Rojova: a struggle against borders and for autonomy

by Ali Bektaş on July 24, 2014

Post image for Rojova: a struggle against borders and for autonomyThousands of Kurds seek to break down the Turkish-Syrian border to join their comrades in defending the autonomous Kurdish enclave of Rojova from ISIS.

Photo: Kurdish resistance fighters mobilize against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, from archive (November 2012).

The struggle to abolish borders which separate peoples from each other, is commonly represented by certain well known and extreme examples. The militarized wall between the US and Mexico is one clear case in the consciousness of the Western left. Another disgusting manifestation is the stranglehold of Israel’s apartheid wall around the West Bank. Less well known, despite a hundred years of fierce struggle, are the borders that separate the 40 million Kurdish peoples from each other and which span across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

The Kurdish aspiration to destroy these borders is reaching its peak today on the boundary that separates Turkey and Syria. As a result of decades of resistance to these nation states, the radical Kurds of Turkey and Syria are taking advantage of the geopolitical shake-up in the region and are declaring their regional autonomy. But before we examine the current situation, a brief sketch of the historical context is in order.

A History of Struggle

In the midst of the First World War, the semi-secret Skyes-Picot pact between Britain and France prefigured the borders which would define Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq for a hundred years to come. After a four year war under the helm of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern-day Turkey, the Turkish Republic was formed with the Lausanne Agreement in 1923. Turkey was not only a project resulting from an independence war but also from the creation of an artificial national identity. This Turkish identity began to erase all other ethnicities and cultures which it regarded as a threat, and the Kurdish people were at the top of this list. After being carved up and divided by the imperial powers of Europe, the Kurds now found themselves being erased by the budding Turkish nationalism.

The 20th century history of the Kurds within the borders of Turkey is ripe with rebellions and ensuing massacres such as the events of Dersim that started in 1938. This instance alone left more than 10,000 Kurds dead and at least as many forcefully removed from their homes. Without a doubt, the most resilient Kurdish resistance movement emerged with the formation of the the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, in 1978. Formed by Marxist-Leninist students and led by Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK became a formidable enemy of the Turkish state as it waged a guerrilla war of independence, most aggressively in the late 1980s and 1990s.

At that time, the goal of the PKK was to create a unified Kurdistan along socialist principles. The PKK operated training camps across the border from Turkey in Iraq but more notably in Syria, especially in the Bekaa Valley near Lebanon. As a testament to its transborder aspirations, the PKK and its leader Öcalan left a deep mark on Kurds in Western Kurdistan, located in northern Syria. The 30 year civil war left more than 60,000 people dead within Turkish borders, the vast majority of them Kurds, members and sympathizers of the PKK, as well as 4,500 Kurdish villages evacuated and burnt by the Turkish military.

In 1999, Turkish special forces were able to capture Öcalan from exile in Rome (via Kenya), and the scope of the Kurdish struggle started to take a new form. From his extreme isolation in an island prison in the middle of the Marmara Sea, Öcalan began to make references to the Zapatistas and even to the relatively obscure social ecologist Murray Bookchin. The war for independence became transformed into one for autonomy, self-governance and expression of their identity such as using the Kurdish language, banned until very recently. More emphasis was placed upon the non-guerilla organizations of the Kurdish people, both their legal political parties but also on different modes of civil disobedience and the beginnings of an autonomous mode of federative governance.

The Kurds in Turkey had not been the only group under the yoke of a repressive nationalist Kemalism. Secularism, one of the pillars of the Turkish Republic, had been steadfastly preserved by its guardian — the Turkish Armed Forces — which targeted various stripes of Islamists vowing for power. But the tables turned at the turn of the century when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) put forth a program conjoining neoliberal development and Islam and swiftly rose to power. The AKP, with the rabid yet shrewd Erdoğan as its chief, became the first Turkish government to start a dialogue with PKK leadership in Oslo in 2008. Although mostly window-dressing, such interchange was unheard of until that moment.

In Kurdistan, the Sun Rises from the West

Today, the situation for the Kurds has taken a different turn with the dawn of the Arab Spring and its spread to Syria. The Syrian people were not able to bring a swift departure to their despotic leader Bashar Al-Assad as had been the case in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Instead, the country plunged into a still raging war against the last remaining Ba’athist dictatorship in the region. From this desperate mess emerged Rojova on July 19, 2012.

Rojova, meaning West in Kurdish, was the product of what is referred to as a Democratic People’s Revolution by those who took advantage of the weakening of the Ba’athist regime, namely the PYD (the Democratic Unity Party). Their territory is comprised of three cantons in northern Syria, Cizîr to the East, Efrîn to the West and Kobanê in the middle. Instead of forming a state, the PYD seek to implement democratic autonomy and self-governance with assemblies that extend down to the neighborhood level. In January of this year, their Democratic Autonomous Assembly passed a “social agreement” which guaranteed decentralization, free education in the native tongue, healthcare, housing and an end to child labor and any discrimination against women.

The radical Kurdish movement’s emphasis on women’s autonomy and empowerment must be underlined. There have been numerous PKK units and guerrilla camps which are only for women. Nearly all political organizations they form have two leaders, one a man and another a woman. Following in this tradition, on April 2, 2012 in Rojava, the autonomous force the YPJ (Women’s Defense Forces) was formed within the YPG (the People’s Defense Forces). Both the YPG and YPJ have had to defend the revolution of Rojova nearly constantly from both the Ba’athist regime as well as the various stripes of Islamists who have turned Syria into the latest front of their jihad.

A Gang called ISIS

Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, formed in 2009, gradually matured into a full-fledged Salafist organization and expanded its operations to Syria, renaming itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Their form of jihad and power struggle led to their disavowal by Al Qaeda earlier this year, and ISIS quickly became the reigning address for Islamic extremists looking to join the holy war. ISIS stepped into the limelight of the Western media with its capture of Mosul in Iraq on June 10, 2014. But the autonomous regions of Rojova have also been under a fierce ISIS assault for more than a year.

Three weeks ago, on July 2, ISIS began a siege of Rojova’s central canton of Kobanê, using military equipment and munitions captured following their victory in Mosul. ISIS is trying to take Kobanê from the east, west and south and this ongoing siege constitutes the most serious threat that Rojova has come under thus far. The Kurdish movement in Turkey identifies deeply with Rojova since the PYD has been enormously influenced by the leadership of Öcalan. Therefore, a threat to the revolution in Rojova also constitutes a serious threat for the aspirations of regional autonomy for Kurds living within the borders of Turkey. In addition, many believe that the Turkish state is using ISIS for a proxy war against Kurdish autonomy by supplying them with arms and intelligence and free movement across its borders.

Following the ISIS siege of Kobanê, Kurdish and Leftist political actors in Turkey — namely the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) and BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) — mobilized to intervene in the situation. Starting on July 9, they set up four different encampments along the border in strategic locations to prevent regular ISIS movements in and out of Turkey so they could bring their wounded to Turkish hospitals and receive logistical support from the Turkish state. These encampments have also been used as staging grounds to cross the border en masse to join the YPG and YPJ forces in their defense of Kobanê. The current climate within the Kurdish movement in Turkey is one of a wartime mobilization with daily calls by party members for the youth to remove the borders and join the defense forces in Rojova.

One of the largest crossings in defiance of the border came on July 14, when approximately 300 youth crossed into Kobanê and were greeted by YPG members on the other side who would guide them across the minefield between the border and Kobanê. But this was only the prelude to what would be a historic celebration of the Kurdish struggle for regional autonomy, on the second anniversary of the revolution in Rojova.

Destroying the Border

All day and into the night on July 18, thousands of Kurds flooded into the encampment in the township of Pirsus (Suruç in Turkish). Tents had been set up near the village of Alizer, a village literally divided by the border between Turkey and Syria. People came from all over Kurdistan to celebrate the revolution in Rojova and to remove the border so as to join their compatriots on the other side in their war against ISIS.

The next day, on the 19th, the air was filled with the dry dust as the camp was set up in the middle of a fallow field under gusts of scorching winds. The sun shone hard at 45ºC, yet people kept coming and joining in the ongoing halay (a circular dance popular amongst Kurds). With more people came more and more tanks and armored personal carriers of the Turkish military as well as the water canons and other armored vehicles of the police.

The tanks and troops of the Turkish military arrived from a nearby base which has on its entrance the words “The border is honor” emblazoned on its entrance. Yet the Kurdish villagers and militant youth were not intimidated by the show of force and remained determined to destroy this border between them and their comrades under siege. On the other side of the border, thousands of Kurds from Kobanê arrived to embrace those separated from them by a flimsy barbed wire. As nighttime set in and the air became cooler, fireworks started to light the sky in a great celebration of the revolution. People were restless and the barbed wire lost any semblance of a deterrent it once represented. The stage was set for a spectacular confrontation.

And that confrontation came as promised. After the wires were clipped, a few hundred Kurdish youth crossed into Kobanê to be greeted by a delegation from the YPG. The police and military brutally attacked the celebration launching hundreds of teargas canisters into the area, as well as assaulting the crowd with batons and water cannons. The perseverance of the people was pure inspiration as everyone from the most bold and wild youth to old grannies joined the resistance against the forces of the Turkish state with rocks, molotov cocktails and fireworks. From the stage came directives for people to come and join those fighting or at least to come with their cars to help evacuate the wounded. After a two hour battle, the police and soldiers forced their way into the area with the tents and set fire to it all.

Five hours later, the military launched an operation at another encampment 30 kilometers away, near the village of Ziyaret, at the township of Birecik. The front lines of the siege of the Kobanê canton is visible from this point and this camp was strategically placed to sabotage ISIS movements and provide support and solidarity to the YPG. The people at that camp fought the military off and regained control of the camp only to have to endure another more vicious attack the following morning, on July 21, during which soldiers and police burned the tents and destroyed the cars of those there, arresting eight people after beating them.

Rojova for the Middle East

In the Western media, when one hears of Kurds or Kurdistan it is most often in reference to Mesud Barzani and the Kurdish territory under his control in Northern Iraq, which has also extended its sovereignty in the current context created by ISIS. It must be pointed out that this political formation has minimal affinity with the radical revolutionary one launched by the PYD in Rojova. In fact, both the PYD and PKK often find themselves in open conflict with Barzani’s vision for the Kurds. Occasionally doing the bidding of colonial states, Barzani is also a frequent visitor of Erdoğan. In fact, as recent as last week he flew to Ankara to meet with him and discuss the situation unfolding in the region.

The siege around Kobanê by ISIS is continuing but the YPG and YPJ are determined to thwart it and as of today have begun to take back territory from them. Meanwhile, their comrades on the Turkish side of the border have begun to rebuild the encampment at the village of Ziyaret and vow to stay there until ISIS is fought off. They see the defense of Kobanê as the crucial battle to keep the battle for Kurdish autonomy alive. Many compare this current mobilization to that which took place in defense of the Spanish Revolution against the fascists in the late 1930s. The crushing of the Spanish Revolution had global repercussions that are still being felt today. Similarly, the perseverance of the revolution in Rojova is the only remote hope for a different kind of Middle East, where peoples come together in solidarity with each other rather than at war under sectarianism stoked by colonial powers.

The author can be reached at ali@riseup.net.

 

Marinaleda: the village where people come before profit

by Jen Wilton on July 15, 2014

Post image for Marinaleda: the village where people come before profit

The thriving Spanish town of Marinaleda runs on the principles of mutual aid and direct action. In a country paralyzed by debt, is this an alternative?

By Liam Barrington-Bush and Jen Wilton

In the south of Spain, the street is the collective living room. Vibrant sidewalk cafes are interspersed between configurations of two to five lawn chairs where neighbors come together to chat over the day’s events late into the night. In mid-June the weather peaks well over 40 degrees Celsius and the smells of fresh seafood waft from kitchens and restaurants as the seasonably-late dining hour begins to approach. The scene is archetypally Spanish, particularly for the Andalusian region to the country’s south, where life is lived more in public than in private, when given half a chance.

Specifically, this imagery above describes Marinaleda. Initially indistinguishable from several of its local counterparts in the Sierra Sur southern mountain range, were it not for a few tell-tale signs. Maybe it’s the street names (Ernesto Che Guevara, Solidarity and Salvador Allende Plaza, to name a few); maybe it’s the graffiti (hand drawn hammers-and-sickles sit happily alongside encircled A’s, oblivious to the differences the two ideologies have shared, even in the country’s recent past); maybe it’s the two-story Che head which emblazons the outer wall of the local sports stadium.

Marinaleda has been called Spain’s ‘communist utopia,’ though the local variation bears little resemblance to the Soviet model most associate with the phrase. Classifications aside, this is a town whose social fabric has been woven from very different economic threads to the rest of the country since the fall of the Franco dictatorship in the mid 1970s. A cooperatively-owned olive oil factory, houses built by and for the community, and a famous looting of a large-scale supermarket, led by the town’s charismatic mayor, in which proceeds were donated to food banks, are amongst the steps that have helped position Marinaleda as a beacon of hope.

The currency of direct action

As the Spanish economy continues its post-2008 nosedive, unemployment sits at 26 percent nationally, while over half of young people can’t find work. Meanwhile, Marinaleda boasts a modest but steady local employment picture in which most people have at least some work and those that don’t have a strong safety net to fall back on.

But more than its cash economy, Marinaleda has a currency rarely found beyond small-scale activist groups or indigenous communities fighting destructive development projects: the currency of direct action. Rather than rely exclusively on cash to get things done, Marinaleños have put their collective blood, sweat and tears into creating a range of alternative systems in their corner of the world.

When money hasn’t been readily available — probably the only consistent feature since the community set out on this path — Marinaleños have turned to one another to do what needs doing. At times that has meant collectively occupying land owned by the Andalusian aristocracy and putting it to work for the town, at others it has simply meant sharing the burden of litter collection.

While still operating with some degree of central authority, the local council has devolved power into the hands of those it serves. General assemblies are convened on a regular basis so that townspeople can be involved in decisions that affect their lives. The assemblies also create spaces where people can come together to organize what the community needs through collective action.

“The best thing they have here in Marinaleda, and you can’t find this in other places, is the [general] assembly,” says long-term civil servant for the Marinaleda council, Manuel Gutierrez Daneri. He continues: “Assembly is a place for people to discuss problems and to find the solutions,” pointing out that even minor crimes are collectively addressed via the assembly, as the town has no police or judicial system since the last local cop retired.

In his time as mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo has managed to leverage considerable financial support from the state government, a feat which Gutierrez Daneri attributes to the town’s collective track record for direct action. “If you go ahead with all of the people behind you, that is very powerful,” he says.

As a result, the small town boasts extensive sports facilities and a beautifully-maintained botanical garden, as well as a range of more basic necessities. “For a little village like this, with no more than 2,700 people, we have a lot of facilities,” says Gutierrez Daneri.

British ex-pat Chris Burke has lived in Marinaleda for several years, and he explains that access to the public swimming pool only costs €3 for the entire summer. Burke recounts Mayor Sánchez Gordillo saying to him, “The whole idea of the place being somewhere good to live is that anyone can afford to enjoy themselves.” Burke adds pragmatically, “You can’t have a utopia without some loss-making facilities.”

From occupation to cooperation

In 1979, Sánchez Gordillo was first elected as the town’s mayor. He led an extensive campaign to change Marinaleda’s course, which began with hunger strikes and occupying underutilized land.

Manuel Martin Fernandez has been involved in la lucha (the fight) since the beginning. He explains how through the general assembly process the community decided something had to be done to stem the flow of migration from the town. They began a weeks-long occupation of a nearby reservoir to convince the regional government to allocate them enough water to irrigate a tract of land.

After this proved successful, they then went on to occupy 1,200 hectares of the newly irrigated land, which at that time was owned by an aristocratic family. In 1991, the plot of land was officially expropriated and turned over for local use. “It took 12 years to obtain the land,” Martin Fernandez explains, calling their victory “a conquest.”

Today, extensive fields of olives, artichokes, beans and peppers form the backbone of the local cash economy. The land is collectively managed by the cooperative El Humoso and a canning facility has been set up on the edge of town. “Our aim was not to create profits, but jobs,” Sánchez Gordillo told British author Dan Hancox, explaining why the town chose to prioritize labor-intensive crops to create more employment for local people.

Like most agricultural employment, whether in the fields or the factory, work in Marinaleda is both seasonal and varied from year to year. But unlike many small agricultural towns, Marinaleda shares the work amongst those who need it.

Dolores Valderrama Martin has lived in Marinaleda her entire life and she has worked at the Humoso canning factory for the past 14 years. From the upstairs office she explains that if 200 people are looking for work, but they only need 40 workers, they will bring everyone together. “We gather all of these people who are directly affected,” she says. “We make groups of 30 to 40 people and each group works for two days.”

While the cooperative is formed of nine separate entities, Valderrama Martin says they collectively decide on important issues like the allocation of work. They may even take the issue to a general assembly for wider input from the town. But she cautions, “When there is no work they are unemployed, like anywhere else.”

Most of the town decries the relative lack of work, but the wider social security net built on the principles of direct action and mutual aid have meant that unlike other parts of the country, two months’ wages can go a long way to keep you afloat for the year. At the core of this is the town’s approach to housing, which offers one of the clearest examples of how collective effort can fill the void left by a stagnant cash economy.

The houses that community built

When many young people think about making their first foray into the housing market, money is inevitably the biggest obstacle. State of the economy aside, a down payment is always a sizable sum, even in relatively tame markets, and is increasingly unattainable for what has been described as ‘the jilted generation.’

But high on the list of maverick decisions spearheaded by Mayor Sánchez Gordillo, using a combination of state housing subsidy for building materials, free labor for construction and land given by the town, housing has been partly removed from the free market in Marinaleda. Instead, community members come together with architectural plans provided by the council to build a block of houses, with no sense in advance which home will belong to which family.

The houses — some 350 units in total, with twenty new builds underway at the time of our visit — become part of a housing cooperative. Needless to say, when citizens are only left paying €15 per month for mortgages, this has a massive knock-on impact on work requirements.

The direct action economy

While capitalism frames our relationships as a series of self-interested economic transactions, Marinaleda relies on a model of mutual aid, as locals work together to meet shared needs, with far less money circulating. While it can be easy to forget, money is simply a way of facilitating action, which creates an incentive for people to do tasks that they otherwise may not have any interest in doing.

Direct action, on the other hand, is rooted in common interests and explores the practicalities of what needs doing, based on who is there to do it. Direct action eliminates the consumer-provider divide, making cash an unnecessary intermediary in getting things done, as those who want something done, and those doing it become one-in-the-same.

While Marinaleda has its flaws, it reminds us that alternative economic models are not only possible, they already exist. A striking piece of graffiti on Marinaleda’s main road depicts a dream-catcher, super-imposed with a hammer and sickle. The accompanying message implores us, “Catch your dreams — utopia is possible.”

This article was originally published at Contributoria.

Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist, facilitator, and author of Anarchists in the Boardroom. He tweets as @hackofalltrades, blogs at morelikepeople.org and posts stuff on the more like people Facebook page.

Jen Wilton is a freelance journalist, researcher and photographer based in London, UK. Her interests include social movements, sustainable energy, alternative economies and Latin America. She tweets as @guerillagrrl and blogs at Revolution Is Eternal

Could you “free” yourself of Facebook?

A 99-day challenge offers a new kind of social media experiment

Could you "free" yourself of Facebook?
(Credit: LoloStock via Shutterstock)

Let’s try a new experiment now, Facebook. And this time, you’re the subject.

Remember just last month, when the monolithic social network revealed that it had been messing with its users’ minds as part of an experiment? Writing in PNAS, Facebook researchers disclosed the results of a study that showed it had tinkered with the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users, highlighting either more positive or more negative content, to learn if “emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people.” What they found was that “When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.” More significantly, after the news of the study broke, they discovered that people get pretty creeped out when they feel like their personal online space is being screwed with, and that their reading and posting activity is being silently monitored and collected – even when the terms of service they agreed to grant permission to do just that. And they learned that lawmakers in the U.S. and around the world question the ethics of Facebook’s intrusion.

Now, a new campaign out of Europe is aiming to do another experiment involving Facebook, its users and their feelings. But this time Facebook users aren’t unwitting participants but willing volunteers. And the first step involves quitting Facebook. The 99 Days of Freedom campaign started as an office joke at Just, a creative agency in the Netherlands. But the company’s art director Merijn Straathof says it quickly evolved into a bona fide cause. “As we discussed it internally, we noted an interesting tendency: Everyone had at least a ‘complicated’ relationship with Facebook. Whether it was being tagged in unflattering photos, getting into arguments with other users or simply regretting time lost through excessive use, there was a surprising degree of negative sentiment.” When the staff learned that Facebook’s 1.2 billion users “spend an average of 17 minutes per day on the site, reading updates, following links or browsing photos,” they began to wonder what that time might be differently applied to – and whether users would find it “more emotionally fulfilling.”



The challenge – one that close to 9,000 people have already taken – is simple. Change your FB avatar to the “99 Days of Freedom” one to let friends know you’re not checking in for the next few months. Create a countdown. Opt in, if you wish, to be contacted after 33, 66 and 99 days to report on your satisfaction with life without Facebook. Straathof says everyone at Just is also participating, to “test that one firsthand.”

Straathof and company say the goal isn’t to knock Facebook, but to show users the “obvious emotional benefits to moderation.” And, he adds, “Our prediction is that the experiment will yield a lot of positive personal experiences and, 99 days from now, we’ll know whether that theory has legs.” The anecdotal data certainly seems to support it. Seductive as FB, with its constant flow of news and pet photos, may be, you’d be hard-pressed to find a story about quitting it that doesn’t make getting away from it sound pretty great. It’s true that grand experiments, especially of a permanent nature, have never gotten off the ground. Four years ago, a group of disgruntled users tried to gather momentum for a Quit Facebook Day that quietly went nowhere. But individual tales certainly make a compelling case for, if not going cold turkey, at least scaling back. Elizabeth Lopatto recently wrote in Forbes of spending the past eight years Facebook free and learning that “If you really are interested in catching up with your friends, catch up with your friends. You don’t need Facebook to do it.” And writing on EliteDaily this past winter, Rudolpho Sanchez questioned why “We allow our successes to be measured in little blue thumbs” and declared, “I won’t relapse; I’ve been liberated. It’s nice not knowing what my fake friends are up to.” Writing a few weeks later in Business Insider, Dylan Love, who’d been on FB since he was an incoming college student 10 years ago, gave it up and reported his life, if not improved, remarkably unchanged, “except I’m no longer devoting mental energy to reading about acquaintances from high school getting married or scrolling through lots of pictures of friends’ vacation meals.” And if you want a truly persuasive argument, try this: My teenager has not only never joined Facebook, she dismissively asserts that she doesn’t want to because “It’s for old people.”

Facebook, of course, doesn’t want you to consider that you might be able to maintain your relationships or your sense of delight in the world without it. When my mate and I went away for a full week recently, we didn’t check in on social media once the whole time. Every day, with increasing urgency, we received emails from Facebook alerting us to activity in our feeds that we surely wanted to check. And since I recently gutted my friend list, I’ve been receiving a bevy of suggested people I might know. Why so few friends, lonely lady? Why so few check-ins? Don’t you want more, more, more?

I don’t know if I need to abandon Facebook entirely – I like seeing what people I know personally and care about are up to, especially those I don’t get to see in the real world that often. That connection has often been valuable, especially through our shared adventures in love, illness and grief, and I will always be glad for it. But a few months ago I deleted the FB app, which makes avoiding Facebook when I’m not at my desk a no-brainer. No more stealth checking my feed from the ladies’ room. No more spending time expressing my “like” of someone’s recent baking success when I’m walking down the street. No more “one more status update before bed” time sucks. And definitely no more exasperation when FB insistently twiddles with my news feed to show “top stories” when I prefer “most recent.” It was never a huge part of my life, but it’s an even smaller part of it now, and yeah, it does feel good. I recommend it. Take Just’s 99-day challenge or just a tech Sabbath or just scale back a little. Consider it an experiment. One in which the user, this time, is the winner.

Mary Elizabeth Williams Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of “Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream.” Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/11/could_you_free_yourself_of_facebook/?source=newsletter

Child labour: A global scourge

By Ashley Tseng
26 June 2014

Children being forced by extreme poverty into wage (as well as slave) labour remains in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century a chilling, global phenomenon.

In its latest report on the issue, “Marking Progress Against Child Labour: Global Estimates and Trends,” the International Labour Organization (ILO) said that in 2012 at least 168 million children were working in conditions that fell under its definition of “unacceptable” or exploitative child labour.

Children, working alongside their mothers, in a brick factory in Bangladesh. (Photo credit: Peter de Ruiter)

Almost half of the child-labourers—73 million—were between the ages of 5 and 11. A further 47.4 million were children 12 to 14 years old. (According to the ILO’s definition, only 12- to 14-year-olds who work at least 14 hours per week or are involved in hazardous work are counted as child-labourers). And in 2012 there were 47.5 million documented cases of 15- to 17-year-olds working in hazardous conditions, or for more than 43 hours per week, as bonded labourers, or in some other form of coerced labour.

The ILO report indicated a gender discrepancy in child labour cases. There were 99 million boys between 5 and 17 years old who fit the ILO’s definition of unacceptable child labourers versus 68 million girls. However, the ILO cautions that its statistics frequently do not include less visible forms of child labour, such as work done in homes—work that is often, and in the case of domestic labour generally, performed by girls.

According to the ILO, there were 78 million fewer child labourers in 2012 than in 2000. While the ILO and others have been quick to laud this “progress,” the decline may have more to do with the world economic crisis that erupted in 2008 than the efforts to enact and enforce laws banning “unacceptable” child labour.

As the ILO report itself concedes, in the period immediately after the 2008 economic meltdown, employers of child labourers cut back, particularly amongst the cohort of early teenagers.

Of those the ILO considers child labourers, about 68 million work in the agricultural sector, 54 million in the service sector (including domestic work), and 12 million in manufacturing. 85 million children (approximately half of the reported number) are engaged in hazardous work, where they are regularly threatened with and fall victim to serious workplace-related injuries and illnesses. In some cases these prove fatal.

While hazardous working conditions—such as working barefoot and without a helmet on a construction site—threaten all workers, children are especially vulnerable. Such conditions compromise their still developing physical and psychological well-being and youth are more vulnerable to accidents because their bodies and minds are not yet fully mature.

The ILO figures on child labour are revealing, but they are far from definitive. Given the moral odour surrounding the practice and its often outright illicit character, employers frequently hide and cover up their use of child labour. Moreover, in many countries bribery of the few officials tasked with auditing workplaces for labour-code breaches is rampant, further diminishing the veracity of official reporting of child labour.

In October 2013, at the third Global Conference on Child Labour, the ILO conceded that its target to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by 2016 would not be met. This is hardly the first time that the UN agency has had to backtrack on its targets and rosy projections.

International law prohibits the use of child labour and 155 countries have signed a United Nations convention banning most types of labour by minors. Nevertheless, this global scourge persists amidst unprecedented wealth and technological progress, because employers and governments find it profitable and because capitalism is continuously driving workers and peasants into dire poverty, making them unable to support and educate their children.

According to the charity Save the Children, to take just one example, as many as 80 million children in India work. Indian law prohibits the hiring of children under the age of 14 for “hazardous” occupations, but even the Indian labour ministry admits that as many as 13 million children work in prohibited manufacturing operations such as glassmaking, domestic work, and embroidery.

Child-rights activists commonly state that the Indian government has no intention of implementing child labour laws and that police frequently tip off factory owners or accept bribes during raids. Moreover, activists have been targeted for assassination by business owners.

In relative terms, the highest incidence of child labour is found in Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than one in five children (21 per cent) between the ages of 5 and 17 are said to be engaged in child labour. In Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean, the numbers are at 9 per cent, followed by 8 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa.

Many of the more than one thousand workers killed in the April 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh were children.

In the aftermath of the collapse, Western retailers and governments announced various measures, including “social audits” and inspections, to ensure that garment manufacturers adhere to elementary safety standards. But these measures had much more to do with protecting corporate brand names and profits than improving the lives of garment workers.

Giant Western retailers continue to relentlessly press the garment contractors and subcontractors to lower costs and speed up production, thereby ensuring the unsafe working practices that contributed to the Rana Plaza disaster persist in Bangladesh’s $22-billion-a-year garment industry. Young girls still work for as long as 11 hours a day and are subjected to physical and verbal abuse when they aren’t considered to be working fast enough.

In Peru, where producing gold is a $3 billion industry, children work in mines, often having to wait prolonged periods before getting even meagre wages. While working in these mines children are also exposed to mercury poisoning, life-threatening diseases like malaria, and industrial accidents.

Even in developed countries like the United States , child labour can be found. In California , children are cultivating fruits and vegetables and in North Carolina they are working on tobacco farms. While some of these workers are migrant children, others are US citizens. However, none of this is illegal. According to the US ’s Fair Labor Standards Act, children are allowed to work in agriculture as long as they have parental consent. (See: HYPERLINK “http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/05/15/chil-m15.html” Child labor widespread on American tobacco farms )

Corporations, anxious to market their products including amongst liberal-minded middle-class elements, tout slogans of “corporate social responsibility” as a means of sweeping their predatory practices under the rug. Despite occasional corporate campaigns, often in alliance with governments, trade unions and humanitarian organizations, child labour and other brutal forms of exploitation stubbornly persist precisely because all these entities have a vested interest in maintaining the root cause of the very problem they shed their crocodile tears over—capitalism.

Despite signing an agreement to end the use of child labour in its cocoa farms, Nestlé, the world’s biggest food company, still employs child labour in its West African cocoa supply chain. Harvesting cocoa is hard, dangerous work. There are frequent cases of children being injured from machetes slicing into their legs as they harvest the cocoa pods.

A recent addition to the corporate social responsibility bandwagon is cosmetic chain Lush . It has vowed to remove the mineral mica from its cosmetic products in response to news reports that its supply chain contains mica produced by forced labour. However, its “social audit” program to monitor mica production did not manage to reliably document incidences of child labour. This was at least because some of the sites where the mica was being extracted were deemed too dangerous for the auditors to visit!

The continuing prevalence of child labour underscores the failure of all efforts to reform and “humanize” capitalist exploitation. This scourge will not be ended through protest campaigns directed at governments and corporations but only through the independent political mobilization of the working class against the profit system.

“The Internet’s Own Boy”: How the government destroyed Aaron Swartz

A film tells the story of the coder-activist who fought corporate power and corruption — and paid a cruel price

"The Internet's Own Boy": How the government destroyed Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz (Credit: TakePart/Noah Berger)

Brian Knappenberger’s Kickstarter-funded documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” which premiered at Sundance barely a year after the legendary hacker, programmer and information activist took his own life in January 2013, feels like the beginning of a conversation about Swartz and his legacy rather than the final word. This week it will be released in theaters, arriving in the middle of an evolving debate about what the Internet is, whose interests it serves and how best to manage it, now that the techno-utopian dreams that sounded so great in Wired magazine circa 1996 have begun to ring distinctly hollow.

What surprised me when I wrote about “The Internet’s Own Boy” from Sundance was the snarky, dismissive and downright hostile tone struck by at least a few commenters. There was a certain dark symmetry to it, I thought at the time: A tragic story about the downfall, destruction and death of an Internet idealist calls up all of the medium’s most distasteful qualities, including its unique ability to transform all discourse into binary and ill-considered nastiness, and its empowerment of the chorus of belittlers and begrudgers collectively known as trolls. In retrospect, I think the symbolism ran even deeper. Aaron Swartz’s life and career exemplified a central conflict within Internet culture, and one whose ramifications make many denizens of the Web highly uncomfortable.

For many of its pioneers, loyalists and self-professed deep thinkers, the Internet was conceived as a digital demi-paradise, a zone of total freedom and democracy. But when it comes to specifics things get a bit dicey. Paradise for whom, exactly, and what do we mean by democracy? In one enduringly popular version of this fantasy, the Internet is the ultimate libertarian free market, a zone of perfect entrepreneurial capitalism untrammeled by any government, any regulation or any taxation. As a teenage programming prodigy with an unusually deep understanding of the Internet’s underlying architecture, Swartz certainly participated in the private-sector, junior-millionaire version of the Internet. He founded his first software company following his freshman year at Stanford, and became a partner in the development of Reddit in 2006, which was sold to Condé Nast later that year.



That libertarian vision of the Internet – and of society too, for that matter – rests on an unacknowledged contradiction, in that some form of state power or authority is presumably required to enforce private property rights, including copyrights, patents and other forms of intellectual property. Indeed, this is one of the principal contradictions embedded within our current form of capitalism, as the Marxist scholar David Harvey notes: Those who claim to venerate private property above all else actually depend on an increasingly militarized and autocratic state. And from the beginning of Swartz’s career he also partook of the alternate vision of the Internet, the one with a more anarchistic or anarcho-socialist character. When he was 15 years old he participated in the launch of Creative Commons, the immensely important content-sharing nonprofit, and at age 17 he helped design Markdown, an open-source, newbie-friendly markup format that remains in widespread use.

One can certainly construct an argument that these ideas about the character of the Internet are not fundamentally incompatible, and may coexist peaceably enough. In the physical world we have public parks and privately owned supermarkets, and we all understand that different rules (backed of course by militarized state power) govern our conduct in each space. But there is still an ideological contest between the two, and the logic of the private sector has increasingly invaded the public sphere and undermined the ancient notion of the public commons. (Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani once proposed that city parks should charge admission fees.) As an adult Aaron Swartz took sides in this contest, moving away from the libertarian Silicon Valley model of the Internet and toward a more radical and social conception of the meaning of freedom and equality in the digital age. It seems possible and even likely that the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” Swartz wrote in 2008, at age 21, led directly to his exaggerated federal prosecution for what was by any standard a minor hacking offense.

Swartz’s manifesto didn’t just call for the widespread illegal downloading and sharing of copyrighted scientific and academic material, which was already a dangerous idea. It explained why. Much of the academic research held under lock and key by large institutional publishers like Reed Elsevier had been largely funded at public expense, but was now being treated as private property – and as Swartz understood, that was just one example of a massive ideological victory for corporate interests that had penetrated almost every aspect of society. The actual data theft for which Swartz was prosecuted, the download of a large volume of journal articles from the academic database called JSTOR, was largely symbolic and arguably almost pointless. (As a Harvard graduate student at the time, Swartz was entitled to read anything on JSTOR.)

But the symbolism was important: Swartz posed a direct challenge to the private-sector creep that has eaten away at any notion of the public commons or the public good, whether in the digital or physical worlds, and he also sought to expose the fact that in our age state power is primarily the proxy or servant of corporate power. He had already embarrassed the government twice previously. In 2006, he downloaded and released the entire bibliographic dataset of the Library of Congress, a public document for which the library had charged an access fee. In 2008, he downloaded and released about 2.7 million federal court documents stored in the government database called PACER, which charged 8 cents a page for public records that by definition had no copyright. In both cases, law enforcement ultimately concluded Swartz had committed no crime: Dispensing public information to the public turns out to be legal, even if the government would rather you didn’t. The JSTOR case was different, and the government saw its chance (one could argue) to punish him at last.

Knappenberger could only have made this film with the cooperation of Swartz’s family, which was dealing with a devastating recent loss. In that context, it’s more than understandable that he does not inquire into the circumstances of Swartz’s suicide in “Inside Edition”-level detail. It’s impossible to know anything about Swartz’s mental condition from the outside – for example, whether he suffered from undiagnosed depressive illness – but it seems clear that he grew increasingly disheartened over the government’s insistence that he serve prison time as part of any potential plea bargain. Such an outcome would have left him a convicted felon and, he believed, would have doomed his political aspirations; one can speculate that was the point. Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney for Boston, along with her deputy Stephen Heymann, did more than throw the book at Swartz. They pretty much had to write it first, concocting an imaginative list of 13 felony indictments that carried a potential total of 50 years in federal prison.

As Knappenberger explained in a Q&A session at Sundance, that’s the correct context in which to understand Robert Swartz’s public remark that the government had killed his son. He didn’t mean that Aaron had actually been assassinated by the CIA, but rather that he was a fragile young man who had been targeted as an enemy of the state, held up as a public whipping boy, and hounded into severe psychological distress. Of course that cannot entirely explain what happened; Ortiz and Heymann, along with whoever above them in the Justice Department signed off on their display of prosecutorial energy, had no reason to expect that Swartz would kill himself. There’s more than enough pain and blame to go around, and purely on a human level it’s difficult to imagine what agony Swartz’s family and friends have put themselves through.

One of the most painful moments in “The Internet’s Own Boy” arrives when Quinn Norton, Swartz’s ex-girlfriend, struggles to explain how and why she wound up accepting immunity from prosecution in exchange for information about her former lover. Norton’s role in the sequence of events that led to Swartz hanging himself in his Brooklyn apartment 18 months ago has been much discussed by those who have followed this tragic story. I think the first thing to say is that Norton has been very forthright in talking about what happened, and clearly feels torn up about it.

Norton was a single mom living on a freelance writer’s income, who had been threatened with an indictment that could have cost her both her child and her livelihood. When prosecutors offered her an immunity deal, her lawyer insisted she should take it. For his part, Swartz’s attorney says he doesn’t think Norton told the feds anything that made Swartz’s legal predicament worse, but she herself does not agree. It was apparently Norton who told the government that Swartz had written the 2008 manifesto, which had spread far and wide in hacktivist circles. Not only did the manifesto explain why Swartz had wanted to download hundreds of thousands of copyrighted journal articles on JSTOR, it suggested what he wanted to do with them and framed it as an act of resistance to the private-property knowledge industry.

Amid her grief and guilt, Norton also expresses an even more appropriate emotion: the rage of wondering how in hell we got here. How did we wind up with a country where an activist is prosecuted like a major criminal for downloading articles from a database for noncommercial purposes, while no one goes to prison for the immense financial fraud of 2008 that bankrupted millions? As a person who has made a living as an Internet “content provider” for almost 20 years, I’m well aware that we can’t simply do away with the concept of copyright or intellectual property. I never download pirated movies, not because I care so much about the bottom line at Sony or Warner Bros., but because it just doesn’t feel right, and because you can never be sure who’s getting hurt. We’re not going to settle the debate about intellectual property rights in the digital age in a movie review, but we can say this: Aaron Swartz had chosen his targets carefully, and so did the government when it fixed its sights on him. (In fact, JSTOR suffered no financial loss, and urged the feds to drop the charges. They refused.)

A clean and straightforward work of advocacy cinema, blending archival footage and contemporary talking-head interviews, Knappenberger’s film makes clear that Swartz was always interested in the social and political consequences of technology. By the time he reached adulthood he began to see political power, in effect, as another system of control that could be hacked, subverted and turned to unintended purposes. In the late 2000s, Swartz moved rapidly through a variety of politically minded ventures, including a good-government site and several different progressive advocacy groups. He didn’t live long enough to learn about Edward Snowden or the NSA spy campaigns he exposed, but Swartz frequently spoke out against the hidden and dangerous nature of the security state, and played a key role in the 2011-12 campaign to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a far-reaching government-oversight bill that began with wide bipartisan support and appeared certain to sail through Congress. That campaign, and the Internet-wide protest of American Censorship Day in November 2011, looks in retrospect like the digital world’s political coming of age.

Earlier that year, Swartz had been arrested by MIT campus police, after they noticed that someone had plugged a laptop into a network switch in a server closet. He was clearly violating some campus rules and likely trespassing, but as the New York Times observed at the time, the arrest and subsequent indictment seemed to defy logic: Could downloading articles that he was legally entitled to read really be considered hacking? Wasn’t this the digital equivalent of ordering 250 pancakes at an all-you-can-eat breakfast? The whole incident seemed like a momentary blip in Swartz’s blossoming career – a terms-of-service violation that might result in academic censure, or at worst a misdemeanor conviction.

Instead, for reasons that have never been clear, Ortiz and Heymann insisted on a plea deal that would have sent Swartz to prison for six months, an unusually onerous sentence for an offense with no definable victim and no financial motive. Was he specifically singled out as a political scapegoat by Eric Holder or someone else in the Justice Department? Or was he simply bulldozed by a prosecutorial bureaucracy eager to justify its own existence? We will almost certainly never know for sure, but as numerous people in “The Internet’s Own Boy” observe, the former scenario cannot be dismissed easily. Young computer geniuses who embrace the logic of private property and corporate power, who launch start-ups and seek to join the 1 percent before they’re 25, are the heroes of our culture. Those who use technology to empower the public commons and to challenge the intertwined forces of corporate greed and state corruption, however, are the enemies of progress and must be crushed.

”The Internet’s Own Boy” opens this week in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Toronto, Washington and Columbus, Ohio. It opens June 30 in Vancouver, Canada; July 4 in Phoenix, San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.; and July 11 in Seattle, with other cities to follow. It’s also available on-demand from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu and other providers.

http://www.salon.com/2014/06/24/the_internets_own_boy_how_the_government_destroyed_aaron_swartz/?source=newsletter

GLENN GREENWALD ON PRIVACY

Glenn Greenwald: ‘What I Tell People Who Say They Don’t Care About Their Privacy’

“Those people don’t believe what they’re saying,” the civil liberties-focused journalist says.

Since he obtained and published Edward Snowden’s leaked National Security Agency documents a little more than a year ago, journalist Glenn Greenwald said people have told him over and over that government surveillance does not concern them.

“Those people don’t believe what they’re saying,” he told a sold-out audience last week at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco.

To illustrate this, every time someone would come up to Greenwald and say they didn’t mind people knowing what they were doing because they had nothing to hide, he would proceed with the same two steps: first, by giving them his email address and then by asking them to send him all their email and social media passwords — just so he could have a look.

“I’ve not had one single person send me them,” he said, as the room swelled with laughter. “And I check my email box constantly!”

The humorous anecdote, Greenwald said, exemplifies how people instinctively understand how privacy is vital to who we are. Just as much as we need to be social, we need a place where we can go to learn and think without others passing judgment on us.

“Privacy is embedded in what it means to be human and always has been across time periods and across cultures,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald recalled prominent figures who have tried to distance themselves from this fundamental need. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, said in an interview in 2009, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” But four years before, Schmidt blacklisted CNET after it published an article on privacy concerns that listed where he lives, his salary, his political contributions, and his hobbies — all obtained from a 30-minute Google search.

Another privacy hypocrite Greenwald mentioned is Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee. Feinstein has been a major supporter of the NSA program, and has maintained it’s “not a surveillance program,” but rather a collection of lists of data. And while Greenwald said the program does regularly spy on people by listening to their phone calls or reading their emails, he said lists of your conversations  — perhaps with a self-help hotline or medical clinic — are just as insidious. After all, he said, Feinstein never responded to a campaign calling on her to publish a list of all the people she emailed and called on a given day.

“Somebody collecting the list of all the people with whom you’re communicating will know an enormous amount about your most invasive and intimate realm,” he said. “Oftentimes even more than they’ll learn if they’re listening to your telephone calls, which could be cryptic, or your email communications which could be quite stunted.”

Greenwald then listed three well-known media figures who have also claimed that they weren’t worried about being targets of surveillance: MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell, Washington Postcolumnist Ruth Marcus and Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker.

“I started thinking about what those people have in common,” Greenwald said, adding that he realized they all more or less defend the government in their reporting. But if you go into American Muslim communities, or the Occupy movement, or groups who challenge the status quo, he said, you’ll find countless people afraid of being targeted.

In addition, this notion implies that if you don’t challenge the government, you won’t have to worry about being spied on. But “the true measure of how free a society is,” Greenwald said, “is how it treats its dissidents.”

He added, “We should not be comfortable or content in a society where the only way to remain free of surveillance and oppression is if we make ourselves unthreatening and passive and compliant as possible.”

The discontent with the way society operates is starting to ignite change. While the NSA has not closed up shop, because, as Greenwald said, a government isn’t going to limit its own power, there’s no reason to be pessimistic. Greenwald pointed to the countries worldwide that are angered by what the United States is doing and are pushing back. In addition, tech giants like Google and Facebook, which enthusiastically assist the NSA, are threatened by their bottom line, as people can refuse their services and seek other developing platforms that don’t put their privacy up for sale.

Ultimately, the lesson of Snowden’s actions signifies that people can spark change. After all, Greenwald said, Snowden was a 29-year-old high school dropout who grew up in a working-class family.

“And yet, through nothing more than a pure act of a conscience, a choice to be fearless in the face of injustice, Edward Snowden literally changed the world,” Greenwald told the audience. “I’ve come infected by that courage.… All of this should be a personal antidote to the temptation of defeatism.”

Glenn Greenwald will be speaking in other cities in the upcoming week about the NSA, privacy, and his new bookNo Place to Hide.Click here for more info.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald speaks in California

http://www.democracynow.org/images/story/65/23065/splash/Glenn_Greenwald.png

By Tom Carter
24 June 2014

Glenn Greenwald’s recent speeches on the West Coast exhibited many of the strengths—and some of the same limitations—as his recent book No Place to Hide (reviewed here). Greenwald is currently touring the United States to promote his book.

Last Thursday, he spoke at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles. He was greeted by a standing ovation in the sold-out auditorium, with one organizer estimating attendance as high as 850. Many people stood in the aisles and crammed the balconies.

When Greenwald speaks in the first person about the struggle that he conducted alongside National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and a small group of other journalists to expose the NSA’s illegal activities, it is easy to see why he has attracted a substantial following. In Los Angeles, the mere mention of Snowden’s name evoked spontaneous applause from the audience, which consisted mostly of young people.

As a journalist and critic, Greenwald is at his best when defending Snowden against the deceitful attacks by the Obama administration and various media personalities.

In his speech in Los Angeles, Greenwald pointed out that NSA director James R. Clapper, who was caught lying to Congress about the NSA’s spying, is guilty of perjury—no less a felony crime than anything that Snowden is accused of doing. Those who are invoking the “rule of law” in relation to Snowden have nothing to say about the Obama administration’s refusal to prosecute Clapper.

Greenwald repeatedly mocked President Obama for the official lies about the NSA and his promises to “rein in” surveillance. He contrasted the “marketing and branding” of Obama with “who he really is,” i.e., the most ferocious persecutor of whistleblowers in American history.

Greenwald devoted special attention to the US media’s presentation of Snowden, including the baseless accusations that Snowden was a “Russian spy” (or, at one point, a “Chinese spy”), reports that Snowden was a “fame-seeking narcissist,” and the argument that NSA surveillance on the American population has anything to do with the so-called “war on terror.” The vast majority of what is published by the mainstream media is factually untrue, Greenwald said, attacking the official lineup of talking heads as “actors who play journalists on TV.”

He defended Snowden’s decision to disclose NSA surveillance as a “pure act of conscience.” Snowden, Greenwald said, “did not want to live the rest of his life knowing that he was confronted with this great injustice, and he had the opportunity to do something about it, and he did nothing.”

Greenwald denounced the media campaign to portray Snowden, Julian Assange, Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and other dissenters as somehow psychologically sick or pursuing subjective personal motives. “What is more psychologically healthy,” Greenwald asked, “going along with the government’s crimes or exposing them?”

Greenwald spoke passionately about the harmful effects of surveillance on the individual. He pointed out that the harm of surveillance is not merely that private communications are intercepted by the government, but that many people, if they believe they are being monitored, simply will not express their private thoughts in the first place.

Some of the most thoughtful passages in Greenwald’s book address these issues. In one passage, Greenwald quotes from an artist who was targeted during the period of blacklists in Hollywood, describing “the dynamic of oppressive self-censorship that comes from the sense of being watched.” Greenwald denounces “the pernicious controlling power of ubiquitous surveillance and the self-censorship that results…”

“Mass surveillance,” Greenwald writes in his book, is “inherently repressive, even in the unlikely case that it is not abused by vindictive officials to do things like gain private information about political opponents. Regardless of how surveillance is used or abused, the limits it imposes on freedom are intrinsic to its existence.”

Privacy, Greenwald argues, is essential for creativity, expression, exploration, contemplation, identity, freedom—and dissent. Referring to the NSA, he said, “Any structure built by human hands can be torn down and replaced by other human hands.”

Notwithstanding these welcome sentiments present in his writings and speeches, Greenwald is at his weakest when he attempts to draw broader political conclusions from the exposures he has helped to make.

At one point during his speech in Los Angeles, Greenwald posed the question, “Why hasn’t anything changed?” He acknowledged that the NSA was continuing to engage in all of the practices that he had exposed, with no significant section of the American political establishment demanding an end to them. If anything, mass surveillance is becoming more and more entrenched.

Greenwald appeared unable to answer his own question. As possible “avenues for change,” he listed a vague “coalition of other countries” that would in the future pressure the US government to discontinue its mass surveillance. Another option, according to Greenwald, was that “tech companies” and “pressure on the US government” from “tech company billionaires” would lead to reforms.

(Perhaps included on Greenwald’s list of progressive tech company billionaires is eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who recently financed Greenwald’s new media company First Look Media to the tune of $250 million.)

Sadly, the mobilization of the great mass of the population—in the US and internationally—was not listed anywhere among Greenwald’s possible “avenues for change.” Indeed, Greenwald’s focus on the individual psychological consequences of surveillance tends to suggest that he considers the majority of the population to be hopelessly brainwashed by the media and the NSA surveillance programs he describes.

In the place of mass struggles, Greenwald sees the electrifying “acts of conscience” of heroic individuals such as Snowden, Manning, Assange and others as the main path to progress. The working class does not appear to have any progressive role to play.

In this light, it is no coincidence that Greenwald’s speaking tour was organized in coordination with Haymarket Books, which is affiliated with the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Greenwald has spoken several times at ISO conferences, and his praise for these conferences has been featured prominently in the organization’s promotional material.

Greenwald’s analysis of the roots of what he describes as the “surveillance state” was limited in his speeches to denunciations of the “warped minds” of NSA leaders. He did not attempt to make any connection between the growth of the police-state apparatus and attacks on democratic rights, social inequality, historical context, militarism or war. (In his book, at least, Greenwald takes up some of these issues briefly.)

Glenn Greenwald has performed an invaluable service to working people all around the world by helping Snowden to expose the global surveillance complex that has been built up behind their backs. Personal courage was certainly involved in these exposures. In the face of calls for his prosecution, the seizure and detention of his partner, and a police raid on the newspaper he was working for, Greenwald has earned his popularity as a critic of the propaganda that passes for journalism in the 21st century.

 

The story of the unsung heroes: Black Bloc Brazil

by Esther Solano Gallego on June 23, 2014

Post image for The story of the unsung heroes: Black Bloc Brazil

Despised by many, hailed by some: the Black Bloc in Brazil uses its “performative violence” to draw attention to the everyday struggles of millions.

Article by Esther Solano Gallego and Paulo Rogério Lugoboni Filho. Illustration by Luciano Cunha, creator of O Doutrinador.

It was in the first weeks of the massive anti-government protests that started in June 2013 and shook Brazilian society to its very foundations that the Black Bloc made its first appearance on the protest scene. Demonstrations took place in dozens of cities across the country, but the black-clad youngsters who covered their faces and linked arms at the front-line of the marches, ready for any confrontation with the security forces, made their appearance mainly on the streets of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

While being denounced by some for their violent tactics, actively looking for confrontations with the police and smashing banks and other symbols of global capitalism, those joining the Black Bloc in a protest could also count on some support from fellow protesters. During last year’s education crisis in October, which drew thousands of indignant teachers to the streets, the Black Bloc was present to protect them from the police violence.

In response, the SEPE Teacher’s Union declared its unconditional support for the Black Bloc, claiming that many have been protected by the masked youngsters from the excessive use of force by the police. Even though the SEPE has now retracted its support for the Black Bloc, and popular opinion has turned against it due to its negative depiction in the mainstream media, this strategy of radical anti-authoritarianism is still alive and kicking on the streets of Brazil today.

Despite the disproportional attention paid to the Black Bloc’s violence in the mainstream media, it is in fact still a largely marginal phenomenon. Even in a metropolis like São Paulo, where protest marches tend to draw in thousands of supporters, the Black Bloc usually does not consist of more than fifty to a hundred people.

Another flaw in the mainstream media’s reporting on the Black Bloc is its false presentation as an organization with a command structure, internal hierarchy and a clear agenda, whereas in fact it is nothing more than a tactic in which a group of like-minded people naturally flock together to resist the violence of the state, bound by the unconditional solidarity that lasts only as long as the protest itself, after which every individual goes their own way. In the words of some black bloc participants, the tactic has been described as a performance, a form of direct action that uses symbolic violence as a way to call for public debate.

Why so violent?

Ever since the Black Bloc entered the protest scene in Brazil, three crucial questions have intrigued observers and government officials alike: what motivates these people to take their anger to the streets; how do they justify the use of violence; and why do they not engage in peaceful protests?

Due to the explicit distrust that the majority of Black Bloc supporters have towards the media, especially the mainstream channels, it is really hard for society at large to obtain access to the ideologies and reasoning that guide their actions on the streets. The key, and most provocative, element that causes a big fuss in public opinion is the use of violence as a legitimate tool of protest. The arguments given by Black Bloc participants to justify their sometimes violent direct actions are essential to understanding all the dimensions of that phenomenon. Still, the ideological motivations and reasoning behind these actions is not well understood by the great majority of the population, whose only contact with the Black Bloc is through the mainstream media.

After talking with a number of Black Bloc participants, we can affirm that there exists a huge convergence between the beliefs of the protesters and the specific tactics generally used by the Black Bloc. Behind the heterogeneous profiles of these youths one can notice a common denominator; a collective idea that defines their shared points-of-view. First, there is the conviction that purely peaceful protests are not bringing any tangible results, and, as such, are inefficient.

In the words of one protester: “If we want peace, we have to fight for it. Peaceful protests are meaningless. The government doesn’t care! They only listen to violence.” This argument is closely related to the general discontent with the political institutions of the country. On top of this, there exists an intense anger towards the police and towards the military task forces in particular. “The military are murderers,” one protester told us. “They kill all the time and we can’t react. Military pigs!”

“Indignation” is the term that most frequently comes up when talking with the youths that are trying to explain the meaning of the Black Bloc to them. The feeling of indignation is instigated by the general discontent of the people with the political powers that are perceived as corrupt and absent in those sections of society where their presence is most urgently required.

The lack of high quality basic services, the difficult urban life, the disinterested stance of the political establishment, the uncertainties of the future, and the dismantlement of the public sector in contrast with the rise of the private sector are some of the examples continuously cited throughout the conversations we had with protesters. In this sense, the perception that today’s youth has of government and, in a broader sense, their perception of the current socio-economic system, closely mirrors public opinion.

Direct action

The Black Bloc is defined by its participants as a form of direct action. But what does this mean? In this particular case, the direct action of the Black Bloc can be seen as a form of both symbolic and performative violence against the symbols of corporate and state power. It is intended not to injure people but to still draw attention to the protests and provoke a social and institutional reaction. McDonald’s restaurants are vandalized, banks are left with broken windows, and government buildings are defaced: it all forms part of a collective tactic based on a theatrical display of confrontation with the powers-that-be.

Violence, in this way, can be considered a form of expression. It communicates to power a message that purely peaceful protests cannot, challenging the government and forcing it to bring about meaningful change. The bourgeois protests, or coxinhas, which are often entirely peaceful, have in the eyes of many failed to achieve any positive results for the population at large. For some, then, the use of performative violence — not oriented towards people but to property and, only in defensive battles, against the police — becomes necessary. One protester framed the violent protests as a warning signal to the government, which still refuses to address the protesters’ claims: “If violence isn’t used, you don’t get attention. They do not see our revolt.”

In this way, the use of performative violence is justified as a political instrument. According to these youths, the historical protests of June have not brought about any positive results or structural changes. Therefore, in order to advance to the next stage of the struggle, the form and content of the struggle needs to be radicalized by putting direct action at the heart of the movement’s tactics. This radicalization of the protests is a natural consequence of the refusal of public officials to engage with the popular will. Having reached the point at which the government clearly felt comfortable to simply ignore the peaceful marches of millions, performative violence is now perceived to be the only way for legitimate popular demands to be heard.

That said, the spectacular dimension of the protesters’ violence is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the theatrical appeal of the violent protests for the mainstream media provides the protesters with a stage on which to display their message to a wider audience. On the other hand, it reinforces the media’s craving for the spectacle and thereby risks further marginalizing purely peaceful protests.

It is not uncommon for a protest where the Black Bloc makes its appearance to have an equal number of journalists, both from the mainstream channels and independent outlets, present on the scene. “We only gave attention to violent protests. That’s what matters,” admits Bruno Paes de Manso, a blogger for Estadão, one of the country’s largest newspapers. “The media creates a monster and then it doesn’t know what to do with it. We legitimize that violence. The peaceful protests don’t matter, they don’t sell and they can’t be turned into the front page of a newspaper.”

Now, with the FIFA World Cup-circus descending upon Brazil, the country’s resistance movement has the opportunity to showcase its grievances on a truly global stage. Different social forces are emerging in the face of this opportunity, and the tactics of the Black Bloc are becoming more and more popular. Even while being depicted in the media as a criminal organization, the Black Bloc gains strength inside the movement, mainly among those mobilizing against the tournament.

The battle at the doorstep

In the wake of the first birthday of the Marches of June, diversity of tactics now appears to have become a significant part of the political process in Brazil, capable of drawing attention to demonstrations that haven’t reached as wide an audience as last year’s mobilizations. This, in a sense, symbolizes a break-through with respect to the lethargic political reaction to last year’s protests — one that may yet prove to be a turning-point for Brazilian politics insofar as the development of a truly democratic society is concerned.

Perhaps most importantly, the rise of the Black Bloc forces us to confront the question of violence in a broader, more structural sense. Why do we pay such tremendous attention to some broken windows, while no one is talking about the 50.000 annual homicides, or the equal amount of women who are raped every year in Brazil? Does the theatrical violence of the Black Bloc truly deserve more attention than the tragedies of everyday life in the favelas? One explanation is that the performative violence of the Black Bloc has brought the battle to the doorstep of those who are pulling the strings, whereas the very real violence against the poor and marginalized occurs at the fringes of society, safely hidden away from the public gaze in areas where the cameras of the mainstream media rarely venture.

Whether one agrees with Black Bloc tactics or not, we have to admit that they successfully draw attention to the very real indignation that slumbers below the surface of Brazilian society. We can debate how successful the use of performative violence can be in achieving one’s long-term goals of radical social transformation, but we cannot deny a person’s right to resist in whatever way they see fit. When violence is the only face of the state that people experience, no wonder it’s through violence that they resist.

Esther Solano Gallego is Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of São Paulo.

Paulo Rogério Lugoboni Filho is a student in International Relations at the Federal University of São Paulo

Luciano Cunha is a Brazilian author, cartoonist and graphic designer. His latest creation is the anti-hero O Doutrinador (‘The Indoctrinator’), who — dressed in black, sporting a Sepultura t-shirt, carrying a machine gun and with his face covered by a gas mask to avoid identification — has set out on a mission to rid the country of its corrupt politicians. In less than a year the comic has drawn a lot of attention from infuriated Brazilians who in some way feel connected to the anti-hero’s mission. The popularity of O Doutrinador has sky-rocketed in the past year, drawing attention not only from those who support Cunha’s work, but also from government figures who attempt to muzzle him via lawsuits, violating his freedom of expression and trying to kill his creative liberty. We at ROAR are therefore very excited to feature a series of unique drawings by Cunha to illustrate our Brazil coverage in the coming weeks. O Doutrinador can be found on Facebook, YouTube, and his personal website.

Rio de Janeiro: a story of occupations and evictions

by Vik Birkbeck on June 17, 2014

Post image for Rio de Janeiro: a story of occupations and evictions

The Homeless Worker Movement occupied a building in Rio, helping to shelter thousands — but in the run-up to the World Cup they were violently evicted.

 

Illustration by Luciano Cunha, creator of O Doutrinador.

It’s been five years since Brazil celebrated its selection by FIFA to host the ongoing 2014 World Cup. The announcement was made in great style on Copacabana Beach, packed with thousands jumping, dancing and in many cases partying all night — in what many would consider to be true Brazilian style. FIFA clearly thought that this was the safe choice in its gradual march around the globe, bringing recalcitrant nations and continents into its orbit. Brazil, after all, is the prototype football-crazy nation, where the whole country grinds to a halt to watch its squad in action. So who could possibly imagine that four years later millions of people would be marching through the streets not only of Rio and São Paulo but also Brasília, Belo Horizonte, Recife, Salvador, Goiania, shouting Não Vai ter Copa! (‘There won’t be a World Cup!).

The original impetus for the massive demonstrations of 2013 was a nationwide rise in bus fares, but with the upcoming Confederations Cup, FIFA’s dress rehearsal for the World Cup, public attention quickly focused on the vast sums being invested in stadiums and the infrastructure for the tournament. The “FIFA standard” of the new stadiums was contrasted with the recurrent problems of public transport, health and education. The double whammy of also being selected to host the 2016 Olympics engendered a wildly ambitious restructuring and development plan in Rio de Janeiro.

On December 5, 2009, the Strategic Plan of the City Government announced by Mayor Eduardo Paes presented as one of its core aims the reduction of the total surface area occupied by favelas (shanty towns) by 3.5%, purportedly because they were located “in areas at risk of landslides or flooding, conservation areas, or areas of public utility.” But as a banner carried by a protesting victim of this eviction policy read: “When rich people live in the South zone, it’s called a noble area, when poor people live there it’s called an area at risk.”

Graffiti on the walls of Metro Mangueira by the Moroccan-French artist Pleks Kustom (photo by author).

Even the beloved Maracana stadium, an international icon of Rio’s identity, had to be entirely reconstructed in line with FIFA directives. In the process the geral — the cheap standing area occupied by Rio’s most ardent football fans — has been abolished, effectively excluding the poorer part of the population from attending games. Watching live football is now the privilege of the “whites”, the upper and middle-class spectators who are able to pay more for the right to watch the game sitting down. In the process of reconstructing Maracana, the developers hit on a perfect scheme for earning more money by knocking down the surroundings as well to make space for a massive parking lot and shopping mall.

The destroyed surroundings of the stadium included Friedenreich School, one of Rio’s best municipal schools (in a country which ranks 78th for quality of education); Lanagro, Rio’s only laboratory for analyzing foodstuffs (while Brazil has the highest consumption of pesticides in the world and all corn and soy plantations are genetically modified); the Olympic-standard Celio de Barros athletics complex and Julio de Lamare water-sports complex (both newly reconstructed at vast expense for the 2007 Pan-American Games and used for training Rio’s Olympic athletes); Metro Mangueira, a poor community built 34 years ago by the construction workers of the Rio underground, hence its name; and finally Aldeia Maracanã, a multi-ethnic indigenous community created in 2006 around the abandoned 19th century building, which had long been associated with indigenous culture and which housed the Indian museum for over twenty years.

Metro Mangueira is emblematic of the many evictions carried out or planned in the lead-up to the World Cup and the Olympics. It was once an orderly, close-knit community and, although poor, the houses were solidly built by construction-workers. In October 2010, employees of the City Council started informing the inhabitants that their community was “at risk”, marking their houses with crosses and numbers, reminiscent of the Nazi practices in Jewish ghettos. The 107 families who accepted were moved to Cosmos, some 45 miles away, causing enormous hardship for those with jobs or schools nearby. The City Council tractors then moved in to demolish the newly abandoned homes, leaving huge holes and piles of broken masonry, opening the community to drug dealers, prostitution and a plague of rats and mosquitoes.

As a result, the official explanation used to justify the eviction became a self-fulfilling prophecy. With families and individuals occupying the ruins and rubble of the demolished homes, the area was soon transformed into a risk zone. Finally, at the beginning of 2014, with the World Cup in sight, the demolition trucks moved back into the community. Instead of a real option for those about to be evicted, the city council proposed to register them in the federal programme Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) which subsidizes low income families to acquire houses. Although federal, this program is administered by city councils in each state. There have been no new public housing developments in the central area of Rio, so the register is just a piece of paper. Popular resistance to the demolition of Metro Mangueira lasted several days and led to a large contingent of military police attacking young and old alike with pepper spray, bombs and rubber bullets.

Resistance during the final eviction of Metro Mangueira (photo by Paula Kossatz).

Before the advent of Google Maps, maps of Rio de Janeiro depicted the older, more traditional areas of the city and the newer expansions towards Barra and Recreio while the rest of the area was apparently uninhabited space. Google maps dealt a serious blow to this bucolic image of the Cidade Maravilhosa (‘Wonderful City’) by revealing that all available space in the urban area — hills, valleys, rough ground — was occupied by favelas. The reaction of much of the elite was a sense of betrayal, but it’s impossible to sweep these satellite images under the carpet. Suddenly everyone was forced to admit the favelas‘ existence.

After the draconian austerity measures and structural reforms imposed by the IMF during the debt crisis of the 1980s, the favelas had spread rapidly as more and more people were driven to the cities by the expansion of industrial agriculture. In their new urban dwellings, the inhabitants lingered in a sort of limbo-state, as an auxiliary labor force at wages insufficient to adequately feed their families, let alone pay for housing. Signs of the acute housing crisis in Rio are reflected in the number of people — even entire families — sleeping in the streets in the city center, while new favelas continuously spring up in every available space.

So when at the beginning of April 2014 some of the leaders of the Movement of Homeless Workers identified a large building and surrounding yard and out-houses which used to belong to the former telephone company Telerj, and which had been abandoned for nearly twenty years, they quickly set about occupying the area. Thousands of families invested their minimal resources into buying planks to construct huts in the area which in the space of a week was occupied by ten thousand people. Although the occupants of the Telerj building included pregnant women, elderly people and thousands of children from babies to adolescents, no real attempt was made to identify the occupants or investigate their necessities.

TV Globo, Brazil’s biggest television network, was quick to denounce the “invaders” as criminals, flying over the area for aerial shots of the “invasion.” The telephone company that took over from Telerj — Oi — had never occupied the building, which was going to be sold to the city government and which was destined for the ‘My House, My Life’ program. However, with the impasse of the occupation, the “owners” soon appeared and a suit for reintegration of the property was rushed through the courts. On Wednesday, April 9, Mayor Eduardo Paes announced that the occupation had been carried out by organized professionals, implying criminal intent, and declared that the area should be “disoccupied” and returned to its owners. The mayor went as far as stating that “really poor people who need houses don’t stake out their plots with planks and construction materials.”

Rubble is all that remains of the Metro Mangueira community (photo by author).

So what was the solution for all this “criminal activity”? At dawn on April 11, 1.600 heavily armed military police invaded the area. Sleeping women were kicked awake, huts were knocked down, everyone was sprayed with chemical spray — not from the usual hand-held canisters but from massive cylinders the size of fire extinguishers, which the police carried in backpacks. All members of the press, whether corporate or independent, were expelled from the area and even one of the Globo reporters was arrested by police on the spurious charge that he was “throwing stones.” Occupants allege that four infants succumbed to the chemical spray and rumors circulated that one of the reasons for keeping reporters out was to prevent them from witnessing the fatalities.

The sheer number of people involved, the fact that noone had time to create a real register of the occupants of the building, and the pandemonium that ensued makes it impossible to corroborate the facts. Nonetheless, the photographs and videos of independent reporters on the scene bear witness to the terror of the “disoccupation.” Testimonies of many of those involved reveal that these are people who have already been evicted from other areas in recent demolitions and evictions, while others are victims of the rising prices engendered by the militarization of the favelas.

The occupation and subsequent eviction of the Telerj building, just as the destruction of the Metro Mangueira community, is exemplary of the complete disregard for right to housing of Brazil’s poorest people. On the one hand, entire neighborhoods are demolished to make space for parking lots and shopping malls, and on the other many favelas have been occupied by militarized police forces (UPPs). This means that communities lacking any form of public services are basically placed under permanent curfew, which goes under the dubious title of “Public Security,” and any kind of protest is treated as a criminal uprising.

The contagious spirit of the mass protests that have been rocking Brazil over the past year has also found fertile soil in the favelas, where the death of every young person murdered by police is another rallying cry for popular resistance. As the current wave of anti-World Cup protests shows, the genie is out of the bottle — and it will take a lot more than violent evictions and police repression to silence the awakened and indignant multitude.

Vik Birkbeck is British by birth but is a long-time resident of Brazil. As a media activist she has been filming and photographing popular culture and street movements since the eighties. All the photos in the article are by the author.

Luciano Cunha is a Brazilian author, cartoonist and graphic designer. His latest creation is the anti-hero O Doutrinador (‘The Indoctrinator’), who — dressed in black, sporting a Sepultura t-shirt, carrying a machine gun and with his face covered by a gas mask to avoid identification — has set out on a mission to rid the country of its corrupt politicians. In less than a year the comic has drawn a lot of attention from infuriated Brazilians who in some way feel connected to the anti-hero’s mission. The popularity of O Doutrinador has sky-rocketed in the past year, drawing attention not only from those who support Cunha’s work, but also from government figures who attempt to muzzle him via lawsuits, violating his freedom of expression and trying to kill his creative liberty. We at ROAR are therefore very excited to feature a series of unique drawings by Cunha to illustrate our Brazil coverage in the coming weeks. O Doutrinador can be found on Facebook, YouTube, and his personal website.

They Can’t Represent Us: a riveting defense of democracy

by Jerome Roos on June 16, 2014

Post image for They Can’t Represent Us: a riveting defense of democracy

They Can’t Represent Us by Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini is a fiery indictment of electoral politics and a riveting defense of real democracy.

 

Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini (2014), They Can’t Represent Us: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy (with a foreword by David Harvey). London and New York: Verso.

A lot of ink has already been spilled on last month’s European elections. Most commentators lament the rise of the far-right; some celebrate the rise of the radical left — but almost everyone has focused their attention on the rearrangement of the deck chairs, missing the grumbling sounds of discontent emanating from below, deep down in the bowels of the ship. As it turns out, only 43% of eligible Europeans actually showed up to vote; the rest couldn’t even be bothered to make the short trip to the polling station. Grand hypotheses are already being staked upon the numbers pulled out of the ballot box, but if numbers still mean anything in this world we should be looking not at the marginal success of leftist parties but at the hundreds of millions who have long since given up their faith in the sham of a democracy we are currently presented with.

The representative institutions of capitalist democracy are facing a profound legitimation crisis. According to the European Commission, 68% of Europeans do not believe that their voice counts in Europe, while a recent Eurobarometer survey revealed that public confidence in the EU has fallen to historic lows. Meanwhile, a major study by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project finds that the mistrust is far from limited to EU institutions: “compounding their doubts about the Brussels-based European Union, Europeans are losing faith in the capacity of their own national leaders to cope with the economy’s woes.” José Ignacio Torreblanca of the European Council of Foreign Relations remarks that “both debtor and creditor countries basically feel that they lost control of what they are doing,” and concludes that most European citizens “now think that their national democracy is being subverted by the way the euro crisis is conducted.”

The story is the same in the United States, where Gallup’s most recent annual trust poll found that only 19% of Americans trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time”, while an overwhelming 81% trust the government only “some of the time” or “never” — a marked deterioration even from the darkest days of George W. Bush’s anti-democratic reign. Just by means of comparison: back in 1960, 73% of Americans still trusted their government to do the right thing always or most of the time. As two leading pollsters for former Presidents Clinton and Carter remark, “this harrowing lack of trust in confidence in politicians and institutions today has been a long time coming … As it stands, our system only serves the elite, not the mass public. And the American people know it.”

This is the crisis of representation facing the so-called capitalist democracies today — and this is the context in which a wave of protest has spread across the globe in recent years. As one Brazilian activist put it during last year’s mass demonstrations, “the mask of democracy is falling.” Now, a timely new book by Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini recounts the stories of ordinary citizens around the world as they decided to take matters into their own hands. In They Can’t Represent Us: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy, the international scholar-activist duo provide us with a unique insight into the bowels of the ship, where a massive democratic mutiny is brewing — occasionally spilling over onto the deck to rearrange some of the chairs, but most of the time simply stirring below the surface, preparing the ground for a radical redistribution of power from below.

In a hard-hitting denunciation of representative democracy, and through a colorful depiction of the countless grassroots alternatives that are already being constructed in communities and workplaces around the world, Sitrin and Azzellini recount the story of the movement of the squares in Greece, Spain and the US, and seek to ground these mass mobilizations in the desire of ordinary people to control their everyday lives and to actively participate in the decision-making processes that affect them. This book, then, is both a fiery indictment of electoral politics and a riveting defense of real democracy — which must by its definition be built on the basis of radical egalitarianism and the direct participation of ordinary citizens in social, political and economic life. Above all, the book is about a radically different approach to running the ship and finding ways to change course before it slams into the dislodged icebergs that loom ominously ahead.

From this vantage point, the year 2011 constituted a rupture. The mass mobilizations and occupations of public spaces from Tahrir to Zuccotti Park cracked open history and allowed a renewed critique of capitalism and representation to finally come to the fore. For a brief moment, at least, the radical imagination ran free. For many, participating in these events was a profoundly transformative experience that was carried over into their everyday lives, where it shot root and began to branch out into new social relations and new forms of political engagement. Today, Sitrin and Azzellini show, hundreds of “laboratories for democracy” are emerging around the world, creating space for ordinary citizens to experiment with alternative forms of social organization, democratic decision-making processes and non-hierarchical ways of relating. In Southern Europe and Latin America, in particular, this project of autonomy has come to pervade the social fabric.

Unlike the occupations themselves, however, the more recent self-managed initiatives that emerged out of them are much less visible and tend to be greatly under-reported by the mainstream media and largely under-appreciated by the institutional left. As a result, the public debate in the United States and Europe today lacks a proper grassroots perspective. Luckily, Sitrin and Azzellini are in an excellent position to provide just that. Having actively participated in the movements themselves, having conducted dozens of follow-up interviews with other participants, and having spent a number of years embedded in previous movements in Argentina and Venezuela, respectively, Sitrin and Azzellini are able to reflect both on their internal functioning and on the global context in which they all arose.

Moreover, Sitrin and Azzellini take the title of their book seriously. Rather than trying to “represent” the voices of the movements, a large part of the book is devoted to the voices of activists and organizers themselves. Through a set of well-selected and carefully curated interview transcripts, they provide the reader with a wonderful insight into the political visions of movement organizers, as well as the many social struggles, political projects and community initiatives that emerged in the wake of the recent ruptures — ranging from efforts to recuperate factories and stop the privatization of water in Greece, to resisting evictions in Spain and “striking debt” in the United States.

Some of these efforts have brought inspiring (partial) victories. At the same time, it is clear that, on the whole, the movements have so far been unable to create a real dent in the top-down distribution of power between the decks. Apart from a number of promising spin-off campaigns, Occupy largely fizzled out, while the movement of the squares in Greece and Spain (despite continued mass mobilizations) has not yet succeeded in halting the austerity drive of their respective governments. In a recent article, the New York-based collective Not An Alternative ultimately blamed the failure of Occupy on the movement’s fetishization of process at the expense of the effort of constructing an alternative political form that could credibly challenge dominant power structures. The California-based Research & Destroy collective similarly lambasts the movement for its inability to match means with ends. These critiques raise an important question: can autonomous movements that emphasize horizontality and self-organization ever really mount a genuine challenge to the capitalist system as such?

Sitrin and Azzellini never really address this question explicitly, but they do touch upon it in what are perhaps the most fascinating and most instructive chapters of their book: the ones on Argentina and Venezuela. Like the US and Europe today, these two Latin American countries experienced a major rupture following a period of rapid neoliberal restructuring. In 1989, a brutal state crackdown on an IMF riot in Carácas — the so-called Caracazo – left thousands dead and set the stage for the proliferation of grassroots movements and the emergence of the Bolivarian process. In Argentina, a spontaneous uprising on December 19 and 20, 2001 ousted President De la Rúa and led to the greatest sovereign debt default in world history, as well as a massive surge in social mobilization, horizontal self-organization and workplace recuperation. These examples show that grassroots movements have a critical role to play in social transformation.

Still, the Latin American chapters leave many burning questions unanswered. Most importantly, there appears to be a tension between the Argentine and Venezuelan cases that is never fully resolved; a tension that arises from the movements’ relation to the state. While the role of the state in Argentina is described in mostly negative terms, with the Kirchners seeking to demobilize the movements through a dual strategy of repression and co-optation, the relationship between state and movements in Venezuela is depicted in a more contradictory light, as one containing both conflictive and cooperative elements. Argentina seems to leave little hope for strategic alliances between autonomous social forces and national-popular parties, while Venezuela’s experience highlights various ways in which progressive forces occupying the state can create space for autonomous movements to construct their own grassroots alternatives from below. What are we to make of these somewhat divergent experiences? What do they tell us in terms of strategy; in terms of matching means with ends?

At this stage in the struggle, such questions are no longer just academic. The rise of the radical left in Greece — and to a lesser extent in Spain — forces activists in autonomous movements to take a stance: either they support left parties wholeheartedly, or they oppose them and insist on radical autonomy and “abstraction” from the state, or they find some kind of intermediate ground, where one may vote for the left and even ally with it on strategic occasions to defend any advances made, while continuing to push against and beyond the state for a post-capitalist world that is to be held in common. It would, perhaps, have fitted the ambitious scope of Sitrin and Azzellini’s book to take up these strategic implications in a proper conclusion (right now, the book ends in the middle of an interview without any concluding remarks from the authors). None of this, however, can detract from the book’s practical importance at this historical juncture. Now, more than ever, we need to keep shining our light on the deepening crisis of representation and the real-world alternatives that are already being constructed from below. Sitrin and Azzellini have easily provided the best account of these grassroots struggles so far.

As for the deeper question — often raised by the communist left — of whether or not the notion of democracy provides a useful starting point and organizing ground for the anti-capitalist struggle, perhaps we should invoke a quote by C. Douglas Lummis, cited by Sitrin and Azzellini in a passage that now rings truer than ever: “‘Democracy’ was once a word of the people, a critical word, a revolutionary word. It has been stolen by those who would rule over the people, to add legitimacy to their rule. It is time to take it back.”

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.