We are alone, and not actually anywhere near Kobane: a response to Rabble

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on the situation in Rojava, and what we can, or indeed can’t, do to affect things there, in response to an article from the Anarkismo group, which in turn was a response to a critical take from a North American anarcho-syndicalist. Since then, the cycle of statements, counter-statements, and counter-counter-statements has continued to roll on: the Anarchist Federation have produced their statement, which has drawn an angry response from London’s Rabble collective. We can only guess as to whether anyone in Rojava has any idea that their fate has become the subject of such a heated round of anarchist point-scoring, and what they make of it if so.

Anyway, while I disagreed with the Anarkismo statement, it did at least have the merit of being a clear, internally coherent articulation of a specific political position. I disagree strongly with their logic, but I can definitely follow it. In contrast, the Rabble article is, to put it simply, all over the fucking shop. It’s hard to summarise such a messy article, so I’ll go through it point by point.

To start off with, they declare:

“We are with the fighters in Kobane, defending their lives and freedom against the fascists of ISIS.”

To which two obvious replies present themselves: Firstly, does this also mean they are “with” the USAF and RAF pilots and drone operators fighting against the fascists of ISIS? If not, why not? And secondly, while they may be “with the fighters in Kobane” in the sense of “writing articles on the internet saying they’re good”, they’re clearly not “with” them in the more commonly used sense of actually having any direct connection with them, seeing as they’re called Rabble LDN, not Rabble KBN. The distinction between these two senses is an important one, and one I’ll come back to.

They follow this up with

“We are with the rioters and looters in Ferguson, Athens, London, and all the streets of the world, wherever people take to the streets and confront the violence of police and state.”

This seems fairly unobjectionable, except for the confusing suggestion of being “with the rioters in London” – perhaps I’m just out of touch, but I thought it’d been a fair while since there had been much rioting and looting worth mentioning in the streets of London. It’s not August 2011, and ritually invoking the memory of those days won’t do anything to bring them back. But this is a minor point compared to the central objection, which is that they seem to be trying to draw some kind of equivalence between relatively spontaneous mass riots against racism and police brutality, and a military campaign being waged by a proto-state force that’s introduced conscription, working in a coalition with the US armed forces. For anarchists to not pick up on any differences between these two things is fairly worrying.

And then

“We are with the individuals and small groups of insurgent friends who, even though they are few and scattered like fireflies in the night, attack the system however they can.”

This, for the benefit of the uninitiated, appears to be an attempt to bring up an older beef, related to the Anarchist Federation not being supportive enough of the Crap Poets’ Society using a name very similar to theirs when carrying out kneecappings and acts of arson. Of course, this, like the riots in Ferguson and Athens, has very little to do with the situation in Kobane: if trying to draw an equivalence between anti-police riots and the military campaign against ISIS shows a questionable political approach, trying to link either of these things with some numpties who like to play with matches is just… well, to describe it as being daft as a brush would be to risk insulting brushes.

They add that

“When it comes to the fighters in Kobane and Syria, we don’t give a toss that few if any of them are anarchists. We are well aware that many are affiliated to the PKK, an authoritarian party hungry for power just like all political parties, whether they call themselves communist, socialist, liberal, democratic, or whatever.”

There are two appropriate responses to this. Firstly, it’s again necessary to ask, do they support USAF drone operators fighting against ISIS? How about the Islamic Front or al-Nusra? If not, why not? If people wish to support PKK fighters, but not US ones, on the grounds that they think the PKK is a more defensible force, then that’s a different argument, but Rabble seem to be saying that they’re totally unconcerned about what affiliation fighters have, as long as they’re fighting – a position that would leave them with no grounds whatsoever for any attempts to make distinctions between the PYD, FSA, al-Nusra, Islamic Front, the US, and various other anti-ISIS forces. It is, of course, possible that this is genuinely what they think, but if so then they should at least come out and say it openly.

Secondly, it’s also worth noting that, of all the various pieces of anarchist commentary I’ve seen on the subject, this is by far the most simplistic and one-sided treatment of the PKK I’ve seen. The AFed and anarcho-syndicalist articles consider the PKK’s alleged libertarian turn, explain why they consider it to be cosmetic and so not worthy of support, the Anarkismo statement explains why they find the PKK’s libertarian turn convincing and so worth supporting, but the Rabble position seems to just be “the PKK is a party, therefore they are straightforwardly bad like all other parties, but we support them anyway”. It’s not often you see someone being unfairly dismissive of someone while also acting as an apologist for them at the same time, but it looks like Rabble might have managed it.

Next there’s a statement of support for rioters, which is unobjectionable but completely irrelevant to the subject of the PKK, and then they return to their reheated beef about the AF’s lack of support for Informal Anarchist actions, saying “when it comes to acts of sabotage and attack against the state and capital, we’re not particularly bothered if we agree with… all their reasoning or their wording or their choice of targets.” This is another piece of big-sounding rhetoric that is obviously untrue: if someone decided to “attack the state” by blowing themselves up on the tube, I’m sure Rabble would be every bit as horrified as the rest of us, precisely because they would disagree with the choice of targets. Claiming that you’re not bothered about what targets other people choose to attack is one of those pieces of rhetoric that sounds good for about ten seconds until you stop and consider what that actually means, which doesn’t seem to have happened at any point during the drafting of this woeful statement.

They add “we certainly don’t care whether they have the support of “the masses””, an assertion which mainly serves to demonstrate, for anyone who hasn’t worked it out by this point, that context, strategy, and communication with other people are not high on their list of priorities. Of course, for anyone actually concerned with changing the conditions we find ourselves in, whether a specific act is likely to be popular, to alienate people or just to be ignored entirely is a hugely important question, but in the blinkered approach of this piece, whether or not something can be described as “fighting” seems to be the only question that needs asking.

Apparently

“showing solidarity with the fighters does not mean becoming mindless cheerleaders. For example, even as we support the fight in Kobane, we point out the brutality and authoritarianism of the PKK, and expose lies and cover-ups in their propaganda.”

Which raises the question: where? Where exactly have you, Rabble LDN, pointed out PKK brutality and exposed lies in PKK propaganda? Without having any real examples to point to, this seems like the expression of a bad anarchist conscience at work: they know that criticising hierarchical political parties is the sort of thing that anarchists should do, but they’re not really willing to actually do it in this case, so they simply state that they do the thing as a substitute for actually doing it. In reality, anyone who criticises the PKK is likely to draw Rabble’s condemnation for their failure to be sufficiently supportive of “the fighters”.

There follows a list of other arguments about showing “solidarity with the fighters”, which are mostly vague enough to be completely unobjectionable, although of limited relevance to the actual argument being had about Kobane, before we get to a bit where the practical consequences of their approach should be spelt out, but aren’t:

“as anarchists, we make our own choices about whether to actively join in particular combats, how and where to do so, or how to show solidarity in different ways.”

This is a very woolly cover for their lack of actual practical activity: we all know that there’s no real chance of them deciding to actively join in combat against ISIS, and that their support will just consist of various symbolic displays of solidarity. For all the insistence that Rabble are really concerned about the fighters on the ground, it’s hard to see how a symbolic show of solidarity is of any practical use to them, any more than the AFed statement that so upset the Rabble collective.

They then get on to the main body of the argument, about how our fear and passivity is always strengthened by a chorus of disapproving voices, which AFed are apparently joining in with. In passing, it’s worth noting that they take the opportunity to big themselves up with another bit of transparently untrue rhetoric, claiming that “most of the left” have turned on the Kobane fighters. I understand that everyone likes the idea of being a lone voice in the wilderness, bravely pointing out a truth that everyone else is too blind or scared to see, but this is definitely not the case here, as the argument they’re making about Kobane is actually fairly close to what a large section of the left is saying – to take a quick sample of some fairly disparate lefty groups, the Socialist Party, the International Socialist Network, Plan C and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty have all come out in support of the Kurdish resistance. As the AWL have noted, many leftists who’ve previously come out with the kind of crude anti-imperialism that Rabble criticise have, this time round, been much more willing to oppose ISIS. In order to protect their self-image as brave heretics speaking out against orthodoxy, Rabble need to squint so hard that a huge section of the left disappears, until they’re just left with the furthest fringes of anti-imperialist Stalinism on one hand and then a few anarchists and left communists on the other.

But, while embarrassingly untrue, their claim that no-one else on the left is willing to support Kobane is a side issue to their main point, which is that anarchist criticism of the PKK saps the strength of the fighters in Kobane. And this is where one of the most important disagreements lies. It’s standard practice for anyone who has a critical opinion about events in a faraway country, and voices that opinion in public, to be told that they’re “telling [x group] what to do”, but in my experience most internationalist anarchists don’t have any such delusions of grandeur, and are simply sharing our views without expecting any great practical result to come of it. For Rabble, however, expressing a critical opinion on a particular struggle is likely to have a genuine impact on it: expecting any PKK supporters in Kobane to be seriously worried by the AF’s criticisms of them is about as absurd as expecting some kid looting a shop to be seriously shaken by the Observer or the Telegraph, or their US equivalents, publishing a finger-wagging editorial disapproving of them, but to judge from Rabble’s rhetoric they seem to think that both scenarios are quite plausible.

I’m not just having a go for the sake of having a go here: I think that all of us – me, you, AFed, Rabble – are fairly powerless most of the time, and especially when we’re just acting as commentators on faraway struggles. For Rabble, the powerlessness of the spectator is reversed into a position of great power and great responsibility: to express criticisms of a movement is to actively harm it, and so presumably to say you support it is to make an active contribution. Making a real, practical contribution to any struggle needs to start with an honest assessment of our abilities and weaknesses, and then looking at what tendencies can help to overcome them; rather than honestly confronting our impotence as passive spectators, the Rabble article treats this role as being important in itself, and so helps to avoid discussing how far we are from actually being able to do anything.

The whole debate, and the Rabble contribution in particular, seems to embody one of the things I find most annoying about politico types: the tendency to prioritise “having a position” on big issues that we can’t possibly hope to actually affect over the unglamourous work of actually taking action on smaller issues that we might be able to change. I actually agree with Rabble that solidarity is the weapon that breaks through isolation, but rather than seeking out the most spectacular, exotic images of resistance (Kurds with guns! Greeks with Molotov cocktails! Insurrectionists sabotaging stuff!) to declare our support for, I think our priority needs to be finding the people nearest us who are taking action, no matter how dull their struggles may seem in comparison, and actually fighting alongside them – the kind of being with someone that means actually talking to people, not just writing articles about why they’re good from the other side of the world while they remain blissfully unaware of our existence. I think things like the Focus E15 Mothers and New Era tenants are probably the best examples of the kind of fighters UK anarchists need to be supporting at the moment, but there are plenty of other, less well-publicised ones, like Barnsley’s Freedom Riders or the care workers who struck for 90 days in Doncaster. Looking at the campaign against the water tax in Ireland shows how, by supporting determined local campaigns, we can build them up into uncontrollable mass movements. When we get to a situation where people taking direct action is the norm rather than the exception, then we’ll be able to discuss international affairs in the knowledge that our decisions and statements might have real consequences, rather than just being an abstract ideological exercise. Until that happens, it’s natural that we’ll carry on discussing events and situations that we can’t have any actual effect on. This in itself is completely understandable; but when one side of these discussions sets themselves up as being the engaged, committed people who are willing to stuck in and get their hands dirty by making abstract statements, and mock the other side as being disengaged purists who don’t do anything practical, things start to get ridiculous.

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About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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6 Responses to We are alone, and not actually anywhere near Kobane: a response to Rabble

  1. Acracia says:

    Excellent article and analysis.

    Along with the insightful article by Servet Dusmanı (Rojava: Fantasies and Realities, http://www.servetdusmani.org/rojava-fantasies-and-realities/) I think that this piece is the most clear headed of what has been written by someone on the left in regards the situation of the international left vis-a-vis the ‘Rojava revolution’.

  2. Well, thanks for taking the time to read and comment so generously on our article!

    We’ll just reply to the central point:

    “I actually agree with Rabble that solidarity is the weapon that breaks through isolation, but rather than seeking out the most spectacular, exotic images of resistance (Kurds with guns! Greeks with Molotov cocktails! Insurrectionists sabotaging stuff!) to declare our support for, I think our priority needs to be finding the people nearest us who are taking action, no matter how dull their struggles may seem in comparison, and actually fighting alongside them – the kind of being with someone that means actually talking to people, not just writing articles about why they’re good from the other side of the world while they remain blissfully unaware of our existence.”

    1) Kurds and Greeks may seem exotic to you, but actually they’re our friends, neighbours, family members, colleagues, schoolmates, etc. We live in London, a city of immigrants and refugees from a thousand diasporas, including many recent arrivals from Syria and other middle east conflict zones, alongside plenty of Greeks of course. That’s been the case for centuries, but even more so now. Kurdistan isn’t some exotic place “on the other side of the world” we have no contact with. Nor is the movement all one way. Yes, it is possible to “actually talk” to Kurdish people. You know they even have phones and internet and stuff there, and Easyjet flies to Istanbul. The kurdish kids demonstrating for Kobane every day on the streets here recently were shouting in London accents.

    In short: we don’t see this as some far off exotic struggle, but as part of our daily life and struggle in our city. What’s happening in Kurdistan, Syria, Athens, and other conflict zones has direct effects on us and people we love.

    2) We don’t agree that we’re totally powerless. Leaving aside more material forms of solidarity, which do actually happen whether you’re aware of them or not, we think that “symbolic” acts of solidarity can have some power. You are plain wrong that people in Kobane were “blissfully unaware of our existence”. People in Kobane actually knew a lot about the solidarity demos and actions taking place in London and other cities. E.g., Kurdish TV channels there were running ongoing coverage of demos across the world, including not just the big ones but little actions like the protest at the Turkish Savoy ball in London. Likewise Kurdish websites and social media, etc. Many people have said these symbols gave a real boost to their spirits. Like prison demos and letter-writing to prisoners, feeling some support from the world outside really can make a difference to people on the front line. Just as many Kurdish and Syrian friends said time and again that feeling “alone”, let down and even attacked by the western “left”, as they certainly felt they were, did really bother them. That was a particular issue at the start of the ISIS siege, when there was scarcely anyone but Kurds on the first demos, and people were constantly asking “where are people, how can we get more support?” (Of course it’s been much worse in the case of other Syrian struggles which have been almost totally ignored.) So people felt that even little shows of solidarity meant a lot. On top of which, many Kurds feel that the big worldwide shows of solidarity, when they did come, also had a material impact, e.g., in putting pressure on Turkey not to act even more blatantly in support of ISIS. If you don’t believe us, try and get in touch with some Kurds and actually talk to them about it.

    In short: we don’t think that “symbolic” solidarity, even across long distances (or prison walls), is meaningless. Nor do we think that “symbolic” attacks like the negative “distancing” statements Afed specialise in (whether they target Kobane or Chiapas or London rioters or anarchist comrades), which seek to undermine that solidarity, are always merely harmless.

    3) As you will notice on our site, we support and publicise, and get involved in, many local struggles, including the anti-eviction campaigns like E15 you mention. Do you see a contradiction here? Sure, there are limits to everyone’s time and energy. But our experience is that different lines of struggle and activity aren’t usually “substitutes”, but in fact often feed and energise each other in a kind of virtuous spiral. E.g., big demos and riots in the city centre enthuse people to talk to their neighbours and get busy locally, to form affinity groups, to think and talk and argue and make propaganda, which all then feed back into more high profile actions, etc. E.g., Millbank 2010 and the boost it gave to UK movements for a while is a recent obvious example. Similarly, e.g., London kids who first get involved in Kobane solidarity actions (or e.g., the very lively Palestine or Tamil or Kurdish demos a few years ago, or recent Ferguson solidarity, etc.) then get interested in student actions, or start discussing anarchism, or find out about a local anti-eviction campaign, etc. Action, and meeting new people and making new links and friendships, can be exhilerating and can spread.

    In short: we don’t think that local and “international” struggles are opposed. We can do both. They can even boost each other.

    PS: On the PKK stuff, again we recommend Shiar Nayo’s article which was referenced in ours. We are in solidarity with those who are fighting against oppression, not with their political bosses. Note, that’s a big issue not just for trans-national struggles and alliances, but e.g., local anti-eviction or workplace struggles too. How can a tiny handful of anarchists fight or work alongside neighbours, colleagues, etc. who have very different allegiances and ideologies, including loyalties to states, politicians, religions, and other structures of domination? But that’s a whole other discussion.

    • Thanks for your reply. I suppose some of the difference in perspective here might be that I live in the North, and while all UK towns and cities have been shaped by immigration to some extent, I don’t think anywhere else is quite as global as London – certainly the first-generation migrants I know are mostly from EU countries. This difference in make-up might also account for us having different experiences of what international solidarity protests can be like – for the most part, with the exception of some of the stuff that happened around the attack on Gaza back in 2009, international solidarity protests near where I live often tend to be some of the dullest, most ritual and abstract protests I’ve ever been on, partly due to the lack of a clear target for people’s anger, so everyone ends up just standing around outside the town hall because that’s where these things always happen. If you live in a city full of embassies, I can appreciate that things might be a bit different.
      I agree that the Shiar Nayo article is really good and there’s a lot to think about there, and it’s worth noting that Nayo seems very clear on the distinction between being in Syria and actually participating in events and being outside Syria and not being able to participate directly.
      About the issue of being in solidarity with people fighting, not their political bosses – this is one of the reasons why I tend to prioritise local stuff, just because it makes that kind of direct, unmediated solidarity either. If something’s happening to your mate, or your relative, or someone else you actually know, then you can start off by working on the basis of your existing relationship, which makes any dodgy ideological views they have much less relevant. If you don’t already have that direct connection, then it’s much harder to make contact with them without going through their official representatives, whether those are unions, political parties or whatever.

  3. PPS: 4) What’s with this fetish of “dullness” amongst certain parts of the UK anarcho milieu? Do we actually want to attract more people to anarchism?

    • Yeah, but – and I know relying on some hypothetical “average Joe” to back up your point is always a bit dodgy, especially when there’s no way of proving it – I don’t think that many people, if you asked them what their biggest objection to anarchism/anarchists was, would say that it’s too dull. I think that being over-excitable is a much bigger problem – I’m sure we can all think of plenty of projects that were launched with a big wave of excited hype, and then completely ran out of steam six months or a year later. If we want projects that can sustain themselves for longer than that, then we need to accept that things won’t be exciting all the time, and we need to commit to putting in the work to keep things going even when there isn’t an instant pay-off in sight.

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