Wealth inequality in the United States is at its highest on record, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. The analysis confirms previous reports documenting the immense transfer of wealth to the top during Obama administration’s “economic recovery.”
As a measure of wealth inequality, Pew compares the median net worth of upper-income families with the median net worth of middle-income and lower-income families. Upper-income families are defined as those with more than twice the overall median income, adjusted for family size.
In 2013, upper-income median net worth was 6.6 times more than median net worth for middle-income families, up from 6.2 times in 2010 and 3.4 times in 1983, when the Federal Reserve began keeping such records. It is nearly 70 times more than the median net worth for low-income families, also the highest on records going back to 1983.
The data on median household net worth documents a sharp diversion of fortunes over the past 30 years.
In 1983, the median net worth of lower-income families was $11,400 (in 2013 dollars). This had fallen to $9,300 in 2013—down nearly 20 percent. Between 2007 (just before the economic crash) and 2013, median net worth for this layer of the population fell nearly 50 percent, down from $18,000.
In contrast, the net worth of high-income families more than doubled between 1983 and today, rising from $318,100 to $639,400. Since 2007, the wealth of this layer has fallen slightly.
For middle-income families, median wealth is flat over the past 30 years, while it has fallen nearly 40 percent (from $158,400 to $96,500) since 2007.
By the definition used by the Pew report, 21 percent of families are categorized as upper-income. One third of families are categorized as low-income (those with less than two-thirds of the overall median net income), and about half of families are middle-income (between two-thirds and twice the median income).
Thus the Pew report actually underestimates the growth of wealth inequality, since the greatest concentration of wealth is actually accrued to the top one and even the top 0.1 percent of the population.
Earlier this year, a report from economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman found that “virtually all the increase in the top 10 percent and top 1 percent shares over the last three decades is due to the rise in the top 0.1 percent share, from 7 percent in the late 1970s to 22 percent in 2012.”
A separate report from researchers at the University of Michigan found that wealth inequality had doubled since 2003, with households in the top 5 percent now having a wealth that is 426.5 times the average wealth of households in the bottom 25 percent.
The stock market has been a principal mechanism for the transfer of wealth from the working class to the corporate and financial aristocracy. Particularly since the crisis of 2008, Obama administration and Federal Reserve policy has been focused on bolstering the nominal value of shares, which are overwhelmingly owned by the richest segments of the population.
The rise in share prices has been accompanied (and is to be paid for) by the continual driving down of wages, along with the attack on social programs and other restraints on corporate profitability.
Fueled by trillions of dollars through “quantitative easing” programs and near-zero interest rates, the Dow Jones Industrial average has more than doubled since 2009 and has surged nearly 40 percent since the beginning of 2013.
On Thursday, encouraged by the statement from Chairman Janet Yellen that the Fed would be “patient” in considering interest rate increases, the Dow surged 421 points, its largest point gain in three years.
In a blow to the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that evidence obtained by police under a false reading of the law is never the less admisable in court on the grounds that the officer made a “reasonable mistake.”
The ruling was made regarding Heien v. North Carolina, a case in which an officer pulled over a driver while under the mistaken belief that the latter’s driving with a single inoperable brake light constituted a violation of state law. After consenting to a vehicle search which revealed narcotics, the defendant, Nicholas Heien, sought to have the evidence suppressed by invoking the Exclusionary Rule, a component of the Fourth Amendment.
The Supreme Court upheld a ruling by North Carolina’s Supreme Court, which overturned the decision of a lower court which had found that the police officers search was illegal. “The Fourth Amendment requires government officials to act reasonably, not perfectly, and gives those officials ‘fair leeway for enforcing the law,’” Chief Justice John G. Roberts stated in remarks supporting the majority’s opinion.
Expanding on the view of the majority, Justice Elena Kagan, an appointee of the Obama administration, stated “If the statute is genuinely ambiguous, such that overturning the officer’s judgment requires hard interpretive work, then the officer has made a reasonable mistake.” Kagan stressed that such circumstances would be “exceedingly rare.”
Rather than being confined to traffic stops, the Court’s decision can be interpreted to give police the right to detain and search individuals under practically any circumstances.
In the lone dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor raised fears that this sort of conclusion would be drawn from the decision. “[The decision] means further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down,” she said, adding that the concept of the law being “definite and knowable sits at the foundation of our legal system…” and that if officers are given leeway in such cases it may work to undermine the legitimacy of the court.
Reflecting this position, an amicus brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) noted that “The rule creates new and unjustified burdens on private citizens by sanctioning an expansive new category of traffic stops, together with the ‘physical and psychological intrusion’ such stops necessarily entail.” It added that the ruling ran the risk of “diminishing the public perception of law enforcement officials’ knowledge and authority.”
The court’s attack on the Fourth Amendment has been a continuous one. Other Supreme Court rulings of note have allowed for police to enter private residences without search warrants, citing “exigent circumstances” after the fact, as well as the proliferation and institutionalizing of “no-knock” raids, which involve militarily-armed SWAT team members forcing down doors on suspicions of illegal doing.
This is an adapted version of an article that first appeared on NSFWCORP. Published daily online and monthly in print, NSFWCORP is The Future of Journalism (With Jokes).
Every couple of years, mainstream media hacks pretend to have just discovered libertarianism as some sort of radical, new and dynamic force in American politics. It’s a rehash that goes back decades, and hacks love it because it’s easy to write, and because it’s such a non-threatening “radical” politics (unlike radical left politics, which threatens the rich). The latest version involves a summer-long pundit debate in the pages of the New York Times, Reasonmagazine and elsewhere over so-called “libertarian populism.” It doesn’t really matter whose arguments prevail, so long as no one questions where libertarianism came from or why we’re defining libertarianism as anything but a big business public relations campaign, the winner in this debate is Libertarianism.
Pull up libertarianism’s floorboards, look beneath the surface into the big business PR campaign’s early years, and there you’ll start to get a sense of its purpose, its funders, and the PR hucksters who brought the peculiar political strain of American libertarianism into being — beginning with the libertarian movement’s founding father, Milton Friedman. Back in 1950, the House of Representatives held hearings on illegal lobbying activities and exposed both Friedman and the earliest libertarian think-tank outfit as a front for business lobbyists. Those hearings have been largely forgotten, in part because we’re too busy arguing over the finer points of “libertarian populism.”
In his early days, before millions were spent on burnishing his reputation, Friedman worked as a business lobby shill, a propagandist who would say whatever he was paid to say. That’s the story we need to revisit to get to the bottom of the modern American libertarian “movement,” to see what it’s really all about. We need to take a trip back to the post-war years, and to the largely forgotten Buchanan Committee hearings on illegal lobbying activities, led by a pro-labor Democrat from Pennsylvania, Frank Buchanan.
What the Buchanan Committee discovered was that in 1946, Milton Friedman and his University of Chicago cohort George Stigler arranged an under-the-table deal with a Washington lobbying executive to pump out covert propaganda for the national real estate lobby in exchange for a hefty payout, the terms of which were never meant to be released to the public. They also discovered that a lobbying outfit which is today credited by libertarians as the movement’s first think-tank — the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE)— was itself a big business PR project backed by the largest corporations and lobbying fronts in the country.
The FEE focused on promoting a new pro-business ideology—which it called “libertarianism”— to supplement other business lobbying groups which focused on specific policies and legislation. It is generally regarded as “the first libertarian think-tank” as Reason’s Brian Doherty calls it in his book “Radicals For Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern Libertarian Movement” (2007). As the Buchanan Committee discovered, the Foundation was the best-funded conservative lobbying outfit ever known up to that time, sponsored by a Who’s Who of US industry in 1946.
A partial list of FEE’s original donors in its first four years— a list discovered by the Buchanan Committee — includes: The Big Three auto makers (GM, Chrysler and Ford); top oil majors including Gulf Oil, Standard Oil, and Sun Oil; major steel producers US Steel, National Steel, Republic Steel; major retailers including Montgomery Ward, Marshall Field and Sears; chemicals majors Monsanto and DuPont; and other Fortune 500 corporations including General Electric, Merrill Lynch, Eli Lilly, BF Goodrich, ConEd, and more.
The FEE was set up by a longtime US Chamber of Commerce executive named Leonard Read, together with Donaldson Brown, a director in the National Association of Manufacturers lobby group and board member at DuPont and General Motors.
That is how libertarianism in America started: As an arm of big business lobbying.
Before bringing back Milton Friedman into the picture, this needs to be repeated again: “Libertarianism” was a project of the corporate lobby world, launched as a big business “ideology” in 1946 by The US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. The FEE’s board included the future founder of the John Birch Society, Robert Welch; the most powerful figure in the Mormon church at that time, J Reuben Clark, a frothing racist and anti-Semite after whom BYU named its law school; and United Fruit president Herb Cornuelle.
The purpose of the FEE — and libertarianism, as it was originally created — was to supplement big business lobbying with a pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-economics rationale to back up its policy and legislative attacks on labor and government regulations.
This background is important in the Milton Friedman story because Friedman is a founding father of libertarianism, and because the corrupt lobbying deal he was busted playing a part in was arranged through the Foundation for Economic Education.
According to Congressional hearings on illegal lobbying activities 1946 was the year that Milton Friedman and his U Chicago cohort George Stigler arranged an under-the-table deal with a Washington lobbying executive to pump out covert propaganda for the national real estate lobby in exchange for a hefty payout, the terms of which were never meant to be released to the public.
The arrangement between Friedman and Stigler with the Washington real estate lobbyist was finally revealed during a congressional review of illegal lobbying activities in 1950, called the Buchanan Committee. Yes, there was something called accountability back then. I only came across the revelations about Friedman’s sordid beginnings in the footnotes of an old book on the history of lobbying by former Newsweek book editor Karl Schriftgiesser, published in 1951, shortly after the Buchanan Committee hearings ended. The actual details of Milton Friedman’s PR deal are sordid and familiar, with tentacles reaching into our ideologically rotted-out era.
False, whitewashed history is as much a part of the Milton Friedman mythology as it is the libertarian movement’s own airbrushed history about its origins; the 1950 Buchanan Committee hearings expose both as creations of big business lobby groups whose purpose is to deceive and defraud the public and legislators in order to advance the cause of corporate America.
The story starts like this: In 1946, Herbert Nelson was the chief lobbyist and executive vice president for the National Association of Real Estate Boards, and one of the highest paid lobbyists in the nation. Mr. Nelson’s real estate constituency was unhappy with rent control laws that Truman kept in effect after the war ended. Nelson and his real estate lobby led what House investigators discovered was the most formidable and best-funded opposition to President Truman in the post-war years, amassing some $5,000,000 for their lobby efforts—that’s $5 million in 1946 dollars, or roughly $60 million in 2012 dollars.
So Herbert Nelson contracted out the PR services of the Foundation for Economic Education to concoct “third party” propaganda designed to shore up the National Real Estate lobby’s legislative drive — and the propagandists who took on the job were Milton Friedman and his U Chicago cohort, George Stigler.
To understand the sort of person Herbert Nelson was, here is a letter he wrote in 1949 that Congressional investigators discovered and recorded:
I do not believe in democracy. I think it stinks. I don’t think anybody except direct taxpayers should be allowed to vote. I don’t believe women should be allowed to vote at all. Ever since they started, our public affairs have been in a worse mess than ever.
It’s an old libertarian mantra, libertarianism versus democracy, libertarianism versus women’s suffrage; a position recently repeated by billionaire libertarian Peter Thiel — who was Ron Paul’s main campaign funder in his 2012 presidential campaign.
So in 1946, this same Herbert Nelson turned to the Foundation for Economic Education to manufacture some propaganda to help the National Association of Real Estate Boards fight rent control laws. Nelson chose to work with the FEE because he knew that its founder, Leonard Read, agreed with him on a lot of important issues. Such as their mutual contempt for democracy, and their disdain for the American public.
Read argued that the public should not be allowed to know which corporations donated to his libertarian front-group because, he argued, the public could not be trusted to make “sound judgments” with disclosed information:
The public reporting would present a single fact—the amount of a contributor’s donation—to casual readers, persons having only a cursory interest in the matter at issue, persons who would not and perhaps could not possess all the facts. These folks of the so-called public thus receive only oversimplifications or half-truths from which only erroneous conclusions are almost certain to be drawn. If there is a public interest in the rightness or wrongness of corporate or personal donations to charitable, religious or education institutions, and I am not at all ready to concede that there is, then that interest should be guarded by some such agency as the Bureau of Internal Revenue, an agency that is in a position to obtain all the facts, not by Mr. John Public who lacks relevant information for the forming of sound judgments…Public reporting of a half-truth is indeed a significant provocation
So in May 1946, Herbert Nelson of the real estate lobby, looking for backup in his drive to abolish federal rent control laws on behalf of landlords, contacted Read with an order for a PR pamphlet “with some such title as ‘The Case against Federal Real Estate Control’,” according to Karl Schriftgiesser’s book The Lobbyists.
What happened next, I’ll quote from Schriftgiesser:
They were now busily co-operating on the new project which the foundation had engaged Milton Friedman and George J. Stigler to write. It was to be called Roofs and Ceilings and it was to be an outright attack on rent controls. When Nelson received a copy of the manuscript he wrote Read to say, “The pamphlet…is a dandy. It is just what I wanted.
The National Association of Real Estate Boards was so pleased with Milton Friedman’s made-to-order propaganda that they ordered up 500,000 pamphlets from the FEE, and distributed them throughout the real estate lobby’s vast local network of real estate brokers and agents.
In libertarianism’s own airbrushed history about itself, the Foundation was a brave, quixotic bastion of libertarian “true believers” doomed to defeat at the all-powerful hands of the liberal Keynsian Leviathan and the collectivist mob. Here is how libertarian historian Brian Doherty describes the FEE and its chief lobbyist:
[Read] would never explicitly scrape for funds… He never directly asked anyone to give anything, he proudly insisted, and while FEE would sell literature to all comers, it was also free to anyone who asked. His attitude toward money was Zen, sometimes hilariously so. When asked how FEE was doing financially, his favorite reply was, “Just perfectly.”… Read wanted no endowments and frowned on any donation meant to be held in reserve for some future need.
And here is what the committee’s own findings reported—findings lost in history:
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Foundation for Economic Education exerts, or at least expects to exert, a considerable influence on national legislative policy….It is equally difficult to imagine that the nation’s largest corporations would subsidize the entire venture if they did not anticipate that it would pay solid, long-range legislative dividends.
Or in the words of Rep. Carl Albert (D-OK): “Every bit of this literature is along propaganda lines.”
The manufactured history about libertarian’s origins, or its purpose, parallels the manufactured myths about one of big business’s key propaganda tools, Milton Friedman. As the author of The Lobbyists, not knowing who Milton Friedman was at the time, wrote of Friedman’s collaborative effort with Stigler:
“Certainly [the FEE’s] booklet, Roofs or Ceilings, was definitely propaganda and sought to influence legislation….This booklet was printed in bulk by the foundation and half a million copies were sold at cost to the National Association of Real Estate Boards, which had them widely distributed throughout the country by its far-flung network of local member boards.”
There’s no idealism here. The notion that libertarian ideas have captured the political imagination of millions in this country is a root problem: if we’re going to escape the corporate oligarchy that is running this country–their ideas can’t possibility be the alternative solution. This movement has to be recognized for what it is.
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The Russian ruble hit historic lows relative to the dollar and the euro early this week. In what analysts and government representatives are describing as the worst crisis since either 2008-2009 or the Russian default of 1998, the national currency was trading for as little as 80 rubles to the dollar and 100 to the euro on Tuesday, having undergone a 10 percent decline in just a single day.
Efforts by the Central Bank yesterday to stem the collapse failed. After it hiked interest rates from 10.5 to 17 percent, the ruble briefly recovered some of its value, but then resumed its downward spiral. Some experts say the central bank’s dramatic moves only worsened the situation by spreading a sense of panic.
On Tuesday, the US moved to deepen the ruble crisis with the announcement from the White House that President Obama would sign a bill by the end of the week authorizing him to impose harsher economic sanctions on Moscow and send lethal military aid to Ukraine.
Last month, the Central Bank allowed the ruble to float freely on international currency markets in the hope that this might stabilize the situation.
Russia’s economy is being hit by the simultaneous impact of Western sanctions resulting from the conflict over Ukraine and a collapse in the global price of oil, which is the anchor of the country’s economy. While the Russian government developed its budget based on an oil price of no less than $90 a barrel, crude is currently trading at less than $60 a barrel.
Investors are pulling out of Russia at a fast clip. In the fourth quarter of this year, capital flight hit $49 billion, according to the Central Bank. It is expected to total $134 billion for 2014 as a whole, more than double last year’s amount.
“The situation is critical,” said Sergei Shvetsov, first deputy governor of the Bank of Russia at a roundtable on financial markets in Moscow on Tuesday. “Believe me, the choice made by the central bank’s directors was a choice between the very bad and the very, very bad.” He indicated that further actions to stabilize the country’s monetary situation would be forthcoming.
The depreciation of the ruble comes alongside a sharp increase in inflation, with prices having risen by 8.9 percent since the start of the year, according to Rosstat, the state statistical agency. The head of Moscow’s Department of Trade and Services told the news agency Interfax that in Moscow, one of the most expensive cities in the world, the consumer basket of basic goods had risen by 10 percent compared to last year.
Food prices, in particular, are skyrocketing, having climbed by 20 to 25 percent since the start of 2014. News agencies are predicting a further 15 percent jump after the New Year holiday.
Domestic as well as foreign-made foodstuffs are climbing in cost, as Russian producers often rely on overseas inputs purchased with dollars and euros to make their products. The All-Russian Public Organization of Small and Medium Enterprises (OPORA) has appealed to the Ministry of Economic Development to legalize the use of euro-denominated prices in stores and government contracts, insisting that businesses would suffer huge losses without such a change.
Real wages are being hit hard by inflation, said Vice-Premier Olga Golodets in an interview with ITAR-TASS, and poverty is on the rise. “We are ending the year with 15.7 million poor. But under conditions of inflation, these numbers will inevitably grow, especially among families with children,” said Golodets, noting that households with children between the ages of 18 months and 3 years were at greatest risk.
“Everyone is in a tizzy, understanding that the depreciation of the ruble is affecting the population and threatens a social explosion,” said one government bureaucrat in an interview with Forbes.
Predictions for Russia’s economic outlook for next year continue to worsen. After reporting growth of just 0.7 percent in the third quarter of this year, the government is predicting a contraction of 0.8 percent in the first quarter of 2015. The online Russian press outlet RBK reports that, according to the Bank of Russia, if oil prices stay at $60 a barrel over the course of 2015, Russian gross domestic product will fall by 4.5 percent to 4.8 percent. On December 15, the United Arab Emirates Energy Minister said oil prices could fall to $40 a barrel.
On Tuesday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev called a meeting of the ministries of Economic Development and Finance, as well as the central bank, to work out a series of “anti-crisis measures.” Details have yet to be released.
Two Ministry of Finance officials indicated to Forbes that so far there is no clear understanding of what the government is preparing to do. Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said that his ministry was not considering the implementation of currency controls.
There is speculation that the Kremlin is preparing to carry out а bailout akin to what it implemented in 2008-2009, when it rescued the financial sector and other segments of big business with massive injections of funds. According toForbes, one official said the government has $160 billion rubles set aside in the 2015 budget for state intervention in the economy as well as the ability to borrow funds from various government financial institutions.
In a sign of frictions building up within the government, Minister of Economic Development Aleksei Ulyukaev said that, in hindsight, the central bank should have raised rates sooner. He added, “It is very important to ensure unity of action between the Bank of Russia and the government.”
Rosneft, the Russian oil giant run by Igor Sechin, a Kremlin insider with close ties to President Vladimir Putin, has been blamed for playing a role in the crisis. Last week, the company issued 625 billion rubles worth of bonds, flooding the market. Sechin denounced accusations that Rosneft was undermining the Russian economy as “a provocation.”
Even as the Russian ruling elite scrambles to find a way out of the immediate situation, there is a growing recognition that the economic disaster gripping the country is the result of the escalating geopolitical confrontation with the West, and, in particular, the United States. The director of the analytical department of the investment company REGION told RIA Novosti that the depreciation of the ruble is fundamentally bound up with speculative attacks against the currency being carried out by “non-residents,” making the central bank’s use of interest rates to stem the crisis ineffective.
Speaking to Forbes, one government insider described the situation in the government as one of near-panic and implied that the unraveling of the Russian economy was bound up with efforts on the part of the West to force regime-change in Russia. “Everyone understands that the current economic crisis is the consequence of the political crisis that emerged due to Putin’s return to the Kremlin. That is, no financial or economic anti-crisis plans will fundamentally change the situation,” he said.
From December 1 to 9, I had the privilege of visiting Rojava as part of a delegation of academics from Austria, Germany, Norway, Turkey, the UK, and the US. We assembled in Erbil, Iraq, on November 29 and spent the next day learning about the petrostate known as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), with its oil politics, patronage politics, feuding parties (KDP and PUK), and apparent aspirations to emulate Dubai. We soon had enough and on Monday morning were relieved to drive to the Tigris, where we crossed the border into Syria and entered Rojava, the majority-Kurdish autonomous region of northern Syria.
The Tigris river channel was narrow, but the society we encountered on the far shore could not have been more different from the KRG: the spirit of a social and political revolution was in the air. As we disembarked, we were greeted by the Asayis, or civilian security forces of the revolution. The Asayis reject the label police, since police serve the state whereas they serve society.
Over the next nine days, we would explore Rojava’s revolutionary self-government in an old-fashioned state of total immersion (we had no internet access to distract us). Our delegation’s two organizers — Dilar Dirik (a talented PhD student at Cambridge University) and Devriş Çimen (head of Civaka Azad, the Kurdish Center for Public Information in Germany) — took us on an intensive tour of the various revolutionary institutions.
Rojava consists of three geographically non-contiguous cantons; we would see only the easternmost one, Cezire (or Jazira), due to the ongoing war with the Islamic State, which rages to the west, especially in Kobani. But everywhere we were welcomed warmly.
Rojava’s Third Way
At the outset, the deputy foreign minister, Amine Ossi, introduced us to the history of the revolution. The Syrian Ba’ath regime, a system of one-party rule, had long insisted that all Syrians were Arabs and attempted to “Arabize” the country’s four million Kurds, suppressing their identity and stripping those who objected of their citizenship.
After Tunisian and Egyptian opposition groups mounted insurgencies during the Arab Spring in 2011, rebellious Syrians rose up too, initiating the civil war. In the summer of 2012, the regime’s authority collapsed in Rojava, where the Kurds had little trouble persuading its officials to depart nonviolently.
Rojavans (I’ll call them by that name because while they are mostly Kurds, they are also Arabs, Assyrians, Chechens, and others) then faced a choice of aligning themselves either with the regime that had persecuted them, or with the mostly Islamic militant opposition groups.
Rojava’s Kurds being relatively secular, they refused both sides and decided instead to embark on a Third Way, based on the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader who rethought the Kurdish issue, the nature of revolution, and an alternative modernity to the nation-state and capitalism.
Initially, under his leadership, Kurds had fought for a state, but several decades ago, again under his leadership, their goal began to change: they now reject the state as a source of oppression and instead strive for self-government, for popular democracy. Drawing eclectically from sources in history, philosophy, politics, and anthropology, Öcalan proposed ‘Democratic Confederalism’ as the name for the overarching program of bottom-up democracy, gender equality, ecology, and a cooperative economy. The implementation of those principles, in institutions not only of democratic self-government but also of economics, education, health and gender, is called Democratic Autonomy.
A Women’s Revolution
Under their Third Way, Rojava’s three cantons declared Democratic Autonomy and formally established it in a “social contract” (the non-statist term it uses instead of “constitution”). Under that program, they created a system of popular self-government, based in neighborhood commune assemblies (comprising several hundred households each), which anyone may attend, and with power rising from the bottom up through elected deputies to the city and cantonal levels.
When our delegation visited a Qamishlo neighborhood (Qamishlo being the largest city in the Cezire canton), we attended a meeting of a local people’s council, where the electricity and matters relating to women, conflict resolution and families of martyrs were discussed. Men and women sat and participated together. Elsewhere in Qamishlo, we witnessed an assembly of women addressing problems particular to their gender.
Gender is of special importance to this project in human emancipation. We quickly realized that the Rojava Revolution is fundamentally a women’s revolution. This part of the world is traditionally home to extreme patriarchal oppression: to be born female is to be at risk for violent abuse, childhood marriage, honor killings, polygamy, and more.
But today the women of Rojava have shaken off that tradition and participate fully in public life: at every level of politics and society. Institutional leadership consists not of one position but two, one male and one female official — for the sake of gender equality and also to keep power from concentrating into one person’s hands.
Representatives of Yekitiya Star, the umbrella organization for women’s groups, explained that women are essential to democracy — they even defined the antagonist of women’s freedom, strikingly, not as patriarchy but as the nation-state and capitalist modernity. The women’s revolution aims to free everyone. Women are to this revolution what the proletariat was to Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the past century. It has profoundly transformed not only women’s status but every aspect of society.
Even the traditionally male-dominated strands of society, like the military, have been profoundly transformed. The people’s protection units (YPG) have been joined by the YPJ — or women’s protection units — whose images by now have become world famous. Together, the YPG and the YPJ are defending society against the jihadist forces of ISIS and Al-Nusra with Kalashnikovs and, perhaps equally formidably, a fierce intellectual and emotional commitment not only to their community’s survival but to its political ideas and aspirations too.
When we visited a meeting of the YPJ, we were told that the fighters’ education consists not only of training in practical matters like weapons but also in Democratic Autonomy. “We are fighting for our ideas,” they emphasized at every turn. Two of the women who met with us had been injured in battle. One sat with an IV bag, another with a metal crutch — both were wincing in pain but had the fortitude and self-discipline to participate in our session.
Cooperation and Education
Rojavans fight for the survival of their community but above all, as the YPJ told us, for their ideas. They even put the successful implementation of democracy above ethnicity. Their social agreement affirms the inclusion of ethnic minorities (Arabs, Chechens, Assyrians) and religions (Muslims, Christians, Yezidis), and Democratic Autonomy in practice seems to bend over backwards to include minorities, without imposing it on others against their will, leaving the door open to all.
When our delegation asked a group of Assyrians to tell us their challenges with Democratic Autonomy, they said they had none. In nine days we could not possibly have scoured Rojava for all problems, and our interlocutors candidly admitted that Rojava is hardly above criticism, but as far as I could see, Rojava at the very least aspires to model tolerance and pluralism in a part of the world that has seen far too much fanaticism and repression — and to whatever extent it succeeds, it deserves commendation.
Rojava’s economic model “is the same as its political model,” an economics adviser in Derik told us: to create a “community economy,” building cooperatives in all sectors and educating the people in the idea. The adviser expressed satisfaction that even though 70 percent of Rojava’s resources must go to the war effort, the economy still manages to meet everyone’s basic needs.
They strive for self-sufficiency, because they must: the crucial fact is that Rojava exists under an embargo. It can neither export to nor import from its immediate neighbor to the north, Turkey, which would like to see the whole Kurdish project disappear.
Even the KRG, under control of their ethnic kin but economically beholden to Turkey, observes the embargo, although more cross-border KRG-Rojava trade is occurring now in the wake of political developments. But the country still lacks resources. That does not dampen their spirit: “If there is only bread, then we all have a share,” the adviser told us.
We visited an economics academy and economic cooperatives: a sewing cooperative in Derik, making uniforms for the defense forces; a cooperative greenhouse, growing cucumbers and tomatoes; a dairy cooperative in Rimelan, where a new shed was under construction.
The Kurdish areas are the most fertile parts of Syria, home to its abundant wheat supply, but the Ba’ath regime had deliberately refrained from industrializing the area, a source of raw materials. Hence wheat was cultivated but could not be milled into flour. We visited a mill, newly constructed since the revolution, improvised from local materials. It now provides flour for the bread consumed in Cezire, whose residents get three loaves a day.
Similarly, Cezire was Syria’s major source of petroleum, with several thousand oil rigs, mostly in the Rimelan area. But the Ba’ath regime ensured that Rojava had no refineries, forcing the oil to be transported to refineries elsewhere in Syria. But since the revolution, Rojavans have improvised two new oil refineries, which are used mainly to provide diesel for the generators that power the canton. The local oil industry, if such it can be called, produces only enough for local needs, nothing more.
A DIY Revolution
The level of improvisation was striking throughout the canton. The more we traveled through Rojava, the more I marveled at the do-it-yourself nature of the revolution, its reliance on local ingenuity and the scarce materials at hand. But it was not until we visited the various academies — the women’s academy in Rimelan and the Mesopotamian Academy in Qamishlo — that I realized that it is integral to the system as a whole.
The education system in Rojava is non-traditional, rejecting ideas of hierarchy, power and hegemony. Instead of following a teacher-student hierarchy, students teach each other and learn from each other’s experience. Students learn what is useful, in practical matters; they “search for meaning,” as we were told, in intellectual matters. They do not memorize; they learn to think for themselves and make decisions, to become the subjects of their own lives. They learn to be empowered and to participate in Democratic Autonomy.
Images of Abdullah Öcalan are everywhere, which to Western eyes might suggest something Orwellian: indoctrination, knee-jerk belief. But to interpret those images that way would be to miss the situation entirely. “No one will give you your rights,” someone quoted Öcalan to us, “you will have to struggle to obtain them.”
And to carry out that struggle, Rojavans know they must educate both themselves and society. Öcalan taught them Democratic Confederalism as a set of principles. Their role has been to figure out how to implement it, in Democratic Autonomy, and thereby to empower themselves.
The Kurds have historically had few friends. They were ignored by the Treaty of Lausanne that divided up the Middle East after World War I. For most of the past century, they suffered as minorities in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Their language and culture have been suppressed, their identities denied, their human rights overruled.
They are on the wrong side of NATO, where Turkey is permitted to call the shots on Kurdish matters. They have long been outsiders. That experience has been brutal, involving torture, exile and war. But it has also given them strength and independence of mind. Öcalan taught them how to reset the terms of their existence in a way that gave them dignity and self-respect.
This do-it-yourself revolution by an educated populace is embargoed by their neighbors and gets along by the skin of its teeth. It is nonetheless an endeavor that pushes the human prospect forward. In the wake of the twentieth century, many people have come to the worst conclusions about human nature, but in the twenty-first, Rojavans are setting a new standard for what human beings are capable of. In a world fast losing hope, they shine as a beacon.
Anyone with a bit of faith in humanity should wish the Rojavans well with their revolution and do what they can to help it succeed. They should demand that their governments stop allowing Turkey to define a rejectionist international policy toward the Kurds and toward Democratic Autonomy. They should demand an end to the embargo against Rojava.
The members of the delegation in which I participated (even though I am not an academic) did their work well. Sympathetic to the revolution, they nonetheless asked challenging questions, about Rojava’s economic outlook, about the handling of ethnicity and nationalism, and more. The Rojavans we met, accustomed to grappling with hard questions, responded thoughtfully and even welcomed critique. Readers interested in learning more about the Rojava Revolution may look forward to forthcoming writings by the other delegation members: Welat (Oktay) Ay, Rebecca Coles, Antonia Davidovic, Eirik Eiglad, David Graeber, Thomas Jeffrey Miley, Johanna Riha, Nazan Üstündag, and Christian Zimmer. As for me, I have much more to say than this short article allows and plan to write a further work, one that incorporates drawings I made during the trip.
Janet Biehl is an independent writer, artist, and translator living in Burlington, Vt. She previously edited The Murray Bookchin Reader and is the author of Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.