“We’ll die for this land”: when slum dwellers revolt

By Jared Sacks On August 24, 2015

Post image for “We’ll die for this land”: when slum dwellers revoltSouth African media often depict poor black protesters as angry and irrational. Supporting their struggle requires challenging this discursive trope.

Photo: A boy watches as the police moves into the Marikana slum, by Daneel Knoetze, via GroundUp.

Put your shoes into my shows
and wear me like a human being
would wear another human being.

Conway Payn of the Symphony Way Pavement Dwellers

In the aftermath of deadly communal violence that rocked the Cape Town township of Philippi East, where dozens of homes were destroyed and four killed, I meet a young man named Raymond in the new shack settlement of Old Marikana.

On this cold winter day amongst the corrugated zinc shacks, Raymond dons the popular K-Way branded beanie and a typical blue South African construction worker onesie – dirty, old and with plenty of holes. He wears his anger on his sleeve – a bit intense, crazed. Full of unruly energy both physically and verbally, he jumps from one topic to the next, rarely transitioning with explicit conceptual links.

Raymond’s mannerism offends Makhulu (‘Grandma’) Judith, the settlement’s assertive elder activist and ardent churchgoer. Yet standing amongst the makeshift plywood fencing that surrounds each home, I find him intriguing because he seems to exemplify the typical caricature of angry black youth in the South African media.

Raymond’s rational anger

His brother, Justice, relating to me Raymond’s particular intelligence, laments that he is “not right in the head” because of ‘tik’, the favored local variant of crystal meth. He complains that his brother, who does not have a formal job, recently stole his TV and destroyed his previous home in aid of his habit.

Yet Raymond’s stories of shepherding cows on the empty land that became Marikana and his persistent conflicts with police, arouse my curiosity. While it is difficult to discern which aspects of his stories are real and which are imagined, the stories themselves complicate the simplistic youth narrative.

“The anger of the poor can go in many directions,” explains shackdweller leader, S’bu Zikode.

In his engagement with me, Raymond knows that he is playacting the embodiment of the angry black youth. He is implying through his range of emotions what can happen to those who are mistreated and cornered into despairing ghettos — their righteous anger turning inwards onto their own community.

As a resident of Old Marikana, Raymond was not party to the protests and subsequent violence which began after electricity disconnections in New Marikana. He kept away knowing his vulnerability at confronting the ensuing mob from Lower Crossroads: “They have guns… I used to have a gun but it was taken away by police.”

But his anger at almost everyone around him is immediately visible. He indicates that if he still had a gun and lived in New Marikana, he would have been forced to return fire to defend himself.

In a recent article on Donald Trump, journalist Oliver Burkeman notes that “nobody ever does ‘crazy things’; every behavior in which we engage makes some kind of sense, once you ‘understand the emotional premise’.”

This is true of Raymond as well.

One cannot understand the destruction nor the African National Congress (ANC) factional fights in the area, without comprehending how people like Raymond think and are situated emotionally. Raymond’s anger is powerful — in the way it unsettles people like Makhulu, in the way it has the potential for horrific violence, but also in its productive force. He is able to, politically speaking, cut straight to its underlying cause.

He interrupts my conversation with Makhulu about the destruction that had ensued a few weeks earlier exclaiming: “They treat us like dogs here!”, referring to the wealthy elite and the state forces who have forced him into this township ghetto. He is acutely aware of the structural onslaught against his humanity.

Discursive trope

It is a common discursive trope in South Africa — as elsewhere — to present poor black people, especially youth, as irrational.

This is not merely an expression of individual prejudice, but also a rhetorical device perfected in the colonial era to justify the domination of black civilization. As a crude social construct, it has been extended to further subjugate the female gender and oppress the poor.

South Africa is not an exceptional place in this regard. Apartheid, as Mahmood Mamdani points out in Citizen and Subject, was merely the deepening of racist colonialism on the African continent. Post-1994, in the most crucial ways,apartheid remains. Its ideology is stronger than ever, presenting blacks — i.e., all non-white South Africans, including those characterized as Indian and colored — as uncivilized and lacking reason.

During expressions of violence that emanate from oppressed communities, this trope is strutted out publicly by politicians, police, lawyers and media to justify repression. Recently, the most prominent example is mainstream media obsession, following the 2012 Marikana Massacre, with the use of Muti (traditional medicine) by striking miners in their struggle against Lonmin and the police. The racist vilification was even legitimated at the Farlam Commission as evidence that the miners had “lust for murder.”

Delving into the complexity of local community politics to show a hidden order and logic even in seemly incoherent situations helps challenge this mode of thought. The Symphony Way Corridor, as the site of continuous occupations since 2007, is an important example that allows us to understand this community rationality.

The pavement dwellers and other occupiers

During the 2007 Christmas holidays there was a massive occupation of over 1,000 newly built government houses along Symphony Way in Delft. After thousands were evicted two months later, the Democratic Alliance (DA) councilor who opportunistically supported the occupation, turned his back on the occupiers, instead advocating their removal to the “the human dumping ground” of Blikkiesdorp (Tin Can Town).

Those who resisted the political party machinations of the DA and the ANC staged a second occupation in February 2008 and became known as the Symphony Way Pavement Dwellers — one of the most inspiring intentional communities I have ever encountered. Following their 21-month blockade of the Symphony Way thoroughfare, they were forcibly removed to Blikkiesdorp where they are again in the news fighting expansion plans for Cape Town International Airport.

On the other side of the busy N2 Freeway along Symphony Way lies Philippi East. What was once poor farmland (sold to private investors who left it unused for decades), has now become a massive shack settlement of over 10,000 people.

This began in 2011 with the occupation of ‘Zone 14′. Two years later backyard dwellers from across the road in Lower Crossroads attempted to occupy adjacent land. They called their new home Marikana, they said, “because like the 34 miners shot by police, we are willing to die for this land.”

After months of evictions, reoccupations and protests, a small steadfast group of the original occupiers were able to gain a long-term foothold and challengedtheir eviction in court.

Then in July last year, some desperate families approached the Marikana community hoping to join their settlement. As often happens when struggles take legal routes, Marikana residents refused to let them build on the occupied land for fear that this could affect their eviction case.

However, there was a massive expanse of fallow land next-door and residents encouraged these families to settle there instead. The new occupation, ‘Rolihlahla’, after the lesser known Xhosa name of Nelson Mandela, consisted of only a dozen or so families during its first few weeks.

Yet in August 2014, word of their successful occupation suddenly spread. Thousands turned up and, in the space of only two weeks, the 10,000-strong ‘New Marikana’ land occupation was born.

Marikana residents seen protesting on the streets of Phillipi East.
Photo by Lulama Zenzile.

The militancy of the ‘poo protestors’

Most shack settlements in South Africa are organized along a continuum from democratically-elected to autocratically-appointed committees typical of communist-inspired anti-apartheid organizing. These committees are rarely at one or another end of the spectrum — usually put forward by local politicians with top-down sway but given tacit operating approval by residents. On the other hand, sometimes these committees are elected, but lose their democratic character as they are co-opted into existing local political structures.

New Marikana and Rolihlahla took such forms. The former affiliated with the ANC-aligned Ses’khona social movement and the later associated with another ANC faction that backed the local councilor. Old Marikana, on the other hand, retained a committee unaffiliated with party politics. Though it was militant for some time, its leadership and mobilization soon diminished as the threat of evictions faded.

However, New Marikana under the banner of Ses’khona, referred to disparagingly in local media as the “poo protesters” after they dumped bucket toilets in front of government buildings, has staged a number of large marches on the city government demanding basic services. Unsuccessful at compelling the DA-led City of Cape Town to acquiesce to their demands, New Marikana’s tactics, soon became more aggressive.

Rank-and-file were frustrated with queuing in long lines for water and not having their refuse removed. However, militant action was also stoked by top-level Ses’khona leadership looking to one-up the opposing ANC faction in nearby New Crossroads.

A community unmade by destruction

In late May, the New Marikana community’s electricity was cut. Jolene Henn, Western Cape spokesperson for the energy para-statal Eskom, responded to my questioning by blaming the outage in the area on “illegal electricity connections” by residents. She categorically denied any role in the disconnections.

However, reports coming from New Marikana indicate that electrical workers from either the City of Cape Town or Eskom had disconnected the settlement from the power grid.

Whatever the truth, it was this perception of forced disconnections which put hundreds of angry people on the streets. The police met the consequent road blockade of Symphony Way with a violent response employing semi-lethal means to disperse the crowds.

As frustration increased, the protests escalated. A small group of Marikana residents burned down the house of the local ANC councilor. An indignant old lady complaining about tire smoke had her Lower Crossroads house set alight as well. The last straw was the attempted incineration of a local school. In response, a group from Lower Crossroads struck back with the explicit aim of driving out all of Marikana’s 10,000 residents.

For a month following the violent clashes between groups from Marikana and Lower Crossroads, Symphony Way remained strewn with garbage, rocks, massive cement blocks and burned metal wiring that was once an assemblage of blazing Dunlop tires. Sections of the roads remained dug up and armored police Nyala APCs straddled the road with trailers of barbed wire previously used to separate the communities.

In Lower Crossroads, about a dozen formal “RDP” houses, including that of the local councilor, were burned down. In New Marikana and Rolihlahla, homes made from zinc sheeting were also scorched, demolished or abandoned. Approximately 40 burned-out shacks were visible from Symphony Way and many more homes were destroyed deep within the settlements. It took about a month before families who fled as refugees returned.

The media and the problem of reporting on violence

Generally, South Africa’s mainstream media descend like a pack of vultures at the slightest smell of large-scale violence — a well known performance actstarring various groups of protesters, police and journalists. This is generally the only time many newspapers bother to report on the lives of poor people.

However, the violence in Philippi East barely registered on the media’s radar except via the nonprofit news service GroundUp. This inattention was despite the massive destruction and week-long blockades impacting hundreds of thousands in the area, the dozens of families who lost their livelihoods, and the murder of four people in cold blood.

The coverage that did take place neither problematized the violence nor bothered to try to understand it. The media discourse remained simple: uncivilized and angry poor black youth are once again fighting one another. The irrational violence has something vaguely to do with the (depoliticized category) ‘service delivery’.

Yet, much was happening behind the scenes showing an introspective and thriving group of communities attempting to remake the fabric of a township in which they have little control over their own lives.

Sign at the entry of the Marikana settlement. Photo by author.

Meeting and rebuilding

Within the context of the massive violence, communities led a counter-movement to rebuild social relations. Mass meetings were called, negotiations began and people sought to quell the tension through various collective acts. New Marikana leadership held meetings to decry the violence and extort its residents to stand down. They also went to meetings in Lower Crossroads to officially apologize and make amends.

Next-door, Rolihlahla held public meetings to address these issues. While they had not joined the protests, they were still targeted when residents of Lower Crossroads attacked. When I attended one of the meetings, at the invitation of their now deceased pro-bono lawyer and aspiring politician, Gcinikhaya Nqaqu, the main item on the agenda was restoring their relationship with Lower Crossroads.

In poor communities where residents lack home insurance and money to rebuild, the idea of collective reconciliation and restorative justice is not just an airy-fairy philosophy, but a practical way of ensuring the reconstruction of social relations after conflict.

Despite the fact that an individual community member had joined the New Marikana protests and was responsible for burning the house of the old lady across the road, a committee member named Thuliswa suggests that they collect 50 rand from each resident to fix it. After intense discussion and vacillation, residents collectively committed to both raising this money and volunteering their skills as builders, carpenters and electricians. This is what the rationale of the collective looks like in practice.

Directing anger

Back in Old Marikana, residents discussed the importance of heading off such violence in future. Makhulu lamented to me that “they [the residents of Lower Crossroads] are poor people like you; they are also staying in shacks before they get houses.” She wants people to direct their wrath at the government rather than at one another.

Makhulu’s words reminded me of a message that Conway Payn of the Symphony Way Pavement Dwellers narrated to me six years ago as part of the innovative anthology: No Land! No House! No Vote!

It was a message about a dog, backed into a corner, hurt, hungry, angry, and with no other way out than through the person who had trapped it. In his poetic tale of his own anger and resistance, Payn assures us that the dog will eventually develop the courage to pass through its jailer, and — if necessary — kill him in the process.

Directing his anger is something that Raymond, given his fractious situation, is unable to do despite being politically aware of where his oppression comes from. Ultimately, this is the primary difference between Conway and Makhulu’s ire and that of Raymond. It is also the key divergence between the mob-like violence that upended Philippi East and the original rebellion against electricity disconnections a few days earlier.

One of the recurring themes I have encountered where communities organize themselves is the importance of directing anger vertically, at those in power, rather than horizontally, at those who are suffering right beside you. It is this process and the subsequent tension with authority that creates space for maintaining strong social relationships and engaging in horizontal forms of organizing.

The collective struggle of the Symphony Way Pavement Dwellers recognized this and it was through this tension-laden process that they were able to virtually stamp out crime, ensure all of their children went to school, and build a vibrant and semi-autonomous community during their 21 months of occupation.

Yet this form of transformation remains beyond the current struggle in Marikana. There are many forces at hand using anger as a divide and rule tactic of governance. For instance, Ses’khona’s factional fights with the local ANC councilor are couched in a militant language of resistance hence easily fuel the misdirected violence.

While Marikana is a “community in movement,” to reword Raul Zibechi’s notion of Latin American movement organizing, it is difficult to predict whether that motion will be able to build autonomous forms of resistance from below, or if violence will continue to eat away at the social structure of these communities. However, for such struggles, it seems that one of the keys to achieving the former is the necessity of working with youth similar to Raymond to produce more enabling social environments that direct anger vertically.

For those of us who are on the outside, who may come from a privileged, middle-class background and often fall prey to the propaganda that present poor black people as irrational, our support for autonomous organizing must also include challenging this discursive trope. This begins with “wearing” the lives of people like Raymond.

Jared Sacks is a founder of a children’s NGO. Since 2007, he has been living in Cape Town working directly with a range of poor people’s movements. He is also a freelance journalist and the compiler of the anthology No Land! No House! No Vote!. He blogs at Medium and tweets at @jaredsacks1.



Why the Rich Love Burning Man

Burning Man became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core.


In principle the annual Burning Man festival sounds a bit like a socialist utopia: bring thousands of people to an empty desert to create an alternative society. Ban money and advertisements and make it a gift economy. Encourage members to bring the necessary ingredients of this new world with them, according to their ability.

Introduce “radical inclusion,” “radical self-expression,” and “decommodification” as tenets, and designate the alternative society as a free space, where sex and gender boundaries are fluid and meant to be transgressed.

These ideas — the essence of Burning Man — are certainly appealing.

Yet capitalists also unironically love Burning Man, and to anyone who has followed the recent history of Burning Man, the idea that it is at all anticapitalist seems absurd: last year, a venture capitalist billionaire threw a $16,500-per-head party at the festival, his camp a hyper-exclusive affair replete with wristbands and models flown in to keep the guests company.

Burning Man is earning a reputation as a “networking event” among Silicon Valley techies, and tech magazines now send reporters to cover it. CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Alphabet are foaming fans, along with conservative anti-tax icon Grover Norquist and many writers of the libertarian (and Koch-funded) Reason magazine. Tesla CEO Elon Musk even went so far as to claim that Burning Man “is Silicon Valley.”

Radical Self-Expression

The weeklong Burning Man festival takes place once a year over Labor Day weekend in a remote alkali flat in northwestern Nevada. Two hours north of Reno, the inhospitable Black Rock Desert seems a poor place to create a temporary sixty-thousand-person city — and yet that’s entirely the point. On the desert playa, an alien world is created and then dismantled within the span of a month. The festival culminates with the deliberate burning of a symbolic effigy, the titular “man,” a wooden sculpture around a hundred feet tall.

Burning Man grew from unpretentious origins: a group of artists and hippies came together to burn an effigy at Baker Beach in San Francisco, and in 1990 set out to have the same festival in a place where the cops wouldn’t hassle them about unlicensed pyrotechnics. The search led them to the Black Rock Desert.

Burning Man is very much a descendent of the counterculture San Francisco of yesteryear, and possesses the same sort of libertine, nudity-positive spirit. Some of the early organizers of the festival professed particular admiration for the Situationists, the group of French leftists whose manifestos and graffitied slogans like “Never Work” became icons of the May 1968 upsurge in France.

Though the Situationists were always a bit ideologically opaque, one of their core beliefs was that cities had become oppressive slabs of consumption and labor, and needed to be reimagined as places of play and revolt. Hence, much of their art involved cutting up and reassembling maps, and consuming intoxicants while wandering about in Paris.

You can feel traces of the Situationists when walking through Black Rock City, Burning Man’s ephemeral village. Though Black Rock City resembles a city in some sense, with a circular dirt street grid oriented around the “man” sculpture, in another sense it is completely surreal: people walk half-naked in furs and glitter, art cars shaped like ships or dragons pump house music as they purr down the street.

Like a real city, Burning Man has bars, restaurants, clubs, and theaters, but they are all brought by participants because everyone is required to “bring something”:

The people who attend Burning Man are no mere “attendees,” but rather active participants in every sense of the word: they create the city, the interaction, the art, the performance and ultimately the “experience.” Participation is at the very core of Burning Man.

Participation sounds egalitarian, but it leads to some interesting contradictions. The most elaborate camps and spectacles tend to be brought by the rich because they have the time, the money, or both, to do so. Wealthier attendees often pay laborers to build and plan their own massive (and often exclusive) camps. If you scan San Francisco’s Craigslist in the month of August, you’ll start to see ads for part-time service labor gigs to plump the metaphorical pillows of wealthy Burners.

The rich also hire sherpas to guide them around the festival and wait on them at the camp. Some burners derogatorily refer to these rich person camps as “turnkey camps.

Silicon Valley’s adoration of Burning Man goes back a long way, and tech workers have always been fans of the festival. But it hasn’t always been the provenance of billionaires — in the early days, it was a free festival with a cluster of pitched tents, weird art, and explosives; but as the years went on, more exclusive, turnkey camps appeared and increased in step with the ticket price — which went from $35 in 1994 to $390 in 2015 (about sixteen times the rate of inflation).

Black Rock City has had its own FAA-licensed airport since 2000, and it’s been getting much busier. These days you can even get from San Carlos in Silicon Valley to the festival for $1500. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg flew into Burning Man on a private helicopter, staying for just one day, to eat and serve artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches. From the New York Times:

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”

The growing presence of the elite in Burning Man is not just noticed by outsiders — long-time attendees grumble that Burning Man has become “gentrified.” Commenting on the New York Times piece, burners express dismay at attendees who do no work. “Paying people to come and take care of you and build for you . . . and clean up after you . . . those people missed the point.”

Many Burners seethed after reading one woman’s first-person account of how she was exploited while working at the $17,000-per-head camp of venture capitalist Jim Tananbaum. In her account, she documented the many ways in which Tananbaum violated the principles of the festival, maintaining “VIP status” by making events and art cars private and flipping out on one of his hired artists.

Tananbaum’s workers were paid a flat $180 a day with no overtime, but the anonymous whistleblower attests that she and others worked fifteen- to twenty-hour days during the festival.

The emergent class divides of Burning Man attendees is borne out by data: the Burning Man census (yes, they have a census, just like a real nation-state) showed that from 2010 to 2014, the number of attendees who make more than $300,000 a year doubled from 1.4% to 2.7%. This number is especially significant given the outsize presence 1 percenters command at Burning Man.

In a just, democratic society, everyone has equal voice. At Burning Man everyone is invited to participate, but the people who have the most money decide what kind of society Burning Man will be — they commission artists of their choice and build to their own whims. They also determine how generous they are feeling, and whether to withhold money.

It might seem silly to quibble over the lack of democracy in the “governance” of Black Rock City. After all, why should we care whether Jeff Bezos has commissioned a giant metal unicorn or a giant metal pirate ship, or whether Tananbaum wants to spend $2 million on an air-conditioned camp? But the principles of these tech scions — that societies are created through charity, and that the true “world-builders” are the rich and privileged — don’t just play out in the Burning Man fantasy world. They carry over into the real world, often with less-than-positive results.

Remember when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to help “fix” Newark’s public schools? In 2010, Zuckerberg — perhaps hoping to improve his image after his callous depiction in biopic The Social Network donated $100 million to Newark’s education system to overhaul Newark schools.

The money was directed as a part of then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s plan to remake the city into the “charter school capital of the nation,” bypassing public oversight through partnership with private philanthropists.

Traditionally, public education has been interwoven with the democratic process: in a given school district, the community elects the school board every few years. School boards then make public decisions and deliberations. Zuckerberg’s donation, and the project it was attached to, directly undermined this democratic process by promoting an agenda to privatize public schools, destroy local unions, disempower teachers, and put the reins of public education into the hands of technocrats and profiteers.

This might seem like an unrelated tangent — after all, Burning Man is supposed to be a fun, liberating world all its own. But it isn’t. The top-down, do what you want, radically express yourself and fuck everyone else worldview is precisely why Burning Man is so appealing to the Silicon Valley technocratic scions.

To these young tech workers — mostly white, mostly men — who flock to the festival, Burning Man reinforces and fosters the idea that they can remake the world without anyone else’s input. It’s a rabid libertarian fantasy. It fluffs their egos and tells them that they have the power and right to make society for all of us, to determine how things should be.

This is the dark heart of Burning Man, the reason that high-powered capitalists — and especially capitalist libertarians — love Burning Man so much. It heralds their ideal world: one where vague notions of participation replace real democracy, and the only form of taxation is self-imposed charity. Recall Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s op-ed, in the wake of the Obamacare announcement, in which he proposed a healthcare system reliant on “voluntary, tax-deductible donations.”

This is the dream of libertarians and the 1 percent, and it reifies itself at Burning Man — the lower caste of Burners who want to partake in the festival are dependent on the whims and fantasies of the wealthy to create Black Rock City.

Burning Man foreshadows a future social model that is particularly appealing to the wealthy: a libertarian oligarchy, where people of all classes and identities coexist, yet social welfare and the commons exist solely on a charitable basis.

Of course, the wealthy can afford more, both in lodging and in what they “bring” to the table: so at Burning Man, those with more money, who can bring more in terms of participation, labor and charity, are celebrated more.

It is a society that we find ourselves moving closer towards the other 358 (non–Burning Man) days of the year: with a decaying social welfare state, more and more public amenities exist only as the result of the hyper-wealthy donating them. But when the commons are donated by the wealthy, rather than guaranteed by membership in society, the democratic component of civic society is vastly diminished and placed in the hands of the elite few who gained their wealth by using their influence to cut taxes and gut the social welfare state in the first place.

It’s much like how in my former home of Pittsburgh, the library system is named for Andrew Carnegie, who donated a portion of the initial funds. But the donated money was not earned by Carnegie; it trickled up from his workers’ backs, many of them suffering from overwork and illness caused by his steel factories’ pollution. The real social cost of charitable giving is the forgotten labor that builds it and the destructive effects that flow from it.

At Burning Man the 1 percenters — who have earned their money in the same way that Carnegie did so long ago — show up with an army of service laborers, yet they take the credit for what they’ve “brought.”

Burning Man’s tagline and central principle is radical self-expression:

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

The root of Burning Man’s degeneration may lie in the concept itself. Indeed, the idea of radical self-expression is, at least under the constraints of capitalism, a right-wing, Randian ideal, and could easily be the core motto of any of the large social media companies in Silicon Valley, who profit from people investing unpaid labor into cultivating their digital representations.

It is in their interest that we are as self-interested as possible, since the more we obsess over our digital identity, the more personal information of ours they can mine and sell. Little wonder that the founders of these companies have found their home on the playa.

It doesn’t seem like Burning Man can ever be salvaged, or taken back from the rich power-brokers who’ve come to adore it and now populate its board of directors. It became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core; and, without any semblance of democracy, it could easily be controlled by those with influence, power, and wealth.

Burning Man will be remembered more as the model for Google CEO Larry Page’s dream of a libertarian state, than as the revolutionary Situationist space that it could have been.

As such, it is a cautionary tale for radicals and utopianists. When “freedom” and “inclusion” are disconnected from democracy, they often lead to elitism and reinforcement of the status quo.



Rio’s Olympic preparations under the spotlight

By Adam Talbot On August 21, 2015

Post image for Rio’s Olympic preparations under the spotlightIn the run-up to the Rio Olympics people have been forced from their homes and killed in the streets, while the environment has been permanently damaged.

Photo: violent eviction of the Vila Autódromo communtiy (by Kátia Carvalho).

In August 2016, Rio de Janeiro will host the 31st summer Olympic Games. Preparations have been underway for the past six years. With one year to go, it is time to look at how these preparations are shaping up compared to recent mega-events, which, as a rule, often serve to ensure the continued dominance of neoliberal capitalism.

Evictions in the ‘State of Exception’

The Olympics create a state of exception, similar to Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism, which capitalists are able to exploit. For the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, a state of exception refers to a “threshold of indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism” wherein the conventional process of governance is temporarily circumvented. Importantly, a state of exception can only be declared by the state. As Carl Schmitt put it back in the 1920s: “the exception reveals most clearly the essence of the state’s sovereignty.”

The imminent arrival of the Olympic circus provides a justification for governments to enforce new undemocratic laws and disregard planning legislation. In this state of exception, developers and civic elites systematically mislead governments to their own ends. Essentially, the Olympic Games are not about sport; they are about real estate development. While the overriding goals of the Olympic movement are presented as peace through games, the Olympics ultimately serve the real estate and construction sector in bid cities and constitute a healthy, untaxed profit for the IOC.

At previous mega-events, the state of exception has manifested itself in various ways. At the Brazilian World Cup in 2014, the so-called “Budweiser law” reversed government legislation banning the sale of alcohol in stadiums at the behest of the event sponsor. Perhaps more worryingly, the state of exception also frequently erodes civil liberties.

In Australia, for example, the powers available to police to detain people in Australian sporting arenas was greatly enhanced in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics, and these powers continued to be used after the event. The state of exception in Rio has been used to justify not only the pacification of favelas, but also the wholesale removal of entire communities.

Vila Autódromo has been targeted for removal (and the community has resisted) for over twenty years. Now, with the state of exception induced by the impending mega-event, the removal of Vila Autódromo is being pursued ferociously by the city, given its location next to the Olympic Park.

In recent years, the city has attempted to avoid negative headlines by offering increasing amounts of compensation to residents, resulting in the first ever market-value compensation for favela housing. However, this is still executed in an underhand way, with residents approached individually, unable to know whether they’re being offered more or less than their neighbors. Many residents did not want to leave but felt they had no choice. Nevertheless, the sums of money provided in compensation mark a major achievement for activists in the face of the Olympic machine.

Many residents took these offers and left the community, but a determined few remained. As the opening ceremony draws nearer, however, the authorities seem to have changed their approach to a much more repressive policy of forced evictions. Dubbed “lightning evictions”, this is not confined to Vila Autódromo: forced evictions have also taken place in Morro da Providência, Favela do Metrô, and Santa Marta.

It appears that no warning was given to residents, who were in some cases unable to save some of their belongings, with the military police and municipal guard overseeing evictions. Where resistance was encountered, as in Vila Autódromo, the municipal guard responded with rubber bullets, pepper spray and police batons.

A judicial intervention suspended the evictions in the community and various activists from existing movements and organizations have bolstered the numbers resisting the evictions. Their struggle goes on, but based on evidence from previous Olympic cities, unfortunately, it will likely be in vain.

Repressive pacification of favelas

The Olympics are now characterized by repressive policing strategies and the removal of undesirable populations within the state of exception. Michel Foucault describes surveillance using the metaphor of the panopticon: a prison where each prisoner may be being watched at any time, but they do not know if they are being observed at any given moment.

This individualized surveillance forces people to self-regulate their behavior and can be seen clearly at Olympic events with huge investments in CCTV and in stadia designed so each individual spectator can be easily identified. For many years, particularly since 9/11, the threat of a terrorist attack on the Games has been used to justify spiraling security budgets.

At the first summer Games since the attacks, Athens 2004, the Greek government was pressured by NATO — and particularly by the US government — into spending US$1.5 billion on security. These inflated budgets allow the security industry to invest in the most advanced hardware available, which remains post-Games. The latest developments in security equipment, including military grade technologies, are then used to intimidate activists seeking to make political statements about the Games.

Undoubtedly, some of the security equipment used to quell protests in Athens recently is part of their Olympic legacy. The questions of social control raised by activists are routinely marginalized, with security fears cited incessantly.

Rio’s favelas have for a long time been strongly associated with drug gangs and criminal activity. To have such (perceived) hotbeds of criminality — areas where the safety of spectators could not be assured — so close to the Olympics and World Cup was considered untenable. Hence, the pacification program was launched, a collaboration between federal, state and city government, with the “laudable aim” of permanently removing criminal gangs from Rio’s periphery.

In essence, pacification entails the occupation of favela communities by BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais – Police Special Operations Battalion) followed by the establishment of a UPP (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – Police Pacifying Unit). These units then police the communities, with UPP Social, recently re-branded as Rio+Social due to its woeful reputation, providing services to these communities.

The Brazilian police responsible for administering this program have a well-deserved reputation for brutality dating from the years of military rule (1964-1985). The mentality of the police lumps favela dwellers with the drugs gangs targeted by the UPPs, tarnishing all as the “enemy within”. This is borne out by the statistics: in Rio de Janeiro alone, the state police were responsible for 362 killings in the first half of 2013. Favela’s undergoing pacification are essentially urban warzones, yet families continue to live in these communities through this process, with children as young as ten killed by police.

Investment has not always followed the UPP, and where it has, services have been provided by the market as opposed to state provision, meaning residents are often unable to afford to continue living in the favela. The state is absent from favelas and with the market barely regulated, residents are priced out and forced to leave, with nowhere else for them to go.

As such, the pacification program aims to incorporate land into the city and improve its value, leaving the population excluded and homeless. Therefore, pacification can be seen as part of a deliberate policy of gentrification, removing the poor from Rio de Janeiro and seizing their homes for profit. Similar processes of gentrification have occurred, albeit less violently, in almost all recent Olympic host cities.

Serious about sustainability?

In 1999 the IOC adopted environmental sustainability as the third pillar of the Olympic movement. Alongside this, claims are frequently made about the ability of sport to contribute to social development. These claims serve to ensure the support for the Olympic venture within the host cities, despite warnings about the nature of delivery affecting outcomes.

The potential benefits of sport, while genuine, should be approached critically, as social benefits are dependent on a plethora of factors and should not be taken for granted. It is a regular occurrence that marginalized populations are pushed further towards the periphery of society by Olympic events, as seen, in the case of Rio de Janeiro, in the pacification policy and evictions in Vila Autódromo.

Yet the evidence from previous games seems to suggest organizers of mega-events simply pay lip service to environmental and social issues, dropping their apparent principles the moment they become costly and inconvenient. This contributes to the feel-good, mythical rhetoric of ‘Olympic values’ and allows sponsors to enhance their social and environmental credentials.

No Olympic games has ever been, or will ever be, genuinely positive for the environment. The massive construction projects and the flying of athletes, media and spectators around the globe, among other issues, serve to ensure this. The question for Olympic organizers is never “how can we be good to the environment?”, but is rather “how much environmental damage can we avoid?”. This question then becomes interpreted as how much damage a host city can afford to avoid. This invariably results in commitments made for the environment being dropped when deadlines loom large and budgets spiral out of control.

In Rio de Janeiro, the organizing committee promised to clean up Guanabara Bay, where sailing events are planned to take place during the games. However, the state of the bay has regularly made international headlines due to the disgusting nature of the water, which has been described by sailors as an open sewer. The Mayor of Rio de Janeiro admitted in 2014 that the environmental commitments made during the bidding process would not be reached.

Not only are the promises to make improvements dropped at the first sign of a bill, the Olympics also actively damage the environment. For example, the natural wetlands of Eagleridge Bluffs on the outskirts of Vancouver were destroyed to make way for a new highway to Whistler, where the mountain events would take place.

Environmental destruction in preparation for the Olympics has been increased by the return of golf to the Olympic games for the first time since 1904. The construction of golf courses is intensely environmentally damaging, due to deforestation, large-scale use of chemicals, the destruction of natural habitats and large-scale water usage.

This is particular pertinent in Rio de Janeiro, as Brazil faced its most severe drought for decades in early 2015. While the problems were most keenly felt in São Paulo, steps were taken in Rio to cut down on water usage, but the irrigation of the golf course continued, suggesting that plush greens are prioritized over hydrated citizens.

A different role for the mass media

The role of the mass media is crucial for celebrating capitalism in disseminating the imagery of the spectacle across the nation and wider world. The Olympic Games, according to the IOC, are watched by over 4 billion people, making it one of the world’s largest media events. This global reach provides a platform for the spreading of neoliberal capitalist doctrine, through the spectacular imagery of the Games.

The mass media organizations often act as overt or covert promoters of the bid, providing value in kind donations and censoring critical journalism. Even when journalism critical of mega-events is published, it is then condemned.

In the context of the recent shift to hosting mega-events outside the first world, particularly in the BRICS nations, the Western media has tended to become more critical of event preparations. The majority of criticisms in the lead-up to these events comes from external, Western sources. It has been suggested that this is due to reluctance from Western audiences to cede power and credibility to emerging nations.

A similar trend was observed in media coverage of the 1996 Cricket World Cup in South Asia, suggesting government attempts to present positive images of nations are hampered by existing stereotypes and criticisms. As such, critical journalism will be more likely at the Rio Olympics than at similar events in the Global North, although this coverage will not necessarily criticize the Olympics directly, instead focusing on organizational inefficiencies or poverty in an attempt to maintain the cultural dominance of the West.

The Rio Olympic games will undoubtedly be a spectacular festival of sport. But the production of this spectacle has transformed Rio de Janeiro, turning it into an even more divided city with expanded zones of exclusion in which the poor are no longer welcome. Residents have been physically and economically forced from their homes, they have seen their friends killed in the streets, and their environment has been permanently damaged. In response, residents have protested — and will continue to protest — even though they have had only small and symbolic victories so far.

As the Olympic machine rumbles on, the concerns of Rio’s residents will likely be drowned out by the cheers.

Adam Talbot is a PhD researcher in the School of Sport and Service Management at the University of Brighton. He tweets at @AdamTalbotSport.This article has benefited greatly from reports produced by RioOnWatch.org, a key source for news on the restructuring of the Olympic city.



Can activists reverse Obama’s disastrous Arctic drilling decision?

Obama’s Climate Action Plan reassured us he was tackling climate change. Then came the opening of the Arctic


“When the people lead the leaders will follow”: Can activists reverse Obama's disastrous Arctic drilling decision?

(Credit: AP/Don Ryan)

President Obama’s historic Climate Action Plan, which was announced on Aug. 3, focuses on reducing carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants 32 percent over the next 15 years, promising real leadership heading into the U.N.’s Climate Summit in Paris this December. And then on Aug. 17 the president permitted Shell Oil to begin exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

It’s hard to understand the logic by which this administration aims to reduce carbon outputs while encouraging massive new inputs from oil development, not only in the newly opened waters of the Arctic Ocean (opened by sea ice loss linked to fossil-fuel-fired climate change) but also along the crowded Atlantic seaboard. These are two high-risk enterprises; in the case of the Arctic, there’s a 75 percent chance of a major oil spill in the future according to a study by the Department of Interior, which is nonetheless permitting Shell’s drilling.  And, of course, a BP type disaster along the populous Atlantic seaboard, with its diverse ocean economy, is something no one wants to contemplate — although we’ll have to if present plans for exploratory acoustic surveying, leasing and drilling continue to move forward.

The contradiction between reducing greenhouse gas emissions while seeking new carbon energy offshore hasn’t gone unnoticed by the world’s other major greenhouse gas emitter, China.  Four days after the president’s Aug. 3 announcement the deputy editor of the China Daily U.S. edition, which translates China’s official policy and news perspectives into English, wrote a biting column charging the U.S. with “hypocrisy” over carbon emissions, citing its planned new offshore drilling and insisting that if China commits to carbon reduction (in Paris) it won’t be because of U.S. leadership but because of its own air pollution.

A study based on the president’s EPA draft climate plan from last year indicates that while the regulations for coal-fired power plants would reduce greenhouse gases by some 2 billion tons a year, there could be upward of 60 billion tons of greenhouse gases released from the drilling and burning of all the industry-estimated offshore petroleum to be leased starting in 2017.

At the same time, a report in the journal Science states that the only way to avoid catastrophic climate impacts associated with projected warming above 2 degrees Celsius is to leave at least 80 percent of known coal reserves and 30 percent of known oil reserves in the ground and under the seabed. That’s what California has chosen to do since the first Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969.  When I asked Secretary of Interior Sally Jewel why the administration was not going to offer federal leasing for already known reserves off California and the West Coast she more or less admitted the whole process was political, stating, “If the states don’t want it, it’s more likely you’ll concentrate where they do.”

Still, whatever some pro-oil governors in the Southeast may want (drilling is now being proposed from Delaware to Florida), we should be concentrating on what a competitive U.S. economy actually needs to move forward. Any new offshore oil finds will guarantee continued fossil fuel use, a formula for disaster; but if meaningful climate agreements come into effect after Paris, it could also mean hundreds of billions of dollars in stranded assets (unused oil reserves) for the energy companies and a more disruptive transition from coal and oil, the energy systems of the 16th and 19th centuries, to the clean energy revolution that will define this century. So what will it take to focus on a real and practical energy policy?

 At the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Rio, where initial plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions led to the failed Kyoto protocols, I witnessed a march by 30,000 local residents and global environmentalists behind a banner carried by Buddhist monks with cellphones that read:  “When the people lead the leaders will follow.”

Today, citizen activists are mobilizing against offshore oil, from the bridge-hanging and paddle-waving Kayaktivists of Seattle and Portland, Oregon, who targeted Shell’s Arctic drilling this summer, to concerned coastal residents up and down the East Coast where some 60 towns and cities have passed resolutions opposing any new acoustic surveying and drilling, to a growing Sea Party Coalition that plans to make offshore drilling a major issue — the Keystone Pipeline of the seas — in primary states and presidential debates during the 2016 election season.

This movement should not be confused with NIMBYs or, more accurately, NOBOs (Not on My Bay or Ocean).  While vehemently anti-oil pollution, the Sea Partiers are also pro-jobs and green power, advocating for the emerging clean energy sector including solar, hydro and on- and offshore wind where appropriately situated.  After all, no wind spill ever destroyed a beach or a bayou or in any way damaged the blue in our red, white and blue.

David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation and policy group.  His latest book is “Saved by the Sea – Hope, Heartbreak and Wonder in the Blue World.”



The Tianjin explosions and the discrediting of capitalism


15 August 2015

The official death toll from the massive explosions that devastated a substantial area of the port of Tianjin on Thursday night has reached 57. The number of fatalities is expected to rise significantly, as hospitals try to save critically injured patients among the more than 700 being treated across the Chinese city of 14 million people.

The information filtering out as to the cause of the disaster has triggered open recriminations against the regime of the Stalinist Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Reports indicate that a warehouse operated by Rui Hai International Logistics, a company started in 2011, was storing up to 700 tonnes of highly dangerous sodium cyanide and unspecified quantities of calcium carbide. Containers holding these substances will explode when heated. The fire-fighting crews sent to combat a blaze at the warehouse were not told about the chemicals. At least 21 emergency workers died in the blasts that followed.

Hundreds of port workers were sleeping barely 600 metres away in overcrowded dormitories. Some 90,000 people live within a five kilometre radius of the warehouse. If the explosions had taken place during the day, when the streets and buildings surrounding the docks were bustling with human traffic, the carnage would have been far worse.

The CCP government in Beijing is nervous over the public reaction to the Tianjin explosions, which have demonstrated again the consequences of the unchecked capitalist development over which it has presided for more than 35 years. According to official reports, Rui Hai International Logistics was storing deadly chemicals without the knowledge of, or intervention by, any authorities. The company’s owners and management are being hunted down and arrested. They will more than likely face execution or draconian prison sentences after highly public trials, in an effort to deflect any scrutiny of the broader issues posed by the disaster.

The claim that “no-one knew” about the chemicals has been greeted with disbelief and anger. The popular outrage, expressed on social media and in comments to online news reports, has only been heightened by the fact that this flagrant and criminal indifference to public safety took place in Tianjin.

Tianjin’s port is the tenth largest in the world and the seventh largest in China. It receives the largest number of imported cars of any Chinese port, as well as massive quantities of iron ore, coal, oil and other natural resources needed to supply the industrial complexes and power plants of northern China.

The city itself is China’s fourth largest and, due to its strategic and economic importance as the transport, industrial and technical hub for the capital Beijing, is under the direct political administration of the Housing Ministry of the central CCP government.

In the regime’s propaganda, Tianjin, along with Beijing and the adjoining Heibei province, will be developed into the world’s greatest continuous “mega-city” by 2020, with a population of 130 million people who will purportedly be able to enjoy the best jobs and highest incomes in China.

Thursday’s explosions have sheeted home the social reality: whether in Tianjin or a remote village, the well-being of the Chinese working class is subordinated by the regime to the immediate requirements of transnational and national corporations, and the accumulation of profit for the capitalist elite who own them.

Since the CCP initiated the restoration of capitalist relations in 1979, it has utilised its military and police apparatus to brutally repress all opposition by workers to ruthless exploitation and facilitate China’s transformation into the centre of global low-wage manufacturing.

Substandard safety practices are the norm, not the exception. Andy Furlong, director of policy at the Institution Chemical Engineers in London, told theGuardian: “The view expressed to us very recently by Chinese experts was that in the field of chemical storage their technologies are outdated, some of the equipment they use is primitive, safety management is poor and employee training is not up to scratch.”

Similar comments could be made regarding every sector of the economy and the human cost is staggering.

In 2014, 68,061 Chinese workers were killed in workplace “accidents”—more than 185 per day—and hundreds of thousands more injured. In just the last 24 hours, a gas explosion in a coal mine in Guizhou province has killed 13 miners. In Shaanxi province, 64 miners and their families have been buried alive inside poorly built dormitories by a landslide triggered by a deluge of rain.

According to state media, some 1,600 people, mainly better paid professionals, die at their place of employment each day from the phenomenon known asguolaosi, or extreme overwork.

The air, soil and water systems are thoroughly contaminated in most urban centres due to unchecked industrial operations and development, to the extent that it is estimated that more than 4,400 people die each day—1.6 million per year—from the effects of pollution.

Scandals have wracked food safety, with contaminated milk powder sickening more than 300,000 people and killing six babies in 2008. The capsize of a ferry on the Yangtze River in June, killing more than 400 people, was only the most high profile of regular transport disasters that are generally linked to safety violations.

All the CCP’s promises that the Chinese masses would ultimately benefit from rampant capitalist development over the past 36 years are in tatters. The regime’s legitimacy is already under question, rocked by the slowing economy, a stock market collapse, a slump in property prices, environmental crises, endemic official corruption and ever widening social inequality. The CCP’s rule, along with the capitalist market itself, will be further discredited by the Tianjin disaster.

The political fall-out from the Tianjin explosions is being watched no less anxiously by transnational corporations and banks, as well as by governments around the world. Any disruption to the corporate profits extracted from the Chinese masses by the development of large-scale social unrest will deepen the economic slump internationally and potentially trigger panic in financial markets. For global capitalism, in other words, any effort to change the conditions in China that give rise to disasters such as the Tianjin explosions would be a catastrophe.

That fact underscores the historic bankruptcy of the profit system and the urgency of forging the unity of the Chinese and international working class, in the common political struggle to end capitalism and establish a world planned socialist economy.

James Cogan



Murray Bookchin and the Kurdish resistance

By Joris Leverink On August 9, 2015

Post image for Murray Bookchin and the Kurdish resistanceBookchin’s municipalist ideas, once rejected by communists and anarchists alike, have now come to inspire the Kurdish quest for democratic autonomy.

Photo by Uygar Önder Simsek.

The introduction to the new book The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy (Verso, 2015), explains how Murray Bookchin – born to Russian Jewish immigrants in New York City in 1921 – was introduced to radical politics at the age of nine when he joined the Young Pioneers, a Communist youth organization. This would be the start of his ‘life on the left’ in which he would turn from Stalinism to Trotskyism in the years running up to World War II before defining himself as an anarchist in the late 1950s and eventually identifying as a ‘communalist’ or ‘libertarian municipalist’ after the introduction of the idea of social ecology.

Even though Bookchin never even attended college – except for a few classes in radio technology right after World War II – he wrote dozens of books and published hundreds of academic articles, besides founding several journals and setting up the Institute for Social Ecology in 1974. Possibly his most important contribution to radical politics was to (re)introduce the concept of ecology to the arena of political thought.

Bookchin opposed the ideas and practices of the emerging environmentalist movements, accusing them of advocating mere “technical fixes” of capitalism, counter-posing it to an ecological approach that seeks to address the root causes of the systemic problem. In his view, capitalism’s fatal flaw lay not in its exploitation of the working class, as Marxists believe, but rather in its conflict with the natural environment which, if allowed to develop unopposed, would inevitably lead to the dehumanization of people and the destruction of nature.

The Next Revolution includes the 1992 essay The Ecological Crisis and the Need to Remake Society. In it, Bookchin argues that “the most fundamental message that social ecology advances is that the very idea of dominating nature stems from the domination of human by human.” For an ecological society to develop, first the inter-human domination must be eradicated. According to Bookchin, “capitalism and its alter-ego, ‘state socialism,’ have brought all the historic problems of domination to a head,” and the market economy, if it is not stopped, will succeed in destroying our natural environment as a result of its “grow or die” ideology.

For years, Bookchin sought to convince anarchist groups in the US that his idea of libertarian municipalism — which, in his own words “seeks to reclaim the public sphere for the exercise of authentic citizenship while breaking away from the bleak cycle of parliamentarism and its mystification of the ‘party’ mechanism as a means for public representation” — was the key to making anarchism politically and socially relevant again.

Libertarian municipalism promotes the use of direct face-to-face assemblies in order to “steal” the practice of politics back from the professional, careerist politicians and place it back in the hands of citizens. Describing the state as “a completely alien formation” and a “thorn in the side of human development,” Bookchin presents libertarian municipalism as “democratic to its core and non-hierarchical in its structure,” as well as “premised on the struggle to achieve a rational and ecological society.”

Much to Bookchin’s frustration, many anarchists refused to adopt his ideas, unwilling to accept that, in order to remain politically relevant and be able to make a real revolution, they would have to participate in local government. Despite having politically matured in the company of Marxists, syndicalists and anarchists, Bookchin soon developed and maintained fundamental critiques of all of these currents, leading not only to the development of his own idea of social ecology but also leaving him with many critics on the left.

Kurdish resistance

In the late 1970s, while Bookchin was struggling to gain recognition for the value and importance of his theory of social ecology in the US, an entirely different struggle was emerging on the other side of the world. In the mountainous, predominantly Kurdish regions of southeastern Turkey, an organization was founded that would eventually come to adopt and adapt Bookchin’s social ecology.

The organization called itself the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK after its Kurdish acronym, and in 1984 it launched its first attacks against the Turkish state. These first operations were soon followed by others and eventually developed into a three-decade long armed struggle that has still not been resolved.

The PKK was inspired by Marxist-Leninist thought and fought for an independent Kurdish state that would be founded upon socialist principles. The traditional Kurdish homeland encompasses territories in modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, but had been carved up in the early 20th century, when a deal was struck regarding the division of former Ottoman-Turkish territory in the Middle East between France and the United Kingdom. The borders between Turkey, Syria and Iraq were laid down in the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.

Despite the utopian desire of one day seeing the different Kurdish territories united, the struggle of the PKK focused primarily on the liberation of North Kurdistan, or Bakur — the Kurdish territories occupied by the Turkish state. Over the course of the 1990s, however, the PKK slowly started to drift away from its desire to found an independent Kurdish nation state and started exploring other possibilities.

In 1999, Abdullah Öcalan — founder and leader of the PKK — became the subject of a diplomatic row between Turkey and Syria, from where he had been directing the PKK’s operations after having been forced to flee Turkey two decades earlier. Syria refused to house and protect the rebel leader any longer, leaving Öcalan with little choice but to leave the country in search of another refuge. Not long after, he was arrested in Kenya and extradited to Turkey where he was condemned to death — a punishment that was later changed to life imprisonment.

Öcalan’s capture was a breaking point for the PKK’s independence struggle. Shortly afterwards, the organization revoked its claims to an independent state in favor of demanding more autonomy at the local level. In jail, Öcalan began to familiarize himself with the works of Bookchin, whose writings on social transformation influenced him to give up on the ideal of an independent nation-state and rather pursue an alternative course he termed ‘Democratic Confederalism’.

Several years earlier, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the PKK had already started to critically reflect on the concept of the nation state. None of the traditional homelands of the Kurds were exclusively Kurdish. A state founded and controlled by Kurds would thus automatically host large minority groups, creating the potential for the repression of ethnic and religious minorities in the same way the Kurds themselves had been repressed for many years. As such, a Kurdish state increasingly came to be seen as a continuation of, rather than a solution to, the existing problems in the region.

Finally, having analyzed the interdependence of capitalism and the nation state on the one hand, and between patriarchy and centralized state power on the other, Öcalan realized that real freedom and independence could only come about once the movement had severed all ties with these institutionalized forms of repression and exploitation.

Democratic Confederalism

In his 2005 pamphlet, Declaration of Democratic Confederalism, Abdullah Öcalan formally and definitively broke with the PKK’s earlier aspirations of founding an independent Kurdish nation state. “The system of nation states,” he argues in the document, “has become a serious barrier to the development of society and democracy and freedom since the end of the 20th century.”

In Öcalan’s view, the only way out of the crisis in the Middle East is the establishment of a democratic confederal system “that will derive its strength directly from the people, and not from globalization based on nation states.” According to the imprisoned rebel leader, “neither the capitalist system nor the pressure of imperialist forces will lead to democracy; except to serve their own interests. The task is to assist in developing a grassroots-based democracy … which takes into consideration the religious, ethnic and class differences in society.”

Soon after Öcalan’s call for the development of a democratic confederalist model, the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) was founded in Diyarbakir. During an assembly in 2011 the body launched its Call for Democratic Autonomy in which it demanded autonomy from the state in the fields of politics, justice, self-defense, culture, society, economics, ecology and diplomacy. The reaction of the Turkish state was predictable: setting out on a path of confrontation and criminalization, it immediately banned the DTK.

It is no coincidence that the idea of Democratic Confederalism, as developed by Öcalan, shows many parallels with Bookchin’s ideas of social ecology. In the early 2000s Öcalan had begun to read Ecology of Freedom and Urbanization Without Cities while in prison and soon after declared himself a student of Bookchin’s. Through his lawyers, Öcalan attempted to set up a meeting with the radical thinker to figure out ways in which Bookchin’s ideas could be made applicable to the Middle Eastern context.

Unfortunately, due to Bookchin’s poor health at the time, this meeting never took place, but he did send a message to Öcalan in May 2004: “My hope is that the Kurdish people will one day be able to establish a free, rational society that will allow their brilliance once again to flourish. They are fortunate indeed to have a leader of Mr. Öcalan’s talents to guide them.”

In return, and as a form of acknowledgement of Bookchin’s critical influence on the Kurdish movement, a PKK assembly honored him as “one of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century” when he died in July 2006. They expressed their hope that the Kurds would be the first society to establish democratic confederalism, calling the project “creative and realizable.”

Dual power, confederalism and social ecology

Over the past decade, democratic confederalism has slowly but surely become an integral part of Kurdish society. Three elements of Bookchin’s thought have particularly influenced the development of a “democratic modernity” across Kurdistan: the concept of “dual power,” the confederal structure as proposed by Bookchin under the header of libertarian municipalism, and the theory of social ecology which traces the roots of many contemporary struggles back to the origins of civilization and places the natural environment at the heart of the solution to these problems.

Dual Power:

The concept of dual power has been one of the main reasons why Bookchin’s body of work was rejected by anarchist, communist and syndicalist groups. Rather than advocating the abolition of the state through an uprising of the proletariat, he suggested that by developing alternative institutions in the form of popular assemblies and neighborhood committees — and notably by taking part in municipal elections — the power of the state could be “hollowed out” from below, eventually making it superfluous.

Bookchin’s disposition towards taking over and building institutions of power stems from his analysis of politics as opposed to statecraft. According to Bookchin, “Marxists, revolutionary syndicalists, and authentic anarchists all have a fallacious understanding of politics, which should be conceived as the civic arena and the institutions by which people democratically and directly manage their community affairs.” What normally is referred to as “politics” Bookchin views as “statecraft,” or the kind of business professional politicians occupy themselves with.

“Politics,” by contrast, rather than a kind of inherently evil practice that so many left-wing revolutionaries believe needs to be abolished, is in fact the very glue that binds society together. It is something that needs to be organized in such a way as to prevent any abuse of power. “Freedom from authoritarianism can best be assured only by the clear, concise, and detailed allocation of power, not by pretensions that power and leadership are forms of ‘rule’ or by libertarian metaphors that conceal their reality,” Bookchin writes in his essay The Communalist Project.

The Kurdish embrace of Bookchin’s idea of dual power is clear from the DTK’s mode of organization at the different levels of society. The general assembly of the DTK meets twice a year in Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of North Kurdistan. Of the 1,000 delegates, 40 percent are elected officials who occupy different positions within government institutions, whereas the remaining 60 percent come from civil society and can be either members of one of the popular assemblies, representatives of NGOs or unaffiliated individuals. Decisions made in the assembly are promoted in the city council by those members who occupy seats in both organizational bodies.


The confederal system is also clearly manifested in the organizational structure of the DTK. In The Meaning of Confederalism, Bookchin describes confederalism as “a network of administrative councils whose members or delegates are elected from popular face-to-face democratic assemblies, in the various villages, towns, and even neighborhoods of large cities.” This explanation is an almost perfect fit with the situation on the ground in many places in the Kurdish region — in Turkey as well as in northern Syria.

A clear example is the situation in Diyarbakir, where the council movement is particularly well established. In the book Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan, the situation is explained by members of the Amed City Council (Amed being the Kurdish name for Diyarbakir):

Amed has thirteen districts, and each one has a council with its own board. Within the districts there are neighborhoods, which have neighborhood councils. Some districts have as many as eight neighborhood councils. And some places have councils even at the street level. In the nearby villages, there are communes that are tied to the city council. So power is articulated deeper and deeper into the base.

As Joost Jongerden and Ahmet Akkaya write in Confederalism and autonomy in Turkey: “the DTK is not simply another organization, but part of the attempt to forge a new political paradigm, defined by the direct and continual exercise of the people’s power through village, town and city councils.”

It is worth noting that this new political paradigm is not only advocated by those initiatives that exist outside of the institutionalized political realm, but also by pro-Kurdish political parties such as the Democratic Regions Party (DBP) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The ultimate goal is not to establish Democratic Autonomy exclusively in the Kurdish regions, but at the national level too, both in Turkey and Syria.

Social ecology

Bookchin’s theory of social ecology is characterized by the belief that “we must reorder social relations so that humanity can live in a protective balance with the natural world.” A post-capitalist society cannot be successful unless it is created in harmony with the ecological environment.

Bookchin argues that “the most fundamental message that social ecology advances is that the very idea of dominating nature stems from the domination of human by human.” Social ecology moves beyond the traditional Marxist and anarchist view of how to organize a non-hierarchical, egalitarian society in that it places the need to avert an impending ecological catastrophe at the heart of contemporary social struggles.

For the Kurds, traditionally a rural people living on agriculture and animal husbandry, maintaining the ecological environment is as crucial as creating an egalitarian society. State-driven destruction of the environment in their mountainous homelands and on the fertile Mesopotamian plain is occurring on a daily basis.

The most obvious example is the GAP project in Turkey, in which dozens of mega dams have either already been built or are under construction. The project is presented as bringing development to the region in the form of employment opportunities at the construction sites, better irrigated mega-farms producing cash crops for export, and providing day jobs for the expropriated small farmers and an upgraded energy infrastructure with the construction of several hydroelectric power plants.

What is perceived as “development” by the agents of the state is experienced in an entirely different way by the people who see their homes and villages flooded, the free-flowing rivers turned into commodities, their lands being expropriated and bought up by large corporations and used for the industrial-scale production of goods that serve no purpose but to enrich the farm-owners in their faraway villas. These large-scale, highly destructive mega-projects expose the urgent need for local control over local environments.

But whereas wresting the natural environment away from the destructive claws of ever encroaching capitalist forces entails a direct confrontation with the state, a crucial first — and potentially even more revolutionary — step involves the abolition of hierarchy at the interpersonal level. Since, as Bookchin argued, the domination of humans over nature stems from the domination of one human over another, the solution has to follow a similar trajectory.

In this regard, the emancipation of women is one of the most important aspects of social ecology. As long as the domination of man over woman remains intact, the treatment of our natural environment as an essential and integral part of human life — rather than a commodity to be exploited for our benefit — is still far away.

In this regard, the emancipatory projects currently underway in Kurdish society are a hopeful sign. Although in many cases social relations within Kurdish families and society are still guided by age-old customs and traditions, radical changes can already be observed. As one activist of the Amed Women’s Academy put it in an interview with Tatort Kurdistan:

Kurdish families still aren’t really open to the new system, Democratic Autonomy. They haven’t yet internalized it. We, the activists, have very much internalized it and it’s our responsibility to make change, to impart the ideas of Democratic Autonomy to families, even if it’s only in small steps. We can start talking about it at home the way we do outside. When our families see how seriously we take it, that will affect them. Of course, discussions are often very difficult. Doors get slammed, people shout. But a lot of perseverance and discussion has also begun to create change in families.

Listen, learn and follow

The developments in Kurdistan — and especially in Rojava, the Kurdish region in northern Syria — have tickled the radical imagination of activists around the globe. The revolution in Rojava has been compared to Barcelona in 1936 and theZapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. The radical left needs its own mythology as much as everybody else, and in this sense Rojava, Barcelona and Chiapas serve as hopeful reminders that there is an alternative; that it is possible to organize society in a different way.

However, by merely placing these instances of radical organization on a pedestal, as a beacon of hope to be revered when times get rough, our support for these struggles is often not very different from the support we display when we cheer on our favorite football team on TV. The Zapatistas in the jungles of Chiapas and the Kurds on the Mesopotamian plains have come a long way by relying on nothing but their own strength and determination. Their relative isolation has allowed for the development of their radical alternatives, but for these experiments to survive in the long run they need more than supporters and sympathizers. They need partners.

“Global capital, precisely because of its very hugeness, can only be eaten away at its roots,” Bookchin writes in A Politics for the Twenty-First Century,“specifically by means of a libertarian municipalist resistance at the base of society. It must be eroded by the myriad millions who, mobilized by a grassroots movement, challenge global capital’s sovereignty over their lives and try to develop local and regional economic alternatives to its industrial operations.”

Bookchin believes that if our ideal is a Commune of Communes, the natural place to start is at the local political level, with a movement and program as the “uncompromising advocate of popular neighborhood and town assemblies and the development of a municipalized economy.”

Ultimately, the best way to support the struggles of the Kurds, the Zapatistas and many other revolutionary movements and initiatives that have sprung up across the globe in the past few years, is by listening to their stories, learning from their experiences and following in their footsteps.

A confederation of self-organized municipalities, transcending national borders and ethnic and religious boundaries is the best bulwark against the ever-encroaching imperialist powers and capitalist forces. In the struggle to achieve this goal, there are worse examples to follow than the ideas set out by Murray Bookchin and the practice of libertarian municipalism.

Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist, editor for ROAR Magazine and columnist for TeleSUR English.



The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here

The worst predicted impacts of climate change are starting to happen — and much faster than climate scientists expected

BY August 5, 2015


Walruses, like these in Alaska, are being forced ashore in record numbers. Corey Accardo/NOAA/AP 

Historians may look to 2015 as the year when shit really started hitting the fan. Some snapshots: In just the past few months, record-setting heat waves in Pakistan and India each killed more than 1,000 people. In Washington state’s Olympic National Park, the rainforest caught fire for the first time in living memory. London reached 98 degrees Fahrenheit during the hottest July day ever recorded in the U.K.; The Guardianbriefly had to pause its live blog of the heat wave because its computer servers overheated. In California, suffering from its worst drought in a millennium, a 50-acre brush fire swelled seventyfold in a matter of hours, jumping across the I-15 freeway during rush-hour traffic. Then, a few days later, the region was pounded by intense, virtually unheard-of summer rains. Puerto Rico is under its strictest water rationing in history as a monster El Niño forms in the tropical Pacific Ocean, shifting weather patterns worldwide.

Eric Rignot, a climate scientist at NASA and the University of California-Irvine and a co-author on Hansen’s study, said their new research doesn’t necessarily change the worst-case scenario on sea-level rise, it just makes it much more pressing to think about and discuss, especially among world leaders. In particular, says Rignot, the new research shows a two-degree Celsius rise in global temperature — the previously agreed upon “safe” level of climate change — “would be a catastrophe for sea-level rise.”

Hansen’s new study also shows how complicated and unpredictable climate change can be. Even as global ocean temperatures rise to their highest levels in recorded history, some parts of the ocean, near where ice is melting exceptionally fast, are actually cooling, slowing ocean circulation currents and sending weather patterns into a frenzy. Sure enough, a persistently cold patch of ocean is starting to show up just south of Greenland, exactly where previous experimental predictions of a sudden surge of freshwater from melting ice expected it to be. Michael Mann, another prominent climate scientist, recently said of the unexpectedly sudden Atlantic slowdown, “This is yet another example of where observations suggest that climate model predictions may be too conservative when it comes to the pace at which certain aspects of climate change are proceeding.”

Since storm systems and jet streams in the United States and Europe partially draw their energy from the difference in ocean temperatures, the implication of one patch of ocean cooling while the rest of the ocean warms is profound. Storms will get stronger, and sea-level rise will accelerate. Scientists like Hansen only expect extreme weather to get worse in the years to come, though Mann said it was still “unclear” whether recent severe winters on the East Coast are connected to the phenomenon.

And yet, these aren’t even the most disturbing changes happening to the Earth’s biosphere that climate scientists are discovering this year. For that, you have to look not at the rising sea levels but to what is actually happening within the oceans themselves.

Water temperatures this year in the North Pacific have never been this high for this long over such a large area — and it is already having a profound effect on marine life.

Eighty-year-old Roger Thomas runs whale-watching trips out of San Francisco. On an excursion earlier this year, Thomas spotted 25 humpbacks and three blue whales. During a survey on July 4th, federal officials spotted 115 whales in a single hour near the Farallon Islands — enough to issue a boating warning. Humpbacks are occasionally seen offshore in California, but rarely so close to the coast or in such numbers. Why are they coming so close to shore? Exceptionally warm water has concentrated the krill and anchovies they feed on into a narrow band of relatively cool coastal water. The whales are having a heyday. “It’s unbelievable,” Thomas told a local paper. “Whales are all over
the place.”

Last fall, in northern Alaska, in the same part of the Arctic where Shell is planning to drill for oil, federal scientists discovered 35,000 walruses congregating on a single beach. It was the largest-ever documented “haul out” of walruses, and a sign that sea ice, their favored habitat, is becoming harder and harder to find.

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-point-of-no-return-climate-change-nightmares-are-already-here-20150805#ixzz3iAQ9CmuJ