned Bolshevik leader and Jewish dissident,60 in Coyoacán, which lies approximately 6,000 miles (or 10,000 kilometers) from Moscow—after having exploited Sylvia Ageloff, a fellow Jewish intellectual, to gain access to the desired target—the “Man of Steel” flaunts his attitude toward the relationship between Jews and his false “Revolution.” Mercader’s assassination of Trotsky therefore illuminates the clear continuities between Stalin and the bourgeoisie, in terms of their shared instrumentalization of human life, and the “full-circle” development of the Russian Revolution, proving Voline’s point that “Lenin, Trotsky, and their colleagues [as Stalin’s predecessors] were never revolutionaries. They were only rather brutal reformers, and like all reformers and politicians, always had recourse to the old bourgeois methods, in dealing with both internal and military problems.”61

Notes

1Arendt 472.

2Elliott Liu, Maoism and the Chinese Revolution (Oakland: PM Press, 2016), 68).

3Evtuhov 697-698.

4Henry Wolfe, The Imperial Soviets (New York: Doubleday, 1940).

5Alfred Meyer, Communism (New York: Random House, 1984), 92-93.

6E. H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, 1924-1926, vol. 2 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 195-196.

7Dunayevskaya 318.

8Hensman 36.

9Olivier Roy, The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 52.

10Hensman 53-60.

11Eric Lee, The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution, 1918-1921 (London, Zed Books, 2017). See a review here.

12Ibid 160-166.

13Roy 50-51, 83.

14Ibid 50.

15Evtuhov 692.

16Roy 45-46, 52-53, 66.

17Ibid 64-65.

18Roy 67.

19Evtuhov 692.

20Roy 46, 68, 73.

21Dunayevskaya 318.

22Evtuhov 689-690.

23Hensman 88-89.

24This line is disturbingly close to that of the neo-fascist Aleksandr Dugin, who welcomed Russia’s 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine by calling for “genocide… of the race of Ukrainian bastards [sic].” Alexander Reid Ross, Against the Fascist Creep (Chico, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 233.

25Plokhy 259.

26Wayne Price, Anarchism and Socialism: Reformism or Revolution? 3rd ed. (Edmonton, Alberta: Thoughtcrime, 2010), 186-189; Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Role of Bolshevik Ideology in the Birth of the Bureaucracy,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 282.

27Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975), 359-361.

28Paul Mattick, “Bolshevism and Stalinism,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 271.

29Voline 372-375.

30Evtuhov 670.

31Ibid 668; Voline 374.

32Evtuhov 668-669.

33Ibid 670.

34For a translation of the text of the December, 1932 decree of the USSR Central Executive Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars, see M. Matthews, Soviet Government: a Selection of Official Documents on Internal Policy, J. Cape, 1974, 74-77.

35Hensman 34-35; Plokhy 249-250.

36Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Penguin: London, 1976), 873-904.

37Evtuhov 642.

38Jason W. Clay and Bonnie K. Holcomb, Politics and Famine in Ethiopia (Cambridge, Mass.: Cultural Survival, 1985).

39Evtuhov 685.

40Voline 380, 388.

41Mattick 264.

42Evtuhov 688, 730.

43Plokhy 255; Dunayevskaya 320.

44Evtuhov 671, 676, 693, 730.

45Ibid 675, 688.

46Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, Journey Into the Whirlwind, trans. Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward (San Diego: Harcourt, 1967), 366, 368.

47Ibid 402.

48Ibid 258.

49Ibid 405-406.

50Ibid 415.

51Dunayaevskaya 325-329.

52Ibid 327-329.

53Ibid 317.

54Ida Mett, “The Kronstadt Commune,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 185-190; Voline 592-600; Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control (London: Solidarity, 1970).

55Arendt xxn4.

56John P. Davidson, The Obedient Assassin (Harrison, NY: Delphinium Books, 2014), 48, 193-199.

57Ibid 274.

58Ibid 276.

59Voline 374.

60A dissident relative to Stalinism in power, that is, but not relative to anarchism or libertarian communism.

61Voline 431-432 (emphasis added).

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From the archives: “For a different world,” from a draft of Imperiled Life (Sept. 2011)

September 14, 2018

 

Images courtesy @SyriaRevoRewind

I am pleased to share this section from a draft of Imperiled Life: Revolution Against Climate Catastrophe, which examines contemporary revolution and repression in a few Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries. It was finished on September 11, 2011. Had they been included, these reflections would appear at the bottom of p. 171 of the book as it is. I welcome feedback and criticism in the comments section below. Please note that the images used above are not necessarily contemporary to the timing of this writing [e.g., the Douma Four were disappeared in December 2013].

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it should be said, has played a thoroughly counter-revolutionary role to the so-called Arab Spring, in accordance with its own interests and those of the U.S. it serves. This has been seen in its pushing within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for a conservative resolution of the delegitimization experienced by Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime in Yemen since mass-mobilizations arose there in the wake of Mubarak’s fall, but it is expressed most starkly in the KSA’s invasion of the island-state of Bahrain following the birth there of a mass-protest movement against the al-Khalifa ruling family in early 2011. The movement has since been suppressed, with Manama’s Pearl Square—the common at which protesters met to mobilize—physically destroyed and protesters detained and prosecuted, in standard operating procedure. It seems the KSA in part fears the mobilization of Bahrain’s Shi’a could be replicated among the Shi’a minority residing in eastern Saudi Arabia, where most of the country’s oil resources are located; it may also fear the the model of solidarity observed among Sunni and Shi’a protesters in Bahrain. The billions given in a welfare package prepared by the House of Saud for workers to stave off is one with their purchasing of billions of dollars of arms from the U.S.

In the case of Libya, developments have been more negative than elsewhere. Given the very real ties between the Qaddafi regime and Western powers since 2003—intelligence-sharing between Libya and Western governments, oil contracts with Western corporations, and Qaddafi’s brutal mass-detention of African migrants traversing Libya en route to Europe—the sudden commencement of NATO military operations against Qaddafi in March 2011 struck [me] as somewhat puzzling. By now, though Qaddafi has fallen and the Transitional National Council has taken power, it should be clear that Western intervention in the country has little to do with humanitarianism. That Western officials say not a word of the forced displacement and massacres of black African migrant workers as prosecuted by the Libyan ‘rebels’ is a comment on their humanity, as are the deaths at sea of hundreds of such workers, attempting to flee ‘the new Libya.’ For its part, the stock market welcomed the taking of Tripoli by oppositional forces.

The situation in Syria is bleak as well. Since the beginning of protests in the country in March 2011, Ba’ath President Bashar al-Assad has overseen an entirely obscene military-police response aimed at employing force against those calling for his fall. Unrest in Syria reportedly began with the detention of youths who authored graffiti reproducing the cry that has animated subordinated Arabs throughout this period of popular mobilization: “Al-sha’ab yourid isqat al-nizam!” (“The people want to overthrow the regime!”) The deployment of government tanks and infantry units in cities throughout the country in recent months has resulted in the murder of some 2,300 regime-opponents and the imprisonment of another 10,000. The regime’s defensive tactics, borrowing from Saleh in Yemen and Mubarak loyalists in Tahrir, have been more ruthless still than in these cases, for Assad’s security apparatus has engaged in near-daily attacks on assembled crowds and funerary processions as well as the use of naval barrages against coastal settlements. It is unknown precisely what political currents unify the Syrian opposition other than calls for Assad’s resignation, but it is self-evidently comprised at least in part by anti-authoritarians. In contrast to the case in Libya, or at least among those Benghazians heard by Western powers, Syrian dissidents are strongly opposed to the prospect of Western military intervention against Assad’s brutality. In this belief, as in the various mutinies reported among soldiers opposed to the commands demanded by Assad’s commanders, the Syrian example is an important one, however bleak the future if Assad’s military hangs on.

Though Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has reportedly called on Assad to halt the repressive tactics, it is undeniable that Assad’s response to protests has been informed by the Islamic Republic’s attempts at suppressing protests emanating from the Green movement from the 2009 presidential elections to the present. The Greens, of course, hardly represent a reasonable political progression beyond the conservatism of Ahmadinejad: their adulation of Mir Hossein Mousavi, prime minister during the Iran-Iraq War who oversaw mass-execution of leftist dissidents in the years following the 1979 revolution against the Shah, perpetuates myth,1 as does their advocacy of the suspension of public subsidies for materially impoverished Iranians. There seems to be little sense among Iranian reformists that the Islamic nature of the post-1979 regime is to be called into question—parallels with post-1949 China are found here. Perhaps a return to the perspectives advanced by Ali Shariati in the years before 1979 could aid subordinated Iranians in overturning that which Marxist critic Aijaz Ahmad terms “clerical fascism” in Iran.

1[An allusion to Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin’s analyses; “myth” here can be understood as the general oppression of an unenlightened, non-emancipated world.]

On Internationalist Socialist Solidarity and Anti-Imperialism

August 27, 2018

Courtesy Vasco Gargalo

Presentation at Left Coast Forum panel on imperialism and anti-imperialism, August 25, 2018

In light of the fate of the Syrian Revolution, which has now nearly been crushed entirely by the bloody counter-revolution carried out by Bashar al-Assad together with his Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese allies, there has been renewed debate on the global left regarding the meanings of imperialism and anti-imperialism, and the political implications these carry. Many authoritarians claiming leftism cross-over with the white-supremacist right’s open support for the Assad Regime by denying its crimes and overlooking the (sub)imperialist roles played by Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran in Syria, focusing exclusively on the U.S.’s supposed opposition to Assad’s rule.

This tendency is a worrisome development, suggestive as it is of a red-brown alliance (or axis) that is not consistently anti-imperialist or internationalist but rather, only opposed to U.S. imperialism. It also fails analytically to see how the U.S. has increasingly accommodated Assad’s ghastly ‘victory,’ as reflected in Donald Trump’s cutting off of the White Helmets in May and his non-intervention as Assad, Russia, and Iran defeated formerly U.S.-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) units of the Southern Front, reconquering Der’aa, birthplace of the Revolution, and the remainder of the southwest last month. In stark contrast to such approaches, today we will discuss militarism and imperialism from anti-authoritarian and class framework-analyses.

Toward this end, I want to suggest that Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation’s definition of imperialism is apt: from their Point of Unity on Internationalism and Imperialism, Imperialism is a system where the state and elite classes of some countries use their superior economic and military power to dominate and exploit the people and resources of other countries.”1 This brutal concept applies clearly to contemporary and historical global practices which since 1492 primarily Western European and U.S. ruling classes have imposed onto much of the world, from the trans-Atlantic slave trade—this month marks 500 years—to colonial famines, genocide, military occupation, and settler-colonial regimes. Yet, more controversially among many so-called leftists who adhere to a ‘campist analysis,’ whereby the world is split up into competing military blocs,2 this concept of imperialism and its related concept of sub-imperialism can also be applied to the contemporary practices of the ruling classes of such societies as Russia, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, otherwise known as the BRICS. According to Rohini Hensman in her new book Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism (2018), the “pseudo-anti-imperialists” of today can be divided into three categories: tyrants, imperialists, and war criminals; the neo-Stalinists who openly support them; and Orientalist ‘progressives’ who focus exclusively on Western imperialism, to the exclusion of all other considerations, such as the agency of Middle Eastern peoples, as well as the realities of non-Western imperialism & sub-imperialism (47-52). For those to whom the concept may be unfamiliar, sub-imperialism is defined in the Marxist theory of dependency (MTD) as a process whereby a dependent or subordinate country becomes a “regional sub-centre,” unifies “different bourgeois factions by displacing internal contradictions, develops a “specific national and sub-imperialist political-ideological project,” forms and advances monopolies, and simultaneously transfers value to the core-imperialist countries while also exploiting materially and geopolitically weaker countries for the benefit of its bourgeoisie.3

The central military roles played by Putin and the Islamic Republic in rescuing the Assad Regime from defeat in the Syrian Revolution—and, indeed, their joint responsibility for the overall murder of 200,000 civilians and the forcible disappearance of over 80,000 Syrians in this enterprise over the past seven years, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), and as confirmed recently by Assad’s mass-release of death notices for detainees—thus starkly demonstrate pressing cases of imperialism and sub-imperialism on today’s global stage, yet in contrast to the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians just across Syria’s southwest border, it is apparently eminently controversial among U.S./Western neo-Stalinist ‘leftists’ to acknowledge the reactionary, authoritarian, and yes, (sub)imperialist functions served by Vladimir Putin and the Islamic Republic in propping up Assad,4 a neo-fascist who does not just rule over a ‘dictatorial regime’ but rather heads an exterminationist State, as the Syrian communist Yassin al-Hajj Saleh observes, and as the death toll attests to. According to Saleh:

“I do not talk about Syria because I happen to come from this country afflicted with one of the most brutal ruling juntas in the world today, nor because Syria is under multiple occupations while Syrians themselves are scattered around the world. Rather, I speak of Syria because the Syrian genocide is met by a state of global denial, where the left, the right, and the mainstream all compete with one another to avert their eyes and formulate cultural discourses, genocidal themselves, to help them see and feel nothing.”

The Russian Defense Ministry just announced on Wednesday, August 22, that 63,000 soldiers have fought in Syria in the past three years, while in June, Putin announced that Russian troops were “testing and training” in Syria so as to prevent a similar situation arising in Russia proper. (Does this sound to anyone like Dick Cheney talking about Iraq?) Hence, in light of the effective occupation of Syria perpetrated by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and other Shi’a militias (e.g. Liwa Fatemiyoun) to prop up the regime, taken together with their attendant contributions to what Saleh calls the Syrian genocide—a counter-insurgent reaction which others have termed ‘democidal’—it is my view, and I believe that of my co-panelists, that several of the struggles against Assad, Putin, and the Islamic Republic of Iran form critical parts of the global anti-imperialist movement which by definition resists militarism and regional and transnational domination and exploitation. If human rights are the “tribunal of history” and their end (or goal) the construction of an ethical and political utopia,5 these regimes, in parallel to Western imperialism, are on the wrong side of history. In accordance with the conclusion of Hensman’s book, democratic movements like the Iranian popular revolts of early 2018; the ongoing Ahwazi mobilizations for socio-ecological justice; those of feminists and political prisoners in all three countries; and Russian Antifa, among others, demand our support and solidarity as socialists. Of course, anti-imperialist forces should continue to oppose established Euro-American imperialism and settler-colonialism—“the main enemy is at home,” as Karl Liebknecht declared in 1915, denouncing what he termed the ‘genocide’ of World War I6—together with the neo-colonial crimes of allied autocracies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Yemen today. Liebknecht’s statement notwithstanding, we must recall that he in no way supported the Tsar or other imperialist rivals of the German State, but the Russian Revolution instead.

Therefore, a truly humanist form of anti-imperialism today cannot exclude the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian regimes from critique and, it is to be hoped, support for organization toward their ultimate demise.7 The atrocity-denialism engaged in by many self-styled ‘progressives’ and ‘leftists’ in the West when it comes to the Assad Regime, as identified by Leila al-Shami and others, is abhorrent. If we really believe as internationalists and egalitarians that each human life has equal dignity and value, we must play no part in it.8

For our own sake and for the sake of the global revolution, too, it would behoove us to examine the actual affinities between the Trump Regime and Putin, which span allegations of collusion or conspiracy during the 2016 election to Trump’s very obvious servility before the former FSB chief at the Helsinki Summit of July 2018, besides Trump’s aforementioned withdrawal of U.S. support for the Syrian rebels, a move that may well have been coordinated with Russia as an affirmation on Trump’s part of Assad’s ghoulish campaign to retake the entire country.

Appendix:

The red-brown axis certainly has its precedents: the historian Marko Attila Hoare has correctly diagnosed several self-described Euro-American ‘anti-imperialists’ as being ‘left-revisionists’ who reject the orthodox Western view that holds Serbian nationalism to be the primary aggressor in the Balkan wars of the 1990’s that led to the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosniaks and Kosovar Albanians, as reflected in the so-called leftist intellectuals and publications (Noam Chomsky, Diana Johnstone, CounterPunch) who effectively supported the embattled ultra-nationalist Serbian president, Slobodan Milošević, for his ‘resistance’ to the US/NATO, thus betraying their campism where we should expect humanist solidarity with those victimized by Serbian expansionism.

Rohini Hensman argues as an alternative to established pseudo-anti-imperialism that we pursue and tell the truth; critique ideologies that delegitimize democracy and promote authoritarianism; reaffirm the morality of resisting oppression and proclaiming solidarity with the victims of violence; place internationalism center-stage; and consider reforms to State sovereignty in light of mass-slaughter and the absence of democracy.

Notes

1This definition differs somewhat from Lenin’s definition of imperialism as “the monopoly stage of capitalism,” whereby the merging of big banks and industry exists inevitably alongside “a colonial policy of monopolist possession of the territory of the world.” It does not contradict Lenin’s subsequent redefinition in the same text: “Imperialism is the epoch of finance capital and of monopolies, which introduce everywhere the striving for domination, not for freedom. Whatever the political system, the result of these tendencies is everywhere reaction and an extreme intensification of antagonisms in this field. Particularly intensified become the yoke of national oppression and the striving for annexations, i.e., the violation of national independence (for annexation is nothing but the violation of the right of nations to self-determination).”

2Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), World Workers’ Party (WWP), World Socialist Website (WSWS), Max Blumenthal, Rania Khalek, Vanessa Beeley (actually fascist), Seymour Hersh, “Revolutionary Left Radio,” Glenn Greenwald, and others.

3Adrián Sotelo Valencia, Sub-Imperialism Revisited: Dependency Theory in the Thought of Ruy Mauro Marini, trans. Jacob Lagnado (Haymarket Books: Chicago, 2017), 67-8.

4By BRRN’s definition, above; also cf. Rudolf Hilferding, cited in Lenin’s “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism”: “European capital can maintain its domination only by continually increasing its military forces.”

5Costas Douzinas, The End of Human Rights (Hart Publishing: Oxford, 2000), 380.

6“International proletarian class struggle against international imperialist genocide is the socialist commandment of the hour.”

7See Asr Anarshism’s open campaign to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran.

8See the conclusions of a lab working for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which confirm use of sarin gas from regime stockpiles in Ghouta (2013), Khan Sheikhoun (2017), and Khan al-Assal (2013). According to OPCW findings, it was chlorine, not sarin, that was used in the chemical attack on Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in April 2018.

Democracy Now! – “Worse Than a Slaughterhouse: 250,000 Trapped in East Aleppo Amid Devastating Bombing Campaign”

October 3, 2016

Interview with Syrian activists Osama Nassar and Yasser Munif on Democracy Now!, 29 September 2016:

“the level and the scale of the violence against the Syrian population in Syria is basically due—it’s because of the monumental resilience and resistance of the Syrian population. We have to remember that the Syrian revolution has been going for five years, and it has many, many enemies, including the U.S. and Russia and Iran and Hezbollah and Turkey and Saudi Arabia and so on and so forth. And all these different forces, for different reasons, are trying to crush the Syrian revolution […].

So, the Syrian regime, very early, understood the importance of the media and creating a discourse, in addition to what’s happening on the ground, the military aspect of the conflict. And it was able, unfortunately, to create a parallel reality and create a media apparatus and information, propaganda, that is relayed by a number of different network, including RT, the Russian TV, but also a number of different websites and news outlets here in the U.S.—for example, Mint Media and CounterPunch and others, who are basically repeating such silly things […].

The Syrian regime is using all weapons that are available for it to use, including besieging entire areas, starving the population, using bunker-busters bombs with the aid of the Russian, torturing the population, preventing water from reaching certain areas, and so on and so forth. And, unfortunately, I mean, the sanctions, as we know from previous experience with Iraq and so on, affect, for the most part, the civilian population. And that’s another example of how the Syrian population is basically surrounded and besieged in so many different ways.”

“Statement of Purpose for the Alliance of Syrian and Iranian Socialists”

April 27, 2016
Bakunin Arabic

“I am truly free when all human beings, men and women, are equally free.” – Mikhail Bakunin

Reposting the “Statement of Purpose for the Alliance of Syrian and Iranian Socialists,” published on 15 March 2016:

Five years after the beginning of the popular Syrian Revolution which demanded democracy and human rights, the Syrian revolutionaries have been decimated through the combined military force of the Assad Regime, the Iranian regime with its sectarian militias, Russian air strikes and military assistance on the one hand, and the ultra-terrorist ISIS and other Salafist – Jihadist organizations on the other hand.   Nevertheless a partial reduction of airstrikes by Russia and the Assad regime in early March led to an immediate revival of mass protests of the democratic opposition across the country with banners such as the following in Idlib: “Our peaceful revolution is still in progress until toppling Assad and imposing justice all over Syria.”

Almost half a million people, mostly Sunni Arab Syrians, have been killed mainly by the Assad regime.  The population faces a situation that is worsening daily.  Russian air raids, Hizbullah and Iranian supported ground forces as well as the December 18, 2015 United Nations Security Council Resolution backed by the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain have all given new life to the Assad Regime.

At the same time, the Saudi monarchy and the Iranian regime are intensifying their competition for control over the region by fanning the flames of religious sectarianism.   The Turkish government has in turn intensified its attacks on and repression of the Kurds in Turkey and northern Syria and also plays a role in promoting religious sectarianism in the region.  President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has praised Hitler’s “presidential system” as a model of “efficiency.”

The Syrian refugee crisis, with over 8 million refugees inside and over 4 million refugees outside Syria has become a much larger version of the Palestinian al-Nakba.  The European Union is setting refugee quotas, closing its gates and implementing an agreement with Turkey based on which Turkey would take more refugees in exchange for 3 billion Euros and a possible future membership in the European Union.  This is clearly not a solution.  Neither Turkey nor any other country in the Middle East region is willing to admit over 12 million refugees and give them the possibility of a decent life.

As Syrian and Iranian socialists, we call on you to join us in taking a stand against this inhumanity and for finding real solutions:

First, we refuse to accept the myth that the Assad regime is the lesser of the two evils and that stabilizing it will end the war in Syria or stop the rise of ISIS and other Jihadists.  On the contrary, the Assad regime is responsible for the majority of the deaths which are now estimated at half a million.  This regime’s destruction of the democratic forces embodied in the Syrian revolution has created a fertile ground for the rise of ISIS and other Salafist-Jihadist groups.

Secondly, given the fact that both the Assad regime and ISIS are capitalist, racist, misogynist governments, no viable alternative to them can be shaped without tackling the class/ethnic/religious divisions and gender discrimination that are present in the Middle East.

Thirdly, while we insist on upholding a principled position of support for the Kurdish national liberation movement and its struggle for self-determination in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, we think it is also necessary to challenge many of those on the left who separate the struggle for self-determination of the Kurdish people in Syria from the dynamics of the Syrian revolution.  It was the 2011 Syrian revolution that made it possible for the autonomous cantons in Rojava to come into existence.  Without a Syrian revolution there can be no democratic Rojava.  The latest evidence of the coordination and collaboration between the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian regime and the Russian air force is alarming and does not bode well for the Kurds. The liberation and emancipation of the Kurdish people is linked to the liberation and emancipation of the people of the region.

It is time for Syrian and Iranian socialists to work together to challenge class, gender, ethnic and religious prejudices and speak to the struggles of women, workers, oppressed nationalities such as Kurds and Palestinians, oppressed ethnic and religious minorities, and sexual minorities.  It is time for us to restate socialism as a concept of human emancipation not only opposed to the regional and global capitalist-imperialist powers but also as an affirmative vision distinguished from the totalitarian regimes that called themselves Communist in the former Stalinist Soviet Union and Maoist China. […]

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.

At the 2014 Boston Anarchist Bookfair: An Anti-Authoritarian Analysis of Syria’s Uprising and Civil War

November 11, 2014

babf-logo-192px

My proposal for an “Anti-Authoritarian Analysis of Syria’s Uprising and Civil War” has been accepted by the Boston Anarchist Bookfair collective this year.  I will be speaking on the matter at the very end of the bookfair, which spans two days–from 3:30-4:30pm on Monday, 24 November.

A (now slightly dated) précis follows:

“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 anarchists. For one, the Assad regime has long sought to present itself as an Arab state in steadfast resistance 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. Yet Assad’s regime is bourgeois and highly authoritarian, as is clearly evinced by the disproportionate force with which the regime has met its opponents, as reported by opposition sources and international media.

Undoubtedly, many of the initial demonstrations raised legitimate grievances against the Assad dynasty, and the class character of the protest movements only confirms this. Still, one must not ignore the religious and sectarian aspects of the uprising, which have largely pitted the majority Sunni population against the Alawite and Christian minorities whom Ba’athism has protected and privileged. Moreover, the oppositional movement arguably was “hijacked” by Islamization and jihad, as fueled greatly by the influx of foreign fighters and the significant support in terms of funding, arms, and training as provided to rebels by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and the U.S./Israel. Most obviously, this dynamic has been key to the recent emergence of ISIS/Islamic State, and it drives the new war being waged by the NATO-Arab monarch “coalition.”

This talk, then, will examine the history and practice of Syrian Ba’athism, the course of the uprising from 2011 to present, the meteoric rise of ISIS, and the promising anti-authoritarian example being instituted by Kurds in northeastern Syria (Rojava), an anarchistic experiment that is now radically threatened by Islamic State forces.”

Counterpunch repost: “U.S. Wars and the Climate Crisis” by Rob Urie

September 27, 2014
"Capitalist ‘reformers’ and global warming skeptics both depend on limiting the scope of available evidence to eternally debatable climate ‘science.’ What isn’t debatable is the cumulative environmental impact of capitalist production more broadly considered. Illustrated above by the black dots are the oceanic ‘dead zones’ surrounding the older industrial capitalist nations. Simply put, industrial capitalism has used rivers, streams and oceans as industrial toilets in the same way it has used the atmosphere. Climate change is but one aspect of already existing environmental catastrophe. Given the integrated nature of the biosphere environmental resolution must likewise be integrated. Source: Scientific American." (from Rob Urie, "Hank Paulson Does Global Warming," Counterpunch, 30 June 2014)

“Capitalist ‘reformers’ and global warming skeptics both depend on limiting the scope of available evidence to eternally debatable climate ‘science.’ What isn’t debatable is the cumulative environmental impact of capitalist production more broadly considered. Illustrated above by the black dots are the oceanic ‘dead zones’ surrounding the older industrial capitalist nations. Simply put, industrial capitalism has used rivers, streams and oceans as industrial toilets in the same way it has used the atmosphere. Climate change is but one aspect of already existing environmental catastrophe. Given the integrated nature of the biosphere environmental resolution must likewise be integrated. Source: Scientific American.” (from Rob Urie, “Hank Paulson Does Global Warming,” Counterpunch, 30 June 2014)

Note: the following are selections from Rob Urie’s latest piece, “U.S. Wars and the Climate Crisis,” published on Counterpunch, 26 September 2014

“Such now is the place of the early twenty-first century U.S. with systemically generated polices accumulating toward self-inflicted Armageddon and threatening to take the rest of the world with it. In the same week that saw renewed war for oil in Iraq and Syria it was reported that the Obama administration is rebuilding the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. In this same week that saw the largest climate resolution demonstration in history a series of dim shills for empire, a/k/a ‘leaders,’ went before the United Nations to offer the statistics of misdirection, ten times more than, thirty percent less than, that in context confirm the truism that something times nothing is nothing […].

With his recent misdirection on renewed war against Iraq and Syria and climate crisis the precise question of whether or not U.S. President Barack Obama is the most cynical person who ever lived remains irrelevant. The social ontology that suggested difference, as well as the words of the man himself, back into his fact as President of American empire. His assertion that IS (Islamic State) and Khorasans represent a direct threat to Americans places it in the set of all direct threats to Americans that has around 300,000 thousand dying every year from preventable medical errors. Climate crisis poses greater risks than any Mr. Obama will ever factually address. And his duplicity in undermining climate ‘negotiations’ in 2010 and 2014 while publicly proclaiming support is now a matter of public record.

Remarkably, or perhaps not so much, the Western commenting class is content with technocratic discourse on military tactics and ‘sectarian’ divisions in Iraq and Syria playing into the diversion that U.S. and ‘coalition’ actions have ‘political,’ as opposed to economic, basis. This isn’t to dismiss political consequences, but they are borne of economic motivations — the unifying theme between wars in the Middle East and climate crisis is oil. The U.S. is bombing oil fields ‘held’ by IS in Syria under the rationale that oil is the ‘currency’ it is funding itself with. Oil, munitions and credit default swaps are the currency the U.S. funds itself with.

Matters that are ‘externally’ related like wars for economic resources and climate crisis risk confusing ‘the issues’ that respective ‘experts’ find unsatisfying in their combined dimension. But discursive silos make addressing joint causes of global catastrophe in imperial capitalism impossible. The true threat that IS poses is in exposing oil as the currency of empire. Oil ties to political power through its economic power and it ties to military power through its fact as fuel for the machinery of war. Climate chaos, along with a century or more of slaughter and destruction for oil, is the concentrated product of empire […].

[T]he oceanic dead zones that surround capitalist economies are their own fact and metaphor for the Western creation of land-based dead zones through wars of conquest and slaughter for economic resources. Petroleum-based agricultural run-off and the dumping of massive quantities of consumer and industrial garbage create these oceanic dead zones. The misdirection of lip-service paid to greenhouse gas emissions while ignoring the other detritus of consumer and industrial ‘culture’ is to reframe global catastrophe as technocratic wrangling over ‘parts per million’ when the problem is political economy of death and destruction. Source: National Geographic.

The American tendency of personalizing the political leads to permanent misdiagnosis of the genesis of Western political dysfunction. Attributing Barack Obama’s pro-war, pro-Wall Street, anti-environmental policies to the man himself is to get it backwards. These policies serve his constituency. This constituency — Wall Street, arms manufacturers and extractive industries, determine the policies. Mr. Obama has his job as President through his ability to keep his nominal constituency of liberals and progressives on board with policies of permanent war, use of state power to deliver ever more economic resources to the already wealthy and end-times environmental policies. So will the political mis-leadership that follows him no matter their political Party.

What President Barack Obama’s actual policies have demonstrated — drone murders, surveillance and repression, persistent economic chicanery in favor of the already wealthy, war wherever the U.S. can find it and undermining all efforts at environmental reconciliation, is that the political space he occupies, the moderate center, is the true radical fringe when viewed through the lens of the continued existence of a ‘world’ that includes the rest of us. Rebuilding the largest nuclear arsenal in the world in 2014 is insane. There exists no conceivable explanation — bluff, taunt, economic stimulus, etc. that could frame the decision as the product of anything but a radically deranged system run amok, a genocide-suicide machine running on auto-pilot […].

If / when it comes, resolution in any of these dimensions will be brought about through acts against the corporatist moderates in Washington, London and Brussels, against Wall Street, the arms manufacturers and the extractive industries. Until these are gotten out of the way there is no hope for resolution. Divestment will not be effective — there are infinite sources of funding for industries that can turn guaranteed profits and even for those that can’t. Fracking is a financing and trading scam — the actual gas taken out of the ground doesn’t even pay for itself in the aggregate. Cap-and-trade requires a developed infrastructure of regulations; inspectors and global coordination that will never come into being because the economic interests being ‘regulated’ are the same ones developing these policies […].

The governments of the West are currently pulling out all of the stops to frighten people into supporting yet another war for oil resources in the Middle East. The threat of ‘terrorism’ is a cynical diversion and nothing more. Thirteen years after the attacks of September 11, 2001relevant portions of the investigation report laying blame on Saudi Arabia for the attacks remain redacted. Terrorism in the Middle East is state sponsored misdirection. True terror is having children that you cannot feed because bankers destroyed the economy. True terror is having fracking companies destroy your farm’s water supply and having no alternate source. True terror is having global warming raise sea levels to bury the island where you and everyone you know live. True terror is having a U.S. ‘humanitarian intervention’ bomb your village / town / city / country into the Stone Age to make way for a new pipeline.

The American Empire is in the death throes of decline. The powers that be are increasingly desperate and this makes them increasingly dangerous. Fracking, nuclear weapons, bombing Afghan wedding parties and banker scams is all that this leadership knows how to do. Resolution within Western political economy is decades past possible. People can divert themselves with incremental reform but consider this: the ‘evolution, not revolution’ crowd now has about four decades of devolution to answer for. Nuclear weapons? In 2014? Really? Really?

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

September 18, 2014

 grabbingback

[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.

After the Climate Movement: Ecology and Politics in the 21st Century (1/2)

September 12, 2014

grabbingback

[This is part one of a two-part interview. The next part is forthcoming.]

Also published on Counterpunch, 15 September 2014

Edited by Counterpunch regular Alexander Reid Ross and newly published by AK Press, Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab assembles a formidable collection of articles and reports written by scholars and activists from North and South alike who are concerned with the distressing acceleration of massive land-expropriations executed by capitalist interests in recent years. Otherwise known as the “New Scramble for Africa,” the “New Great Game,” or the “Global Land Rush,” the global land grab has involved the acquisition by foreign power-groups of anywhere between 56 and 203 million hectares of lands belonging to Southern societies since the turn of the millennium. The corporations responsible for this massive privatization scheme hail from both wealthy and middle-income countries: India, South Korea, Israel, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, China, and the U.S., among others.

In part, the global land grab can be explained by the progression of ecological degradation, particularly through climate change, as combined with the desire of the ruling classes of these countries to ensure food security for their populations—the fate of local populations in the countries whose lands are colonized for export-oriented production be damned. Another factor has to do with the vast concentration of wealth in the hands of the transnational financial aristocracy, who are lending out capital less readily now during the Great Recession than before, such that they have more capital on hand with which to invest in overseas land ventures. However, not all the territory which has been usurped by corporations and banks of late is to be dedicated exclusively to food production; much of it instead will be directed toward the cultivation of agrofuels (biofuels) that are slated to replace petroleum to a limited extent as a base or transitional fossil fuel, with this being a situation that can be expected greatly to exacerbate food insecurity and starvation in the countries whose governments welcome (re)colonization. The scale of investment in agrofuels is truly staggering, in light of plans to occupy almost 6 percent of the territory of Liberia and 10 percent of that of Sierra Leone with African palm plantations; a similar if more immediately acute dynamic is unfolding in Indonesia and Malaysia, whose vast swathes of tropical rainforests are being expeditiously torn down in favor of palm oil crops. Summarized briefly and correctly by Sasha and Helen Yost, this process is one whereby land-based communities are dispossessed in order to “feed the industrial nightmare of climate change.”

The focus of Grabbing Back, as the title suggests, however, is not exclusively to analyze the machinations of global capital, but rather much more to investigate a multitude of forms of resistance to the land grab, from militant ecological direct actions to port strikes and land occupations (or decolonizations). Bringing together such dissident writers as Vandana Shiva, Silvia Federici, Benjamin Dangl, Andrej Grubačić, Noam Chomsky, Max Rameau, scott crow, and Grace Lee Boggs, Grabbing Back presents a number of critically important perspectives on resisting the land grab in particular and global capitalism in general. It is with great pleasure, then, that I have had the opportunity to interview Sasha on the magnificent volume he has edited.

Sasha, your editorial introduction to Grabbing Back frames the collection of essays within a tour de force overview of what you see as the most important factors driving the global land grab. You list these origins—quite rightly, in my view—as climate change, financial speculation, the “Great Recession” of 2008, resource scarcity and extractivist policies and orientations, as well as established imperialist history. Of these, I would like to examine the last of these concerns, in light of the clearly neo-colonial implications of mass-capitalist land expropriations today.

Given that empire is yet to be abolished, analyses of past experiments in European colonialism are quite germane to the present predicament, as you observe, like Hannah Arendt did before you in The Origins of Totalitarianism. The madman capitalist Cecil B. Rhodes, who sought to found a “Red” (or British) Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to the Nile Delta, is famous for his saying that he would “annex the planets if [he] could.” The domination and enslavement of peoples of color seen in formal colonialism, coupled with the mass-suffering, deprivation, and super-exploitation of said peoples for which neoliberalism and the “Mafia Doctrine” are responsible, has severely constrained the latitude which Southern societies have been able to exercise in terms of alternatives to capital in the modern and postcolonial periods.

Within the schools of political economy and critical development studies, this problematic is known as the “path dependence” imposed by historical circumstance:1 for humans “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances already existing, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon [1852]). Please discuss examples of resistance to the imposition of thanotic capital, as examined in Grabbing Back and beyond.

The three discursive positions of the Mafia Doctrine, Dependency Theory, and Marxism that you cite are extremely important in breaking down, or attempting to understand, the critical movements against land grabs around the world, and they each encircle one another in a growing overview of the processes at work. I think we can approach this triad with a claim that resistance to the Global Land Grab, and the capitalist process of accumulation outlined above, might counter the dominant paradigm with a three-part response.

1. From what I have observed, virtually every position against the current swathe of land grabs formulates itself as a small community-led movement, linked to one another by a generalized refusal of the schema of globalization. Not every movement has achieved the kind of generality necessary to comprise a mass rejection of the system, as with the People Power movements that swept through the Asia Pacific in the 1980s and the rise of Latin American populism in the late 1990s, but they all reject the position of North Atlantic hegemony. 

2. Neocolonial dependency is at the heart of the Global Land Grab, which is essentially becoming a hegemonic struggle over resources between the growing BRICS sphere of influence and the NATO bloc. As has been shown in the Central Africa Republic, both during the Scramble for Africa and today, Imperialist countries are perfectly happy to watch a country implode, as long as their resources stay out of the hands of Imperialist rivals. Resistance to the Global Land Grab, therefore, can emerge within a developmentalist paradigm as a kind of radical synthesis of a movement that is antithetical to globalization. This is what we see in Bolivia and Ecuador today, where Indigenous peoples are rising up against the developmentalist model forwarded by governments who seek to remain independent from the North Atlantic, but cannot maintain their integrity as sovereign nations without making concessions to capital.

3. The problem with transforming the diplomatic relations of a nation state lies in the continuing failure of the model of the nation state, itself, which is what Marx points to in the 18th Brumaire. So the last position that I would say that many resistance movements take to the Global Land Grab is one of tacit refusal, not only of globalization and of developmentalism (or extractivism), but of the idea of diplomatic relations as they stand today. It is as impossible for the idea of the nation state to move “beyond capital” as it is for the modern field of geo-politics (developed at the turn of the 20th Century by German nationalists) to recognize alternative forms of power. For this reason, I would argue, many formations of resistance to the Global Land Grab share characteristics of what Maia Ramnath calls a kind of “decolonizing anarchism.”2

So this triad of (1) resistance to neoliberalism, (2) formulation of alternate diplomatic articulation, and (3) rejection of the geopolitical paradigm is somewhat interpenetrating, moving, it would appear, from generality to particularity in one perspective (generally against globalization, specifically towards the slogan “a new world is possible”) and then in the opposite direction from another perspective (specifically against globalization and generally in favor of what Chatterjee calls “timeless” liberation outside of historicity).3

Ward Anseeuw and Mike Taylor’s essay in Grabbing Back on “Factors Shaping the Global Land Rush” identifies the Weberian tendency toward neo-patrimonialism as contributing to the “corruption” of the authorities who facilitate land expropriations in the global South, and they furthermore point to a lack of decentralization of power; a widespread institutional disregard for the customary, informal, and usufruct property regimes utilized by the majority of the world’s rural denizens; statist ideological and policy biases against small-holder agriculture in favor of industrialization and the maximization of growth; and a brutally business-oriented global governance structure—as manifested for example in the World Trade Organization (WTO), the myriad treaties on investment, and the machinations of international commercial arbitration bodies—as other key drivers of the present land grab. Concluding their article, Anseeuw and Taylor close by highlighting the greatly accelerated trend toward foreign expropriation of territory in the global South since 2005, and they grimly observe that “today’s enhanced investor interest in land resources is unlikely to go away for the foreseeable future” (my emphasis). Would you say that you agree with such an assessment? In one of your editorial sections, you do write that “[w]hat we have to look forward to, then, is a twenty-first century full of oil palm land grabs.”

It is a pretty terrible situation, and I can’t pretend to predict the future. In Thailand, just a few months after a military coup overthrew the democratically elected, populist government of Yingluck Shinawatra [in May 2014], the military junta installed a new constitution, put into place a fully-military cabinet, abolished the farm subsidy program, and announced an agricultural switch to palm oil plantations in the South where most of the insurgency is happening. At the same time, people in countries like Liberia and Indonesia continue to fight the spread of multinational corporations’ oil palm land grabs on their land, while the REDD+ climate accords seem to be opening the door for more transformation of biodiverse forests into monocrop palm oil plantations. In the US, something like half of agricultural land is going to be put on the market over the next 20 years, and Wall Street is more than interested. As long as palm oil is seen as a solution to the climate crisis, the demand will increase, and so will the number and size of plantations. As long as the financialization of markets, the deregulation on derivatives and speculation on commodities continues, food crises and the accumulation of capital will continue apace. It’s not just a question of resource scarcity; it’s about waste, overproduction, and the unequal distribution of knowledge and power through capitalism.

In her essay for Grabbing Back, “Women, Land-Struggles, and Globalization: An International Perspective,” Silvia Federici highlights the global participation of women in forest-defense and reafforestation struggles—Chipko in northern India and the “Green Belt Movement,” for instance—and she notes the crucial contributions made by the world’s female subsistence farmers, who ensure that billions of our sisters and brothers survive while instituting organic, anti-capitalist practices that hold great promise as regards the cause of self-management. Similarly, in “Black Women on the Edge,” Keisha-Khan Y. Perry and Cristina da Silva Caminha converse on a black women’s uprising for land and housing rights in Gamboa de Baixo, Brazil, which has resulted in a process that has significantly expanded ordinary women’s economic and sexual freedoms in that community. How do you see militant feminism and women’s liberation movements intervening to disrupt the vast concentrations of power and wealth of our day?

I think that these movements for gender and sexual liberation are absolutely essential. What Keisha-Khan Y. Perry and Cristina da Silva Caminha show us in their discussion is that the fight for land binds these women together through a shared sense of place, giving them greater power within their community to stand against patriarchy not only in the city, but in their small enclave. Really, I think that like Mike Taylor and Ward Anseeuw say, the struggle against extractivism has become a struggle against neo-patrimonialism as well as patriarchy; it is a struggle, in Uganda for instance, against the combination of witch trials and antihomosexuality laws that are instigated and encouraged through US religious-right groups like the abhorrent International House of Prayer (IHOP).4

In her essays, Federici shows that women are so often in the lead as to become the object of repression when the corporation or State (or both) want to take over, and as Fanon noted in Wretched of the Earth, adulterated tradition often becomes the fulcrum by which colonial power is able to deploy a “native” population against itself. The sense of standing up on one’s own, being joined by a community of participants, and working to establish a sense of place and self-management is really what is at the heart of the resistance movements that we are discussing in Grabbing Back, and the leadership of powerful feminisms of Vandana Shiva, Helen Yost, Federici, Perry, and da Silva Caminha have been important in guiding my own thought and action.

Graham Peebles presents a moving anti-authoritarian analysis of the Ethiopian State’s forcible displacement (“resettlement” or “villagization”) of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples from the southwestern Gambella region and the Lower Omo Valley to make way for massive foreign-owned export-oriented agricultural schemes and a hydroelectric megaproject named Gibe III, respectively, in “Destructive Development and Land Sales in Ethiopia.” Indeed, in some ways this essay brings to mind the chapter James C. Scott dedicates in Seeing Like a State (1998) to the mass-forcible resettlement campaigns engaged in by Julius Nyerere’s authoritarian-socialist government in Tanzania (1973-1976), which are not so different the State-led agricultural collectivization imposed by the Derg that overthrew Haile Selassie in Ethiopia itself (1974). Yet Peebles closes his report for Grabbing Back by hailing the prospect of a legal case against the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) for its contributions to the financing of the Gibe III project, and he waxes almost utopian about the obligations which all involved parties—the Ethiopian State, foreign investors, DFID, and the World Bank—have as regards the people whose fundamental rights they are violating through dispossession. My question to you in this case, as in the case of the land grab more generally and naked power politics or Realpolitik broadly conceived, is what potential—if any—you see in legalistic and incrementalist approaches to accountability for corporate and State crimes and the larger struggle for anti-systemic social change?

I’m glad you brought up Julius Nyerere. It is hard to disagree with Scott. I believe very strongly, as he does, that it is important to create dewesternizing models of power. The difference between Nyerere’s villagizaton project in Tanzania and what we are seeing in Ethiopia now is that the former was an attempt to modernize and generate a technical base for the subjective engagement in global hegemony, such that the IMF and World Bank could be avoided. It did not work, in the end, but Nyerere stood out as a symbol of resistance to the debt crisis when much of the Global South had been submerged in crisis.5

In a way, Nyerere’s ideal was a kind of autogestion, but of course its failure was that the government cannot mandate autogestion. I would almost venture to say that the neo-Sandinistas are closer to Nyerere’s ideals, although they have followed it up with a far less modernist (and more egalitarian) appraisal of how to “do” land reform. Of course, on the other hand, when you think of Nicaragua today, you think of the huge canal that a Chinese aristocrat has decided to cut through the land, which would have drastic consequences for Lake Cocibolca and the Rama and Garifuna communities. This is why state politics is always “dancing with dynamite,” in the phrase that Ben Dangl uses.

Is there the possibility for some accountability for egregious offenders through state and international entities? Yes, but only when it’s “in their interests.” Take the trial of the leaders of the RUF [Revolutionary United Front, i.e. anti-government opposition in Sierra Leone], for example. The trial was not controversial in the North Atlantic. Clearly these people had engaged in the training and deployment of child soldiers, and numerous atrocities were executed in their names. Yet, the trials came only after the leaders disarmed the RUF and engaged in a successful peace process; how unheard of is it to undergo a peace process in good faith, and then try and convict the leaders of the combating force?6 Yes, they are international violators of human rights and should be convicted, but it seems as though that frame of mind only works when you also have to look at the hypocrisy of the countries involved in the convicting—do the leaders of the US and EU not have war crimes executed in their names? Should they not also be held accountable? If there is such a thing as justice, then of course they should.

This is the same argument that Ahjamu Umi makes in Grabbing Back about people of color, mostly African American youths, sent to prison for emulating the gangsterism of the bankers, lobbyists, and politicians—did they do something wrong? Yes. But what about the rich who are getting away with the same kind of crime, only on a far grander scale? It goes back to the British imperialist Benjamin Disraeli’s famous missive, “what is a crime among the multitude is only a vice among the few.” The racist prison industry and militarization of the police is part of the transformation of the spatial composition of the city and the disempowerment of communities of color, which has been going on since the 1970s, and is precisely what we are seeing with police harassment in places like Furgeson. The same paradigm goes on in the diplomatic arena for all to see when the US points out a humanitarian crisis (Libya in 2011, for instance) that it’s in its interests to solve (through more civilian bloodshed, of course).

The problem of universal justice is where the flaws in international institutions always lie, and why it is critical to maintain organizational distance from them, even when working within or with them. Who defines justice, freedom, virtue, liberation?—these are all questions that boil down to hegemony. But I don’t see a complete separation from state apparatuses as exigent; if I believed that, I would say our movement doesn’t need lawyers or professors, workers who practice their values on the shop floor, and so on. You have written about Robespierre in the past; do you believe in an antagonistic force against the state, or do you believe that a “State of Virtue” can be established, as he did?

I think this “State of Virtue” is a very interesting idea. Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, Robespierre’s youthful lieutenant in the Committee of Public Safety, famously desired virtue and reason to come to be instituted by popular custom, rather than merely be mandated from above—as from the Committee of Public Safety itself! Idealistically, Robespierre and Saint-Just believed the people to act as a sort of reservoir for reason and virtue, such that history is not indefinitely compromised if the counter-revolution is seen to be hegemonic. One must contrast the hopes that the most radical Jacobins and the members of the Committee had for France as well as European and world history with the disagreeable means they resorted to in self-defense—in defense of the Revolution, or simply for self-preservation, depending on your perspective—particularly during the Reign of Terror of 1793-1794. In more than a few cases, the punishments meted out by the Revolution in this period were undeniably disproportionate, as anti-government insurgents of Lyons and Nantes would learn after being defeated by Jacobin forces. Certainly, Robespierre and Saint-Just had a point in emphasizing natural law, freedom, human happiness, and Enlightenment progress as guiding principles which were embodied to varying degrees during the Revolution—yet their facile resort to the guillotine and centralization forever mar their example, particularly when we think of Robespierre’s elimination of rival left-wing currents shortly before his fall: Georges Danton and his followers the Dantonists, in addition to the Hébertists, who subscribed to the thought of enragé Jacques Hébert—himself executed like Danton. That Robespierre and the Committee were overthrown by the Thermidorian reaction shortly after performing such purges is quite telling. Personally, I find the example of Gracchus Babeuf and the members of the Conspiracy of Equals, who drew up plans for insurrection against the Directory two years after the fall of Robespierre, far more inspiring than the Jacobin experience while in power—even though Babeuf and his co-conspirators admittedly were arrested before the planned uprising could be carried out, such that the “post-revolutionary” legacy of Jacobins and Babouvists can in no way be compared.

To return to present rather than historical questions of inequality and revolution, though—in “Biofuels, Land Grabs, Revolution,” you quite plainly note the “biofuel boom [to be] truly an extension of a prolonged colonial affair designed to displace subsistence, food-based autonomy for global commodity production,” and you show how international capital has little to offer the peoples of the world other than “sweat shops and extractive industries, make sancrosanct by International Financial Institutions and global trade partnerships.” I definitely agree with you, though I would argue that instead of calling them biofuels we refer to them as agrofuels, for there is certainly nothing biotic about this blight on humanity and nature—if we return to the etymological origins of the word βίος (bios), or life!

You point out the macabre relations imperialism and international finance have had with the meteoric expansion of agrofuel production in recent history, particularly in the case of Sukarno and Suharto in Indonesia and Lever and the United Africa Company (UAC) in West Africa. However, in spite of the disconcerting implications the “agrofuel boom” has had for forest ecosystems and biodiversity in Malaysia especially—think of the fate of the orangutan (“person of the forest”) as a stand-in for the hundreds of thousands of species similarly imperiled by agrofuel-driven deforestation—you discuss the case of Madagascar, where the people overthrew the government after learning of its handing over of nearly half of the island-nation’s arable land to foreign investors, and of the Somali pirates as promising countercurrents. How do you see resistance trends developing effectively to check the suicidal trajectory of agrofuel expansion and capitalist imperialism more broadly?

Agrofuels, as you call them, are something that drive me up the wall. But it’s hilarious, because you can get someone from the oil industry talking about how bad land grabs are and how agrofuels don’t help the environment, but then you ask them about the tar sands, and a halo on their head glows a bit brighter. They act like the tar sands are just as clean as God’s toothbrush. Of course there’s lots of resistance to all of these things throughout the world, but they’re all different and shouldn’t be romanticized.

For instance, I’m not sure I would call Somali pirates “promising.” First of all, the shift of piracy is taking place towards the Gulf of Guinea, which has a direct relationship both to the peace agreements with MEND and the increasing amount of commodities shipped out of West Africa. They are better than some so-called “resistance movements,” but I would generally take note of them as a kind of necessary internality of the current system of global trade.

This is generally how resistance works, as Baudrillard tries to explain apropos terrorism—terrorism is not some sort of external enemy that attacks capitalism but rather is a product of capitalism almost to the same extent as a commodity is the product of capitalist exchange. Baudrillard claims that through its very totalization, capital creates a necessity within its structure for explosive events of difference. Through its dismissal and repression, it generates a kind of sublime internal enemy.

Insurgency is similar, but somewhat different, because insurgency represents not a media strategy to attract attention to a greater violence through a smaller act of seemingly random violence (which terrorism is in its basic form), but a more generalized and networked opposition that takes place on deeper, cultural levels. This is generally the response of colonized people to colonialism, which is why counterinsurgency arose during the British colonial experience in Malay and Kenya and the French colonial experience in Algeria, and it explains the proliferation of counterinsurgency operations throughout the world, not just by the US, but also Brazil, Russia, and Israel as a result of the global land grab. The more “multipolar” the global matrix of hegemony becomes, the more land grabs are resisted both internally and on the periphery.

In Madagascar, the resistance was generated through alternative structures, which were the traditional basis for the community sense of responsibility and justice (very different from our understanding of such a concept), and it spread through the rural areas into more generalized unrest. I see this happening in the US as well; while most geographers look to the metropolis as the center of unrest, I think there is a much more open field of resistance in the world today, partly as a result of extractivism, which is transforming the demographics of the world. It is relatively clear to me that we have environmentalism on the side of class consciousness on the one hand fighting things like oil trains, tar sands, and fracking, and then on the other hand, we have the forces of capital and extractivism in the forms of the ultra-right tea party, logging and oil companies, and ranchers.

Against all neoliberal Hegelianism and capitalist apologism, Andrew Herod in his Grabbing Back essay on “Ports as Places of Stickiness in a World of Global Flows” details the profound revocability and contingency of the capitalist monster, as revealed through an autonomous-Marxist or anarcho-syndicalist analysis of the great potential that workers—particularly dockers—have for impeding the smooth movement of capital flows. Like Chomsky, Herod sees solid community support as an important precondition for the successful intensification of worker militancy against the capitalist everyday. Indeed, his discussion of the sustained resistance engaged in by workers belonging to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) calls to mind the general strike organized by Occupy Oakland in November 2011, and his examination of the mutual aid shared between Australian and South African unions to resist formal Apartheid on the one hand and the anti-labor legislation contemplated by the Australian government in the 1990s on the other illuminates the fundamental reality that proletarian struggle is necessarily internationalist—as Marx and the (other) anarchists knew well. We can hope that coming waves of increased worker militancy will come to affirm the ecological general strike advocated by the Environmental Union Caucus of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW EUC), so as to unite radical ecology with proletarian self-management in a militant struggle to defend nature and humanity. Keeping in mind the encouraging recent example of the blockades of the Israeli Zim ship on the U.S. West Coast in the wake of the Zionist State’s genocidal “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, what can you say about the future promise of such “logistical” approaches to anti-capitalist struggle?

I think it’s critical to remain open to tactics, but I think that you’re onto the right strategy. I don’t think it’s responsible to talk about land grabs without also talking about global trade, which is synonymous with the capitalist world-system. The simple truck and transport of so many useless manufactured goods and raw materials from one port to another to another is an important contributor to climate change in and of itself, but ports and shipping networks have also become central to the global land grab and extractivism.

You mention the port shutdown in Oakland, and I’d like to add the Longview, Oregon, cooperation between Rising Tide and the ILWU, which has been shut out of a bargaining agreement for a grain terminal. These two groups, ostensibly with little in common, have joined to shut down the port of Longview twice now, not only because of the grain terminal, but because of a prospective oil terminal to ship Bakken shale oil out through the West Coast. The ILWU respects their allies in the working class climate movement, and also thinks of the “bomb trains” as a hazard to the community.

There’s a point of collective interest that centers around both environmental concerns and the treatment of workers that has created a much needed and fully beneficial alliance. We do need more local systems of production and consumption, and we need greater emphasis on use value, rather than a constant system of symbolic exchange that effectively “borrows from itself” (as Adorno said of Heidegger’s philosophy). With this in mind, we need to develop those systems of social and ecological value that can translate into an equal or greater value than the capitalist paradigm, and that can only happen by sharing ideas, mobilizing together, and building community roots.

In the meantime, I think workers and ecologically-minded people (who are usually also workers!) need to organize together to build global resistance to the demented regimes of apartheid in Palestine as well as here in the US. In recent months, we have seen solidarity work magic through national protests against police brutality and military brutality abroad. Of course those things go together, and it’s that kind of double movement that will bring class consciousness (really also the consciousness of the urgent, historic task with which we are charged) that can bring us out of this “imperiled life,” as you describe it.

Apropos titles, what can you say about the conception of Grabbing Back‘s title? To me it is reminiscent of Rage Against the Machine’s song “Take the Power Back.”

Well, I was corresponding with Sam Moyo who teaches in South Africa and Zimbabwe, because I wanted to include some of his work in the compilation. Moyo’s work on postcolonial Zimbabwe illustrates the very complex hegemony that emerges out of decolonization and land reform. Incidentally, Johannes Wilm’s work chronicling land reform in Nicaragua is similar. Decolonization is not a process of leadership switching hands; it is a very intense transformation of a society, right down to the individual level, and this involves a kind of centripetal force that drives a postcolonial nation surging towards further liberation, land reform, and land occupations. When governments, like the Algerian coup [executed by Houari Boumédiène against Ahmed Ben Bella in 1965], try to control the surge of popular liberation, they are often met with widespread resistance, and then postcolonial countries become dragged down into dynamics of power and control.

So “grabbing back” is related to this complicated internal and external struggle of popular liberation movements fighting to take land back from multinational corporations by any means necessary, and then often fighting the new governments in a continuing and often frustrating rupture. It is not a kind of wishful or abstract thinking that puts all land grabs on the side of evil, but is in fact a complex power struggle where land is grabbed, grabbed back, territorialized and deterritorialized.

I do frequently have that line running through my head where Zach de la Rocha screams, “Take it back y’all, take it back y’all, take it back, take it back, take it back y’all!” I was actually in an anti-Arpaio march with him back in 2009, but he was up front I think. It was that infamous march where everybody got pepper sprayed, but that was my 15 minutes of habanero-eyed fame.

Many if not most of the essays collected in Grabbing Back explore direct action as a critical resistance measure, whether taken to block infernal industrial-capitalist megaprojects—as throughout much of rural China, where thousands of socio-ecological “group events” or mass disturbances have surged in the decades since trade liberalization, among the Mi’kmaq peoples resisting the “gas grab” in eastern Canada, and as instituted by members of the Wild Idaho and Portland Rising Tide chapters who have physically blockaded the movement of tar-sands megaloads—or as a means of land- and eviction-defense, as seen in Portland (Blazing Arrow and allied organizations), post-Katrina New Orleans (N.O.H.E.A.T.), and Haiti and South Africa (Take Back the Land and Abahlali Basemjondolo). Do you see all these direct actions made for the sake of humanity and nature as somehow coalescing in the future into a generalized anti-systemic multitude, as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have theorized?

This is really a deeply philosophical question. I like Negri and Hardt very much; they are such wonderful people! Insofar as they are positing the multitude into the future, I think that they see a kind of avenire, “time-to-come,” as a futurity in the sense that [Ernst] Bloch talks about the “not yet.”

In his writings on Spinoza, Negri takes a route past reaction towards a sense of joy that is distinguished through an active coexistence: “For Spinoza, time exists only as liberation. Liberated time becomes the productive imagination, rooted in ethics. Liberated time is neither becoming, nor dialectic, nor mediation, but rather being that constructs itself, dynamic constitution, realized imagination. Time is not measure but ethics. Imagination also unveils the hidden dimensions of Spinozian being—this ethical being that is the being of revolution, the continuous ethical choice of production.” Together, Negri and Hardt write about “autonomous times” that are produced in the process of being together, which is very similar to what Grubačić’s essay in Grabbing Back refers to as “exilic spaces.”

In Declaration, Negri and Hardt write, “You can’t beat the prison, and you can’t fight the army. All you can do is flee… Since security functions so often by making you visible, you have to escape by refusing to be seen. Becoming invisible, too, is a kind of flight. The fugitive, the deserter, and the invisible are the real heroes (or antiheroes) of the struggle of the securitized to be free. But when you run, think of George Jackson and grab a weapon as you go.” This returns us to the Pan-African style of direct action written about by Ahjamu Umi and Max Rameau in Grabbing Back as well—not a flight of cowardice, but self-defense. This is how we ultimately have to view scott crow’s essay about Common Ground as well—a kind of radical space of exile that brings together people from all over the world to help others who are also struggling with their forced removal. This is what presents itself as liberation in time and space, a kind of being-for-others, which spreads through attraction.

But with this, are we not also assuming a kind of utopian futurity, which requires a different way of presenting ourselves in the here-and-now? Jürgen Habermas calls Bloch a “Marxist Schelling,” but I really think we have to understand the importance of [Johann Gottlieb] Fichte here as well to turn utopia into action. Fichte writes that freedom “is always posited into the future… to the extent that the individual himself is posited into the future.” Noting an ethical crisis of the individual in time, Martin Luther King, Jr., writes, “Ethics for Fichte deals with the internal conflict which arises within each person between his natural impulse for self-preservation and his rational impulse to secure freedom through conformity to the moral law. The two impulses must be reconciled in such a way that rational freedom will prevail, and the individual will do his duty and fulfill his vocation. This can never be completely achieved in time, so the individual is immortal so that he may achieve his infinite duty.” We have this sense of the “future anterior,” the problem of what “would have been” that accompanies both the “not-yet-present” and the “alteriority of the past.” Our ethical task is to expiate our conscience through the present action of being, playing, and working together. This effectively generates what Katsiaficas calls the “eros effect,” the mass-spreading of autonomous struggle.

No stranger to such autonomous struggle, King continues in his philosophical contemplation of Fichte: “Man’s behavior is not only reactional. And there is always resentment in a reactionTo educate man to be actional, preserving in all his relations the basic respect for the basic values that constitute a human world, is the prime task of him who, having taken thought, prepares to act.” So the action, or the active life, brings us to a behavior consistent with liberation and hope, and a collective uprising of freedom becomes a matter of assuming a dignified role in history.

While the resilience identified by Grace Lee Boggs and company in their Grabbing Back essay exploring the life-affirming possibilities for a new, post-industrial Detroit is quite inspiring, one is struck by the proposal so rapidly to convert this historical center of industrial capitalism into a self-sufficient urban-agricultural oasis. Given the saturation of the city’s soils by the heavy metals emitted by all the polluting industries formerly concentrated there, does this recommendation not run the risk of worsening health outcomes for Detroit residents? Capitalism Nature Socialism editor Salvatore Engel-di Mauro has warned about this possibility, especially in his Ecology, Soils, and the Leftas elsewhere.

There are lots of ways of bringing soil back to health, which you can find in various permaculture books. Composting makes soil that is perfectly healthy, and some cities have compost programs that collect people’s food waste with the garbage, makes compose, and sells it back to people as soil for cheap. Other than this, lots of communities experiment with humanure, which actually creates tons of nutritious soil in a relatively short time period. In reality, this outdated notion of defecating in clean water in the midst of climate changed induced droughts should be viewed with the utmost shame and contempt, and our societies should be learning about how to live resilient, natural systems.

I am skeptical that composting and humanure can effectively negate the effects of heavy metals accumulated in soils.

Of course I share your opinion that cities aren’t just going to turn into utopias overnight, nor should we focus all of our efforts on the metropolis, as thinkers have tended to wish for in the past. There is a lot to be said for supporting rural movements that do not abide by the status quo, and for taking land away from the huge agribusiness cartels and (1) returning it to the Indigenous peoples; (2) if it’s possible, given the amount of affective trauma caused by the settler population on the Indigenous peoples and land, restoring the tradition of local farming in the US. I just don’t believe in a movement driven by white settlers in the US—it will turn out like the populist movement of the late 19th Century: horribly racist, politically opportunist, and cursed by its leaders to dissolve into the mire of party politics. You can call me a raging skeptic or a sunny idealist on that issue, but I would rather take that as a compliment than believe that we can overcome the colonial legacy through white leadership.

In an article examining Israel’s genocidal “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, acclaimed Guardian columnist Nafeez Ahmed presents the thesis that the latest Zionist pogrom finds its basis in the Israeli State’s desire to “uproot Hamas” to make way for the exploitation of the estimated $4 billion worth of gas deposits discovered off the coast of Gaza in 2000. Personally, I find such a view to typify “vulgar Marxism,” or economic determinism, the idea that all actions taken by States and capital are based in crass material interests. Of course, materialism is critical for understanding the Zionist project of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and mass-colonial land expropriation, as it is for the struggle to overcome Zionism altogether, as through BDS, direct action, and armed struggle—yet to rely solely or even largely on such a type of analysis would seem crucially to overlook the psychological, subjective, and ideological reasons for the perpetuation of Israeli racism and fascism toward the Palestinians, other Arabs, and Africans. What are your thoughts?

I think Nafeez Ahmed is a terrific and responsible journalist, and there are many dimensions to the fight in Gaza. In this case, he might be approaching the problem from a more old-fashioned geopolitical side, but in any case, you’re right to assert the many psychological dialectics of colonialism. I rely principally on the tremendous works of feminists like Valentine Moghadam (who even writes about Earth First!), Lila Abu-Lughod, and Saba Mahmood who provide some of the critical nuances on the impacts of globalization and diaspora on the consciousness of peoples, and whose observations on the dialectics of religion, gender, and postcolonial hegemony offer a kind of understanding that is very difficult to find in contemporary discourse.

We all know so little about the extent of suffering, the need for action, and the capacity to collaborate; there has been so much violence, so much hatred all in the name of this little, tiny place on a map, and why? Much of it is based on strange, spiritual conceptions of the sacred, even for people living thousands of miles away—simply because that’s what they were taught in their respective place of worship. For that reason, I think it’s important to maintain a materialist analysis of place, Indigeneity, and human dignity that resists a kind of religious claim to universalism, but I also agree that we are not going far enough when that materialism boils down to natural resources.

The settlers during the internal colonization of the US did not simply move to Oregon because of its natural resources; they moved there, because they believed they were on a spiritual mission to take land from the Natives and produce civilization. The hard Zionist right-wing represented in the Knesset is like this—as Moshe Dayan’s famous saying goes, “we are fated to live in a permanent state of fighting against the Arabs… for two things: the building of the land and the building of the people.” Just like most analyses of Tahrir Square and Diren Gezi Parki do not boil down to qualitative analyses of consumer economics, our analyses of “the other side” should not be so monolithic. In particular, we need to analyze the rise of populism throughout the world today, whether religious or cultural, and note how deterritorialization of the marketplace and “hegemonic masculinity” (to use Moghadam’s term) is leading to a backlash that Samir Amin likens to the rise of a new fascism.

1 Thandika Mkandawire and Charles C. Soludo, Our Continent, Our Future: African Perspectives on Structural Adjustment (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999).

2 Maia Ramnath, Decolonizing Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle, (Oakland: AK Press, 2011)

3 Partha Chaterjee, “For an Indian History of Peasant Struggle,” Social Scientist 16, no. 11 (1988): 15.

4 See the unsettling film, God Loves Uganda, dir: Roger Ross Williams (Pull Credit Productions: Brooklyn, 2013)

5 See Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso: New York, 2012)

6 For an interesting insight into this trial, see the film about Issa Sesay, War Don Don, dir: Rebecca Richman Cohen, Racing Horse Productions, Naked Edge Films, 2010