New Lines: a parliament for the Rojava revolution

By Jonas Staal On November 1, 2015

Post image for New Lines: a parliament for the Rojava revolutionNew World Summit recently started building a revolutionary public parliament in Derîk, open to all, and a true home for Rojava’s stateless democracy.

Photo: celebration at the new public parliament in Derîk, in the presence of political representatives from Scotland, Catalonia, the Philippines, Amazigh and Sweden (Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava/New World Summit, 2015; photo: Ruben Hamelink)

Two cranes circle above a large pit in the ground, lifting heavy, black metal arches into the air. They are covered with hand-painted words: Yeksani Regezi, Gender Equality, Xwe-Bergîri, Self-Defense.

Neighbors surrounding the construction site have walked out of their homes to see the choreography of cranes, cement trucks, and bulldozers — some of the machinery decorated with flags of political parties and councils.

Among the observers is Amina Osse, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Cezîre Canton, watching the spectacle together with some women of the local security forces, the Asayish — famous for its public statements about the wish to auto-dissolve when the entire society has become capable of organizing its own self-defense.

Osse is one of the driving forces behind the building process, one of its co-authors. The day passes by and her silhouette turns dark. In the remaining light a large spherical shape has emerged in front of her. A constructivist globe that we hope will be a symbol for a new world in the making.

New World Summit

I am writing these words from Rojava, or West Kurdistan (northern Syria), where, for the third time since 2014, I am a guest, together with my colleagues Younes Bouadi and Renée In der Maur.

For the past years, our organization — the New World Summit — has dedicated itself to creating platforms in art institutions, theaters, and public spaces for stateless political movements from all over the world. From Berlin and Brussels to Kochi in India, we have constructed what we call “temporary parliaments,” large-scale architectural constructions in which representatives of more than thirty stateless political movements have taken the floor: from Basque, Catalan, Amazigh, Oromo and Baluch, to Tamil and West-Papuan revolutionary organizations.

Today, many of these groups are blacklisted, as a direct result of the so-called War on Terror. This has resulted in the freezing of bank accounts, the enforcement of travel bans, and the cancellation of passports.

Cynically enough, this means that through the act of blacklisting, those who are already without a state are turned stateless once more, facing a double negation. Blacklisting these organizations — literally placing them “outside” of democracy — has much to do with the threat they pose to the status quo of the global capitalist doctrine.

As Tamil activist and scholar Suthaharan Nadarajah argued, the policies of blacklisting is essentially driven by a project of neoliberal state building: the demand for resistance movements to “disarm” and to engage in “peaceful democratic participation” all too often simply means that the space is to be cleared for corporate politics to take over resources and land.

Many of those declared stateless through terrorist blacklisting in the so-called War on Terror embody the living, insurgent memory of legitimate resistance against exactly these policies.

The New World Summit believes that, as artists invested in emancipatory politics, our task is to create spaces to narrate these counter-narratives: spaces where we can re-imagine and represent the world according to the stateless.

The lines drawn throughout North Africa and the Middle-East were drawn by bureaucrats and colonists. As artist Golrokh Nafisi has said, it is time to draw new lines. Not according to the occupiers, but according to the resistance. Not lines that isolate one nation from another, but lines of new shapes and forms that allow us to enact this world anew. To create a new world we need the imaginary of what that world could or should look like. As such, every political imaginary needs an artistic imaginary as well.

The revolution of Rojava

The Rojava revolution has provided the world with the political imaginary that many leftists, anarchists, eco-activists and libertarian socialists have been seeking. In mid-2011, when the Assad regime was fighting the Free Syrian Army in the south, the power vacuum in the northern, predominantly Kurdish regions of the country was filled up by the Rojava revolutionaries, who declared their autonomy.

A collectively written text, the “Social Contract,” clarified the points of departure: Rojava was to become a non-state entity, where self-governance, gender equality, ethnic and religious diversity, the right to self-defense and communal economy would form the foundational pillars. Ever since — while in the middle of a war against the Islamic State and other jihadist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front, and surrounded by the forces of the Assad regime, Russian troops and the international “coalition forces” — Rojava revolutionaries have begun to put their new ideals of self-governance into practice.

Recent years have seen the birth of countless local parliaments and communes, self-organized neighborhood protection forces, new universities for the studies of repressed languages and cultures, the development of “jineology” (science of women), cultural centers, and a new film academy. Together they form the new social ecology known as the Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava.

The Rojava revolution is more than a revolution of arms — it is a social and cultural revolution. Resulting from decades of revolutionary theory and practice developed by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the work of Abdullah Öcalan has been leading in this process. After his imprisonment by the Turkish regime in 1999, he began to theorize models of autonomy that would form an alternative to the traditional paradigm of the nation-state. Concluding that the nation-state today is nothing more than a “colony of capital,” Öcalan instead proposed a model of “democratic confederalism,” which he described as “democracy without the state.”

As is widely known today, the Kurdish women’s movement was elementary in supporting this rejection of traditional forms of statehood. PKK co-founder Sakine Cansiz described how the revolutionary movement had been “an ideological struggle from the very beginning against denial, social chauvinistic impression, primitive and nationalist approaches.”

Öcalan and Cansiz thus redefined the very notion of what autonomy means. Rather than following the terms of the colonists and their projects of state building that wreaked havoc and divide, a set of new terms arose through the practice of revolutionary struggle. This is why today we can witness the stateless democracy of Rojava.

Many journalists have described the Rojava Revolution as a surprise, as a curiosity that emerged out of nowhere. But those who visit Rojava are quickly brought to reality: on every corner, in every house or commune, the names and images of martyrs are displayed. Every inch of Rojava was fought for, in past and present.

That expression is to be taken very literally: the liberation of towns and cities occupied by the Islamic State are full of booby-traps and mines, sometimes covering hundreds of meters through serially attached explosives that cannot be but detonated to be cleared, with scattered snipers and suicide bombers left behind to achieve maximum casualties. The many young people that have to fight the way through these terrifying labyrinths are the ones who make a future for Rojava possible, very literally: one inch made inhabitable at the time.

Every idea, every achievement that formed this new democratic paradigm is thus tied to a communal memory of those who helped to bring it into practice. And still today, in Rojava, as well as in Bakûr, Rojelat, and Başûr, this sacrifice continues. The saying that “Kurds are born in struggle” is the harsh reality on which a revolutionary imaginary of a new world is founded. One cannot embrace a revolution without accounting for those who were willing to resist at the cost of their very own lives.

When our team of the New World Summit arrived in Rojava the first time, we felt that we were witnessing a political project that we — as artists — had hardly been able to even imagine. In a region that suffered the terror of decades of imperialist and neocolonial state-building, a radical new democratic imaginary had arisen.

Those subjected to forces that often legitimize themselves through the name of democracy re-appropriated the term, re-enforced its principles and practice, and liberated democracy from its increasing history of serving state terror, foreign wars, clientelist regimes, and covert warfare. Revolutions are also explosions of creativity; they liberate old terms and old forms, and open up the possibility for different ways of acting upon the meaning and possibilities of our being in the world. They are expansions of the imagination of what a society could become. Essentially, that is what every great work of art should be about.

Our hosts, Foreign Affairs Minister Amina Osse and Sheruan Hassan, the international representative of the Democratic Union Party, wanted to know everything about our work in the New World Summit and the temporary parliaments we created in the past years for Kurdish and other stateless political organizations.

One night, looking through the photos of our architectural constructions, Osse looked up at me and asked: “Where are these parliaments now?” I answered: “Nowhere, we construct them for the days of our international summits only: they are temporary parliaments.” With a sparkle in her eye she smiled and said: “If you would ever make one in Rojava, we would keep it forever.”

A parliament for the Rojava revolution

That evening, political and artistic imaginary met. And that very same night, Osse, Hassan, and my team began to draw and develop a new public parliament for the Rojava Revolution. But this time, as Osse had suggested, it would be a permanent one.

We began drawing lines. But this time, they were not the lines of yet another state, yet another occupation, yet another wall or separation: as Nafisi wanted, they were new lines.

The first line we drew defined that the parliament had to be a public space: a people’s parliament, accessible at all times, for all layers and organizations that form the autonomous self-government of Rojava. The parliament was no longer to be separated from the public sphere, but had to become one with it.

The second line we drew defined that the parliament had to be circular; a parliament that rejects formal hierarchies between speakers and public; a parliament that embraces the fact that the revolution of Rojava rejects all monopolies of power.

The third line we drew defined that the parliament had to be founded on six pillars: six metal arches, each of which would carry a foundational concept from the Social Contract that resulted from the Rojava revolution. Written in Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian these pillars would carry the foundational principles of the revolution, namely Democratic Confederalism, Gender Equality, Secularism, Self-Defense, Communalism and Social Ecology.

The fourth line we drew defined that the parliament would be covered by fragments of six flags: six organizations that form the texture of grassroots movements and coalitions that continue to shape the Rojava revolution. Six fragments of flags that, when perceived from within the parliament, form a new whole, a new flag in which the stars and suns that decorate so many of the emblems of the organizations in Rojava construct a new confederate whole.

The fifth line we drew was the overall shape that all these components would construct together: a sphere, a new world.

In many ways, we, as the New World Summit, thought that a parliament could only be revolutionary by being temporary. But through the revolutionary imaginary of Rojava, a new parliament became possible: a stateless parliament for a stateless democracy.

The Kurdish Sun

Now the public parliament is being built: by the hands of artists, workers and revolutionaries alike. The concrete, circular heart of the parliament has become visible. The first arches of the parliament have been erected. Artists such as Abdullah Abdul help us paint the enormous canvasses that will cover the structure.

On October 17, 2015, a delegation of twenty-seven international guests stood together with the people of Derîk and the representatives of the Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava to celebrate the parliament’s coming into being. Revolutionaries from Rojava stood side-by-side with representatives of the Scottish National Party, the Popular Unity Candidacy in Catalonia, the Amazigh World Congress from North Africa, Feminist Initiative from Sweden and the National Democratic Movement of the Philippines: an internationalist blessing for a new world in the making.

As the music started, and a dance around the new parliament began under the remaining light of the Kurdish sun, Osse stood and watched the parliament. This time she stood with many.

She had said it herself many times: “Our revolution is a revolution for humanity.” It seems that humanity is beginning to see that. We certainly do. The revolutionary imaginary of Rojava taught us the profound possibilities of a new world. And now, we, as artists, hope to make our own modest contribution to make that imaginary a reality for all.

Biji Jiyana Nu Rojava.


Jonas Staal is a visual artist, PhD researcher on Art and Propaganda in the 21st Century at PhDArts/Leiden University and founder of the artistic and political organization New World Summit.

The author wishes to thank Renée In der Maur, Dilar Dirik and Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei for their editorial support in writing this article. Also thanks to artist Golrokh Nafisi, who truly does honor to Mazou Ibrahim Touré’s saying that “Slogans are the poetry of the revolution.”


Building autonomy in Turkey and Kurdistan: the DAF

By Corporate Watch On September 3, 2015

Post image for Building autonomy in Turkey and Kurdistan: the DAFIn this interview the DAF discusses the history of anarchism in Turkey, their initiatives in the anti-capitalist struggle and the Kurdish freedom movement.

In May this year, Corporate Watch researchers traveled to Turkey and Kurdistan to investigate the companies supplying military equipment to the Turkish police and army. We talked to a range of groups from a variety of different movements and campaigns.

Below is the transcript of our interview with three members of the anarchist group Devrimci Anarşist Faaliyet (DAF, or Revolutionary Anarchist Action) in Istanbul during May 2015. DAF is involved in solidarity with the Kurdish struggle, the Rojava revolution and against ISIS’ attack on Kobane, and has taken action against Turkish state repression and corporate abuse. They are attempting to establish alternatives to the current system through self-organization, mutual aid and co-operatives.

The interview was carried out in the run-up to the Turkish elections, and touches on the election campaign by the HDP, the pro-Kurdish Peoples‘ Democratic Party. Soon after the interview took place, the HDP passed the threshold of 10 percent of the total vote needed to enter the Turkish parliament.

The DAF members – who all preferred to remain anonymous – began the interview by talking about the history of anarchism in the region.


DAF: We want to underline the relationship between the freedom struggle at the end of Ottoman times and the freedom struggles of Kurdistan.

In Ottoman times anarchists organized workers’ struggles in the main cities: Saloniki, Izmir, Istanbul and Cairo. For example [the Italian anarchist, Errico] Malatesta was involved in organizing industrial workers in Cairo. The freedom struggles of Armenia, Bulgaria and Greece had connections with anarchist groups. Alexander Atabekian, an important person in the Armenian freedom struggle, was an anarchist, translating leaflets into Armenian and distributing them. He was a friend of [the Russian geographer and anarchist, Peter] Kropotkin and distributed Kropotkin’s anarchist leaflets.

We are talking about this as we want to underline the importance of freedom struggles and to compare this to the importance of support for the Kurdish struggle.

Corporate Watch: what happened to anarchists after the Ottoman period?

Towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, at the end of the 19th century, Sultan Abdul Hamid II repressed the actions of anarchists in Turkey. He knew what anarchists were and took a special interest in them. He killed or deported anarchists and set up a special intelligence agency for this purpose.

Anarchists responded by carrying out attacks on the Yildiz Sarayi palace and with bomb attacks at the Ottoman bank in Saloniki.

The government of the Ottoman Empire didn’t end with the Turkish republic. The fez has gone since but the system is still the same.

At the beginning of the [Kemalist] Turkish state [in 1923] many anarchists and other radicals were forced to emigrate or were killed. The CHP, Mustafa Kemal’s party, didn’t allow any opposition and there were massacres of Kurds.

From 1923 to 1980 there was no big anarchist movement in Turkey due to the popularity of socialist movements and the repression of the state.

The wave of revolutions from the ’60s to the ’80s affected these lands too. These were the active years of the social movements. During this period, there were revolutionary anti-imperialist movements caused by the Vietnam war, youth organizations, occupations of universities and increasing struggle of workers. These movements were Marxist-Leninist or Maoist, there were no anarchist movements.

In 1970 there was a long workers’ struggle. Millions of workers walked over a hundred kilometers from Kocaeli to Istanbul. Factories were closed and all the workers were on the streets.

Was there any awareness of anarchism in Turkey at all at this time?

During these years many books were translated into Turkish from European radicalism but only five books about anarchism were translated, three of which were talking about anarchism in order to criticize it.

But in Ottoman times there had been many articles on anarchism in the newspapers. For example, one of the three editors of the İştirak newspaper was an anarchist. The paper published [Russian anarchist, Mikhail] Bakunin’s essays as well as articles on anarcho-syndicalism.

The first anarchist magazine was published in 1989. After this many magazines were published focusing on anarchism from different perspectives; for example, post structuralism, ecology, etc.

The common theme was that they were written for a small intellectual audience. The language of these magazines was too far away from the people. Most of those involved were connected with the academia. Or they were ex-socialists affected by the fall of the Soviet Union, which was a big disappointment for many socialists. That’s why they began to call themselves anarchists, but we don’t think that this is a good way to approach anarchism, i.e. as a critique of socialism.

Between 2000 to 2005 people came together to talk about anarchism in Istanbul and began to ask: ‘how can we fight?’. At this time we guess that there were 50-100 anarchists living in Turkey and outside.

Can you explain how DAF organizes now?

Now we get 500 anarchists turning up for May Day in Istanbul. We are in touch with anarchists in Antalya, Eskişehir, Amed, Ankara and Izmir. Meydan [DAF’s newspaper] goes to between 15 and 20 cities. We have a newspaper bureau in Amed, distributing newspapers all over Kurdistan. Until now, it is in Turkish but maybe one day, if we can afford it, we will publish it in Kurdish. We send Meydan to prisons too. We have a comrade in Izmir in prison and we send copies to over 15 prisoners.

A few months ago there was a ban on radical publications in prisons. We participated in demos outside prisons and we managed to build enough pressure so that now newspapers are allowed into prisons again.

The main issue for DAF is to organize anarchism within society. We try to socialize anarchism with struggle on the streets. This is what we give importance to. For nearly nine years we have been doing this.

On an ideological level we have a holistic perspective. We don’t have a hierarchical perspective on struggles. We think workers’ struggle is important but not more important than the Kurdish struggle or women’s struggles or ecological struggles.

Capitalism tries to divide these struggles. If the enemy is attacking us in a holistic way we have to approach it in a holistic way.

Anarchy has a bad meaning for most people in society. It has a link with terrorism and bombs. We want to legitimize anarchism by linking it to making arguments for struggles against companies and for ecology. Sometimes we try to focus on the links between the state, companies and ecological damages, like the thing that Corporate Watch does.

We like to present anarchy as an organized struggle. We have shown people on the streets the organized approach to anarchism.

From 1989 to 2000 anarchism was about image. About wearing black, piercings and “mohawks”. This is what people saw. After 2000, people started to see anarchists who were part of women’s struggles and workers’ struggles.

We are not taking anarchism from Europe as an imitation. Other anarchists have approached anarchism as an imitation of US or European anarchism or as an underground culture. If we want to make the anarchist movement a social movement, it must change.

DAF’s collectives are Anarchist Youth, Anarchist Women, 26A cafe, Patika ecological collective and high school anarchist action (LAF). These self-organizations work together but have their own decision-making processes.

Anarchist Youth makes connections between young workers and university students and their struggles. Anarchist Women focuses on patriarchy and violence to women. For example, a woman was murdered by a man and set on fire last February. On 25 November there were big protests against violence against women.

LAF criticizes education and schooling in itself and tries to socialize this way of thinking in high schools. LAF also looks at ecological and feminist issues, including when young women are murdered by their husbands.

PATIKA ecological collective protests against hydro-electric dams in the Black Sea region or Hasankey [where the Ilisu dam is being built]. Sometimes there is fighting to prevent these plants from being built.

26A cafe is a self-organized cafe focusing on anti-capitalist economy. Cafes were opened in 2009 in Taksim and in 2011 in Kadıköy [both in Istanbul]. The cafes are run by volunteers. They are aimed at creating an economic model in the place where oppressed people are living. It’s important to show people concrete examples of an anarchist economy, without bosses or capitalist aims. We talk to people about why we don’t sell the big capitalist brands like Coca Cola. Of course the products we sell have a relation to capitalism but things like Coke are symbols of capitalism. We want to progress away from not-consuming and move towards alternative economies and ways of producing.

Another self-organized collective, PAY-DA — ‘Sharing and solidarity’ — has a building in Kadıköy, which is used for meetings and producing the Meydan newspaper. PAY-DA gives meals to people three times a day. It’s open to anarchists and comrades. The aim of PAY-DA is to become a cooperative, open to everybody. We try to create a bond which also involves the producers in the villages. We aim to have links with these producers and show them another economic model. We try to evolve these economic relations away from money relations. The producers are suffering from the capitalist economy. We are in the first steps of this cooperative and we are looking for producers to work with.

All of these projects are related to DAF’s ideology. This model has a connection with Malatesta’s binary model of organization.

These are anarchist organizations but sometimes people who aren’t anarchists join these struggles because they know ecological or women’s struggles, and then at the end they will learn about anarchism. It’s an evolving process.

As DAF we are trying to organize our lives. This is the only way that we can reach the people who are oppressed by capitalism.

There is also the Conscientious Objectors’ Association, which is organized with other groups, not just anarchists. Our involvement in this has a relation with our perspective on Kurdistan. We organize anti-militarist action in Turkey outside of military bases on 15 May, conscientious objector’s day. In Turkey the military is related to state culture. If you don’t do your military duty, you won’t find a job and it’s difficult to find someone to marry because they ask if you’ve been to the army. If you have been to the army, you’re a “man”. People see the state as the “Fatherland”. On your CV they ask whether you did military service. “Every Turk is born a soldier” is a popular slogan in Turkey.

Is Kemalism [the ideology associated with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk]as strong a force as it used to be?

Kemalism is still a force in schools but the AKP [the ruling Justice and Development Party] has changed this somewhat. The AKP has a new approach to nationalism focused on the Ottoman Empire. It emphasizes Turkey’s “Ottoman roots.” But Erdoğan still says that we are ‘one nation, one state, one flag and one religion.’ There is still talk about Mustafa Kemal but not as much as before. Now you cannot criticize Erdoğan or Atatürk. It’s the law not to criticize Atatürk and the unwritten rule not to criticize Erdoğan. The media follows these rules.

Can you talk about your perspective on the Kurdish freedom struggle?

The Kurdish freedom struggles didn’t start with Rojava. Kurdish people have struggled for hundreds of years against the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish state.

Since the start of DAF we have seen Kurdistan as important for propaganda and education.

Our perspective relates to peoples’ freedom struggles. The idea that people can create federations without nations, states and empires. The Turkish state says the issue is a Kurdish problem, but for us it is not a Kurdish problem, it’s an issue of Turkish policies of assimilation. It’s obvious that since the first years of the Turkish republic the assimilation of Kurdish people has not stopped. We can see this from the last Roboski massacre [of 34 Kurdish cross-border traders by Turkish F16s on 28 December 2011] by the state during the “peace process.” We can see this in the denial of Kurdish identity or the repeated massacres. Making people assimilate to be a Turk and making nationalist propaganda.

The AKP say they have opened Kurdish TV channels, allowed Kurdish language and that we are all brothers and sisters, but on the other hand we had the Roboski massacre which occurred under their rule. In 2006 there was government pressure on Erdoğan at a high level. Erdoğan said that women and children who go against Turkish policies would be punished. Over 30 children were murdered by police and army.

The words change but the political agenda continues, just under a new government. We do not call ourselves Turkish. We come from many ethnic origins and Kurdish is one of them. Our involvement in conscientious objection is part of this perspective. We want to talk to people to prevent people from going to the army to kill their brothers and sisters.

After the 2000s there has been an ideological change in the Kurdish freedom struggle. The Kurdish organizations no longer call themselves Marxist-Leninist and Öcalan has written a lot about democratic confederalism. This is important, but our relation to Kurdish people is on the streets.

Can you talk about DAF’s work in solidarity with people in Rojava?

In July 2012 at the start of the Rojava revolution, people began saying that it was a stateless movement. We have been in solidarity from the first day of the revolution. Three cantons have declared their revolution in a stateless way. We try to observe and get more information. This is not an anarchist revolution but it is a social revolution declared by the people themselves.

Rojava is a third front for Syria against Assad, ISIS and other Islamic groups. But these are not the only groups that the revolution is faced with. The Turkish republic is giving support for ISIS from its borders. The national intelligence agency of the Turkish republic appears to be giving weapons to ISIS and other Islamic groups. Kurdish people declared the revolution under these circumstances.

After the ISIS attack on Kobane began [in 2014] we went to Suruç. We waited at the border as Turkish forces were attacking people crossing. When people wanted to cross the border to or from Kobane they were shot. We stayed there to provide protection.

In October, people gathered near Suruç, and broke through the border. Turkish tanks shot gas over the border at them.

From 6 to 8 October there were Kobane solidarity demonstrations across Turkey. Kader Ortakya, a Turkish socialist supporter of Kobane, was shot dead trying to cross the border.

We helped people. Some people crossed the border from Kobane and had no shelter. We prepared tents, food and clothes for them. Sometimes soldiers came to the villages with tear gas and water cannons and we had to move. Some people came through the border searching for their families and we helped them. Other people came, wanting to cross the border and fight and we helped them. We wore clothing with DAF’s name on it.

The YPG and YPJ [the People’s Protection Units of Rojava, the YPJ is a women’s militia] pushed ISIS back day by day. Mıştenur hill was very important for Kobane. After the hill was taken by the YPG and YPJ some people wanted to return to Kobane. When they went back their houses had been destroyed by ISIS. Some houses were mined and some people have been killed by the mines. The mines need to be cleared, but by who and how? People need new houses and help. We have had conferences and talked about how to help Kobane. There was a conference two weeks ago in Amed.

What is your position on the elections?

We do not believe in parliamentary democracy. We believe in direct democracy. We do not support the HDP in the election, but we have links in solidarity with them on the streets.

Emma Goldman said that if elections changed anything they would be illegal. There are good people in the HDP who say good things, but we think that the government can’t be good because the election system isn’t equal.

In Rojava they do not call it an anarchist revolution, but there’s no government, no state and no hierarchy, so we believe in it and have solidarity with it.

Can you tell us about the bombing in Suruç [we asked this final question by email, weeks after the original interview].

More than 30 people who wanted to take part in reconstruction of Kobane were killed by an ISIS attack. This attack was clearly organized by the Turkish State. They did not even do anything to stop it although they got the information of the attack one month before. Moreover, after the explosion the Turkish State attacked Rojava and launched operations against political organizations in Turkey. Now there are many operations and political pressures on anarchists and socialists and Kurdish organizations. They are using the explosion as a reason to make this political repression on both the domestic and international levels.

We have lost 33 of our comrades, friends who struggled for the Rojava Revolution against the state’s repression, denial and politics of massacre. There are people who are killed by state, ISIS and other powers. But our resistance won’t stop, our struggle will continue, as always in history.

This article was originally published by Corporate Watch and has been republished with their permission.

Corporate Watch is an independent research group that investigates the social and environmental impacts of corporations and corporate power. You can follow them on Twitter via @CorpWatchUK.

Suruç massacre: today we mourn, tomorrow we rebuild

By Yvo Fitzherbert On July 21, 2015

Post image for Suruç massacre: today we mourn, tomorrow we rebuildThe bombing of the Amara Cultural Center was meant to inspire fear and keep people from acting in solidarity with Kobane. We must not let ISIS succeed.

Image: the faces of some of the victims of the bomb attack.

The bomb attack that took place at midday on Monday, July 20, at the Amara Cultural Center in Suruç will go down in history as a tragedy. Suruç is a border-town within 15 kilometers of Kobane, and has been the center for relief operations and the logistical hub of all support activity.

To many, Amara was a place of sanctuary and refuge for refugees fleeing the conflict in Kobane for many months. It acted as the base of coordination for the relief effort at the dozens of refugee camps scattered across the city, and as a center for international solidarity and delegations visiting the area.

Throughout the conflict, which began last September, journalists and activists have come to offer their support, and Amara was their home. I spent many weeks at the cultural center over numerous trips to the border, and it was a place which brought everyone together.

In addition to being a hub for people coming from outside, the center also acted as a refuge for children. Many workshops were arranged for the kids, and in the central room a children’s art exhibition was permanently on display. Cay was continuously drank as people sat in the middle of the room and discussed the political developments across the border in Rojava.

A specific target

The bomb specifically targeted a solidarity group called the Socialist Federation of Youth Associations (SGDF). Its young members had come to lend a hand in the rebuilding effort, and planned to cross into Kobane where they would take part in the building of a children’s playground. The victims of the massacre were predominately from Istanbul, and many were students.

SDLP are the youth wing of the socialist ESP (Party of the Oppressed), the party which formed an alliance with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) before the elections. The HDP’s co-president is Figen Yüksekdağ, a founding member of the ESP. From the traditional Turkish left, the ESP’s alliance with the HDP and the Kurdish movement in general represents the advances made in creating solidarity across pre-existing ethnic divides between Turks and Kurds.

The HDP consciously sought out alliances with the Turkish left, and in this sense, the deliberate targeting of SGDF is a direct attack on the recent convergence of the Kurdish and Turkish left. The slogan with which SGDF led the delegation says it all: “The values of Kobane are the values of the Gezi Resistance.”

The delegation that the SGDF were involved with was an attempt to extend solidarity for the people of Rojava beyond ethnic affiliations. Many of the victims of the massacre came from Alevi backgrounds, whilst another young man came from the traditional nationalist stronghold of Trabzon on the Black Sea.

Amara, moreover, was the base for activists from across the world, a sort of embassy for international allies of Kobane and Rojava more generally. For journalists, Amara was the first introduction to life on the border. Interviews were arranged through the center, and it was also where journalists were arranged to be smuggled into Kobane.

For these reasons, we can see the attack on the SGDF delegation as an attack on the international solidarity which has been built around Kobane’s resistance. The center itself is intrinsically linked to the struggle across the border in Kobane, and the attack is a clear attempt by the Islamic State to dissuade such international solidarity from taking place. We must not allow ourselves to be scared into submission.

Suicide bombers and Turkey’s ties to ISIS

Over the last two months, we have witnessed an increase in ISIS revenge suicide bombings on the Kurds, seemingly in direct response to the recent defeats the Kurdish liberation forces (YPG/YPG) have inflicted upon ISIS in northern Syria.

In Diyarbakir during an election rally for the pro-Kurdish HDP, a Turkish citizen who had previously fought for the Islamic State in Syria detonated a bomb, killing four. A few weeks later, ISIS jihadists entered Kobane from the Turkish border-gate and proceeded to massacre over 200 citizens — their second-biggest massacre in Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.

In all three of these attacks, Turkey has either been complicit or utterly negligent. As evidence of Turkey’s involvement with ISIS steadily grows, it has become increasingly apparent that the Turkish government is not on the side of its own Kurdish citizens, and would much rather support the Islamic State in order to weaken the Kurdish experiment in democratic autonomy in northern Syria.

This situation points towards an increasing spillover of the Syrian civil war into southern Turkey. While the Syrian Kurds continuously battle the Islamic State (making major gains over the last two months), the fear is that ISIS, with the implicit support of the Turkish government, will continue to carry out suicide attacks against the Kurds inside Turkey. Following the tragedy that took place in Suruç, many Kurds blame the Turkish government and its security forces for not doing enough, and are demanding retribution from the PKK.

Need for international solidarity

Both the massacre in Kobane in late June and this latest bomb attack in Suruç are an attempt by the Islamic State to keep Kobane in a desperate, war-torn, destroyed state. Local authorities have begun to rebuild the city — and the attacks are clearly intended to inspire fear and keep people from acting in solidarity with Kobane.

As international allies of the Rojava revolutionaries, we have a duty to fulfill the aims of the SGDF delegation: to help rebuild the city of Kobane.

The international solidarity towards Kobane has done an extraordinary amount of good for the Kurdish resistance in the canton. It has given fighters and citizens hope. The Amara Cultural Center represented this strong desire for international solidarity. It welcomed international visitors and sought to internationalize the conflict beyond those immediately affected by the war. We must not let ISIS have their way and be cowed into inaction out of fear of further terror.

One survivor of Monday’s attack, Merve Kanak, posted this message on her Facebook page:

They killed the people we sang with on the bus. They killed the people we danced with. They killed the people we talked with, those we were surprised to see there, those we worked together with. They killed the people we had breakfast with in the garden of Amara, the people we smiled with, we ate watermelon with. They killed the people we discussed politics and theories with. They killed the people who had different political ideologies, but who were united by the reality of the revolution. We were all good people. We all came there to realize a dream. We had toys with us, three bags each, do you understand?

Our hearts are heavy today. Tomorrow, we will rebuild.

Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He writes for a number of different publications, with a particular focus on Kurdish politics. Follow him on Twitter at @yvofitz.


Kurdish autonomy between dream and reality

By Alex de Jong On June 4, 2015

Post image for Kurdish autonomy between dream and realityIn this interview, Joost Jongerden reflects on the Rojava revolution, Öcalan’s leadership role, the position of women in the Kurdish struggle and the PKK.

The defense of the Kurdish city of Kobane against the so-called Islamic State (IS) drew worldwide attention. In the middle of the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish movement is attempting an experiment in democracy and self-rule in three areas in the north of the country, together called Rojava. The leading political force in this experiment is the PYD (Democratic Union Party).

The PYD and its sister organizations in Turkey (PKK) and Iran (PJAK) fight for autonomy for the Kurdish population. In these areas the movements claim to be building a society with equal rights for men and women, direct democracy and social justice. In the ‘social contract’ of Rojava, a kind of constitution, resources and land are declared to be common property, while democratic freedoms, the right to free education and to a livelihood are explicitly recognized.

The revolutionary process in Rojava is a unique experience and a source of hope. At the same time, much remains unclear about local developments. While the PYD receives support from Western powers in its struggle against IS, her sister organization — the PKK — is still banned in Western countries as a ‘terrorist organization’. Many people in Syria strongly criticize the PYD. What kind of movement is the PYD? And what are the developments in Rojava?

In this interview, Joost Jongerden discusses these questions — and others. Jongerden teaches rural sociology at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands and published numerous books and articles about Kurdistan and the Kurdish movement. Among other works, he wrote Radicalising Democracy: Power, Politics, People and the PKK and co-edited an issue of the European Journal of Turkish Studies on ‘Ideological Productions and Transformations: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Left‘.

The interview was taken and translated from Dutch by Alex de Jong.


Let’s start with the political evolution of the PYD. This movement bases itself on the same ideology as the PKK, an organization which started as a Marxist-Leninist national liberation movement. My impression is that since the mid-1990s, and especially since the arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999, an ideological metamorphosis has been taking place in which direct democracy and autonomy have been put at the center of the movement’s discourse.

Let me begin by addressing the characterization of the PKK. This organization was officially founded as a party in 1978 but already from 1972-’73 onwards there was a process of group formation that led to the birth of the PKK. So this group started to form shortly after the military coup in Turkey in 1971. This was a time when the radical left in Turkey was violently repressed, leaders and cadres of left-wing movements were sentenced to death or died during military operations, and many other activists were imprisoned.

What followed was a period in which activists tried to rebuild the left and were looking for a new point of reference. The people who would later form the PKK were already active during those years and were searching as well. At first, the separations between groups were fluid — there was a lot of internal discussion — but later on these groups evolved into clearly separate organizations.

One important difference between the PKK and the other groups that were formed during that time was that it remained independent from the existing political models. I want to soften the impression that the PKK was very ‘orthodox’. It was a Marxist-Leninist party, with the hierarchy and ideological reference points you would expect from such a party. As such it was not very different from most of the left at the time.

But the difference was that the PKK did not consider any of the ‘really existing socialist’ countries to be a guiding light — not China, not Cuba, not Albania, nor the Soviet Union. These countries aspired to realize socialism, but none of them were considered to be suitable examples. This was an important difference between the PKK and many other left-wing parties at the time, all of which tended to view certain countries as the embodiment of their conception of socialism — as their model.

What implications did this have for the PKK?

The PKK had a more critical view of their own ideology. They didn’t adopt an existing model but were able to interrogate themselves critically. They were more self-reliant ideologically. They always gave a lot of attention to self-evaluation and ideological education; after all they didn’t have a model or guiding state, so they were forced to think more for themselves.

The ideological metamorphosis of the PKK is related to this. In the mid-1980s, the PKK formulated a criticism of the Soviet Union, which led to them being attacked by pro-Moscow parties. Nowadays, the PKK claims that this period was the beginning of a process of ideological self-interrogation.

If you analyze that critique today there is a risk of projecting things onto it, but it’s probably safe to say that there is a relation between this critique and later developments. The PKK observed that the reality in the countries where national liberation movements, or ‘really existing socialism’, took hold was very different from the promises for which people had fought.

If you talk about this with PKK members today, they would tell you that it is incorrect to claim that these struggles brought no gains at all — but they will also emphasize that the results fell short of the promises. Even then, questions about the reasons for this were already connect to a critique of the nation state. But back then, while they had this critique, they didn’t have an alternative. The paradigm shift in their thinking about the state was a long-term process that was concluded somewhere in 2003-’05.

Would it be correct to say that the process of questioning Marxist-Leninist ideology goes back further, but that only in the early 2000s proper answers were formulated?

Yes, exactly.

And this critique, was that one of the state as such, or of certain existing nation states?

Both, actually. It is a critique of the nation state in the sense that it questions how in such a state a certain identity becomes the measure of who has rights — excluding people who don’t fit a particular identity or pushing them to assimilate to varying degrees. It’s part of the essence of Turkish nationalism, of Kemalism, to assimilate people with a different cultural identity, and the Kurds formulated a fierce critique of such policies. In a way, that is self-explanatory, but many national liberation movements still criticized the state under which they lived while looking for a solution in creating a nation state of their own. The problem returns as the solution!

Inside the PKK, the criticism of the Turkish nation state led to a questioning of the desirability of a Kurdish nation state in which minorities might yet again be disadvantaged. The state as such is accused of having penetrated into the micro-levels of social life and of supplanting people’s own capacities and potentialities for self-organization. We all relate to the state as separate individuals while forms of collectivity have, to a large degree, been dismantled. Society is splintered. Instead of turning towards the state for a solution, people’s capacities for self-organization should be strengthened.

But in many of Öcalan’s writings, the movement’s ideological leader talks about an essential, unchanging Kurdish culture. And even if this is no longer related to the goal of a Kurdish nation state, it is questionable how much room this leaves for social pluralism, for groups that fall outside of this category — all the more so because, according to Öcalan, the politics of the PKK are supposedly based on what he considers to be the essence of this Kurdish culture, which is its egalitarian and freedom-loving nature.

I think Öcalan’s writings are ambiguous. One reads references to a certain conception of Kurdish history but at the same when he discusses the category of the ‘Kurds’, he recognizes that this is a diverse group — for example in the languages that are spoken, or in terms of religion. So if one would try to create a Kurdish nation state, what would be the national language? Those are the kind of questions the PKK poses and that lead to a lot of discussion within the Kurdish movement in general. But in the texts themselves you hardly ever encounter an interrogation of the Kurdish identity.

From roughly the turn of the century onwards, it seems that the movement found some of the answers to the questions it had been wrestling with in the work of Murray Bookchin, a libertarian socialist from the US. Why Bookchin? My impression is that this started with Öcalan who began to read widely after his arrest, encountering Bookchin — and the rest of the organization followed after him. Is that about right?

You have to consider that Öcalan defended himself in the case of the Turkish state against him. This gave him almost unlimited access to literature. There are lists of the books he has requested to read in prison and those are very extensive and varied. Bookchin is one of the authors on those lists but he is not very prominent. Still, he was clearly an inspiration for Öcalan. Öcalan regularly speaks with his lawyers and those talks are recorded, edited and published by the PKK.

At a certain point during such a conversation, Öcalan recommended the members of municipal councils in the Kurdish areas of southeast Turkey to read Bookchin. Clearly, the theory spread from Öcalan himself. At the same time, I think the PKK has been collectively searching for new ideas, but in this process Öcalan remains dominant. Still this role is not completely unchallenged, and in 2004 there was a split away from the PKK of people who disagreed with Öcalan’s new orientation.

A few years earlier there was already a split after Öcalan’s statements in the Turkish court. A number of PKK militants back then stated that Öcalan had abandoned the goals of the movement, for example, by asserting that the PKK no longer wanted to create a Kurdish state. These members wanted to stick to the old orientation. Öcalan’s courtroom statement came as a shock to many members of the PKK.

Yes, indeed.

But that would indicate that Öcalan himself, as an individual, determines this development. There seems to be contradiction within the PKK: this organization and its allies have developed into a movement claiming a kind of direct democracy as its goal, but at the same time this goal of democracy from below seems to be based on instructions from above, from Öcalan?

Öcalan certainly plays a dominant role. Instructions might be putting it too strongly but we could certainly speak of motivation. But take the anarchist movement in the Netherlands in the early twentieth century as an example: Domela Nieuwenhuis was clearly dominant in this movement and left a very strong impression on it. At the same time, there were various forms of self-organization going on. There is a certain tension between these developments, but a prominent role of a certain individual doesn’t exclude the active participation of the others.

The PYD claims to have no organizational ties with the PKK, but they have the same ideological inspiration and develop in similar ways. The two share a common goal. That goal goes by different names. In his early statement for the court, Öcalan speaks of a ‘democratic republic’; today the emphasis is on something called ‘democratic autonomy’. Both are covered by a third term, ‘democratic civilization’. What do these terms mean concretely?

I make a distinction between democratic republic, democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism. Democratic republic is the project of reconstructing Turkey, with at its core a new constitution that would separate civil rights from identity. In Turkey’s current constitution, civil rights are dependent on being Turkish and this identity is to a certain degree defined ethnically. Democratic republic is the name for a republic in which civil rights are no longer the privilege of a certain ethnic group; a republic in which the demos is separated from the ethnos.

Democratic autonomy means giving people themselves the power to decide on matters that affect them. Democratic confederalism is an administrative structure of the local bodies, councils, in which this power is organized. I think those are the core elements. Democratic modernity or democratic civilization is, I would say, an umbrella term for these principles.

And the goal is to extend democratic confederalist networks across the existing state borders?

Yes, the goal is to form democratic autonomy from below, by making decisions from below. Democratic confederalism means such decisions are not taken in isolation of the other and are not limited to local concerns and deliberations. Local autonomy needs to be forged in connection with the other, otherwise you could end up in a situation in which a community is only interested in itself and basically ignores the rest of the world.

Parts of Rojava are rich in oil. Without connections between localities, you could end up with a dynamic in which the community living on top of the oil says ‘this is ours’, and existing inequalities between regions would end up being reproduced. Yet in Öcalan‘s statements one finds very little discussion of such social-economic issues; he mostly focuses on cultural rights and freedoms. He argues that in the Kurdish regions there is no crystallization of social classes and that there is no class struggle there. How realistic is that?

There are some sharp contradictions, especially related to land. Cizîrê, the largest of the three cantons in Rojava, consists predominately of agricultural land. Or take southeast Turkey, north Kurdistan, which is also a predominantly agricultural region with only a few pockets of industry, similar to Iranian Kurdistan. The exception is southern Kurdistan in Iraq, which is a consumer economy based on the export of oil and the import of almost all basic necessities.

In southeast Turkey, in particular, a middle class is forming and the social contradictions and social struggles are the main issues facing the movement in the cities. Perhaps you can’t really say that there is a working class, because the local economy is relatively undeveloped, but there is an underclass. And the question is: how does the movement relate to this? In theory, this question is not really addressed.

But last year there were a number of meetings in southeast Turkey to discuss how an economy could be organized under democratic autonomy. So the issue does receive some attention, but it is easier for the movement to organize people around cultural or linguistic issues than it is around class. When the Turkish state offers no education in the Kurdish language, you can organize that yourself — and then the state can ban this, but at least the contradictions are clear. Reorganizing the economy is more complicated.

Isn’t this discussion also made more difficult because there is a tendency within the movement to speak in terms of Kurds in general, as struggling against an external form of oppression? After all, if you want to discuss the social question, like contradictions between landless peasants and landlords, you’re basically speaking of contradictions between Kurds, among the Kurdish people, or whatever term you want to use.

This is clearly an issue that receives less attention at the moment. The old PKK regarded both social issues and national liberation as central themes around which to organize people. Under democratic autonomy, in the current ideology, national liberation no longer takes the shape of forming an independent state but rather of self-organization. The social question needs to be a part of that, but in a context of war as in Rojava today, that would look very different from the situation in north Kurdistan, for instance.

In Rojava, the distribution of energy and foodstuffs is organized through the organs of democratic autonomy. In the social contract of Rojava, land was declared to be under common ownership — but the land of big landlords has not been expropriated because the movement ‘does not want to use force’. Still, if the social contradictions deepen, what is the alternative? At the moment the movement in Rojava has not really been confronted with this issue yet. Many of the landlords have fled and it is not clear what will happen when the war ends, and whether these landlords will return. I think it was a choice of the movement to remain cautious for the moment.

The old PKK saw its revolution as a project that developed in two stages: first national liberation, through the formation of an independent Kurdish state, and then social liberation and equality. Does the diminished centrality of the social question today still reflect the influence of this sequence?

I don’t think so. In principle, the movement sees the two as simultaneous but also as processes that are ongoing. It is the same for the gender issue: the movement doesn’t say ‘first we establish democratic autonomy and take care of cultural and linguistic issues and only after that we deal with the position of women in society’. Instead, they work simultaneously on these issues. In Rojava, for example, some families keep their daughters at home and don’t allow them to go to school. The movement doesn’t force these families to send their daughters to school; they talk to them, try to convince them. Liberation doesn’t happen overnight — it is a continuous process.

In the case of these conservative families, it might be counterproductive if the movement tried, in a top-down fashion, to force such cultural habits to change.

But it is the same with the issue of land, and of who owns it — that is also a cultural matter.

But in the case of land there is a clear contradiction between the interests of the big landlords and of the landless peasants. Force becomes unavoidable.

True, but if a strong peasant movement would arise to expropriate the land I don’t think — and I’m speculating here — that the PKK or PYD would turn against it. If these landlords return after years and demand their land back, the people who have been cultivating that land will probably not give in easily. I think it’s possible that daily reality brings about a process of expropriation, but that is not certain.

All this speaks of a certain conception of revolution; it is no longer like the old PKK, which saw its task as seizing power and then implementing socialism by decree. Instead, revolution is seen as a process of raising consciousness and giving ideological guidance. The PKK nowadays no longer says it is the ‘vanguard party’, but the catalyst and ideological inspiration. So the PKK/PYD does have as a goal to fill these democratic structures with its own ideology.

I think so, hence the strong emphasis on ideological education.

One of the core elements of that ideology is women’s liberation. But, as you already mentioned, there are also strong patriarchal traditions in the region. Where does this emphasis on women’s liberation come from?

Here again Öcalan played a significant role by raising this issue within the organization. But it did not start with him. Women played an important role in the early PKK already — maybe they were not many but they had influence. That distinguished the PKK from other left-wing parties at the time, which had no women in leadership roles. And the attention for women’s liberation grew over time. From the beginning, the PKK’s struggle provided a space in which women could play a social and political role, and as the influence of the PKK grew this space grew along with it.

Öcalan’s role was to raise women’s liberation as a theoretical issue within the party. At the same time, women in the party often refer to his name. Around 2003/’04 there was an internal struggle within the PKK after the party leadership decided that the women’s movements should be subordinated to the party. The women’s movement strongly opposed this and they used the arguments of Öcalan, the leader, to strengthen their case. They won this battle. So Öcalan’s statements are also used by the members to struggle for a certain autonomy for themselves.

The PKK has a peculiar conception of women’s liberation. They hardly ever refer to feminist thinkers or currents outside of their own organization and tend to think in terms of a dichotomy between men and women — and to prioritize this contradiction over others.

True, but this is an attempt to form a certain subject. The contradiction colonizer-colonized is a contradiction that enables the formation of a group. The social question is another, although this one is given less attention now), and the contradiction between men and women — the gender question — is another. There are multiple fields of struggle and the attempt is to formulate a type of politics that doesn’t prioritize one struggle over the other.

But many PKK texts discuss ‘the woman’, while one of the insights of the feminist movements is that there is no such thing as a single, homogeneous category of ‘the woman’ — women are divided along nationality, sexual identity, class, and so on.

I think the women’s struggle is formulated on a highly political and ideological level and takes place along lines that are partly the result of the division of labor between men and women, and partly the result of cultural and religious conceptions about the roles of men and women. Discussions on how to shape that field of struggle are being followed by people who are close to the movement, but I don’t know what impact this has within the party. People who are not affiliated to organizations or who are not party members often play an important role in discussions about left-wing politics, and with the PKK as well you can see that people become active around a certain issue and discuss these issues outside the party as well.

Does the PKK take an interest in those kind of discussions?

They rely strongly on their own education and ideology. At the same time, when you go around the region and look, for example, at bookstores that are close to the movement and that sell books that are published locally, you see a broad range of thinkers. Think of people like Wallerstein and Chomsky, but Adorno and Gramsci are translated as well.

What I found interesting was the letter written by Suphi Nejat Agirnasli, who was supposedly a member of the Turkish MLKP, and who fell in the defense of Kobane. He referred to a number of left-wing feminists — something you might not expect from a member of a Maoist organization like the MLKP. And recently, circles that are close to the PKK organized a large conference in the German city of Hamburg to which they invited different left-wing thinkers like John Holloway and David Harvey.

Does the involvement of several left-wing Turkish groups with Rojava lead to changes within the Turkish left?

I can’t assess the significance of that. What’s more important is the development of the legal Kurdish left-wing HDP party, and to what extent it will succeed in finding support in the west of Turkey. The legal Kurdish parties have always tried to form alliances with the Turkish left and often entered elections together, but these parties remained small. The HDP is now trying to build a party structure that can appeal to left-wing Turks as well and which is broader than the existing, normal radical groups. If they succeed in this, there is a chance of a political breakthrough.

Rojava drew a lot of attention during the struggle against IS in Kobane. But the experiment in Rojava was made possible by the civil war in Syria. The PYD is accused of striking a bargain with the Assad regime: the regime pulled out its troops and the PYD won’t open a new front against the regime, creating a kind of win-win situation for Assad and the Kurds.

But it’s also the case that, since 2005 already, people have been working on the idea of democratic autonomy. In Turkey, such structures are also being formed and they are trying to begin the same process in Iran. But in Rojava this project was able to take a very different shape, indeed partly because of the war. People work on the same project and are trying to shape that project inside the existing power structures. The civil war in Syria provided an opportunity to develop this project, but you can’t say the movement wanted it this way. From the beginning the PYD said it opposed armed struggle against the Assad regime. The PYD supported peaceful protests — but when the armed struggle began and there was a danger that the Free Syrian Army or jihadis would enter Rojava, they rapidly armed themselves.

The PYD claims the YPG and YPJ are not party militia but form the defense forces of Rojava. Other Kurdish groups do not find that very credible; they consider these organizations the party-militia of the PYD.

It’s true that these military forces are ideologically closely related to the PYD, but there are also groups inside the YPG-YPJ that aren’t necessarily PYD members, like the Arab or Christian units. I think it was a wise decision of the PYD to limit the number of militia in the area. And besides the YPG/YPJ, local units represented in the command structure as well. These local units defend their own villages but are not mobile; they can not be dispatched to other areas.

But there are clearly contradictions between the PYD, on the one hand, and the Syrian parties that are linked to the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iraqi-Kurdish President Barzani on the other. Similarly, but to a somewhat lesser degree, there are tensions with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan from Iraq. Those parties have a very different conception of power, of the future and the development of Kurdish self-rule. They are much more conservative.

There are also sharp contradictions between, on the one hand, the PYD and on the other hand, to simplify things, the Arab opposition. The PYD did not support armed struggle against Assad, but this kind of struggle was not an option freely chosen by the opposition — it was a matter of self-defense. The PYD is accused of benefiting the Assad regime by not only preventing the formation of a new front, but also by repressing anti-Assad demonstrations inside Rojava. People have been killed by the YPG during such protests. How do you see the development of this relation?

There is some cooperation on a local level — a number of Arab tribes have joined the struggle of the PYD. But the relationship with the politically organized opposition is much more difficult, even if there is cooperation with parts of the FSA. The jihadis have grown very strong in the Arab opposition and their worldview is in direct opposition to that of the PYD.

There are other accusations of human rights violations. Recently there were claims that the YPG forced out the Arab population of a number of villages under the cover of the struggle against the Islamic State.

The PYD stands for a Rojava that is the expression of cultural and ethnic diversity. For example, Efrin is home to many Alevites and the female co-president is Alevite. In Cizîrê, there is a large Arab population and one of the co-presidents is Arab. You see the same on a local level. A major difference between the PYD and the Syrian allies of the KDP is their attitude towards the Arab population in Rojava. The KDP current says: ‘those people have been brought here as part of an Arabization policy of the Baath-regime and they need to leave, even if they have been here for generations.’ The PYD says that everybody who now lives in Rojava should be involved in building a new society.

The defense of Kobane was a success, partly as a result of aid by Western powers, most importantly the airstrikes by the US. Some critics say the PYD has become a tool of the West — how would you respond to that claim?

That kind of criticism comes from the attempt to stay ideologically pure. It’s more difficult to remain pure once you are involved in the struggle. If you are involved, you have to navigate a field determined by relations of forces that you did not select, and you have to make choices inside that field. There were no real options except for pressuring the US to bomb IS. And that was done in a very clever way. The US was not eager to intervene: shortly before the airstrikes the White House still declared that Kobane was ‘not a strategic asset’. The fact that they started bombing, and increasingly intensively, is because the PYD made the defense of Kobane in a certain sense a strategic issue: if the city had fallen, that would have been an immense moral blow that would have affected the US as well. IS would have been strengthened. You could almost say the Kurds have forced the West to get involved there. There were few other options. One of the defenders of Kobane tweeted that if the international left had had an air force, they would have asked that one for help.

But even if you recognize that the PYD had no other options, you can ask whether — against its own will — it has not become dependent on the US.

But I don’t see this dependence. Maybe there have been agreements that I don’t know anything about, but the PYD has not only maintained itself; its position is now stronger than before. Kobane has become a symbol of their success.

But it is likely that the US will turn against the Rojava project if, for example, the PYD insists on the principle that resources like oil should be common property.

That is likely, but you can question how much influence the US will have in the region in the future. Since 2003 and the invasion of Iraq, the influence of the US has been dwindling there. Local powers like Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia play a much more important role in the local developments than before. The US is still a factor but is no longer as powerful as before.

Turkey, especially, is an enemy of the Kurdish movement at the moment.

Turkey is doing everything in its power to marginalize the PKK and the PYD, without success. But Turkey’s relationship to the governing parties in south Kurdistan, north Iraq, is very different. They had a good relationship for a long time but those ties were recently damaged. When the city of Erbil in north Iraq was in danger of being taken by IS, Barzani asked Turkey for help but got the cold shoulder.

The PYD claims the Turkish state actively supports groups like IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. How credible are those accusations?

I think there are good reasons to believe them. There are many indications that Turkey is giving direct and indirect support to jihadist groups. For example, there are recordings that show Turkish soldiers interacting with fighters along the border of areas controlled by jihadis. The Turkish secret service MIT has been involved in delivering arms. There are many such examples. Recently it became known that the Turkish army had given artillery support to jihadis when they attacked an Armenian village in northern Syria, Kassab. Leaders of jihadist groups can meet without any problems in Ankara; jihadis have been taken care of in Turkish hospitals — you could go on.

Is this organized by what is called the ‘deep state’ in Turkey, or is it active government policy?

I think this is discussed and decided at the governmental level. Turkey’s foreign policy under the AKP government, so-called neo-Ottomanism, is based on Sunni-identity politics, on supporting Sunnite movements in Syria and Iraq. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are also trying to gain influence through Sunni movements, just like Morsi tried to do when he was president of Egypt. Turkey has tried, without success, to repress the PYD by supporting Sunni groups that are hostile to it.

This policy means the Turkish state is playing with fire by supporting jihadist groups. IS has already threatened on several occasions to attack Turkey if its government changes its attitude. Many IS fighters have a Turkish background and they might in the future become a risk factor inside Turkey itself; all the more so because support for IS has grown inside Turkey.

A few weeks ago the Assad regime declared that it has no objections to Kurdish flags — a symbolic break with the Arab nationalist Baath ideology. Is that a taste of what’s to come, of an autonomous Kurdish region inside Syria?

Kurdish autonomy is already a reality — and even if the Assad regime would decide to turn against it, I doubt it would make much of a difference.

The last few weeks have seen some quite intense clashes between the YPG and the Syrian government army. Is there a chance this could lead to a real war between the two?

That is difficult to say, but Assad has no interest in such a war: his regime is already weakened. Assad’s interest is in an agreement.

The PYD also has nothing to gain from such a confrontation: they have their hands full fighting IS and al-Nusra. But the current situation is volatile and won’t remain the same for long.

Alex de Jong is editor of the socialist journal Grenzeloos and an activist in the Netherlands. This interview originally appeared in Dutch on Actie voor Rojava.

David Harvey: reclaiming the city from Kobane to Baltimore

By Sardar Saadi On May 26, 2015

Post image for David Harvey: reclaiming the city from Kobane to Baltimore

In this interview with ROAR, the leading Marxist geographer reflects on Rojava, Baltimore and urban life as the terrain of contemporary class struggle.

David Harvey is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology & Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He was in Diyarbakir for a visit to the region and also to participate in a panel at the 1st Amed Book Fair on his latest book, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, translated in Turkish by Sel Publishing. ROAR contributor Sardar Saadi sat down with him for an interview.


Sardar Saadi: Professor Harvey, welcome to Kurdistan! Thank you so much for accepting our interview request for ROAR Magazine. It was very difficult to arrange a time for this interview. You have a very busy schedule. Would you tell our readers what brought you to Kurdistan? I heard you have been to Kobane as well?

David Harvey: Well, this is my third visit to this part of Turkey, and I have some strong personal connections with some of the people teaching at Mardin Atikulu University. Mardin is a very beautiful place to visit, so I found a way to combine pleasure and some work. But I’m also here because of the general situation in Turkey and particularly also in Rojava. The Syrian side is fascinating. At the same time, it is pretty horrific. So I have taken a bit of interest in that lately.

I was trying to get to Kobani, too, but the Turkish government has basically closed the border.

As you know, the governments of Turkey and the Kurdish region of Iraq have imposed an ongoing embargo on Rojava. How do you connect this to what is going on in Rojava?

I can only speculate that nobody wants whatever is happening in Rojava to be given any prominence internationally, and nobody wants whatever is happening there to succeed. That would be my guess. It is the most obvious one.

There are so many initiatives for rebuilding Kobane. The airstrikes and bombings have left the city almost entirely destroyed. What is your perspective on reconstructing Kobane, and on the possibilities of creating anti-capitalist alternatives in the area?

I saw this map with satellite data of the level of destruction, and clearly Kobane is about 80 percent destroyed. Reconstruction is essentially going to revolve around surface buildings and bringing the people back in. This offers a range of opportunities to think creatively about an alternative urbanization.

One of the big difficulties, I think, is going to be facing the existing property rights to a degree that the existing population can re-establish itself. They probably want to build their property rights in the way things were before, so they will get back to old-style urbanization, and that is maybe what will happen — in which case the question will be where the resources will come from.

Still I think the opportunity exists to explore anti-capitalist alternatives. Whether this opportunity has been taken, I don’t know. But to the extent that Kurdish thinking has been influenced by somebody like Murray Bookchin, I think there is a possibility for the population to explore something different. I was told there are assembly-based forms of governance in place in Rojava, but I haven’t seen anything yet. I worry a little bit, you know, the left sometime has this romanticism. The Zapatistas said “revolution” and everybody got romantic about what they were doing.

I actually made a comparison between the revolution in Rojava and the Zapatistas. I raised the question if Rojava is becoming like the Chiapas of the Middle East. Do you think there is a similarity between these two struggles?

Not so much of a similarity — in the sense that the Zapatistas were organized, took control of their territory and managed to protect it in a particular way and at a particular time. They were not devastated by war. They did not have many of the problems that the people of Rojava are facing. But they had a pre-existing communal structure in place, so there was a form of governance there already — they didn’t have to implement everything from scratch. So I think there are a lot of differences.

I think the similarity is the romance that some people on the left in Europe and North America may have that, ‘oh well, this is the place, finally!’ And I always say to them that the place we should be constructing revolutionary socialism is in the United States, not hoping that something in Chiapas or in Northern Syria will rescue us from capitalism [laughs]. It’s not going to happen.

How do you think the international solidarity movement can be productive in helping Rojava?

There are some basic things, I would say. No matter what happens there, I think the emancipation of the Kurdish people — to the extent that there is a level of self-government — is something worth supporting. I am happy to support it myself. To the extent that these communities are experimenting with new forms of governance and they want to experience new forms of urban development, I think I will be very interested in talking to them. I am glad that people are thinking about doing something different, and to the extent that I can help or help mobilize help, I would want to be able do it.

Of course, what we are seeing is that there are going to be barriers to that. We are going to have to find ways to circumvent those barriers. For instance, there is an alternative group of people from Europe and North America who are actually trying now to re-design urbanization in Gaza. I think that if they are actually able to do something there, they could mobilize to do something in Rojava as well.

There are some real possibilities here. But just speaking personally, I would want to be cautious about saying, ‘oh this is a great thing that happened, everything is great.’ I would want to say: ‘look, I think things are going in an interesting direction worthy of our support and discussions, and we should do our best to try to support whatever it is that the population itself is trying to come up with.’

You mentioned in an interview with Firat News Agency during a conference in Hamburg that the Middle East is a region that’s falling apart. Yet Rojava is flourishing as an alternative in this chaotic environment, don’t you think?

Well, what is going on in this region is a crucial part of the world geopolitically. The Middle East is in a real mess right now. Everybody’s got their finger in the pie: the Russians, the Chinese, the Americans, the Europeans. It is a zone of conflicts, and it has been for some time. I mean, look at what’s happening in Syria — and then there was the Lebanese civil war, the situation in Iraq, and now what is going on in Yemen, in Egypt, and so on. This is a very unstable geological zone and geopolitical configuration of the world, which is producing disaster for local populations.

But one of the things that often happens with disasters is that new things come out of them. These new things can be very, very significant. I think the reason why disaster produces something new is because the typical bourgeois power structure disappears, and the ruling classes are unable to govern. That creates a situation where people can start to govern themselves outside of those traditional power structures. So we are likely to see possibilities emerge, not only in Rojava but also elsewhere. Some of them, of course, will not be very nice — like ISIS. So I am not saying everything is going in the right direction at all. It is a zone of opportunities as well as disasters.

I would like to open another topic in this conversation, and it is about cities — something you have written a lot about. In the last decade or so, we have witnessed the rising importance of cities in Kurdish politics. In Diyarbakir where we are right now, the pro-Kurdish municipality is intervening in the socioeconomic and political life of the city as well as re-appropriating urban spaces according to their agenda. Also, for the first time, Kobane’s resistance is the resistance of a city — unlike previous uprisings in the history of the Kurdish movement that were traditionally more about a tribe, a traditional leader, or a nationalist political party leading the resistance.

I am wondering if we can connect the resistance in Kobane or the example of the municipalist movement in Diyarbakir and other Kurdish cities in Turkey to the larger global movement we have seen in the last few years in places like Tahrir Square in Cairo, the Occupy movement that started in New York, the Gezi protests in Istanbul, or most recently the riots in Baltimore. Do you see a connection between these emerging forms of urban street politics?

Well, yes, the world is increasingly urbanized and we increasingly see discontent emerging around the quality of urban life. So you can see this discontent producing uprisings in some instances, or mass protests like Gezi and what happened in Brazil shortly after Gezi. There is actually a long tradition of urban uprisings — the Paris Commune in 1871 and other instances well before that — but I think that the urban question is really becoming a central question today, and the qualities of urban life are moving to the forefront of what contemporary protests are about.

But at the same time, increasingly, we see political protest internalized within the cities. What we are starting to see, with the Israeli Defense Forces confronting Palestinians in Ramallah and places like that, is that this is no longer about state-versus-state — it is about the state trying to control the rest of the urban population. We have even seen that in the U.S., in a place like in Ferguson, where an armed force came out to confront the protest. And in Baltimore, too. So increasingly, I think, we are going to see this kind of low-level urban warfare going on between populations, and increasingly we are going to see the apparatuses of the state isolating themselves from the people they are supposed to serve, becoming part of the administrative apparatuses of capital that are repressing urban populations.

So we are seeing these sorts of emerging urban uprisings in a patchy way all around the world: in Buenos Aires, in Bolivia, in Brazil, etc. Latin America is full of this sort of stuff. But even in Europe we have seen major urban unrest: in London, Stockholm, Paris, and so on. What we have to do is to start thinking of a new form of politics, which is what anti-capitalism should fundamentally be about. Unfortunately, the traditional left still focuses narrowly on workers and the workplace, whereas now it’s the politics of everyday life that really matters.

The left is sometimes very conservative in terms of what it thinks is important. Marx and Engels had a vision of the proletariat of a certain kind. Well, that proletariat has disappeared in many parts of the world, even if it has reemerged in places like China and Mexico under different conditions. So as a general matter the left has to be much more flexible in its approach to the anti-capitalist movements emerging in and around the question of urban life that we have seen in the revolts in Baltimore and in Tahrir Square and so on. Which is not to say they are all the same — because they are not — but there is clearly a certain parallel between these movements.

What do you think of the possible outcomes of something that happened in a place like Baltimore for the global movement against capitalism? Are they just momentary protests in their specific spatio-temporal conditions, or can they be seen as indications of something fundamentally wrong with the system?

One of the biggest difficulties, politically speaking, is to get people to see the nature of the system in which they live. The system is very sophisticated in disguising what it does, and how it does it. One of the tasks of Marxists and critical theorists is to try to demystify, but you can see this happening intuitively sometimes. Take the indignados movement: something happens in Spain and then, next thing, suddenly it happens in Greece — and then suddenly it happens elsewhere. Take the Occupy movement: suddenly there are occupations going on all over the place. So there is connectivity here.

A specific event like Baltimore doesn’t do anything in itself. What it does do, when you add it to Ferguson and you add it to some of the other things that are going on, is to show that large populations have been treated as disposable human beings. This is going on in the United States as well as elsewhere. Then, people suddenly start to see this is a systemic issue. So one of the things we should be doing is to emphasize the systemic nature of these type of events, showing that the problem lies within the system.

I used to live in Baltimore for many years — and what is happening there now is really a re-run of what I encountered in 1969, one year after a lot of the place was burnt down. So we went from 1968 to 2015, and things are still the same! You kind of go, ‘hey, what is keeping it all the same?’ Despite of all the promises of those who claimed they were resolving the situation in the 1970s, or those who claim to be resolving it today, it doesn’t happen — it just doesn’t happen. In fact, a lot of it is getting worse.

Baltimore is interesting not only because of what happened in the poor areas. The rest of the city has actually become extremely affluent and gentrified — so it has really become two cities. There always were two cities, but now there are two cities with a much wider gap in between, and everybody sees the difference. I read an interview with somebody in Tahrir Square, and one of the things they said was that they always lived in not very affluent conditions, but what they noticed was that some people were getting filthy rich. They couldn’t understand why those people were getting filthy rich while the rest were going down or just staying the same. And it is the anger over this disparity that turned them against the system. This is true in Baltimore as well: ‘their part of town is fine, and my part of town is in a nose-dive.’

This is actually true for most cities. You look around and see it in Istanbul, and you see it everywhere. What is government doing about it? Well, it is clearing people out of their so-called slum areas because they are sitting on high value lands, and they could give them to developers who can then build shopping malls and office spaces — and people say ‘this is not right!’ That is how you get to the point where people begin exercising their right to the city, which is to use the city for their own purposes.

We want to exercise our right to the city in our particular way, which is radically different from that of capital. We want to make a different kind of city. How do we do that? Can we do it? These are difficult questions. When people raise this demand, a further question arises: can you do this within the existing structure of property rights? There is a belief in the United States that private property and land ownership are not a problem. Part of the solution, I suppose, lies in people starting to realize that it is part of the problem. Then you will begin to see that we have to come up with an alternative structure of property rights that are not private. They are collective. They are common. And at the same time they have to offer security and take away the fear of speculation for capital.

I want to end by asking what inspired you on your trip to Kurdistan. Is there anything that will bring you back here?

Well, as I said, this whole region is a rather critical region. I actually had fantasies not so long ago that I would relocate entirely to somewhere around. I thought I could base myself in Athens, and I would then spend my time working a bit in Turkey, a bit in Lebanon, a bit in Egypt, because it is that zone between Europe and the region. What is going on here seems to be fascinating, so I like to be in the region. I also have very good friends here, and I have a wonderful publisher, Sel Publishing. I must say they have done a wonderful job of both translating and generally inviting me here and getting me to see things. If I get into Kobane, it is because they have worked really hard on it.

I hope we soon see your books translated in Kurdish as well — and I am sure the people of Diyarbakir will be happy to host you if you ever wanted to relocate in the region. Thank you so much for your time, Professor Harvey. I hope you will get into Kobane soon.

Sardar Saadi is a Toronto-based activist and a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Toronto. Please contact Sardar first before translating this interview into Turkish: sardarsaadi[at]gmail[dot]com.

What will happen when the state collapses?

Opportunity in collapse: the horizon of the post-apocalyptic

By Joseph Todd On May 12, 2015

What will happen when the state collapses? Will society descend into lawlessness, or can we seize the opportunity to let our human potential flourish?


Image: a scene from the dystopian movie Children of Men (2006).

The American literary critic and Marxist political theorist Frederic Jameson famously remarked that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But what we don’t often consider is how capitalism influences our end-worldview.

The horizon of the post-apocalyptic is usually bleak: isolated individuals trudging through the wilderness, surviving only through violence, cunning and mutual distrust. The human race, without the coercive machinations of the state, descending into a brutal barbarism where every relationship is pragmatic, rationally calculated and based on nothing but self-interest.

Our cultural output throbs with this notion of the “evil anarchic”. Take any post-apocalyptic or future dystopia film of the last few decades and you’ll be sure to find dialogue referencing the degeneration of the human spirit or a scene exemplifying the impossibility of co-operation.

The concentration camp in Children of Men is miserable and threatening. The market in Soylent Green is vicious. The Road, The Book of Eli, the Harlan Ellison novel A Boy and His Dog — all are predicated on the concurrent collapse of civilization and rise of the evil anarchic. On the idea that the state can only be abolished by an apocalyptic act, and that its absence necessarily gives way to nefarious gang rule and brutal violence.

When the state collapses

We must question whether this narrative is accurate. Does collapse necessarily lead to misery? Can the state only be abolished by an apocalyptic event? Is the choice between apocalypse and hierarchy a false one?

We must question because this end-worldview justifies our present social order. Capitalism in all its cruelty becomes an inevitable reflection of man’s barbarous nature. The state and its use of force are justified in that they tame us, impelling us to defy our selfish natures. Evil becomes the province of the unshackled individual, free of society and legal consequence.

Indeed, the horrors of ISIS are trumpeted so vehemently by the Western press precisely because they fit this narrative: that without law, order and the state we would run rampant. That capitalism, although unfair, is not as bad as things could be. That fear-induced conservatism is the only sensible political orientation.

However, if we venture a few hundred miles north of where ISIS are destroying treasured cultural artefacts and beheading foreign journalists and aid workers, we find ourselves in Rojava; the autonomous region of Northern Syria. Famed for their heroic mixed-gender defence of Kobane, the residents of Rojava, who are majority Kurdish but also include Christians, Arabs and Yazidis, have achieved what most would have thought impossible: a social revolution based on feminism, ecology and grassroots democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

In Rojava, at least, the withdrawal of state forces did not bring about brutality and lawlessness but instead opened up a space for a flourishing of human potential. The region is now run by a network of neighborhood assemblies which decide wherever they can by consensus. Workplaces have been turned into cooperatives. Academies have been established that aim to educate all in a broad and practical way, reversing the expertization of work by the Assad regime.

Women’s liberation is at the heart of the revolution, with a gender-balanced co-chairing system for every position of authority and all women’s assemblies that have veto power over issues affecting women. Even justice is meted out in a consensual, cooperative way, with community-based tribunals that bring together the victim, the accused and their families to agree on an appropriate means of conflict resolution.

All of this in a region that the Western media often portrays as brutal, barbarian and backwards. All possible because a retreating state opened the way for the Kurdish liberation movement to take over and, after decades of tireless grassroots organizing, start building democratic autonomy.

When the police retreat

A similar phenomenon in the West can be observed when the coercive forces we most often come into contact with — the police rather than the army — are in retreat. Instead of mobbing, robbing and looting, we actually see the very opposite. Just look to the recent New York police strike. In retaliation for Mayor De Blasio’s anti-police comments in the wake of the Eric Garner murder, rank-and-file officers enacted an unofficial enforcement slowdown, with arrest rates dropping to near zero for petty crime and by 55 percent overall.

Yet counter to the scare stories of chaos and lawlessness touted by the right-wing press, crime rates actually fell. Not only does this fatally undermine the “broken window” policing theory that heavily punishing petty crime will reduce more serious crime; it also runs absolutely counter to the idea that the only thing standing between the individual and evil is coercive force.

In a similar vein, we can observe a spatial (rather than temporal) retreat of the police in the Athenian district of Exarchia. An area mainly populated by anarchists, activists and students who have, after decades of violent struggle with the police, managed to establish what the anarchist geographer Antonis Vradis describes as a “spatial contract”, whereby the police implicitly agree not to invade the area in the hope that its anarchic character won’t spread to the rest of Athens. Despite a rise in drug dealing (largely due to a deliberate strategy by the state to herd addicts towards the district) it is nowhere close to the nadir of anomie that many would instinctively expect. In fact it is quite the opposite.

Not only is Exarchia a hotbed of solidarity and mutual aid with a flourishing scene of co-operatives, squatted social centers, volunteer-run medical facilities, reclaimed community parks and active neighborhood assemblies; it has even evolved into one of the safest areas in the Greek capital for women and immigrants to walk around alone at night. In the last few years, it has been deemed stable (and hip) enough for capital to start tentatively gentrifying the area, with cocktail bars and bourgeois restaurants appearing alongside the squatted cafés around the central square.

Examples such as these challenge the perceived role of the police. They hint at the fact that the police exist not to keep our evil natures in check but instead to defend inequality and private property. That they were created not to solve crime but instead to control crowds (i.e., protesters). That disorder is so often not a result of setting people free but instead of their systematic cultural and economic disenfranchisement from society. Or, as in the 2011 London riots and the recent riots in Baltimore, because of persecution by the police themselves.

When disaster strikes

Of course the wholesale breakdown of Western society still remains the preserve of fiction. But if we can view it in microcosm today, it must be when natural disasters decimate our cities, as Rebecca Solnit outlined in her book A Paradise Built in Hell. If we look to the events of Hurricane Katrina and Sandy we again uncover this belief in the evil anarchic and its disconnect from reality.

In the aftermath of Katrina, when state forces were largely absent from the streets of New Orleans, it was widely assumed by the media that lawlessness had broken out, with various outlets canvassing wall-to-wall reports of raping, looting and violence. However, aside from a few minor instances, the vast majority of these reports turned out to be untrue.

Slavoj Žižek rightly highlights the racist overtones of the reportage, with white middle-class journalists assuming the reports were true because they were supposed to be committed by poor blacks, knowing the stories would make good copy for their majority white readership.

Intertwined with this racism, however, is our notion of the “evil anarchic”: the idea that if human beings are unshackled from societal restraints they will necessarily descend into barbarism. A more indicative (and under-reported) instance of societal non-breakdown would be Hurricane Sandy, where local residents came together under the Occupy banner to house and feed those left adrift by the state. Here is where we find a meaningful example of our species in its natural state: kind, cooperative and generous in the face of adversity.

It thus turns out that our view of the apocalyptic is necessarily bound up with our pessimistic view of human nature and the world around us. Ever since Hobbes, civilization and the state have been our savior from a brutish, natural realm; a place we go for adventure, one of risk and daring that only those more unfortunate than us inhabit.

Yet this notion of a violent, competitive, dog-eat-dog natural world with which capitalism and the state justify themselves is in part a fallacy. In fact, nature teems with co-operation — both between animals, between species and within the ecosystem as a whole.

Recognizing our cooperative nature

Peter Kropotkin, the 19th-century Russian zoologist whose work proceeded much of the research on cooperation in evolution today, argued that natural life, although competitive, is also replete with examples of cooperation, noting how “sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.”

And indeed, we know this to be true. Because what is a pack of wolves, a school of fish, a pride of lions or a crash of rhinos if not an exercise in co-operation? Or a colony of ants, where female workers sacrifice their fertility to defend that of the queens? Or the incredibly synchronized movement of a flock of starlings, only possible if each individual bird is utterly reliant on its neighbor for direction?

And if we look to ourselves, we find we are not as selfish and calculated as the ideologists of late capitalism would have it. When we play with our children, make love to our partners, care for our elderly relatives or help out with local community projects, are we being greedy, selfish or individualistic? Are such actions rationally calculated exchanges where we constantly adhere to the principle of individual benefit?

Of course there are areas of life where we do act as such — at work or in business, for instance. But it is no coincidence that these arenas are both dominated by capital and constructed in a way that systematically rewards the uglier sides of our common human nature.

Although the elite and their ideologues, most notably Herbert Spencer and the Social Darwinists, have ignored this essentially co-operative side of both humans and nature, it has become a mainstay in modern evolutionary biology. We can count leading primatologist Frans De Waal, Jessica Flack, Lee Dugatkin and the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers among its proponents. The latter’s work on reciprocal altruism actually formed the basis for much of Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, a book that the author himself claimed was as much about co-operation as it was about selfishness.

Seizing the opportunity

Asserting an optimistic, or at least malleable view of human nature is essential for the radical. Not only does it alleviate the instinctual nervousness towards change that many people feel, but it undermines the naturalization of capitalism — the notion that our current system is simply a pragmatic reflection of human nature and the way the world is.

We often forget that the vast majority of people know in their gut that the world is unfair; that a few have too much and most have too little. Their barrier to action is rarely lack of knowledge but instead lack of hope. The feeling that capitalism, inequality and injustice are inevitable. The idea that to struggle for a better world is naive, and that if the system were to collapse, a far worse tyranny would rear its head — that of the individual unleashed.

So here we must go further. Not only should we argue that human beings have the capacity for good and evil and that the natural world isn’t always cruel and vicious, but we must emphasize that the darker sides of our nature are often unleashed not when social order breaks down, but in precisely the opposite situation: when order and hierarchy are most rigorously maintained.

Consider the Nazi bureaucrats who pulled the levers in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the test subjects at Yale who thought they were electrocuting an individual to death, the volunteers in the Stanford prison experiment who morphed into authoritarian prison guards, or indeed the soldiers who kill Pakistani children using unmanned drones and Xbox controllers. Evil, we find, is so often the result not of leaving individuals in a natural state for them to make decisions and take responsibility, but the exact opposite: when they are cogs in a machine, subjugated to authority and absolved of all personal responsibility.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should simply wait for the implosion of the capitalist state  and expect utopia to arise spontaneously from its ashes. We can only entrench the cooperative, compassionate and empathetic sides of our nature as dominant values in society if we struggle against those who aim to exploit and systemize our more cycnical capacities. The capitalists who would pit us against each other via the construct of the labor market. The religious ideologues who persuade us to behead, rape and kill in exchange for an easing of our existential angst. The imperialists who encourage the very same acts in service of an amorphous set of national values randomly attributed by birth. Or the fascists, who would see the abolition of the individual and the institutionalization of collective violence in aid of order, stability and unity.

There is opportunity in collapse. But if we look to the concurrent rise of ISIS and Rojava in the vacuum of the Syrian civil war, or that of the Greek social solidarity movement and the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn during the collapse of the Greek welfare state, we see that there is no guarantee to whose benefit it will be. Which is why, whenever the opportunity arises, we must be prepared to seize it.

Joseph Todd is a writer and activist who has been published in The Baffler, Salon and CounterFire, among others. For more writings, visit his website.

Mr. Anarchist, we need to have a chat about colonialism

By Petar Stanchev On April 1, 2015

Post image for Mr. Anarchist, we need to have a chat about colonialismThe dogmatic criticism of popular struggles for autonomy in Chiapas and Rojava reveals a colonial mentality that should be stamped out of our movement.Photo: comrades from the Revolutionary Anarchist Action (DAF) in Turkey express their solidarity with the Kurdish defenders of Kobani at the Turkish-Syrian border. DAF has consistently called on anarchist groups elsewhere to support the Rojava revolution.

Dogmatism is nurtured by abstract truths which become habitual ways of thinking. As soon as you put such general truths into words you feel like a high priest in the service of his god.

– Abdullah Öcalan

Back in 2002, the US journal Green Anarchy published a critical article of the Zapatista movement, including a judgment that seemed to express the author’s worst fears: “The EZLN are not anarchist!” In the piece, the Zapatistas were depicted as “vanguard nationalists” and “reformists” who were denied the privilege of calling themselves anarchist by the anarchist license commission — even if the indigenous rebels never asked to be called such.

The EZLN responded to the article — although, as Subcomandante Marcos made clear, few Zapatistas are willing to engage in arguments with “insignificant elements along an ideological fringe” and even fewer of the EZLN’s militiamen and -women are concerned with the judgments of “people whose greatest virtue is spreading their lack of understanding and knowledge around in newspapers and magazines.” But Marcos decided to reply to the article anyway as it was a clear example of “good old colonialism”:

This attitude, though hidden behind thin veils of objectivity, is the same attitude that we have been dealing with for 500 years, where someone else in some other country from some other culture thinks they know what is best for us, more than we do ourselves.

Positions as the one taken by Green Anarchy are neither an exception nor a thing of the past. Certain elements in the “anarchist” milieu still like to criticize in a similarly short-sighted, poorly informed, dogmatic and sectarian manner the struggles of the peoples in the Global South, wittingly or unwittingly reproducing the logic of colonialism in the process.

I am writing this piece in response to a recent article by Gilles Dauvé, who slanders the Kurdish movement in Rojava in much the same way. A similar piece, based on equally dubious ethical and logical grounds, was published by the Anarchist Federation in London. It is important to emphasize that, although I will be responding specifically to the poorly informed critiques of the aforementioned articles, the issues I am raising here are far more important for the anarchist movement in the West than for the Kurdish or Zapatista movements themselves, which do not need any judgment or approval from some privileged ideological purists elsewhere.

My main concern in writing this article is that the colonial mentality and profound dogmatism of certain individuals and groups in Western anarchist circles are symptomatic of a deeper crisis in the organizational and imaginative capacities of parts of our movement. This issue should therefore be a matter of serious debate. If we fail to have such a conversation, we risk marginalizing ourselves and transforming our movement into a self-centered subculture that is incapable of connecting to the outside world. This, in turn, would make Western anarchism fade away as a historical relic that proved to be mostly impotent in its efforts to challenge the status quo.

Not to judge, not to lose our heads

This is the presumption Dauvé’s article starts with: we are not to judge the Kurdish movement, but we should not lose our heads admiring it either. So far, so good. But despite this claim of objectivity, the author ends up doing precisely what he tells us not to do: he applies the concepts and standards of Western political thought to the Rojava revolution and rules that it does not fit into his preconceived category of a “social revolution.”

Those anarchists (and they are not just a few) who do support the struggle for democratic autonomy in Kurdistan are reminded not to “lose their heads.” Their support is depicted as a sign of “spineless” radicalism because it does not adhere to God-knows-what puritan dogma. This is an interesting form of “anarchism,” I would say, if we consider the richness and diversity of the anarchist tradition. Apart from the patronizing discourse, it’s interesting to examine the facts and claims of these supposedly righteous and clear-headed armchair revolutionaries.

Dauvé’s claims can be summarized as follows:

  1. The struggle in Rojava is being waged by a population that “does not interest anyone” and that is left by the great powers to play its game of autonomy because it doesn’t really disturb the capitalist order.
  2. The Rojava revolution, in the most generous reading, is a struggle based on the principles of Western liberalism. It is not a social revolution, it has not affected the deeper structures of society, and it is not explicitly anti-capitalist.
  3. There is no challenge to the state apparatus and the struggle is inherently nationalistic.
  4. The emancipation of women is a farce and an exaggeration, and the revolution is not a feminist one.

As the same criticisms are often leveraged at other movements of similar character, including the Zapatistas, challenging these particular points has a relevance that extends far beyond Rojava.

The dignity of the nobodies

“Never again a Mexico without us,” is one of the slogans marking the ideological essence of the EZLN. The indigenous people in Chiapas were unknown, unimportant and forgotten, left by the wayside for hunger and disease to finish them off. This is why the Zapatista uprising of 1994 is often referred to as “a war against oblivion.” This oblivion was never and still isn’t an accidental one: it is a deliberate product of racism and colonialism, both external and internal, which devalues the life and the suffering of the people of the Global South to the extent that they often do not exist for the rest of the world.

When this silence was broken in 1994, the Mexican government and the mass media realized the power of information and imposed a media blockade that was relatively successful in erasing the presence and achievements of the Zapatistas from mass consciousness in Mexico and abroad. In a similar vein, the revolutionary struggle of the Kurds was largely omitted from the global media (at least until the iconic struggle for Kobani), and the repression and aggression they face from powers other than ISIS continues to go unmentioned.

Both the Zapatistas and the Kurdish movement are a threat to the status quo because they offer and put into practice alternatives that are actually working. The danger that stems from the very existence of such successful examples has led to their persistent elimination from the mainstream media and the public debate — and, indeed, to a constant assault by reactionary forces on the ground. To claim that these movements exist by the grace of greater powers simply because they do not bother anyone is ludicrous.

Moreover, to state that these movements are left to do what they want because they are not a threat to state and capital is extremely offensive to the memory of all those who have been killed, prosecuted and dispossessed by the Mexican, Turkish or Syrian governments over the years. Both movements have been vigorously persecuted and remain so. Tens of thousands have been displaced. Dirty warfare and direct military confrontation were and continue to be used against them. Since both Rojava and Chiapas are rich in natural resources, Dauvé’s claim that they do not really interest capital and that this is why they are left to themselves is directly contradicted by the facts on the ground.

Image by Devrimci Anarsist Faaliyet (Revolutionary Anarchist Action), showing comrades from the DAF marching in Kobani holding a banner that reads: “We are all Kawa in the fight against Dehak,” referring to the Kurdish legend about the uprising of the oppressed.

The revolution that reinvents itself

“Walking and asking questions” is the core principle that the Zapatistas defined in their effort to move beyond predetermined and narrow conceptualizations of revolutionary struggle. The Zapatistas see revolution as a process in which the people build their freedom from below and learn to govern themselves in the process.

This principle rejects the traditional Marxist-Leninist notion of the historical vanguard and immunizes the revolutionary process from authoritarian tendencies “in the name of the revolution” — a contamination that was all too common in the state-socialist regimes of the 20th century. In the very same way, the revolution in Rojava is construed as a process, not an application of ready-made formulas.

The eager use of Western terminology and the attempt to classify the Rojava revolution accordingly end up giving the impression that the real reason why these supposedly critical “anarchists” are skeptical is simply because some unknown brown people are refusing to follow the instructions of their Cookbook. Of course, all this is done without any practical evidence because it turns out that these “anarchists” might have read the Cookbook but are somehow awful cooks.

To take just one important example, Dauvé’s analysis of what he calls the “liberal” structure of the Rojava cantons is based purely on his narrow reading of the Social Contract — the framework law of the cantons — but fails delve deeper into the parallel system of direct participation that accompanies it. Interestingly enough, he claims that the social structure in the Kurdish cantons has not changed, which contradicts all factual evidence and direct observation by journalists, scholars and activists who have actually visited the cantons.

Without any doubt, these structures of democratic self-governance are under development, with many issues still to be addressed and plenty to learn. However, they do reaffirm the basic principle that true liberation can only be lived and applied here and now through the self-organization of the people.

State, nationalism and capitalism

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), as the leading force in the Rojava revolution, has recognized the integrity of the Syrian state and proposed democratic confederalism as a preferable model for the country as a whole after the overthrow of the regime and the defeat of ISIS. This is a reflection of the ideological shift that has taken place within the Kurdish movement over the years, away from its initial emphasis on the creation of an independent Kurdish state. In Öcalan’s own words:

The call for a separate nation state results from the interests of the ruling class or the interests of the bourgeoisie, but does not reflect the interests of the people, since another state would only involve the creation of additional injustice and would curtail the right to freedom even more.

The Kurdish liberation movement now considers the state to be a patriarchal, hierarchical and exclusionary set of institutions. There can be no better evidence for the PYD’s real intentions than the granting of equal rights to all ethnic groups in the three cantons, as well as their representation on all levels of government and their active participation in grassroots democratic structures. As the Kurdish activist and scholar Dilar Dirik explained in her speech at the New World Summit in Brussels last year, the solution of the Kurdish issue was not to set up a new state, as the state was the very problem to begin with.

Dauvé argues that, secretly, the Kurdish movement has not abandoned the idea of a nation state at all, but simply rephrased it to sound less authoritarian. Yet a strange paradox remains at the heart of this argument: it is not at all clear why the Kurdish movement would adopt a libertarian anti-statist disguise in order to achieve the secret objective of founding an independent Kurdish state — taking on the extremely difficult task of organizing popular power while it would probably have been much more easier to acquire recognition from the international community as an actual nation state than as a decentralized system of confederated communes.

As for the anti-capitalist nature of the Rojava revolution, the economic system of the cantons is based on three main pillars: the cooperative economy, the open economy, and the private economy. The cooperative economy, which focuses mainly on agriculture and small-scale production, is central. It is based on communal ownership and self-management and often operates outside the monetary economy. Some of the lands were collectivized after the big land-owners left the region following the PYD takeover. Private companies are allowed, but they have to work together with the administration and abide by the social principles of the revolution.

The so-called open economy is based on foreign investment, which unfortunately remains necessary for the development of the region’s scarce infrastructure. There are, for example, no oil refineries in Rojava, even though the Cizire canton has large reserves of petrol. The idea is to attract foreign investment — but only at the price of respecting the social nature of the cantons. The local economy will be developed on the terms set by the inhabitants of Rojava and their assemblies, not by Western capitalists. The industry that will eventually be developed in Rojava should be under direct workers’ control, or at least this is the expressed intention of the PYD officials.

According to Dauvé, the revolution in Rojava is not anti-capitalist because the “proletarians” have not seized the means of production and private property is still allowed. This is a laughable statement, considering that the “proletariat” in the classical Western sense does not exist in Rojava. Here the author once again illustrates the limitations of a purist class analysis based solely on the outdated and inapplicable realities of 19th century industrial Europe.

Not a women’s revolution?

“The subversive nature of a movement or organization cannot be measured by the number of armed women — nor its feminist character,” states Dauvé, who goes on to claim that the whole idea that the revolution in Rojava is also a women’s revolution is based purely on the image of the all-female YPJ militias that became famous during the heroic defense of Kobani.

Of course it is true that we cannot measure the feminist character of a movement simply by the participation of women in armed conflict. Yet this is precisely why Dauvé should have done more research before slandering the Rojava revolution for not being feminist enough. He briefly mentions that women are guaranteed 40% participation in the communes and that all public positions have a dual character — one man and one woman. But what the author misses is the social analysis that is actively transforming gender relations in the whole of Kurdistan.

In his book, Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution, Abdullah Öcalan emphasizes patriarchy as the central element of oppression that has produced all forms of hierarchy and domination. He argues that our civilization is based on three forms of domination over women: through ideology, through force and through the seizure of the economy: “From this relationship stem all forms of relationship that foster inequality, slavery, despotism and militarism.”

The practical expressions of these ideas in Rojava are numerous, and they include the ban on forced marriages, honor killings, polygamy, sexual violence and discrimination, and most importantly, putting women’s issues solely in women’s hands. Women have their own assemblies that have power over women’s issues and that can impose their decisions on those of mixed assemblies if they believe they concern or negatively impact women.

The international human rights lawyer and advocate for women’s rights in conflict, Margaret Owen, describes the developments in gender rights under the PYD administration in a very positive light. She highlights the all-woman party Star Union and the guaranteed equal participation of women in all spheres of public life, including “associations, political, educational, medical, military, police, social and financial services.” With the so-called Women’s Houses, the movement has also developed a system of protection against male violence.

From sectarian impotence to revolutionary creativity

Blinded by frustration with their own marginality and isolated by the incapacity to adapt their ideas to reality and to build a social force that is actually capable of challenging capitalist modernity and the nation state, some Western anarchists still prefer to retreat into their own ideological ivory towers and claim superior knowledge and righteousness through empty statements about the “spineless” radicalism of other people — especially those in the Global South.

Clearly, such sectarian positions negatively affect the ability of “anarchist” groups in the West to actually produce radical and meaningful alternatives to capitalism and the state. It ends up restraining the revolutionary anarchist ideal in the chains of an arrogant self-serving dogma that ultimately renders these groupuscules impotent in their supposed ideological purity.

This is the crisis we face in the West — and it does not promise a better future if sectarian elements in our movement remain incapable of reinventing themselves and finding new and creative forms of struggle and organization. The latter, I believe, is much more important than the flamboyant “revolutionary” rhetoric that, in some Western anarchist circles, seems so sadly separated from practice.

Petar Stanchev is finishing a degree in Latin American Studies and Human Rights at the University of Essex. He has previously lived and studied in Mexico and has been involved in the Zapatista solidarity movement for four years.