- Category: War and Imperialism
- Published on Thursday, 23 October 2014
- Written by Baraneh Emadian
The final years of the last century confronted us with what seemed to be the last lesson of history: the twilight of revolutions. In consequence, the only threat to the eternal rule of ‘liberal-democratic’ capitalism came to be ‘the outside’, i.e. terrorism; ergo, ‘the war on terror’ as the sole remaining game in polis. Yet, soon a series of mass movements and popular uprisings—from Iran’s Green Movement to the Arab uprisings— reversed that lesson, and was even deemed by many as a rebirth of history. Now that revolution is once again a possibility (and in some places like Rojava has moved quietly but persistently from ‘probability’ to ‘actuality’), there seems to be an urge to choke it with countless–legitimate, illegitimate, covert, overt, high-tech, low-tech, planned, improvised— wars, conflicts, coups, missions, interventions, etc. Every iota of identity—religious, ethnic, national, tribal—ought to be utilized against the possible encounter between the masses and emancipatory politics, against the formation of a singular universality.
The real players, perching on their strongholds in Washington, Riyadh, Tehran, or Istanbul, are obviously beyond harm, resting assured that these proxy wars will never bend a twig in their backyards. Their only concern may be economic setbacks, though everyone knows that business as usual toils along somehow under such circumstances; moreover, thanks to the UN/US sanctions, there are always succulent morsels and shady deals awaiting the brave ones who know and appreciate the challenges of free trading in oil or arms. This appears to be the most spontaneous, instinctive response of our zeitgeist to the possibility of revolutionary change: a recipe for counter-revolution from Egypt and Libya to Syria and Iraq to replace the collective struggles for liberation with despotic regimes.
Consider Egypt, for instance. The Egyptian mass uprising (for various reasons) left the very core of the system, the army, and the State, untouched. The army (much favoured by the U.S.) waited for the mass movement to subside, meanwhile getting rid of Mobarak, and aggravating existing conflicts and creating new ones. Muslim Brotherhood and other petit-bourgeois parties, all made their contributions, feeding on religious-ethnic identities and petty differences, to the extent that by the time the army made its final move and regained power, its coup hardly induced a stir. Countries such as Israel and the U.S. even greeted this long-sought coup with a sigh of relief, whilst Cairo’s radical students and feminists could only react with a lugubrious resignation, surreptitiously murmuring that it was at least better than endless conflicts or wars.
In Syria, peaceful, popular protests had a rather transient life. Given the draconian record of Assad’s regime and the scale of mass dissensus against it, it soon became clear that not only Assad’s family, but also the Baath party had to flee. What made the situation both more complex and bloody was the fact that Assad’s regime had no anti-riot police force, having always relied upon its ruthless army, which, as ‘the nation’s main weapon against Israel,’ had enjoyed some support among the people (a situation contrary to Libya, where Gadhafi’s army had been merely a great, well-armed police force). The Syrian army’s prominent role in crushing the protests naturally led to a bloodbath. When Iran and Hezbollah intervened to help Assad’s regime and fill the void of a less fatal instrument of oppression, it was already too late, since the Syrian regime, well-known even in the middle-east for its boundless ferocity, had declared war on its own people.
The unprecedented violence and destruction unleashed by Assad’s State eventually opened the gates of hell, provoking Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to enter the scene, each supporting or organizing an armed militia (supposedly backed up by the endless flow of arms and money). This let loose hoards of Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Arabs, Turks, the religious, and the secular, all waging war against one another, with the splitting lines of identity and ideology piercing through every front or faction, and causing a bellum omnia contra omnes in which the friend and enemy divide kept being erased and redrawn. As a result, another political, popular uprising (i.e. an unarmed uprising relying on general strikes and mass demonstrations in many cities and towns), which could lead to a political revolution (or, who knows, even a socio-political one), faded in the horizon.
The people of Rojava—i.e. the North-eastern part of Syria, where the majority of population are Kurds—also took part in the Syrian uprising. However, when the civil war began, this region turned into a safe haven in the midst of a bloodbath. Since Assad’s army was not strong enough to squash the movement entirely, it had to constantly move, or even retreat permanently from certain regions. Rojava turned out to be the most crucial one. The retreat of Assad’s army, the hidden or open rivalries between regional powers (which barred the way to any form of military intervention), and, above all, the political will of the people accentuated with mutual bonds and traditions (expressed and embodied in a political organization), had been the main factors that made the establishment of the three autonomous cantons a possibility in 2012.
The emergence of Kobani, as a new Kurdish power, had been quite similar to the formation of Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, resulting from the American invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Even so, the affinity ends here. It is crucial to notice that Kurdish cantons in Syria relied on the support of the native people and their non-market economic relations, which despite its traditional roots, is to a great extent a new invention. The three cantons in Rojava are a conglomeration of cooperatives, which can become the bearers of socialist relations, if we keep in sight Marx’s revision of his former somewhat Eurocentric ideas as a result of his correspondence with his Russian followers that faced him with the institution of village councils in Russia and its great, historical potentials. Furthermore, these people have been organized and maintained with the aid of radical leftist political forces such as ‘The People’s Defending Battalions,’ which, for their part owed a great deal to the material, ideological, and even military support of the Workers Party of Kurdistan. These cantons sought to dissuade extreme Kurdish nationalism, identity politics, and even nation-state building, tendencies that draw a line of demarcation between them and the leaders of the highly nationalist Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq (whose main endeavour has been orientated towards State-building). Despite the presence of democratic forces in northern Iraq, the latter has consented to deal with Western and regional powers to reach its nationalist objectives.
The head of Kurdistan Regional Government even took advantage of the invasion of Iraqi borders by the forces of Islamic State (Isis) to officially request independence, whilst declaring a neutral stance in the conflict. Even when Kobani and the People’s Defending Battalions began fighting Isis two years ago (this battle, as well as the existence of Isis, remained chiefly unmentioned in the Western media until very recently), these nationalist Kurdish leaders in Iraq turned a deaf ear to the predicaments of the Syrian Kurds, and at last announced their solidarity with Kobani only under the pressure of public opinion. Their repugnance stemmed from the conviction that not only the socialist and democratic aspirations of Kobani threatened different forms of fundamentalism, but also their capitalist, ethnic-based state-building a la Qatar. Their bluffs vis a vis the establishment of an independent Kurdish government was betrayed when the forces of Isis drew closer to Erbil, and following the retreat of the KDP Peshmarge militia, the leader of Kurdish government had to plead for help from the US and regional powers, whose intervention prevented Erbil from falling.
In the last two years, the Kurdish militias (joined by male and female, Kurd and non-Kurd volunteers) have been fighting in three fronts with the Isis criminals without heavy arms and any support whatsoever from “the alliance of 40 countries”. The emergence of the Isis, however, intersects with the realization of the logic of neoliberal capitalism in the Middle-Eastern Islamic-oil regimes, all bent on building replicas of New York and Hong Kong in the midst of the sterile deserts of Arabian Peninsula (some like Dubai and Qatar have actually achieved it). The phenomenon of Isis is indeed a hybrid product—and a legitimate child— of the Western ‘war on terror’ and regional ambitions and rivalries of these Islamic-oil regimes. Without resorting to conspiracy theories, it can be surmised that the Isis has its very roots in the wars of the US in the region and the neo-conservative agenda to enforce American ‘liberal democracy’ as a new arrangement for the perpetuation of the imperialism of the West. These wars and interventions have either directly paved the way for the emergence of Al-Qaida and Isis, or indirectly led to vulnerable and frenzied situations in which every regional power could found a fundamentalist militia in pursuit of its goals, victimizing ordinary citizens in the process.
This symbiosis of terrorist fundamentalism and brutal capitalism, which revolves around the military intervention of major powers, brings to light the logic of rule and exception, where the rule is the hegemony of depoliticizing neoliberalism, and the exception, the fundamentalist terrorism obsessed with the cult of blood and death. It should not come as a surprise that rule and exception not only create, sustain, and buttress each other (both materially and ideologically), but at times they actually become one, as, for instance, the involvement of Isis in the global scene of production and trading of raw oil, slave-market1, etc. Throughout the last two decades, we have been witnessing the realization of this logic, made possible by the absence of any real communist alternative; now, more than ever, we can observe that real emancipatory politics cannot embrace the present alternatives, but requires a third way, consisting in a radical transformation of the present coordinates of the situation. In our times, this form of politics has different names according to different regional circumstances; nonetheless, Kobani is undoubtedly one of them, and, in a sense, the most revealing one. According to Joseph Daher, a member of the Revolutionary Left Current in Syria, several battalions of Arab militants, and the Free Syrian Army (fighting against both the Assad regime and Isis), are also defending Kobani.2 This resistance presents us with a third way that eludes the position of mere spectators of the massacre of innocent people in Benghazi by Colonel Gaddafi, or supporting NATO’s military intervention (which finally ended up in dividing Libya among a myriad of fundamentalist or governmental militias, hence paving the path towards the establishment of a new Islamic State).
Despite the endeavours and manoeuvrings of the Kurdish Syrian leaders who sought to be allowed to join the coalition, they have not been accepted, a fact that, beyond all Realpolitik, testifies to the position of Kobani as an exception. In a word, Isis is the exception at the service of the rule, whilst Kobani is the true exception or “the third way,” capable of interrupting this vicious circle. Even though it may seem that Kobani’s militants and the Isis occupy the same form, they fill this form with drastically different contents: Kobani’s content is true universal emancipatory politics, whereas the content of the Isis is clearly a particular identity, meant to be generalized through coercion and violence. The position of the Turkish government towards Kobani is also quite revealing. The oppressiveness exhibited by the Turkish government against its Kurdish population, which comprise a quarter of the country’s population, is well-known, and a frequently traversed field. Implicit in Tayyip Erdogan’s acerbic, abstract comparison between PKK and Isis is the heart of the matter: “It is wrong to view them differently—we need to deal with them jointly.”3 In its negotiations with Saleh Moslem, Erdogan’s government has not recoiled from disclosing its predilection to do away with the cantons or any democratic autonomy. Kobani’s collapse would enable the Turkish State to get rid of the Kurds, occupy the ravished town, rescue “the victims,” and gain hegemony. The so-called representatives of “Islam with a human face,” stumbling at the gates of the EU, certainly do not mind killing Turkish protesters or dealing with Isis on their long march towards democracy and restoration of the aspirations of the Ottoman Empire.
The fact that the US airstrikes had been futile until only a few days ago (when they partly forced the Isis to retreat for the first time) is a sign of the pure performativity of these former air raids. It must not come as a surprise that they only acted under the pressure of public opinion—when Kobani was a few steps away from annihilation— to prevent the humiliation of the defeat of their entire military capacity at the hand of a gang of fundamentalists. Following these airstrikes in the past few days, the American military claimed that it airdropped ammunitions and medical supplies to Kurdish forces.4 Implicit in this statement is another point testifying to the exceptionality of this resistance. Against the humanitarian ideology of victimization and charity, the Kurdish fighters have refused to play the victim, defying the status of mere bare lives waiting to be saved by the Western ground troops. It is for this reason that the anxieties of the non-interventionist Leftists are unfounded. All that Kobani has requested is for weapons and Kurdish and non-Kurdish volunteers to be allowed to pass the border and reach them. The lumping together of the PKK and the Isis in the list of the terrorist groups by right and left sadly implies that the only two existing alternatives prescribed by the international community is either integration into the merciless world market, or joining the fundamentalist barbarity.
Kobani’s experience must be viewed as an historical/ideological turning point for the radical left beyond the hopeless snapshots of victimization and inhuman violence, resonating with the battle of the International Brigade against the barbarism of Franco’s Fascist forces. This resistance does not merely represent some non-existing or “to-come” socialism, but a concrete political force, which is simultaneously radical, spirited, and uncompromising, an emancipatory force extreme enough in its liberatory aspirations to stand against all actually existing fanaticisms. We can glimpse in Kobani, a political will crystallized in an organization, a will capable of leading to a political revolution, which could even bear, in Marx’s terms, the seeds of a social revolution. It is a resistance bringing together virtue and reason, will and organization, idea and weapon. As an instance of a minority/particular—and secular— struggle intimately entwined with the universal, Kobani’s experience cannot but reveal that any struggle for emancipation is a struggle over the destiny of the world.
1Isis: Plea for West to help more than 1,000 kidnapped Yazidi women forced into 'sex trade', The Independent
2Kobani, the Kurdish issue and the Syrian revolution, a common destiny, Syria Freedom Forever
3Kobani: anger grows as Turkey stops Kurds from aiding militias in Syria, The Guardian
4Kobani: US drops weapons to Kurds in Syria, The Guardian
- Category: Analysis
- Published on Tuesday, 21 October 2014
- Written by Richard Atkinson
Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme
- They are not trying (very hard) to reduce welfare expenditure
- They do not want, at all, to reduce benefit dependency
- They are not interested in getting people into work ...
- … because they don’t know what to do with people when they are working
- They are not, exactly, aiming to abolish the welfare state…
- … not least because the present welfare state is their own, neoliberal, creation
- They are converting the DWP into a punitive arm of the state
- They are looking to create a low waged, unskilled, precarious workforce
- They are enforcing a patriarchal discipline on women and families by means testing
- They are winning ...
- ...and Universal Credit will seal their victory for a generation
- They have a problem with pensioners, which they have yet to sort out
- Labour are as deeply committed to these aims as the Tories
- Why it’s ‘Welfare’, not Social Security
- Why it’s back to 1601 not 1834
- No-one asked for welfare
- Against welfare: for class independence
Addendum- on proposals for an unconditional basic income Why unconditional basic income is not the same as negative income tax. Universal basic income is neither a panacea nor a neoliberal plot. Getting an unconditional basic income is not going to be easy.
- Category: Reviews
- Published on Saturday, 18 October 2014
- Written by Conor Kostick
Conor Kostick reviews The Event of Literature (Yale University Press) by Terry Eagleton
If The Matrix were a film about Literary Criticism, then Terry Eagleton would have been cast in the role of Morpheus. It’s easy to picture him, secure in a space of his own choosing, smiling and beckoning with a flick of his hand that his opponents should come and do their worst. And in the film version of The Event of Literature, every person seeking enlightenment by a different path than Eagleton’s would be sent sprawling by a good-natured clout to the head.
The Event of Literature might be a little less action-filled than The Matrix, but it has almost non-stop polemical confrontations to enjoy, even by readers, like myself, unfamiliar with the literary theorists addressed in the book. This is because Eagleton’s main concern here is to tackle the subject at a philosophical level and thus his comments typically have a relevance to all aesthetics, not just literary ones.
My friends over at the Association of Musical Marxists, for example, might take note of Eagleton’s passing observations on Adorno. Those who see the new as valuable in itself and the normative as inherently ossified easily fall into two errors, a blindness towards avant-garde forms that are sterile and a too-insensitive dismissal of all practices arising from well established norms.
While on the subject of the AMM, I once (a very long time ago) read an essay by one of its founders, Andy Wilson, on the compatibility of Wittgenstein’s epistemology with that of Marx. Evidence of such compatibility can be found in the writings of Terry Eagleton, which show that he has evolved a wonderful synthesis of the ideas of Marx and Wittgenstein.
An aspect of Wittgenstein’s work that is deeply appreciated by Eagleton is the sense that when reading the philosopher’s work, one is engaging with a mind in playful, ironic dialogue with itself, lucid in expression, but enigmatic in content (to quote from The Gatekeeper). It would not be right to say that Eagleton is enigmatic, most of the time his meaning could not be clearer if it were a slogan being chanted by thousands of demonstrators, but often Eagleton too writes in a playful and self-ironic mode. This is especially true when he approaches complex and multi-sided subjects; at these points a brusque, no-nonsense formulation would do as much harm as good.
As a case study of his methodology, Eagleton’s discussion of Realism versus Nominalism, with which he opens the book, serves well. Are general or universal categories in some sense real, à la Plato? Or – the Nominalist position - are abstract categories only ever the constructions of human minds? For the Nominalists, the real has to be particular. Comprehending the ideas of other writers and recasting them with brevity is one of Eagleton’s particular strengths and in this section he proceeds by examining the thoughts of Western philosophers through the ages, placing them on the Realist – Nominalist spectrum. Those philosophers who veer towards the extremes of either position, Eagleton takes to task.
So deft are Eagleton’s blows to the Realist tradition that at least one reviewer of The Event of Literature thought that he was here advocating a Nominalist point of view. But Eagleton metes out equally strong rebuttals to the one-sided Nominalists he discusses. Which leaves the reader where he wants us, thinking that universality and individuality cannot be antithetical. That this is Eagleton’s goal is evident from his approval of Marx’s writings on human beings in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. There Marx asserts that individual humans are distinct from one another, precisely because such individuation is a consequence of our ‘species-being’. One of the universal powers of homo sapiens is that of forming individuals.
This methodology, a series of zig-zagging critiques of first one side then the other, is crucial for Eagleton’s subsequent arguments concerning literature. The main body of the book is taken up with entertaining explorations of the limits of the – extraordinarily many – various schools of literary theory. His approach allows Eagleton to show that in many cases a theory founded on a mistaken definition of literature (definitions echoing the Realist – Nominalist debate), will collapse the living, multi-dimensional phenomenon that is literature into a (often dull) linear channel.
Now a lot of traditional Marxist aesthetics – say the meetings on art held at the UK SWP’s annual Marxism event (I was just now listening to the recording of John Molyneux’s talk on the subject) – understand art as in some way being a reflection of an historical moment. This, for Eagleton, is too simple-minded a dichotomy. A literary work is not a reflection of a history external to it but a ‘strategic’ labour, one that ‘paradoxically … projects out of its own innards the very historical and ideological subtext to which it is a strategic reply.’ (page 170) Trying to explain a person’s dream in terms of the state of global capitalism might yield an insight or two, but to ask what questions does the dream pose and address for the particular individual, and what does it reveal about his or her unconscious concerns, is immensely more fruitful.
Strategy is the key concept of The Event of Literature. Not in the sense of Napoleon’s generalship, but in defining a literary text as being a work whose efforts articulate a response to a particular historical or ideological subtext, a subtext that the work itself has fashioned and that does not exist ‘externally’. The strategic labour of a literary work is the way it sets to work on a reality that is contained within it. This sounds rather circular and perhaps those attuned to the dangers of post-modernism will now be hearing alarms, despite the fact that Eagleton is amongst the most militant opponents of post-modernism.
The circularity, however, is of the fecund, rather than sterile sort. The literary text is able to be something more than a resident in a closed world, due to the fact that it has simultaneously internalised something real and creatively reacted to this reality, to some extent forging a new one. It is possible, and seemingly easier (if it did not obscure matters at another level), to grasp at either side of this paradox by insisting that there is nothing beyond the text, or that the text is a direct reflection of an external world. In regard to the latter view, Eagleton quotes Jameson approvingly, ‘in order to act on the real, the text cannot simply allow reality to persevere in its being outside of itself, inertly, at a distance; it must draw the real into its own texture.’ Or, in his own words, ‘bodies and texts are self-determining, which is not to say they exist in a void. On the contrary, this self-determining activity is inseparable from the way they go to work on their surroundings.’ (page 209).
In the concept of literature as strategy, Eagleton believes he has a conceptual approach that allows us to see that some of the best insights of various literary schools, e.g. structuralism, semiotics, Freudianism, Formalism, etc are in fact related. Whilst they might not use the term strategy, each, when they are at their most insightful, approaches a similarly active understanding of literature. By elucidating this isomorphism and naming it – strategy – Eagleton has achieved something extraordinary, the equivalent of unifying quantum theory with gravitational theory, namely discovering a unifying literary theory.
Since he does not suffer from false modesty, this achievement is blown, like a triumphant fanfare of horns, by Eagleton himself at a number of points towards the end of the book. One might even call such a seminal book, if one were being playful, The Event of Literature. And why not? After all, despite his own repeated emphasis on what he himself sees as being the most important conclusion of his book, hardly any other review of The Event of Literature seems to have noticed what a major development of literary theory this is.
Eagleton’s potential allies on the Marxist left seem to have been in too much of a hurry to force the book into tired and decades-old formula. In Socialist Review, for example, we read that: ‘[Eagleton] berates those writers for whom theory is only about understanding the world, not changing it. Eagleton argues instead that literature is closely bound to its historical context …’ One can almost hear the repeated banging of a forehead against a table somewhere in Dublin.
This is not an easy work, but then books concerned with the philosophy of aesthetics are always going to be slow reads. And at least here the reader is in the hands of someone who writes with verve and wit. This book makes a huge contribution to literary theory and does so from a standpoint that we can gladly call our own.