Saturday, October 14, 2017 - 22:00

The US Women’s Movement, the Left, and United Fronts
(Published in a Russian online journal, New World Review, Oct. 7, 2017.
The US women’s movement can only be understood in the context of the history of the United States, a nation founded by white settlers on land taken from its indigenous peoples, who were subjected to forced relocation and genocide. At its founding, its economy was based on a system of agriculture totally dependent on the enslavement of kidnapped Africans; as the US became industrialized, the exploitation of successive waves of immigrants became central.
It is thus no accident that, from its beginning, the fate of the US women’s movement has been inextricably intertwined with that of natives, African Americans and immigrants. Strategic and practical differences over the relationship between feminism and the rights of these oppressed groups have divided American women at crucial points. And yet, despite these differences, we have united to win basic human rights for women, all women.
The early leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in the US were abolitionists, activists in the movement to end slavery. In 1869 they split over the 14th Amendment, which gave the vote to male but not female former slaves. Woman suffrage was at this time considered a radical demand. Feminists were divided over whether they should hold out for this, no matter how long it took, or whether the post-enslavement situation of black people, as represented by black men, demanded immediate remediation, meaning both black and white women would have to wait.
Similar debates could be heard during recent Democratic primaries, between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008, and between those who wanted Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders in 2016. This fault line was not, as the media would have it, one of demographics - white vs. black, old vs. young, college educated vs. blue collar - but of politics. Economic equality; systemic violence and discrimination against black people; the dispossession of Native Americans for profit and fossil fuels; and sweeping rightwing promises to deport Muslims and undocumented immigrants were all issues in 2016. While gender questions are entwined in all of these issues, they were not always noted as such.
Within the women’s movement, the debate has been largely between liberal feminists, who see gender equality as possible to obtain within the current political and economic system, and leftwing feminists, who see gender as so intertwined with race, class, and other social questions that fundamental economic and political changes are necessary. Both liberal and leftwing feminists today say they are “intersectional,” meaning they want to deal with the way class, race, gender, sexuality and other factors overlap. But they have different approaches to doing so.
A similar fault line ran through women’s movement politics in the late Sixties and Seventies. (Neither sector - liberal or leftwing - was made up only of “white feminists,” as younger academics later characterized it, and there was considerable crossover and back and forth, as documented in Mary Dore’s recent film She's Beautiful When She's Angry.) The young radicals in women’s liberation, of whom I was one, worked on a wide range of issues including the Vietnam war; abortion and reproductive rights; sexual freedom and gay rights; union struggles; and support for the black and other national liberation movements. But though we were enormously influential culturally, we never built national organizations with broad programs that were stable enough to last. Meanwhile, liberal feminists built strong, tightly controlled national organizations that were ideologically on message, skilled at using the media, and good at raising money. They pursued a strategy of working through the Democratic Party and focused increasingly on electoral politics and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
With the Reagan era, the economic gains of the postwar period were halted and the long descent into a polarized and drastically unequal economy began. At the same time as they pursued an economic counter-revolution, conservatives launched a broad mobilization against women's liberation, affirmative action, gay rights, and other democratic advances. They fought the ERA in electoral and propaganda campaigns; organized a Right to Life movement against abortion; mobilized bigotry and fundamentalism against gay rights; did extensive union-busting; organized a hate campaign against “welfare queens;” and undercut free expression with censorship initiatives that were thinly-disguised attacks on increased sexual freedom for women and gays. Under this right wing assault, much of the women's movement disintegrated, along with the rest of the left; what remained were reproductive rights organizations and the mainstream groups in Washington. As these were forced more and more into a defensive posture, their ideas and methods of work became increasingly cautious.
By the beginning of the 21st century, the organizations that are the public face of liberal feminism had become old, bureaucratic and top-down, shaped by careerism and Washington politics. Their organizational culture is so permeated by US free market business ideology that they can be called corporate feminists: they build top-down organizations, concentrate on fundraising, and think in terms of their brand and market share, not of building a broad movement. Their political allegiance belongs to the Democratic Party rather than to any mass base of women, and their politics are utterly shaped by interaction with the state, so their focus is always on what will help with lobbying, what will help in the next election. While women with their skills and access to power are a key part of the kind of coalition we need to achieve reform goals and hold the line against the right, they are not sufficient to build a big tent democratic movement.
Under their leadership, in the thirty-year period of retraction and conservative hegemony that followed Reagan’s election, the feminist movement focused on a corporate vision of feminist goals - ending the glass ceiling, for instance, rather than raising the floor and giving everyone a living wage. For the most part, the big feminist organizations avoid issues like globalization, war, or the environment, and hold back from union drives and campaigns for welfare rights. Increasingly they and their international counterparts favor huge celebrity-driven fundraising events that supposedly show the reach of the women’s movement: Power Feminism.
As mainstream liberal feminism became more conservative and corporate in style, many younger feminists began to distance themselves from it in order to express broader social goals. As Linda Burnham, research director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, puts it: “Every progressive social movement worthy of the name is ultimately about a liberatory project that extends outward, beyond those most affected by a particular form of inequity. It calls on each of us to combine with others and to commit our better, more selfless, justice-loving selves to building a society that lifts up the full humanity of all who have suffered discrimination, indignities, oppression, exploitation, abuse.”
When feminism doesn’t do that, the movement loses credibility. Because the liberatory project Burnham names is fundamental to leftwing feminism, periods of leftwing expansion, when masses of new people became politically active, have tended to coincide with times of growth in the feminist movement. In such periods of expansion, the feminist movement and the left see that they have common interests: before World War I, these included birth control, woman suffrage, and the organizing of women into unions; today’s demands include defense of Planned Parenthood, a higher minimum wage, an end to police violence, and equal rights for ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. These common interests provide the basis for a united front of women that can bring together women from many movements - feminist, LGBTI, labor, African-American, immigrant rights - around particular demands. Women in each of these movements will have their own priorities, goals and preferred tactics, which they will struggle for within the united front. The direction and strength of the movement as a whole will depend on which groups are strongest ideologically, which have the best organization or the deepest pockets, and which can mobilize the most active members.
This potential of such a united front can be seen in the vast Women’s March of January 21, called as a counter-inauguration protest to announce a general opposition to Trump’s platform and signal women’s leadership in this resistance. The Women’s March brought together the left wing of the women’s movement, led by embattled and mobilized working class and minority women and queers like those in the National Nurses Union, Black Lives Matter, and the encampment at Standing Rock, and the mainstream liberal feminist organizations and politicians. Its main message was a defense of diversity; the idea was to strike a symbolic blow against racism and nativism and hatred of women and sexual minorities.
The call to the march said: “The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women's rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us. We support the advocacy and resistance movements that reflect our multiple and intersecting identities. We call on all defenders of human rights to join us. This march is the first step towards unifying our communities, grounded in new relationships, to create change from the grassroots level up. We will not rest until women have parity and equity at all levels of leadership in society.”
The call was so successful it spread all over the world, so demonstrations were held not only in Washington but in 652 other US locations and many other countries. In the US alone, the Washington Post estimated that least four million marched, making this the largest protest in US history.
The march, as well as all the activity leading up to it in such places as Ferguson and Standing Rock, signals that the US is now in a period of leftwing opposition and awakening similar to that before World War I. In this new period, ossified and compromised vehicles of liberal feminism - along with top down corporate control of the Democratic Party - will have to change or end up abandoned at the side of the road. But leftwing success in building a revitablized united front of women is not inevitable. In fact, leftwing sectarianism could doom it. In the 1930s, the hegemony of the Communist Party, which combined lack of interest in women’s rights with the desire to control popular movements, foreclosed the possibility of the kind of leftwing women’s movement that existed in the period before World War I. Only in the rebellious atmosphere of the 1960s and 70s did such a movement again become possible, mostly taking the form of autonomous, project-driven socialist-feminist groups. While the achievements of these groups were considerable, their lives were brief and, by the late seventies, most had either disintegrated or become a battlefield for small Maoist parties. Rather than seeing socialist-feminist groups as part of an autonomous social movement whose work and organizational integrity should be respected, the parties of the New Communist Movement saw them as a place to recruit and a battleground for struggles over “the correct line.” Consumed by fighting, the last and strongest of the socialist-feminist groups, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, disbanded in 1977.
Today signs indicate that the US is now entering a new period of leftwing organizing. But, although it is growing, the American left is still very weak. There is no commanding organization and no generally agreed-upon analysis. The very meaning of terms like “anti-imperialism” is in flux—some think it means they should support Assad and others that they should oppose him. Meanwhile conservatives label everyone from Hillary Clinton to Angela Davis as “the left.” In such a time of confusion, there is an inevitable temptation to draw lines and try to define an authentic feminist left.
After the Women’s March, a group of leftwing feminist academics decided it was time to separate the sheep from the goats. Since the Women’s March people had already declared March 8 “A Day Without Women;” they decided, as part of an international network, to up the ante and declare a general strike of women. They wrote: “The massive women’s marches of January 21st may mark the beginning of a new wave of militant feminist struggle. But what exactly will be its focus? In our view, it is not enough to oppose Trump and his aggressively misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and racist policies; we also need to target the ongoing neoliberal attack on social provision and labor rights.... Lean-in feminism and other variants of corporate feminism have failed the overwhelming majority of us, who do not have access to individual self-promotion and advancement and whose conditions of life can be improved only through policies that defend social reproduction, secure reproductive justice, and guarantee labor rights. As we see it, the new wave of women’s mobilization must address all these concerns in a frontal way. It must be a feminism for the 99%.”
But do we want a feminism for the 99%? Or a feminism of the 99%? And how can we know what that would look like and what language it would use so early in the game? Clearly what we need now is a very big and powerful women’s movement, a united front of women, with room for different interests and organizations and politics. Their ideas must battle it out, but the best way to do so is in practice, around concrete programs and tactics, not in polemics and slogans. At a volatile time when millions of people are still figuring out what they think, it is dangerous to draw lines too soon. Our history demonstrates that it takes time for movements to mature. Better to let all kinds of ideas come out and flower, and then criticize the ones that prove wrong in practice, than to set a tone that will limit the growth of the movement now.

Sunday, June 4, 2017 - 19:15

Panel at Left Forum, June 3, 2016, with Debbie Bookchin, Carne Ross and Meredith Tax.

Monday, February 27, 2017 - 00:15

The Syrian Kurds and Allegations of War Crimes
Critics respond to Roy Gutman’s special report on the Syrian Kurdish militia. Published in The Nation Feb. 21, 2017

In a two-part investigation for The Nation, published here and here, Roy Gutman has accused the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, of systematically violating human rights in the area it controls. Below is a response from critics, followed by Gutman’s rejoinder.
By Meredith Tax, with Joey Lawrence and Flint Arthur
Photographer Joey Lawrence, who has spent time embedded in both the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), calls the Syrian civil war “a war of disinformation.” Roy Gutman’s two Nation articles accusing the YPG of war crimes can be seen as a salvo in that war. Gutman charges the YPG with

  • Political expulsions that forced out “Tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of Arabs”
  • Creating refugees: “over 500,000 Kurds fled rather than submit to YPG rule and abuses”
  • Collusion with ISIS; Gutman sees “a surprising pattern of seeming collaboration between the YPG, ISIS, and the Assad regime with the purpose of expelling moderate rebel forces.” He says that in case after case, ISIS gave villages and cities over to the Kurds without a fight.
  • Gutman also says that “Iran is the primary funding source for the PKK” and accuses them of “forced conscription.”

All these charges are false, except for what he calls “forced conscription.” But isn’t all conscription forced? Isn’t the draft usual in wartime, particularly in existential battles on home ground like that of the Syrian Kurds against ISIS? I wonder if Gutman also considers the Turkish draft a war crime. It should also be noted that people drafted in Rojava are not sent to the front lines—the YPG is a volunteer force. Draftees serve as border and civil police.
Political expulsions or ethnic cleansing: Gutman alleges that the YPG has committed massive expulsions in Syria, replacing Arabs with Kurds. Similar allegations were made in a 2015 report by Amnesty International. Gutman says that the YPG “don’t acknowledge any of this, haven’t investigated, haven’t punished anyone.” In fact, the YPG has acknowledged the charges, investigated, and decided they were bogus; they published an extremely detailed report on Oct. 16, 2016, refuting them case by case. The charge of ethnic cleansing was also rebutted by Rami Abdulrahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in an interview on July 2, 2015; he said the allegations originated in Turkey.
Creating refugees: Gutman states that 500,000 Kurds have become refugees to get away from the YPG. Did none of them flee because of war, terror campaigns by ISIS and Turkey-sponsored jihadis, and the impossibility finding food, housing or security in a destroyed economy under constant threat? To back up his accusation, Gutman quotes Fabrice Balanche of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “He estimates that 500,000 Kurds—half the population—have fled northern Syria rather than submit to YPG rule.” But Balanche himself denied this in a tweet on February 13: “yes, most of the 500,000 left for economic problems, not political. Gutman’s sentence is false.”
Collusion with ISIS: Gutman believes the YPG has been colluding with both ISIS and the Syrian regime. The Syrian Kurds’ relationship with the regime is too ambiguous and conflicted to deal with in the space I have been given. But the YPG’s hatred of ISIS is extremely well-documented. Gutman tries to build a case for a YPG-ISIS deal by focusing the battle of Kobani.
Kobani city is surrounded by outlying villages that came under sporadic ISIS attack for months before the main battle began. Gutman alleges that the YPG forced people to leave in order to give these villages to ISIS. “According to former residents, the YPG abandoned the outskirts of Kobani to ISIS without a fight, ordering residents to leaves the villages they were eager to defend.” His source is Ibrahim Hussein, a regime judge in Hasakah who defected to Turkey. But, like Balanche, Hussein has publicly disavowed Gutman’s attributions, saying he misquoted and took things out of context.
In fact, these villages were evacuated to save the lives of the people who lived there. In September, 2014, ISIS attacked Kobani with tanks as well as heavy artillery and thermal missiles they had captured from the Iraqi Army in Mosul. They had a force of thousands, while the defenders had a much smaller force and no equipment except ancient Kalashnikovs bought on the black market and Rube Goldberg tanks. Under these circumstances they were hard put to defend the center of the city—they lost half of it before it was liberated—let alone outlying villages. They evacuated them so the villagers would not suffer the same fate as the Yazidis had the months before. The idea that the YPG is colluding with ISIS is beyond offensive to anyone who knows how many lives they lost and how they have continued to face ISIS suicide attacks.
Gutman also says the battle of Tel Hamis was a fraud and that ISIS turned it over to the YPG without a fight. Photographer Joey Lawrence was in Tel Hamis during the period discussed by Gutman. He says, “I saw several ISIS corpses in Tel Hamis after the battle with my own eyes, as well as the funeral for British volunteer Erik Scurfield, who was killed in the battle. There are videos easily Googled online showing various stages of the offensive.” In fact, the one documented fake battle that has taken place so far was the supposed liberation of Jarabulus by Turkish backed FSA troops, which I wrote about for The Nation last September.
Financial support from Iran. Gutman also alleges that the PKK and YPG get financial support from Iran. Since Trump was elected, similar Iran-PKK allegations have suddenly popped up in several other places—did someone in Turkish intelligence decide that the way to separate Trump from the Syrian Kurds is to link them with Iran? Gutman’s assertion that the PKK is financed by Iran is backed by no evidence except a statement by Mahmud al-Naser, a Syrian spook who defected to Turkey. His willingness to believe this shows how little research he has done on the PKK, which, much to the chagrin of Turkish intelligence, is largely financed by a huge network of supporters in Europe.
Readers who want more of this debate should check out the detailed dissection of Gutman’s arguments by Benjamin Hiller and Michael Cruickshank, two freelance journalists, in the blog Backstreet Blues. One thing remains to be said.
People are inevitably affected, in one way or another, by the political climate of the place where they live. Gutman lives in Istanbul. Since July’s failed coup, Turkey has descended into a dictatorship marked by the arrest of national and local leaders of the second-largest opposition party, the HDP; more than 100,000 people losing their jobs, including school teachers, university professors and civil servants; more journalists in jail than any other country in the world; and endless atrocities in the war against the Kurds.
Not only are Turkish journalists at risk, including eminent media figures like Can Dündar, who was arrested for blowing the whistle on Turkish arms shipments to jihadis and is now in exile. Foreign journalists who report sympathetically or even neutrally on the Kurds may be kicked out of Turkey. Two British journalists for Vice were arrested in September 2015, held eleven days and deported, while their Iraqi fixer Mohammed Rasool was jailed for 131 days before he was finally released in January 2016. Danish, Dutch, French, German and Spanish journalists have also been deported or denied visas. Wall Street Journal correspondent Dion Nissenbaum was arrested at the end of December, held for two and a half days, then deported without explanation. And on January 17 New York Times reporter Rod Nordland, who covered Turkey’s ongoing war on the Kurds, was put on a plane to London. Such repression has a chilling effect.


Saturday, January 28, 2017 - 01:26

Science Saves the World
The Arctic ice sheet is melting, we have a climate denier in the White House, and scientists are in open rebellion. It’s a scenario right out of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy—Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), Sixty Days and Counting (2007), now collected in a one volume edition called Green Earth (2015). In the field of reality-based science fiction, Robinson rules, and the books could serve as Bible for the coming times.
I wrote a review of Forty Signs of Rain when it came out in 2004 but it was never published because the then-book editor of The Nation insisted I put in so many apologies for writing about science fiction that I got pissed off.  Recently I reread the trilogy and decided more people need to know about these books. What follows is a rewrite of my 2004 review, without apologies.
The basic plot of the Science in the Capital books is that climate change is upon us but the US government is controlled by anti-science reactionaries and it won’t do anything. At their wits’ end, government scientists decide to do an end run around the administration and try to save the planet.  
The trilogy is a wonderful stew of all Robinson’s usual California-flavored ingredients: science, ethics, politics, love, espionage, counter-espionage, surfing, rock climbing, and quite a bit of satire. Like his other books, it is populated by hard-working, politically committed, intelligent people who are a lot more like people I know than the characters I meet in most novels. That’s why its such an enlivening experience to read Robinson’s books.  Even though his analysis of what’s wrong is scientifically accurate and politically devastating, his characters are so decent and energetic that one feels there’s hope. In fact, Robinson’s own approach, as revealed in a 2002 interview in the e-zine of the Independent Booksellers’ Association, is a lot like Rebecca Solnit’s in Hope in the Dark.
 “Yes,” he said, “I am hopeful. I think this is the best attitude to take as a matter of policy, even though clearly we are in a tough moment right now. The gross disparity between rich and poor, the severe environmental problems, these need to be addressed, and the sooner the better, because damage is being done that will be very hard for later generations to repair. It means that it really matters what we do. But many people are aware of this, and are devoted to working to make the world a better place, so there is reason for hope.” 
When asked what things need to happen, he said, “Women's empowerment would be a good one, as it has so many immediate positive side-effects to go along with the positive main effect of more powerful women: lower birthrates, better stewardship of the land, less violence. Living within our ecological footprint would be a good idea for those of us in the States.”
A writer of large ambitions, Kim Stanley Robinson has made a habit of trilogies. His first was Three Californias, coming-of-age stories set in three different future Southern Californias, the last a paradise where small is good, politics are green, and town councils make the major environmental decisions. Utopian? You bet. As one of the characters tells us, “Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process, with no end.”  
A narrative path to utopia, based on human learning, is the basic trajectory of most of Robinson’s novels, including Years of Rice and Salt (2002), an alternate history of the world in which the Black Plague wipes out most of Western Europe during the Middle Ages, and the rest of history is shaped by China, the Middle East, and the Iroquois Federation. His most worked-out utopia is the Mars trilogy, to my mind one of the major 20th century achievements in political fiction. Were it not for the vagaries of shelving, the tunnel vision of the reviewing media, and the prejudices of readers who like to stay in one groove, the Mars trilogy would have long since become required reading not just for readers of science fiction but for anyone who cares about social transformation.
Red Mars begins in 2026, when the first hundred people are sent to settle on Mars and make the planet habitable.  The First Hundred are all world class scientists, a third American, a third Russian, and a third everything else, and they are supposed to do what people back on Earth tell them.  But even before they land, some have begun to dream of independence.  The trilogy is the story of how the multinationals, who view Mars as a good old fashioned colony from which to extract minerals, oppose their movements toward autonomy, and the wars that result. There is a quick failed revolution, followed by another that takes a lot longer to build but has a chance of actually winning. There are also internal struggles over questions of economics, ecology, terraforming, science, culture, sex , child rearing, and all the other factors that determine what kind of life people in this new society will actually have, including relations with an increasingly desperate Earth, which has “gone Malthusian,” and is sunk in a swamp of global warming, unable to sustain its enormous population.
Robinson always does his homework; in addition to all the plot and character development we expect from a normal realistic novel, his Mars books are an amazingly rich brew of science and politics. Utopian economic and social theories, the geology of Mars, gene therapy, bio-engineering, the construction of a space elevator, the mapping of memory—it’s all there  Through politics and science, the author develops characters like Sax Russell, a paradigmatic geek so absorbed in his lab that he doesn’t even look at the actual planet Mars, who changes over the course of three books to a lover of life, fascinated by the wonders around him. His feeling for science could be Robinson’s own:  “The structure of science was so beautiful. It was surely one of the greatest achievements of the human spirit, a kind of stupendous parthenon of the mind, constantly a work in progress, like a symphonic epic poem of thousands of stanzas, being composed by them all in a giant ongoing collaboration.  The language of the poem was mathematics, because this appeared to be the language of nature itself.”   
 Robinson believes in the integrity and truth of science, and takes a severe view of those who ignore its warnings or distort it to make money or serve their own political ends. There is plenty to be severe about in Forty Signs of Rain, set at the National Science Foundation and a biotech lab in San Diego. Yet even in these halls of power, signs of global warning are producing such anxiety that something’s gotta give, though it is unlikely to be the President’s chief science advisor, “a pompous ex-academic of the worst kind, hauled out of the depths of a second-rate conservative think tank when the administration’s first science advisor had been sent packing for saying that global warming might be real and not only that, amenable to human mitigation.”
“No,” thinks Charlie Quibler, environmental advisor to a major senator, “That went too far for this administration....Easier to destroy the world than to change capitalism even one little bit.” One of the high points in the book is Charlie’s unexpected encounter with the President, who drops into his meeting with the science advisor.  Charlie is wearing his toddler son Joey in a backpack at the time, but that’s okay as long as the kid stays asleep—this is the “family president,” after all, and in fact the Chief Executive offers to sign the baby’s head, confirming Charlie’s belief that he is not just a stooge for his advisors, as some say, but “had such a huge amount of low cunning that it amounted to a kind of genius.”  
Charlie’s wife Anna works more than full time at the NSF, and his trials as house-husband and principal caregiver to an extremely active baby are one of the unexpected charms of Forty Signs of Rain. Another is a breakaway group of Tibetan Buddhists, relocated by India to Khembalung, a rapidly submerging little island, who have rented an office on the ground floor of the NSF building to set up their embassy. In no time at all they are giving a brown bag lecture at the NSF on the Buddhist view of science, which translates into “the appropriate response to nature.”  
And is the NSF, a funding body, capable of making an appropriate response to nature?  One of the great transformations in the book is that of Frank Vanderwall, the organization’s cynic, who finally goes ballistic and turns a routine meeting around with his passion: “Free market fundamentalists are dragging us back to some dismal feudal eternity and destroying everything in the process, and yet we have the technological means to feed everyone, house everyone, clothe everyone, doctor everyone, educate everyone—the ability to end suffering and want as well as ecological collapse is right here at hand, and yet NSF continues to dole out its little grants, fiddling while Rome burns!”  
As the political contradictions over global warming heat up, so does one of the volcanoes under Antarctica. Finally it explodes and, in the process, cuts loose chunks of ice the size of small nations, which go floating out into the ocean, displacing vast quantities of water. Within days, Washington, (which was, after all, built on a swamp) is under water; people are kayaking on a huge brown lake that used to be the Mall, and the President has evacuated to Camp David.  We are left with Charlie’s question: will they do something about global warming now?  
The Trump administration may be under water very soon—certainly its supporters in Florida will. Which is why scientists are now organizing a march on Washington and 400 of them are planning to run for office. If they are looking for a platform, they could take a page or two from the trilogy’s second book, Fifty Degrees Below, whose scientists draw up a political program based on two axioms:  “the greatest good for the greatest number,” (with full minority rights) and “the life of our species depends on the rest of the earth’s biosphere.” They have a list of concrete suggestions: 1) protection of the biosphere; 2) protection of human welfare, meaning universal housing, clothing, shelter, clean water, health, education, reproductive rights; 3) full employment; 4) individual ownership of the majority of the surplus value of one’s labor, which would mean redistribution since all the profits would no longer go to owners; 5) reduction of military spending; and 6) population stabilization. “Context/ultimate goal: Permaculture.”
Sounds good to me.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - 20:23
Sound the Trumpet
Published on openDemocracy 5050 Nov. 15, 1016
Protests in Missouri against President-elect Donald Trump. Jeff Roberson / PA/Press Association Images.
In the weeks leading up to Nov. 8, as the election loomed like a cloud about to burst, I was unmoored by a feeling of dread so strong I could barely sleep. The debates had been so awful, Trump’s threats to immigrants and Muslims so terrifying, his dismissal of climate change so incredible, his contempt for women so appalling, his glare so demented, his late night tweets so childish and unhinged. It simply was not possible that people would see this satyr as a “strong man” with some unique ability to fix the country’s problems.   
But by the early hours of 11/9, Trump had won enough electoral college votes to be declared president, and Hillary had conceded. It has now become increasingly clear that she won the popular vote by a fairly large volume—absentee ballots are still being counted—but because of an archaic constitution set up to protect slave states, lost in the Electoral College.
In the eight months leading up to this dreadful denouement, indigenous people from all over the world had flocked to an encampment at Standing Rock, North Dakota, in an action initiated and largely led by women. Their purpose was to block a fracking pipeline scheduled to be built on their land—on a protected burial ground, in fact—without their consent. They have been met by the entire militarized might of the state of North Dakota, along with oil company mercenaries and police forces brought in from other states. Some young Native American organizers camped out in front of Hillary Clinton’s New York headquarters to get her to take a position against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Her only response was that “all of the parties involved—including the federal government, the pipeline company and contractors, the state of North Dakota, and the tribes—need to find a path forward that serves the broadest public interest.”
Standing Rock encampment. James MacPherson/ AP/Press Association Images.
At least Hillary knows global warming is real, though she barely mentioned it in the debates, which had not a single question on the subject. Trump believes climate change is a Chinese hoax. He has vowed to abrogate the Paris climate agreement and appointed a coal industry shill as his energy czar. For this reason alone, not to mention all the others, this election is a tragedy for the earth and all the species we share it with.
This spring was such a hopeful time—what a joy to hear Bernie Sanders actually call the problems we face by their right names and use the words capitalism and socialism without fear! His campaign seemed to get stronger every day, though it was clear from the beginning that the Democratic Party was not open to new energies from the left; they wanted to do business as usual and had convinced themselves it would work, even though the country was clearly calling for change.
The feminists I know were divided between Hillary and Bernie. Though I too would like a woman president, I supported Bernie, and not only because I worried about her ethical tone deafness, Wall Street allegiances, and bellicosity—“we came, we saw, he died.” I don’t think electing women politicians can make up for the absence of a feminist movement that takes questions of class, race, war, and power thoroughly on board. We don’t have that movement yet and Hillary’s campaign did nothing to build it. Her speeches were all policy points, nothing to inspire the listener, just the usual American exceptionalist framing of the US as a unique power sent by God to save the world—a view she shares with Obama, Biden, and most politicians of both parties.
When Hillary got the nomination, I voted for her and urged everyone else to do so because the alternative was to put a jittery thug at the top of the most powerful military in the world, a man who is not only a clear sociopath but has been happy to act as front man for a nascent fascist front made up of the Klan, the Nazi Party, and the various mad armed groups who call themselves patriots. But inconceivably, he is now the President-elect.
President-elect Donald Trump on election night. Evan Vucci PA/Press Association Images
Why did Trump get so many votes? Reams of analysis are already being written. There was his open mobilization of sexism, racism, and anti-immigrant nativism, his playing to people’s economic insecurity and blaming immigrants for the economic woes of the majority. There was the Democratic National Committee’s undermining of Bernie, whom some think could have beaten Trump. Hillary herself blames Comey's partisan FBI interventions. The role of the media was appalling throughout; they normalized a fascist campaign and focused on Hillary’s emails as if they were the equivalent of Trump’s rape and multiple financial crimes.
It was also a new media environment, where people could get all their news and opinions from the internet and never look at a paper or TV. As Andrew Marantz explained in the New Yorker, the alt right had a system for making lies favorable to Trump go viral. Some of these fake news stories were traceable to Macedonian teenagers who set up popular pro-Trump sites so they could make money from Facebook.
The vote was also the product of years of systematic Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression, which may have cost Hillary key states. And the fact that people were so turned off by the candidates and the election process that a million fewer people voted in this election than in 2008. And many voters—in New York State, 6500 in Cuyahoga County alone— hated both candidates so much they left the top line of their ballot blank and just voted for the candidates down ticket.
But the most obvious explanation for Trump’s win is his skill as a con man. All evidence to the contrary, many people in the Rust Belt see him as a brilliant businessman who will fix the economy so they can once more get decent jobs. To improve their own prospects, they were willing to overlook his racism and sexism. As my daughter-in-law, a black feminist, puts it, “Most people are selfish. They may live in a big house while somebody a few streets over has no home, but they won’t give up a room.”
The election exposed all the contradictions within the US feminist movement. Not only was Hillary was the first woman presidential candidate nominated by a major party, her program was strong on things a lot of women need: equal pay, subsidized childcare, universal pre-K, parental leave, reproductive rights. Meanwhile Trump is an accused rapist whose campaign, as Katha Pollitt says, took place in a testosterone cloud, with advisors like Roger Ailes, a defendant in multiple sexual harassment cases; Newt Gingrich, a hypocrite and serial adulterer; and Rudy Giuliani, who used a TV interview to tell his wife he wanted a divorce. Trump supporters sported tshirts with slogans like “Trump that bitch” and “She’s a cunt, vote for Trump.”
Hillary Clinton conceding defeat. Matt Rourke/AP/ Press Association Images.
The thought that 53% of white women voters could support this man is enough to make a feminist despair. No wonder many feel totally betrayed, particularly women of color—only 4% of black women voted for the guy. My desktop is full of articles with titles like "Trump Win Boils Down to White Women", "Elite White Feminism Gave Us Trump: It Needs to Die", and "White Women Sold Out the Sisterhood and the World by Voting for Trump".
But it never made sense to assume that women would see themselves in Hillary Clinton and thus vote for her. The idea that women will naturally want to vote for other women is an illusion, though one central to liberal feminism. The suffrage movement argued that giving women the vote would bring about an era of social justice and world peace because women were innately more caring than men. After the war, suffragists were dismayed to see that women usually voted with their families and communities.
Here lies one of the divides between liberal and left wing feminism. Liberal feminists focus on individual rights. To win these rights, they work through electoral and institutional politics. They assume women will be motivated to fight on their own behalf and will see no conflict between their interests as women and the interests of their class, community, or family. 
Left wing feminists try to reconcile individual with collective rights, such as the rights of labor, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, and dissidents—the current buzzword for this approach is intersectionality. But meshing feminist politics with progressive organizing can be difficult because leftwing movements tend to be led by men who discount women’s independent thought and want to use their labor for purposes they consider more urgent than women’s liberation.
And there are ideological weaknesses on all sides. What with the reductionist Marxism of the hard left, the post-structuralism of the academic left, the flakiness of the anarchist left, and the attitude-policing of the cultural left, it can be hard to find anyone in the US who thinks strategically. To the extent a practical left wing feminist movement now exists, it is led by embattled and mobilized working class and minority women and queers like those in the National Nurses Union, Black Lives Matter, and the encampment at Standing Rock. And while liberal feminists saw Hillary’s candidacy as the fulfillment of their dream of equality, the nurses supported Bernie and the women of BLM and the native American movement did not take a position supporting anyone.
So far, election post mortems have focused on demographics: who voted and why they voted differently this time than last. The focus has been on assigning blame: Trump’s victory is the fault of white women, of the white portion of the working class, of third party voters in Pennsylvania. This approach is not productive. Rather than more blame, we need clearer political ideas and programs that will get to people where they live—metaphorically and in actual neighborhoods.
We have a long period of resistance ahead. Liberals have demonstrated that they are not strong enough to fight fascism. Only a stronger left can do that. And the only way to build a stronger left is to present an alternative vision of the society we want, one that opposes both the right and the status quo, and is based on practical organizing to make people’s lives better. The ideas being worked out in Rojava, with their combination of ecology, feminism, self-defense and direct democracy, are a source we could draw on. 
But we don’t have a lot of time—Trump’s administration will inevitably disappoint many who voted for him, who are likely to move farther right unless we can offer them something that goes beyond protest and reaches towards daily life. Until we actually begin to build “a new society within the shell of the old” there is no point in talking about Elizabeth Warren in 2020 or a third party or anything else that involves voting. We already know the limitations of electoral democracy. Only half the US population even bothers to vote and that half is evenly divided between right and left. Trump offered—for white people only—the illusion that they could prosper under his leadership. We have to be able to offer all our people a chance to work together, a believable path forward, and a vision that centers on saving the planet.  


Saturday, September 17, 2016 - 00:22


by Meredith Tax 
Published in The Nation September 16, 2016
What political choices can the United States make in the Middle East? Turkey’s recent invasion of Syria and subsequent attacks on Rojava—the three autonomous cantons set up by Syrian Kurds—raise this question, but so far the answer has been framed only in terms of military alliances and realpolitik. But as many have said, the appeal of ISIS and Al Qaeda has to be countered ideologically, not just militarily. This cannot happen without a compelling alternative model. Rojava, with its vision of egalitarian democratic inclusivity, is trying to establish a new paradigm for the Middle East—but so far Washington has seen the Syrian Kurds only in military terms and is short-changing future possibilities because of a misplaced deference to zero-sum ethnic rivalries and the so-called “moderate Islamism” of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On August 24, Turkey invaded Jarabulus, a Syrian border town held by ISIS, with great fanfare: several hundred Turkish soldiers, twenty tanks, and 1,500 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters from Islamist militias. In reality, the whole battle was a fake. ISIS had quietly left town several days before, and the difference between this and their usual behavior convinced some observers, particularly the Kurds, that their exit was coordinated with Ankara.
While the mainstream media saw that Erdogan’s real purpose was to go after the Kurds, and noted that it is problematic for the United States to be allied with two parties that are fighting each other, US coverage of Syria has overwhelmingly focused on either the war or state politics. It has thus failed to look hard at the Erdogan government’s support of jihadis, or to ask what they have in common—whether or not Turkey is a NATO member.
A lot of the mainstream media covered “Operation Euphrates Shield” as if Turkey were actually fighting ISIS. Echoing Turkish press releases, CNN said,“Turkey sends tanks into Syria against ISIS; rebels reportedly capture town.” The made-for-TV battle had been scripted down to camera angles (pool reporters were confined to one hill): bombs dropping, puffs of smoke in the distance, evenfootage of scouts peering into living rooms, searching for the enemy. Few seemed to notice that not a shot was fired. Operation Euphrates Shield was thus a startling contrast to earlier battles fought by the Kurdish and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Kobane and Manbij, where combat went house to house, deadly and prolonged, and hundreds of lives were lost to ISIS snipers, booby traps, mines, incendiary bombs, and suicide attacks.
The BBC did say that the Turkish invaders met “little resistance,” but it was left to the Voice of America News to express surprise that ISIS had “essentially conceded one of its last strategic border towns,” quoting former intelligence officer Michael Pregent to the effect that the Turkish takeover had been too easy and would end up benefiting ISIS: “What Turkey has done is give ISIS the space to regroup. They basically halted the Kurdish forces from destroying ISIS.”
Meanwhile, from positions nearby, furious members of the Jarabulus Military Council of the SDF, who had wanted to capture Jarabulus themselves but had been put off by the United States, watched the charade. One of its officers, Muhammad Ahmed, told the ARA News, a Kurdish news service, “We are aware that ISIS militants have entered Turkey today after shaving their beards and dressing like Free Syrian Army.” ANF, another Kurdish news service, used similar terms: “The military operation act was nothing more than the handover of Jarabulus city according to the previous agreements with ISIS and other gangs against the gains of Kurdish people.”
While it is not possible to prove that Turkey let ISIS fighters slip back into Jarabulus in FSA uniforms, Turkey supports so many salafi-jihadi militias that ISIS members would not have stood out. Among groups listed by The New York Times as participating in the invasion are Faylaq al-Sham, Sultan Furqa Murad, and Nour al-Din al-Zinki, which recently became notorious for filming its men beheading a young prisoner à la ISIS.
Martin Chulov of The Guardian also believes that Turkey has “openly supported other jihadi groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, which espouses much of al-Qaida’s ideology, and Jabhat al-Nusra, which is proscribed as a terror organisation by much of the US and Europe.” (Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate, recently tried to sanitize itself by changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.)
In fact, Erdogan’s support of salafi-jihadi groups is an open secret despite extreme government censorship.
The first great scandal began in January 2014, when Turkish gendarmes in Adana stopped a convoy of trucks headed for Syria and guarded by officers from MIT, the Turkish intelligence agency. After saying the trucks contained medical supplies, the government moved forcefully into cover-up mode: The prosecutor who ordered the search was removed; 13 soldiers involved were arrested; reporting on the incident was forbidden; and online coverage was deleted. A year and a half later, Cumhuriyet, an opposition daily, released footage showing that the trucks were actually carrying mortar shells, grenade launchers, and ammunition. Erdogan personally filed a criminal complaint against the paper’s editor, Can Dundar, and his associate Erdem Gul, accusing them of espionage and leaking state secrets.
Joe Biden himself accused Turkey (and other US allies) of supporting jihadis in a speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School on October 2, 2014: “They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” Biden later had to apologize to Erdogan, but that doesn’t mean what he said was untrue.
Turkey’s relationship with ISIS has also been scrutinized, though little of the research has been picked up by the US media. In November 2014, David Phillips of Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights posted a research paper listing published allegations that Turkey was giving ISIS military equipment, transport, logistical assistance, military training, and medical care, as well as helping it recruit in Turkey and buying its oil. A year later, the website published an annotated selection from Turkish-language news sources called “The Love Affair Between ISIS and the Turkish Government.” A September 2016 compendium by the left-wing UK website The Canary is headed “Documents reveal Turkey’s collusion with ISIS.”
Some of the documents mentioned came to light when US Special Operations forces conducted an overnight raid on the Deir Ezzor compound in eastern Syria of Abu Sayyaf in May 2015. Abu Sayyaf was a top ISIS commander who oversaw oil-smuggling operations from Iraq into Turkey, estimated to bring in $1-4 million per day. Data captured in the raid—hard drives, thumb drives, CDs, DVDs, and papers—revealed details; after looking over the material, a senior intelligence officer told the Guardian’sChulov he could no longer deny that Turkish officials were dealing directly with ISIS. Chulov also interviewed an unnamed ISIS member who said that Turkey and ISIS were mutually dependent because of oil, and that their shared interests would prevent Turkey from attacking ISIS very hard.
Turkey’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), which represents the old secular opposition to Erdogan’s Islamist ruling party, the AKP, has been a bulldog about investigating government support for ISIS. In 2015, it organized an investigationof the town of Adiyaman that showed it was a recruiting center for ISIS, which used a chain of local coffeehouses and mosques that were left undisturbed by the police and MIT. When locals complained to the authorities that their sons were being recruited to fight in Syria, they were ignored. According to Turkey Wonk bloggers Noah Blaser and Aaron Stein, the ISIS suicide bombers who blew up the October 10, 2015, demonstration in Ankara came from Adiyaman.
The Rojava Kurds have now posted documents linking ISIS and the Turkish government, found when Kobane, Tal Abyad, Manbij, and other towns were liberated: foreign fighters’ passports stamped in Turkey; Turkish credit cards and driver’s licenses; state-issued travel documents for people from Indonesia, Tajikistan, and Egypt; and Turkish residence permits for the same foreign fighters. There is no possibility that all this was going on without significant government support.
Some believe that Erdogan’s own family is involved. In September 2014, a nurse at a private hospital near the Mediterranean wrote a letter to Parliament and the police saying she was sick and tired of taking care of jihadis, and giving names, dates, even hospital room numbers. Polat Can, a founder and spokesperson of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Rojava militia, said in a 2015 interviewwith Washington’s Kurdish Institute:

The Turkish government has imposed a tight blockade on our territory for years, but at the same time they opened their official and non-official border crossings with ISIS (in Tel Abyad before and in Jarabulus now) and with the al-Nusra Front in Idlib and Azaz…. Turkey is also the main gateway for the transit of terrorists to Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. According to reliable information that we have recently obtained, Erdogan’s daughter (Sümeyye Erdogan) oversees the committee handling the treatment of ISIS terrorists in Turkish hospitals. They are obstructing international efforts in the fight against ISIS.

Bilal Erdogan, the president’s son, has also been a focus of scrutiny. After Turkey shot down a Russian plane in November 2015, both Russia and Syria raised questions about oil smuggling with ISIS. The financial news site Zero Hedgereported that month, “Earlier today, Vladimir Putin explicitly accused Ankara of attempting to protect ISIS oil routes by shooting down Russian warplanes which have destroyed hundreds of Islamic State oil trucks in November. Erdogan of course denies the allegations, but as we’ve shown, it would be very easy for Turkish smugglers to commingle ISIS and KRG [the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq] crude…effectively using Kurdish oil to mask Turkey’s participation in the Islamic State oil trade.” The site then showed pictures of five oil tankers belonging to the BMZ group, a shipping company headquartered in Malta, of which Bilal Erdogan is a major shareholder.
On June 29, Eren Erdem of the CHP made a speech in the Turkish Parliament detailing evidence contained in 400 pages of documents about the government’s dealings with ISIS. He said ISIS had sleeper cells in fourteen Turkish towns and that the man behind the 2015 Ankara bombing was known to MIT, which had tapped his phones and watched as he facilitated the entrance of nearly 2,000 jihadis into Syria without arresting him even once.
Two months after Erdem’s speech, Turkey marched into Jarabulus to replace ISIS with FSA jihadis, who immediately began to attack the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish government has already been at war with the Kurds in its own southeast since last year, killing civilians and leveling towns on such a scale that a war crimes lawsuit has been filed in Germany. Why would they want to open a second front in Syria?
Because the Syrian Kurds were making too much progress.
On August 13, two weeks before the Turkish invasion, the SDF finally drove ISIS out of Manbij after a ferocious battle that lasted months. Residents of Manbij, mostly women and children, were ecstatic at being freed from ISIS, and soon pictures spread over the Internet of women burning their burqas and men cutting off their beards. The Rojava women’s liberation movement’s umbrella organization, Kongreya Star, collected stories of ISIS mistreatment and rushed to publish a report calling for support from world feminists.
This was not the kind of liberation that Turkey and the FSA had in mind.
So on August 24, Turkey invaded Syria with its favorite FSA factions. The same day, at a joint press conference, Joe Biden ordered the Kurds to retreat from Manbij and stay out of Jarabulus or lose American military aid. No wonder they feel betrayed.
Biden was in Istanbul to patch up the Turkey-US relationship and explain why the United States couldn’t immediately extradite Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s old enemy, on whom he blames the July 15 failed military coup. The static around Gulen has affected US use of Incirlik Air Base, which holds NATO nukes. After arresting the Turkish base commander for involvement in the coup, Turkey cut off electric power to the US base, surrounded it with police, refused to let any of the 1,800 US military personnel and their families leave, and effectively stopped US bombing flights against ISIS for almost a week.
But if US relations with Turkey were so bad, why did Washington support its invasion of Syria? According to The Wall Street Journal, it didn’t. The White House was supposed to discuss a Turkish attack on Jarabulus on August 24, but Turkey jumped the gun. Since the Pentagon had been trying to get Turkey to fight ISIS for years and didn’t want them to do it alone, Gen. Joseph Votel, head of CentCom, gave them air cover. At first.
Under American pressure, the YPG-YPJ moved east of the Euphrates River just as Biden had told them to. General Votel said on August 30, “They have lived up to their commitment to us,” though that doesn’t mean the Kurds were happy about it. The YPG issued a statement saying that, having completed their mission of liberating Manbij, they had withdrawn their troops, leaving the city in the hands of the Manbij Military Council, which is largely Arab. This fact wasconfirmed by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Nevertheless, Erdogan continued to claim that the Kurds still held Manbij. With this excuse, Turkish-supported FSA forces attacked villages south of Jarabulus and, on August 31, Turkey began bombing YPG-YPJ headquarters in Afrin.
While many Western commentators see the conflict in ethnic or religious terms—Arab versus Kurd, Sunni versus secularist—clearly Erdogan sees no significant difference between the Rojava Kurds and any Arabs who support their paradigm of autonomy, pluralism, and feminism. Both are a threat to his dreams of regional Islamist hegemony. For this reason if no other, the Rojava revolution deserves the attention of anyone in the region looking for a way to move past wars, ethnic cleansing campaigns, theocracies, and dictatorships.
The Rojava revolution began in 2011, during the Syrian uprising, when 5,000 members of the People’s Democratic Union (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish party allied with Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), came home. They quickly consolidated a liberated area on the Syria-Turkey border consisting of three cantons: Cizire, Kobane, and Afrin. There they set up local councils and began to put into practice the feminist, democratic, and pluralist ideas advanced by jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Founded in the 1970s as a classic Marxist national liberation movement with a strategy of people’s war, since the 1990s the PKK has transformed itself into a leading component of a Kurdish liberation movement able to combine self-defense with civil resistance, parliamentary work, and community organizing. It has also renounced its earlier goal of a separate Kurdish state, saying that it prefers regional autonomy in a democratic system. Its vision of social revolution is a powerfully democratic and pluralistic one in which women play a leading role, as they do in the Kurdish militias—every organization in Rojava must be at least 40 percent women, and all administration is led by co-chairs, one male and one female.
When Assad withdrew most of his troops from northern Syria in 2012, Rojava effectively became autonomous. It was still three little islands—Cizire, Kobane, and Afrin —separated by territory increasingly infiltrated by Islamist fighting groups, but when German freelancer Benjamin Hillervisited in the summer of 2012, the Rojava cantons were at peace, not participating in the Syrian civil war but instead trying to establish a liberated territory of their own. Over the next two years, however, ISIS was founded and grew strong, and in the summer of 2014 launched a blitzkrieg across Iraq and Syria. One of its main targets was Kobane.
Nobody was willing to arm the YPG-YPJ at that point; ISIS had captured huge supplies of US military equipment in the northwestern Iraqi city of Mosul, while the Kurds had nothing but ancient black-market Kalashnikovs, homemade grenades, and tractors converted to tanks. Outnumbered and outgunned, with desperate determination and taking hundreds of losses, the YPG-YPJ fought on even after ISIS took the city in October 2014. Finally, in November, they began to get US air support. When they retook Kobane in January 2015, the supposedly invincible ISIS was handed its first defeat.
By this time, the Pentagon had decided the Kurds were their only hope of a reliable ally in Syria, and decided to enlist them in building a new army to fight ISIS: the Syrian Democratic Forces, which united the YPG-YPJ with Arab militias, principally the “Euphrates Volcano,” made up of fighters who had escaped Raqqa after it was seized by ISIS. When the SDF liberated Tal Abyad in June 2015, it became possible to connect the two eastern Kurdish cantons of Kobane and Cizire, but the smallest canton, Afrin, far to the west, is still cut off by a strip of land controlled by ISIS—a strip containing both Manbij and Jarabulus. And Afrin is now under attack not only by ISIS but also by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra) and Turkey.
In addition, since the battle of Kobane, all three cantons have been starved of food, medical supplies, and building materials by a Turkish embargo on one border and an Iraqi Kurdish embargo by Massoud Barzani’s forces—which are Turkey’s allies and economic dependents—on the other. They have also been under constant attack by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamist militias. And Turkey is now trying to build a wall to isolate them further.
Very little about any of this has appeared in US mainstream media. One reason is the complexity and unfamiliarity of the story and the difficulty of access in a war zone—particularly since the Iraqi Kurds won’t let freelance reporters through their border checkpoint into Syria. A larger problem is that most commentators see the story through the lens of great-power politics and do not focus on changes happening on the ground in Rojava—particularly changes in ethnic relations and the position of women—and what these could mean for the region.
The United States is now being pressed by Turkey to disavow its alliance with the Kurds, but as General Votel said in an August 30 press conference, Kurdish fighters are too valuable. They are the only ground troops who have been able to defeat ISIS. But even if the Pentagon is committed to a military alliance with the Syrian Kurds, military support is not enough. Rojava is caring for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees despite an embargo that prevents food and supplies from coming in. Its people deserve political, economic, and humanitarian support.
Military supporters of the Syrian Kurds should ask themselves, How much of their success is due to the fact that they do not lock women up or push them to the back? Rojava and PKK women not only have their own militias, some even lead units that include men. Since ISIS enslaves women, these units are highly motivated.
In the long term, wouldn’t it make sense for the United States, for once, to help a project that is actually progressive and democratic? Turkey is supporting the jihadis Washington says it wants to fight. So why should Washington keep bowing to Turkey’s hatred and fear of the Kurds? A strong and united Rojava could not only help defeat ISIS but could become an experimental model of pluralistic, democratic, and feminist policies for the entire Middle East.
That’s just what Turkey is afraid of.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016 - 23:23

Published August 23, 2016 on openDemocracy 5050
Does the word “revolution” mean the same thing to the Kurdish liberation movement and to American leftists who supported Bernie Sanders? A little history...

 In the 20th century, it was clear what people meant when they used the word “revolution”. Mao Zedong said it as well as anyone: “A revolution is not a dinner cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another”.
The founders of Turkey’s PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) had this definition in mind in 1978 when they laid out a strategy of people’s war leading to an independent Kurdish state. They initially focused on “propaganda of the deed” and military training, building what eventually became an extremely capable force, as ISIS discovered in Syria. But their vision of revolution expanded enormously during the nineties, when a civil resistance movement called theSerhildan  took off in the Kurdish areas of Turkey, along with efforts to build a parliamentary party that could combine electoral and advocacy work.
This wasn’t easy since every time the Kurds founded a parliamentary party and ran people for office, the Turkish state made their party illegal—this happened in 1993, 1994, 2003, and 2009 and is now happening to the HDP (Peoples Democratic Party), despite (or because of) the fact that it won 13.1% of the national vote in the parliamentary election of May 2015. Erdogan’s response to this election was to call another election, and at the same time begin an all out military assault on Kurdish cities in southeastern Turkey, where civilians were subjected to bombardment, depopulation, and massive war crimes, their homes and neighborhoods destroyed. This was in the name of fighting PKK terrorism.
n fact, the PKK rejected terrorism over twenty years ago, at their Fifth Congress in 1995, when they publicly swore to abide by the Geneva Convention and laws of war, disallowing crimes against civilians while maintaining the right of armed self-defense against the Turkish government. At the same Congress, they founded a separate women’s army to build women’s capacity for leadership in the struggle. Co-mayor of Diyarbakir  Gültan Kişanak talked about the way the PKK transformed itself in a recent interview, saying that in the early days the perspective was to make a revolution first and then do something about women, but that changed in the nineties because of the influence of the international movement for women’s rights:
 “Within this new environment, women began to assume important roles and created their own separate branches, not just following what the general political movement says, but also creating alternative policies, which the party must follow.... These changes were not easy and the rights were not just given by men: Kurdish women have fought at all levels and achieved these changes despite barriers within patriarchal society and despite the resistance of some of our male comrades.”
The Rojava Kurds follow the same political philosophy as those in the Turkish movement. Thus, despite the newness of Rojava, which became autonomous in 2012, the movement there draws on forty years of accumulated political experience, the last twenty of which have emphasized the development of local democracy, community organizing, and women’s leadership.  
I began studying the Kurdish women’s movement during the siege of Kobane and soon became convinced that their story is so important that I had an obligation to get it out in English as fast as I could, even though I couldn’t go there and was limited by my lack of language skills. As I worked on A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State, I was constantly pulled up short by the radical nature of this revolution and the way it questions the most basic leftwing assumptions, not only about women, or about the relationship between armed struggle, mass movement, and parliamentary party, but about the state itself.
Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the 20th century were based on the premise that the state was an instrument of bourgeois class domination that could be captured and turned to the interests of the working class under the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.  At its Fifth Congress in 1995, the PKK described how that had worked out in the USSR:
      “Ideologically, there was a decline to dogmatism, vulgar materialism, and pan-Russian chauvinism; politically, there was the creation of extreme centralism, a suspension of democratic class struggle, and the raising of the State’s interests to the level of the determining factor; socially, there was a reduction in the free and democratic life of the society and its individuals; economically, the state sector was dominant and there was a failure to overcome a consumer society which emulated what was abroad; militarily, the raising of the army and acquiring weapons took precedence over other sectors. This deviation, which became increasingly clear to see during the 1960s, brought the Soviet system to a condition of absolute stagnation”.
In 1989, Abdullah Öcalan  was captured and charged with murder, extortion, separatism, and treaon; his death sentence was commuted to life in prison because of EU regulations. He started to study and write in prison, and began to seriously rethink the role of the state. In his 2005 Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan, as well as his writings on women, he laid out a theory that is a complete break with the Leninist playbook. Today the Kurdish liberation movement argues that nation-states are intrinsically hierarchical, ethnically based, and sexist; and that rather than seizing the state apparatus, a liberation movement should be involved with the state only to the point of insisting that it be democratic and permit autonomy; beyond that, the movement should focus its energy on developing democratic economies and local self-governance based on anti-capitalist, feminist, and ecologically sound principles.  
This strategy, as put into practice in Rojava, has not yet been able to reach fulfillment because of war and the embargo. Rojava is surrounded by hostile forces on all sides: battling ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra (now with a new sanitized name) and other Islamists in Turkey; fired on by the Turkish army and recently bombed by Assad; and blockaded by Turkey's KDP allies in the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region that borders Syria. Together Turkey and the KDP have imposed a brutal economic siege upon Rojava, refusing to let in food, building supplies, drugs and medical equipment, and making it very hard for people to get in or out. As UN aid shipments pile up at the border, Rojava can't even feedthe hundreds of thousands of refugees that have sought refuge there, the latest wave coming from Manbij and Aleppo. NATO has not put sufficient pressure on Turkey to insist that it lift the siege, nor has the US used its considerable influence with the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP)
July’s attempted military coup in Turkey - which was immediately denounced by the HDP - does not seem to have changed anything for the better as far as the Kurds are concerned.
Though the coup was led by the same officers who had been bombing Kurdish cities, Kurdish spokespeople see what has happened since as a counter-coup, with Erdogan intent on imposing an Islamist dictatorship rather than a military one. It is surely significant that the only party Erdogan has excluded from his post-coup grand democratic coalition is the HDP, party of Kurds, hipsters, intellectuals, feminists, minorities, and gays.
It was a strange experience to be writing A Road Unforeseen just as Bernie Sanders' “political revolution” was taking off in the US. I supported Sanders; it felt great to hear a politician of national stature use the language of the left which became virtually taboo in mainstream US after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  And it was extremely moving to watch a new generation respond to radical ideas. But Bernie never really explained what he meant by a “political revolution” and many of his supporters were young, had not studied much history, and seemed to think it was possible to make a revolution in one electoral campaign. Their pain when Bernie endorsed Hillary Clinton - as he had always said he would if she got the nomination - was understandable, as was their outrage that the party system turned out to be partisan, ruled by considerations of long-term career affiliation, and unfriendly to sudden democratic eruptions from outside.
The history of the Kurdish movement could teach them how hard it is to make a revolution, how long it takes, and why women are key to the process. AsFrederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” The history of US labour shows that when substantial economic interests are at stake, the powers-that-be fight to hold every inch. The kind of change we need in the US will not happen in one electoral cycle. It will not happen through electoral politics alone, or protests alone either. It will only happen through the kind of dedicated long term organizing the Kurds have done.  
The Kurdish liberation movement developed the strength we see today through many years of public education, building its own institutions, combining electoral and parliamentary work with nonviolent resistance and armed self-defense when necessary, striving to “serve the people,” as the Black Panthers used to say, and build democratically-run organizations that can be held accountable. This is why it is so important to support them as well as learn from their example.  


Sunday, August 21, 2016 - 23:42

On Ian Masters'program Background Briefings
August 21, 2016

Friday, August 19, 2016 - 21:59

Published in The New York Times, August 18, 2016



Kurdish fighters in Tal Hamis, Syria, after it was freed from Islamic State control last year.CreditMassoud Mohammed/Barcroft Media, via Getty Images
Two years ago this month, the Islamic State attacked the Yazidis, a Kurdish religious minority who live around Sinjar Mountain in Iraq. The militants came down on unprotected villages like Byron’s wolf on the fold, slaughtering the men and taking away thousands of women and children to be sold as sex slaves.
Any Yazidis who could escape fled higher into the mountains without food, adequate clothing or even, in some cases, shoes. They remained trapped there for days, in harsh conditions and with little international support. Those who had originally promised to protect them, the pesh merga soldiers of Masoud Barzani’s political party in Iraqi Kurdistan, had melted away in their hour of need.
It was Kurdish guerrillas from Syria and Turkey who eventually fought their way over the mountain through Islamic State territory, opening a corridor to bring Yazidi survivors to safety in the self-declared autonomous area of Syria called Rojava, the Kurdish word for west.
Many of these guerrillas were women, for a basic principle of the decades-long Kurdish liberation movement is that women cannot wait for others to defend them, but must themselves fight to be free. Indeed, some of these women say that they fight for other women, because they know what horrors await those captured by the Islamic State.



Yazidis fleeing the Islamic State near Sinjar, Iraq, in August, 2014. CreditRodi Said/Reuters
In Rojava’s war against the Islamic State, women can be found not only in the ranks but also in command of guerrilla units. After their rescue from Mount Sinjar, some Yazidi women decided to follow this example, and started their own militia, the Women’s Protection Unit-Shengal (another name for Sinjar). Similarly, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Yazidi women rescued from sexual slavery have formed their own brigade.
Though female guerrillas have fought in national liberation struggles in places from China to Vietnam, Cuba to Nicaragua, Mozambique, Angola, Iran and the Palestinian territories, mainstream global feminist organizations have tended to follow the lead of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, founded during World War I, which holds that the solution to women’s victimization in wartime is, first, to oppose war and, second, to make sure women are at the negotiating table when wars end.
The Kurdish liberation movement’s approach, on the contrary, emphasizes self-defense in both military and social terms. Female guerrillas are meant to be seen as exemplars who show that female leadership is crucial in every sphere of society. In Rojava’s system ofautonomous democracy (the area is within Syria’s borders), there arestrong mandates for the participation of women in governance, and all organizations are led by both a man and a woman. Committees of women have real authority over problems like forced marriage and domestic violence.
But it is the female warrior in particular who offers a powerful counterimage to that of the raped and dishonored victim who is considered a source of shame to her family and community. Ancient, patriarchal ideas have made rape and sexual slavery a central strategy in genocidal conflicts, meant to destroy the very identity of the enemy. That’s how rape was used in Bosnia and the Democratic Republic ofCongo (and earlier, in the partition of India and the liberation war of Bangladesh), and that’s how it is being used today in Iraq and Syria.
Women like the Yazidis who have been subjected to sexual violence on such a terrible scale cannot easily be reintegrated into old patterns, nor will they thrive if they are seen — and see themselves — as shamed victims. Part of the process of rehabilitation has to involve challenging the stigma survivors face.
Of course, there are ways to do this without taking up arms. But the fact that some of the survivors in the refugee camps of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is still heavily patriarchal, have chosen this path indicates the influence of the radical Kurdish female guerrillas. A women’s council formed last July by Rojava-influenced Yazidis went so far as to declare that the goal should not be to “buy back” abducted women and children, as is common when dealing with the Islamic State, but to liberate them and at the same time establish new traditions of self-defense.
That won’t be easy. Two years after their capture, thousands of Yazidi women and children remain in captivity. Many more are scattered in refugee camps in Turkey, Iraq or Rojava, while others have tried to flee to Europe, some drowning on the way. But the epicenter of the Yazidi struggle remains Sinjar Mountain, the ancestral home to which many now in Iraqi refugee camps desperately want to return.
One barrier in their way remains the same Iraqi Kurdish forces of Masoud Barzani who abandoned them two years ago, and whose pesh merga have capriciously operated the checkpoint at the border crossing that leads to both Rojava and the north side of Sinjar Mountain, making adequate access to essential supplies and building materials difficult if not impossible. This has been done in cooperation with Turkey’s blockade of the Rojava Kurds.
Those of us moved by the plight of the Yazidis and the image of women fighting the Islamic State can, and should, do more than express admiration from afar. We need to help the American government listen to its own ideas about gender equality, democracy and pluralism. The United States recently promised Mr. Barzani’s forces a generous amount of military aid.
The price tag for that aid must be freedom of movement for the Yazidis, so they can return to their homes and rebuild, hopefully with full involvement by women and survivors of the Islamic State’s sexual violence, and a permanent end to the blockade of Rojava, whose guerrillas have been some of the only forces capable of fighting the Islamic State — not in spite of their feminism, but because of it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - 17:05

The Revolution in Rojava
Published first in Dissent, April 22, 2015
Meredith Tax ▪ April 22, 2015
Since last August, when I first heard about the fight against ISIS in Kobani, I have been wondering why so few people in the United States are talking about the Rojava cantons. You’d think it would be big news that there’s a liberated area in the Middle East led by kickass socialist-feminists, where people make decisions through local councils and women hold 40 percent of leadership positions at all levels. You’d think it would be even bigger news that their militias are tough enough to beat ISIS. You’d think analyses of what made this victory possible would be all over the left-wing press.
But many on the U.S. left have yet to hear the story of the Rojava cantons—Afrin, Cizîre, and Kobani—in northern Syria, or western Kurdistan. Rojava—the Kurdish word for “west”—consists of three leftist enclaves making up an area slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, in territory dominated by ISIS. In mid-2012, Assad’s forces largely withdrew from the area, and the battle was left to the Kurdish militias: the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and the YPJ (Women’s Defense Forces), the autonomous women’s militias. These militias are not the same as the Iraqi peshmerga, though the U.S. press uses that name for both.
The YPG and YPJ have, for the better part of the last three years, been focused on defeating the jihadis, even as they continue to clash with the Assad regime (particularly in and around the city of Hasakah). On January 27, 2015, they achieved a major victory when they defeated ISIS in Kobane. They have since won the strategic towns of Tel Hamis and Tel Tamr (on the edges of Cizîre canton), but are, as of late April, gearing up for a renewed ISIS attack on the area.
While the Syrian opposition is understandably bitter that the YPG and YPJ withdrew most of their energy from the war with Assad, leftists worldwide should be watching the remarkable efforts being made by Syrian Kurds and their allies to build a liberated area where they can develop their ideas about socialism, democracy, women, and ecology in practice.
They have been working on these ideas since 2003, when the PYD (Democratic Union Party) was founded by Syrian members of Turkey’s banned Kurdish party, the PKK. By January 2014, they had established a bottom-up system of government in each canton, with political decisions made by local councils and social service and legal questions administered by local civil society structures under the umbrella of TEV-DEM (Democratic Society Movement). TEV-DEM includes people from all the ethnic groups in the cantons, who are represented by more than one political party, but most of its ideological leadership comes from the PYD.
According to Janet Biehl, who was part of an academic delegation to the Cizîre canton in December 2014, the district commune is the building block of the whole structure. Each commune has 300 members and two elected co-presidents, one male, one female. Eighteen communes make up a district, and the co-presidents of all of them are on the district people’s council, which also has directly elected members. The district people’s councils decide on matters of administration and economics like garbage collection, heating-oil distribution, land ownership, and cooperative enterprises. While all the communes and councils are at least 40 percent women, the PYD—in its determination to revolutionize traditional gender relations—has also set up parallel autonomous women’s bodies at each level. These determine policy on matters of particular concern to women, like forced marriages, honor killings, polygamy, sexual violence, and discrimination. Since domestic violence is a continuing problem, they have also set up a system of shelters. If there is conflict on an issue concerning women, the women’s councils are able to overrule the mixed councils.
In short, the Rojava revolution is fulfilling the dreams of Arab Spring—and then some. If its ideas can be sustained and can prevail against ISIS, Kurdish nationalism, and the hostile states surrounding the cantons, Rojava will affect the possibilities available to the whole region. So why isn’t it getting more international support?
In October, David Graeber wrote a Guardian op-ed comparing Rojava’s fight against ISIS to the Spanish Civil War and asking why the international left was so showing so little solidarity this time around. The answer lies partly in how one defines international solidarity—which these days often seems to be limited to opposing whatever the United States does. In December 2014, an In These Times panel on what to do about Kobani framed the question purely in terms of U.S. military intervention. Richard Falk responded:

"The plight of the Kurds in Kobani and their courage in resisting ISIS poses a tragic predicament that does challenge the kind of anti-interventionism that I feel is justified overall, particularly in the Middle East. But to overcome the presumption against military intervention, especially from the air, one needs very powerful evidence. . . . [T]he ISIS intervention doesn’t seem designed to actually deal with the problem. Rather, it looks like a projection of U.S. power in the region."

Falk immediately turns the question toward U.S. motives rather than whether Kobani needs help or has asked for it and what other kinds of help besides bombing might be available.
To Graeber, this way of framing the question is sadly one-sided; anti-imperialist critique is insufficient without solidarity. He visited Rojava as part of the academic delegation, and on his return, described it as “a genuine revolution”:

"But in a way that’s exactly the problem. The major powers have committed themselves to an ideology that say[s] real revolutions can no longer happen. Meanwhile, many on the left, even the radical left, seem to have tacitly adopted a politics which assumes the same, even though they still make superficially revolutionary noises. They take a kind of puritanical “anti-imperialist” framework that assumes the significant players are governments and capitalists and that’s the only game worth talking about."

What is the problem here?  Are we in the United States too cynical or depressed to believe anything new can happen? Are we able to recognize revolutionary ideas when they come from Greece, Spain, or Latin America but not from the Middle East? Are we so sexist we can’t take the idea of a feminist revolution seriously? Or is the problem simply ignorance? If so, knowing the story might help. Let’s start with the Yazidis.
Saving the Yazidis
Until August 2014, few Americans had ever heard of the Yazidis, an Iraqi Kurdish minority practicing an ancient religion close to Zoroastrianism. Then ISIS (also known as Daesh, ISIL, or the Islamic State) entered Sinjar, and the Yazidis—abandoned by both the Iraqi army and the much-hyped Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga—fled north into the mountains. Soon stories began to appear of genocidal attacks that wiped out the entire male population of villages and of hundreds of Yazidi women and children being raped, sold into slavery, or forced to marry ISIS fighters.
On August 6, Reuters reported that 50,000 Yazidis were trapped in the mountains above Sinjar in danger of imminent starvation. The next day, Obama authorized limited air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and air drops of supplies to the Yazidis. But this was hardly enough to remedy the growing humanitarian disaster. As the United States continued to “weigh its options,” the UK and Germany talked about sending aid, and the Pope condemned ISIS, the Yazidis remained trapped.
Then came a rescue so dramatic it was worthy of a Hollywood movie: the YPG and YPJ militias, without heavy weapons or air cover, crossed from Syria into the mountains of Iraq and cut a corridor to evacuate the Yazidis. Suddenly the Western press was full of pictures of attractive young women in uniform—there has been more than a touch of Orientalist fantasy in Western coverage of the women’s militias.  This coverage has barely touched upon their politics, beyond ominous references to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and Turkey.
Turkey, for its part, played a lamentable role in the battle of Kobani. Observers including David L. Phillips of Columbia University’s Institute for Human Rights assert that “Turkey is providing military, logistical, financial and medical support for Daesh [ISIS] and other jihadists.”
Kurdish spokespeople say the same. And President Erdogan did not allay their suspicions when he told the press that, for Turkey, the Kurds and ISIS were six of one, half dozen of the other.
Erdogan also predicted in October that Kobani would fall any minute. But, despite Turkey’s aid to ISIS and the Kurds’ lack of heavy weapons and supplies, the YPG and YPJ militias fought on against very heavy odds, and after months of battle, were able to drive ISIS out of Kobani  in January. Along the way, they began attracting Western volunteers, several of whom have been killed.
While the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are theoretically allies against ISIS, the Iraqi Kurds are also allied with Turkey and this has led to significant tensions between the two Kurdish factions. There are enormous political differences between them on questions of governance, women’s rights, ecology, and nationalism. The political parties that lead the Iraqi Kurds, longtime favorites of the United States, are in the process of establishing their own petro-state, and, while women may be better off in Kirkuk than in the rest of Iraq, as Houzan Mahmoud of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq points out, they still suffer from “honour killings, FGM, forced marriages, early marriages, stoning, rape, marital rape and many other forms of violence.” The Barzani government has done little to address these problems. As Kurdish feminist Dilar Dirik writes in “What Kind of Kurdistan for Women”:

"It is interesting that the Kurdish entity that is most state-like, most integrated into the capitalist system, and which complies with the requirements of the local powers such as Turkey and Iran, as well as the international system, displays the least interest in women’s rights and the challenge of patriarchy."

Dirik notes Iraqi Kurdistan’s “lack of truly independent, non-partisan women’s organisations,” the dominance of “tribalist, feudalist politics . . . encourag[ing] patriarchal attitudes,” and a crowning irony: “Many women’s organisations in South Kurdistan are even chaired by men!” She contrasts this to the feminism of the Rojava cantons, where “Men with a history of domestic violence or polygamy are excluded from organizations” and “Violence against women and child marriage are outlawed and criminalised.” This is a reflection of the socialist-feminist praxis of the PKK, which has evolved significantly since its inception as a Marxist-Leninist party in the 1970s.
Who are the PKK?
The PKK, founded in 1978, grew out of the Turkish leftwing student movement and initially had much in common with other radical movements inspired by China and Vietnam. Its goal was to establish an independent and socialist Kurdish state by waging people’s war. Its cadres settled in the countryside to build a peasant movement; their first targets were feudal landlords who oppressed the people and acted as local enforcers for the Turkish military.
Two years after the PKK was founded, Turkey had a military coup followed by a period of extreme repression and a war on the Kurds. As in other guerilla wars, the government met the slightest provocation with overwhelming force, and villagers were caught in the middle, forced to choose between the PKK and the Turkish military. In a 1993 report, Helsinki Watch (the original committee of Human Rights Watch) cited atrocities including the assassinations of more than 450 people—among them journalists, teachers, doctors, and human rights activists—by “assailants using death squad tactics.” The Turkish government never investigated the killings and was widely suspected of being complicit in them. Helsinki Watch also noted that, during this campaign, Turkey remained the third largest recipient of American aid, after Israel and Egypt, and that the George H.W. Bush administration expressed vocal support for violence against the Kurds.
The PKK, too, committed human rights abuses: they tried and hanged informers, were reported to have killed civilians (for example, by bombing an Istanbul shopping mall in 1991 and shooting worshippers in a mosque in Diyarbakir in 1992), kidnapped Western tourists (who were later released), and coordinated attacks on Turkish offices in six West European countries, among other acts of terrorism. But the scale of their violence pales in comparison to the mass killings of Kurds by the Turkish state.
Since its founding, the PKK has been led by Abdullah Ocalan (pronounced “uh-djah-lan”). Though his critics say that Ocalan did not rethink the people’s war strategy until he was captured in 1999, insiders like Cemil Bayik, another PKK founder, and Havin Guneser, Ocalan’s translator, say that during the 1990s, he and others began to examine the need to find a political rather than a military solution to the conflict; he also put increasing emphasis on democracy and women’s rights. This was, in part, a reflection of the evolution of the organization. By the eighties, PKK membership was largely made up of rural Kurds whose villages had been attacked; in order to deal with the feudal and nationalistic ideas of these new recruits, women cadre realized they needed autonomous women’s organizations. According to Necla Acik, Ocalan himself was becoming more feminist because “it was women who supported him most during the turbulent years following his arrest and the declaration of his new political, and at that time controversial, line. In return Öcalan became more radical in his promotion of gender liberation and urged women within the party to question male dominance within their own ranks.”
The Birth of Democratic Confederalism
Kept in almost total isolation after 1999, when he was captured in a combined Greece-Kenya-Turkey-CIA operation, Ocalan did a lot of reading. He was particularly influenced by anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin, world systems theorists Immanuel Wallerstein and Fernand Braudel, and theorist of nationalism Benedict Anderson. He publicly disowned his previous beliefs in democratic centralism and armed struggle, writing in 2008 that a state-like hierarchical party structure was a contradiction to “principles of democracy, freedom and equality;” he also distanced himself from the PKK culture in which “War was understood as the continuation of politics by different means and romanticized as a strategic instrument.” Ocalan was similarly critical of nationalism and the goal of a Kurdish state, arguing that nation-states were intrinsically hierarchical and that the goal instead should be a confederation of Kurds and other peoples living in the region. The idea was that Kurds should withdraw their energies from their respective states and develop their own democratic economies and methods of self-governance—anti-capitalist, anti-statist, and environmentally sound. In short, they should work towards dual power.
Since his arrest, Ocalan has written several volumes of prison essays, selections of which have since been translated and released as downloadable pamphlets. The two most recent—Democratic Confederalism (2012) and Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution (2014)—relate directly to the emergence of the socialist-feminist cantons in Rojava.
Ocalan calls his political philosophy democratic confederalism. While this philosophy has much in common with anarchism, participatory democracy, and libertarian socialism, no other major left-wing movement, with the possible exception of the Zapatistas, has put women’s liberation so squarely at the center of its revolutionary project. In fact, despite slogans like Mao’s “women hold up half the sky,” Marxist revolutions have—at best—seen women as support troops or a stripe in the rainbow, not as a historically submerged and dominated majority whose liberation is fundamental to everyone else’s.  National liberation movements have been similar: women are encouraged to be politically active and even to serve as soldiers during the struggle, but, once the battle is won, patriarchal norms are reasserted in the name of religion or indigenous tradition. In contrast, here’s Ocalan in Liberating Life: “The solutions for all social problems in the Middle East should have woman’s position as focus. . . . The role the working class have once played, must now be taken over by the sisterhood of women.” This is an amazing statement for a former Marxist guerilla; only the most radical of Western feminists would even dare to propose it.
How much of this for real?
In the months I have been studying this revolution, I have frequently asked myself, “How much of this is for real?” I have known a lot of male leftists who talk a good line about women’s liberation but fall woefully short in practice. I also get nervous about the “stereotyped party writing” that comes out of the PKK. And I have seen more than one Potemkin Village. But revolutions are driven by contradictions; PKK style may resemble that of China in the 1970s but the content is different. And, though I have problems with what seems like a cult of personality, Ocalan’s main message for women has been that they should organize themselves.
The ten members of the academic delegation who visited Rojava in December went with questions similar to mine: “Do its practices really constitute a revolution? Do they live up to its democratic ideals? What role do women actually play?” Upon their return, they made this public statement:

"In Rojava, we believe, genuinely democratic structures have indeed been established. Not only is the system of government accountable to the people, but it springs out of new structures that make direct democracy possible: popular assemblies and democratic councils. Women participate on an equal footing with men at every level and also organize in autonomous councils, assemblies, and committees to address their specific concerns. . . . Rojava, we believe, points to an alternative future for Syria and the Middle East, a future where the peoples of different ethnic backgrounds and religions can live together, united by mutual tolerance and common institutions. Kurdish organizations have led the way, but they increasingly gain support from Arabs, Assyrians, and Chechens, who participate in their common system of self-government and organize autonomously."

I went on a similar trip to China in 1973, during the last years of the Cultural Revolution, and remember the way I tried to disregard my own misgivings and failed to recognize that much of what one hears from party activists may be more aspiration than achievement. But even if only half of what the academic delegation saw is real, Rojava is a game changer. Imagine what a liberated area with a secular, egalitarian approach to women, governance, economics, land usage, and ecological sustainability could mean for the Middle East. Kurdistan has borders in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey; if Rojava can survive, dissidents from the whole region will have a place they can run to escape forced marriages and get a secular education—for Rojava has started its own university, the Mesopotamian Academy of Social Sciences, which is now holding a book drive.
But to be a game changer, it has to survive. Kobani has been liberated, but the city was destroyed and needs to be rebuilt—after the land mines are cleared. And the YPG and YPJ are still fighting ISIS in the rural areas, hampered by a complete Turkish embargo that prevents them from getting weapons and keeps UN supplies and food from reaching refugees. These refugees include Yazidis, Arabs, Turkmen, and others from both Syria and Iraq, including Mosul. There is one flour mill for the whole area and not a lot of other food. The KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government—the Iraqi Kurds, led by Barzani) are not letting very much through on their side of the border because of their alliance with Turkey, and the UN has not pushed either Turkey or the KRG to let in supplies or move refugees to a safer place. The cantons have no money and a tiny economy, and because the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization, Rojava has no access to international aid.
Under these circumstances, international solidarity is not only an obligation; it is a necessity.
I recently spoke to someone from the Kurdish women’s movement in Rojava and asked what they need most. She said they need a massive international solidarity campaign, beginning with political education about the evolution of the PKK and its politics, including its emphasis on democratic governance, anti-sectarianism, secularism, ecology, and women’s liberation. In practical terms, they need all possible international pressure to be put on Turkey and the KRG to end the embargo and let supplies through. They need the terrorist designation to be lifted so they can travel and raise money and do public speaking. Their representatives should be allowed into the United States and other Western countries; though neither the PYD nor other Rojava groups are actually on the terrorist list, they are damned because of their relationship to the PKK; just this January, the United States rejected a visa application by Salih Muslim, co-president of the PYD.
Some oppose lifting the PKK’s terrorist designation because of its past violations of human rights. But, while caution is reasonable, people and movements have to be allowed room to evolve. The leaders of many liberation movements were once considered terrorists, including Jomo Kenyatta, first president of Kenya, and two prime ministers of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was jailed as a terrorist and released after many years so he could negotiate with the Boer government. Like Mandela, Ocalan should be released from jail to lead negotiations with Turkey.
In 1988, I wrote an article for Dissent called “The Sound of One Hand Clapping: Women’s Liberation and the Left.” I concluded,

"The socialist movement can’t get on without the dream and language of transformation, applied to job and family as well as international politics. Socialism needs the ability to dream as much as women’s liberation needs the ability to think strategically. Only by creating a political culture that is not split down the middle by gender can any of us find the answers we need to change the world."

Starting from near-feudal circumstances, in the middle of a devastating war, people in the Rojava cantons are trying to create such a culture. We need to learn from them—and help.

For those who wish to inform themselves further about Rojava or support people there, here are some links.
Information and campaigning resources:
ANF News
Hawar News (Anha)
International Free Ocalan Campaign page
Jinha, the first women's news agency in the Middle East
Kurdish Question
Peace in Kurdistan Campaign (UK)
Rojava Report
Kurdish Question
Kurdish Resistance and Liberation Facebook page
Kurdish Revolution Info Group's Facebook page
Kobane Reconstruction Board Facebook page
Donations are being processed by the Kurdish movement in Germany
Help Kobani website
In the UK support for Rojava is being coordinated by the Rojava Solidarity Working Group.  The New York group is collecting books to send to the university in Rojava.
Rpjava Solidarity Committee UK
Rojava Solidarity NYC

The Kurds: a bit of background
[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015
The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  
Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.
Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.
Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.

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