Rojava Revolution

David Graeber: From Occupy Wall Street to the Revolution in Rojava

In his speech at the international conference „Challenging Capitalist Modernity“ at the University of Hamburg David Graeber talks about his experiences with the Global Justice Movement, Occupy Wall Street and his visit to the Kurdish province of Rojava in the North of Syria.

In Rojava, Kurds and other groups have succeeded in creating autonomous bottom-up structures that have so far resisted successfully the Islamic State, the Assad regime and the attacks by the Turkish government. According to Graeber, the revolution in Rojava is particularly remarkable because it has developed methods to organize economic and political life from the bottom up, largely avoiding hierarchical bureaucracies.

For this purpose a double power structure has been established: For the necessary contacts with external institutions a state-like structure is in place; internally, however, the local councils remain in control of the decision-making processes. With these achievements Rojava could be an important inspiration for the search of “real democracy” beyond state bureaucracies.

David Graeber, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. His latest books include “Debt. The First 5000 Years” and “The Utopia of Rules”.


Fabian Scheidler: Welcome to Kontext TV. We are here at the University of Hamburg where the international conference „Challenging Capitalist Modernity“ is taking place. We now present a speech by David Graeber. Graeber is professor for Anthropology at the London School of economics. His latest books include “Debt. The First 5000 Years” and “The Utopia of Rules”. In his speech David Graeber talks about his experiences with the Global Justice Movement, Occupy Wall Street and his visit to the Kurdish province of Rojava in the North of Syria.

David Graeber: I have been asked to talk about bureaucracy and class and dangers threatening the revolution in Rojava. I think this is very very important because I think this is probably the most important thing that we are just talking about beacons of historical hope that the revolution in Rojava is probably the most important thing that has happened since Spain in the 1930ies. This is a magnificent opportunity for us and in fact the revolution in Rojava has now lasted longer than the Spanish revolution. It’s managed to maintain itself and I think that as the embargo is lifted certain problems are going to further have to be dealt with and I think people are thinking about this but I think it is really important for us to understand exactly what the dangers of that we are facing in most insidious forms.

My own experience with the global justice movement and Occupy Wall Street was marked by a gradual realization that both these things were movements against bureaucracy, that capitalism itself is increasingly taken on more and more bureaucratic forms. I guess we first began to realize this when the protests against what was then called globalization started. The so called “anti-globalization movement” of course was not an anti globalization movement. We called ourselves the globalization movement. We saw ourselves calling for a real effacement of borders and human solidarity against a system which masked itself as globalization but was actually creating stronger and stronger borders against the movement, people and ideas so as to allow capital to flow freely and exploit those borders.

Over time we realized that in fact what we were really dealing with was the first global administrative bureaucracy. That is to say that there is all these institutions that most people in America didn’t even know they existed. Things like the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank and that there is this seamless web between them and transnational corporations, international finance, including NGOs. That essentially for the first time in human history there was a planetary administrative bureaucracy which was completely lacking in democratic accountability and we were trying to do is expose the workings of that system. That’s why they had those giant festivals against capitalism every time the IMF met or the World Bank met, it was just to point to the existence of the people who are really administering the world and we tried to fight that by creating our own model of what genuine bottom up democracy could be like.

When we fast forward 10 years to Occupy Wall Street in fact in a way it was kind of the same thing. Once again we didn’t really think of it that way when we first began the movement but over time it became increasingly clear that we were fighting something very very similar. The idea of the 1%, the 1% both including all the people that basically had reaped all the profits of the economic growth, the 1% of the population, that they were also the people who made all the political contributions. Something like 99% of the political contributions came from 1% of the population. Essentially these people have bought the political system, the American political system in particular is just a system of institutionalized bribery.

These people ended up turning their wealth into power and their power back into wealth. They were continually creating situations where they could use the government as an apparatus to extract wealth. Capitalism itself was operating differently. The profits from the major Wall Street corporations were less and less derived from commerce, let alone production and more and more simply from finance, but what finance means is other people’s debts and debts had to be created through policy, intentional policies. So essentially bureaucracy was being used as the mode of extracting capitalist surplus. So you have this global system which creates and maintains debt and other means of extracting resources and it’s completely outside of any kind of democratic accountability.

It struck me this is all very important when I visited Rojava two years ago because there were similar bureaucracies that were working and essentially it rapidly became clear to me that there was a kind of a game that one plays in this region. And this game is mediated by corporate bureaucracies, it’s mediated by military bureaucracies and it’s also mediated by humanitarian bureaucracies, they are part of that same web. Essentially the game is that you create images of both terror and human suffering so there is a sort of marketing of images, of scary images, and heart breaking images that are then circulated. And you exploit them to essentially get weapons, patronage, money and control resources, mainly oil. So the entire thing was a top down redistribution of hierarchies. This is very very clear if you go to Bashur in Iraq. The entire game that Daeesh was playing, that the various governments were playing in different ways, they are all playing for the media, it’s very clear for example that those guys at Daeesh have seen a lot of Hollywood movies. They were going off and trying to create the image that Westerners have in their minds of what evil people could possibly want. It was all part of the game of manipulation of images.

What really struck me when I talked to people in the Kurdish freedom movement, the basic question was how do we create a different game, how do we break out of these constrains. I deeply remember a conversation where they were talking about oil and there’s a lot of oil in Rojava. At the moment they can’t export it because there’s an embargo. So they were saying “you know we could sell the oil we could get into the networks that everyone else is practicing but maybe we can do something else with oil. Can we just give it as a gift?”. Their kind of creativity is to break out of the terms of the game is actually what the revolution is all about. It allowed me to see what was happening in Rojava in a different way because oddly enough there were a lot of people there who felt that in a way while the blockade, while it’s terrible in terms of humanitarian facts, it’s also in certain ways an advantage.

In thinking about it actually I realized that this is one of the greatest problems that revolutionary movements face. This allowed me to rethink my own experience and reevaluate it in this light: how to integrate these larger bureaucratic institutions which are based on course of force. It’s actually the life blood, it’s the fabric of capitalism at this point. You have to integrate them to have resources but at the same time you have to create structures which ensure that their logic doesn’t capture you and take you over and I realize that it’s exactly what they are trying to do in Rojava, you actually had two structures with power: You had the self administration which looks just like the government, it’s got a parliament it’s got ministers it’s got all the sort of formal apparatus of government.

And then you have the bottom up structures. You have the various structures of democratic confederalism, three different layers of delegation from lower level councils to higher. At first a lot of us when we looked at the constitution it just doesn’t look particularly anti state it looks just like a state. A lot of people were really critical of it but then when you got there you realized there’s two structures and that top structure was essentially necessary to deal with outsiders. At the same time people would insist that it’s not a state project and the reason why it’s not a state project is because anybody with a gun, anybody who’s part of the course of force is answerable to the bottom up structures and not to the top down ones. And this is the key of the Rojava revolution, it’s essentially a dual power situation and this might be unique in this way. It’s actually a dual power situation where actually the same people have set up both parts.

And it came home to me most of all when I was in Qamishlo one part was still controlled by the government, there’s sort of a street, there’s a post office (which I think was their center) but principally they controlled the air strip. I wondered about this but then I realized that makes perfect sense because you know what are you going to do with an airport if you’ve only got one. If there’s two airports you can fly back and forth between them right? But if you’ve only got one airport, you can’t fly anywhere because if you want to fly someplace you have to sign on to all these international agreements. You have to have security agreements you have to have safety agreements, you have to have commercial agreements of various kinds. But you can’t actually do that unless you are a state. It shows how these bureaucratic mechanisms which on certain levels are benevolent, they don’t want an airplane to crash. People in Rojava have definite security concerns if they are flying planes they are not trying to blow people up. But nonetheless all these international agreements assume a certain form, they assume that you are a state and they won’t deal with you unless you do so.

You basically have to create a membrane, a simpler structure between all the organizational forms that can integrate with international institutions which will impose a state form on you and the bottom up directly democratic experiment, the very life blood of what makes Rojava so brilliant and historically hopeful. Most of the quarrels that I saw when I looked at the points of tension, what were people arguing about, it always had to do with that. I will just mention two that very much struck me at the time: One was when we talked to the economic minister, I can’t remember what his technical title was, but the people who were coordinating the economic affairs. They were talking about the terrible effects of the embargo, of the need to get access to technology, the desire to create various relationships internationally and all of this makes perfect sense they were obviously in a very desperate economic situation but afterwards “Nazam” who was one person who’s with our delegation who’s been there a year earlier and talked to similar people said: wow, that’s a completely different line than what we heard last time because last time we were here people were saying you know in a way the embargo is a blessing in disguise because it allows us to create autonomous institutions, we’ve become self sufficient.

I realized that this is a point of tension. There are people and these are very well educated and sophisticated people who’ve been around the world who saw Rojava as inside a network of social relations, different types of economic, political and social relations with the outside world, which they made a case, these were things that were desperately needed, the infrastructure was going to fall apart unless they got replacement parts for certain things. At the same time there were other groups who were saying well that’s a reasonable price to pay for freedom to create an autonomous experiment. The second point where I saw people really arguing about something was during one of those assemblies we went to. And you could see that these assemblies were the real thing because often people got really angry and started shouting at each other. So really this wasn’t staged democracy. This was the real thing. The thing which people got most excited about was about the Asa’ish (roughly translated the police, the internal security).

There was one case where they had to call them in. I can’t remember what the problem was. I think it was about someone who was said to be hoarding sugar. They wanted to bring in some people to look in someone’s house and the person who showed up – this is the local security, the committee of the directly democratic assembly – so when the Asa’ish showed up the first thing he said was: Ok I can’t do that unless I check with my commanding officer for authorization. And they became very upset right? and said “no, what are you talking about, that’s like top down hierarchy and you are answering us, we’re the local group”. They were debating maybe we should make a hat or a badge or something, but this won’t impress them. Just to remind these guys that we’re actually the actual authority that they’re supposed to be answering to. There is already a deep awareness of the danger of the top down logic and something like the state would happen, unless we’re constantly vigilant, making sure that doesn’t occur. I thought it was extremely important as it shows what’s really at stake here. They have intense pressure from above to integrate into larger systems. You have to have international relations but at the same time they’re constantly going to encourage a certain logic which is going to assume that things go top down rather than bottom up.

Another thing when I left, I was looking over human rights reports in Rojava and I noticed that human rights wrote a fairly critical report. One of the things they complained about was that people aren’t meeting the world standards of trials. I thought that was very telling because in fact they are trying to create a radically different bottom up type of justice system which is based on consensus principles, restorative justice, limited notion of revenge and retribution. It’s all very beautiful and incredibly important to start this experiment and again from world standards, that’s a human rights abuse because what human rights people are doing is trying to create safeguards against state power. But those safeguards against state power assume the existence of state power. So not having state power at all from their point of view, is just as much a human rights abuse as direct state power. I think it shows as in the case of the economic ministers that extremely well meaning people can be complicit in allowing a certain state logic to reenter and endanger the entire project.

So I have been asked you’ve been there for ten days and you’ve seen it, not very long, at the end they said offer us some criticisms, what could we do better, what should we watch out for and we conversed on this and we came up with a list of the dangers of the emergence of politicians, when you have a system of delegates, not everyone can do it so how do you guarantee that certain people don’t get basically political specialists and emerge to a political class. Another one was exactly that. How do you create a membrane between the bottom up structures and the top down structures to ensure that this very well meaning but very dangerous creeping bureaucratization doesn’t enter in. And finally the question of social class.

Now when people talk about Rojava when you mention class, people’s reaction is “oh no not that again I don’t really want to have another argument about how to have some proletarians…” these sort of old marxist debates are very tiring and irrelevant and I agree on that. But if you drop the question of social class entirely, I think that’s equally dangerous, because what you have if you take the approach of someone like Pierre Bourdieu there are different forms of capital. There is economic capital and you can very much monitor that but there’s also social and cultural capital. There’s certain people who have international connection and know how to deal in such situations and with certain people naturally who will for the best of reasons end up recreating hierarchies, through their relations with the outside world.

And I think that one of the most important things is to figure out how we can prevent that from happening. We had exactly the same problem in both the movements I was talking about, the Global Justice Movement and in Occupy Wall St. There is a tendency for internal bureaucratization. People started treating processes and principles as if they were rules and they had to go by the rule book. And the more that happened, we noticed, the people of relatively upper and middle class, of professional backgrounds, started feeling much more comfortable and people of less elite background much more uncomfortable, and leaving the meetings. This is a constant danger in every social movement unless you are very deeply self conscious about it. Paradoxically in Rojava the embargo has allowed a new type of society to emerge but the real challenges I think are going to be faced as things open up and they have to figure out a way to maintain this beautiful bottom up energy without the creeping bureaucracy taking over. I just wanted to throw that out as a comment I think it is very important to think about it.

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