Yasser Munif (2022): “Looking at the revolution from below is extremely important”

Transcript of an episode originally broadcast by Where’s My Jetpack podcast, on March 15th 2022. From the Fightback magazine issue Syrian Voices – please subscribe here.

Ani White: Kia ora. Welcome, comrades, to Where’s My Jetpack?! a politics and pop culture podcast with sci-fi and socialist leanings. This month we’ve got an interview with Yasser Munif on the Syrian revolution, once again on the anniversary of the revolution. So Yasser Munif is a Syrian academic and activist, and associate professor of Sociology at Emerson College. He teaches courses about colonial history, racial identities, social movements, Middle Eastern politics, and feminist theories. He is the co-founder of the Global Campaign for Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution and his book, The Syrian Revolution: Between the Politics of Life and the Geopolitics of Death, which will be mainly discussing here, was published in 2020. So welcome to the show, Yasser.

Yasser Munif: Thank you for inviting me. Thank you for the opportunity.

Ani White: Yeah, thanks for coming on. So first, a general question. What are the key things people need to know about the Syrian revolution?

Yasser Munif: So the Syrian revolution obviously started in 2011 with a number of other revolts in the region and I think the entry point, the most important to understand about the revolution in Syria is that it’s both a simple and complex process. Simple in the sense that there is a long history of violence in Syria that didn’t start in 2011, but rather we could trace back to the rise to power of the Ba’ath Party in the 1960s, in addition to dire economic context, crisis, since the 1980s, but also since 2000. So it was common sense that people would rise up and oppose this dictatorship in 2011. I think that’s an important entry point to understand that there was a lot of resentment, a lot of coercion to the population, marginalization, high unemployment rates, and so on. It was logical for large segments of the population to oppose and to resist the Assad regime.

On the other hand, it’s also a very complex revolution in the sense that many actors were involved at different stages of the revolt with their own interests, with their own logic. So, for example, Saudi Arabia and Iran were involved and in a certain way were fighting each other and using Syria as a proxy to face each other. There is also the opposition between the Kurdish politics and Turkey, and US and Russia and so on and so forth. I mean, there are a number of layers that complexify any understanding of the revolution very quickly. So what I propose usually is that we begin with that simple entry point to understand that people revolted for obvious reasons, like many other populations in the region.

The second thing I would say is that one cannot really understand the Syrian revolution without understanding its connection to the entire region, the Arab region or the Middle East and Northern African region. There was an authoritarian order in that region that was more or less stable in the past several decades, at least since the 1960s. For many of them, dictatorships that were run oftentimes by families, whether that’s Egypt or obviously Saudi Arabia or Jordan and the same thing in Morocco and so on, or a ruling party that became very much once again run by a small clique or even a family, like in Syria or in Iraq up until the US invasion, or Algeria. So it’s important to understand that those revolts are very much interconnected in the same way as the revolt of the socialist camp after 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and therefore we should understand them in their globality as interconnected and the impact of each one of them on the others.

Thirdly, I would say that it’s very important to really focus on the grassroots politics and not reduce those revolts to the geopolitical dimension. And I’m sure we’ll have an opportunity to talk more about that. But oftentimes people have a tendency to jump to the geopolitical aspect of those revolts and ignoring or dismissing the grassroots politics, which is, I think, central in any understanding of the Syrian revolt, but also the Arab revolts in general.

Ani White: Yeah, and for an example of those grassroots politics, you spent a few months in the city of Manbij during the revolution. Can you describe the revolutionary process there?

Yasser Munif: Yes. So Manbij is a city located in Northern Syria, close to the Turkish border and I chose it because it was more accessible for me at some point. I couldn’t go back to Damascus. Initially, I started going to Damascus, but then my name ended up being on some list and it became more risky to go to the areas controlled by the Assad regime.

So Manbij was liberated in July 2012 and was run by a Revolutionary Council and was a very interesting case study to me. I mean, I wanted to go and see for myself what is happening and how the revolution really takes place in the everyday life. And so it was a really important trip in a certain way because there were a number of initiatives happening in the city. People were trying to make the city liveable despite the amount of violence against the city, either through bombardment or through siege. Oftentimes it’s very difficult to even get bread or other type of food, medication and what have you. There was also a large number of refugees in the city. And so all these aspects made the running of the city more challenging. There were almost 200,000 refugees or internally displaced people, which is approximately equal to the population of Manbij. And all these people needed housing, access to medical health care. They needed food, schooling for their children and so on.

So it’s within that kind of context that people were actively trying to recreate many of those institutions that are essential for the survival of the population in those areas. I think oftentimes those examples, those struggles are ignored. They don’t necessarily end up on the front pages of the international media. First, because it’s very difficult to access those areas. Second, it requires spending more time and getting to know the population and who’s doing what and the different groups operating on the ground and so on. So it requires more time and that’s not something that many journalists are able to do.

So my experience there was extremely interesting in the sense that one begins to understand how revolution really operates. It’s oftentimes a very chaotic process. Oftentimes people learn by trial and error. It’s an iterative project of the revolution. Looking at the revolution from below is an extremely important thing for people who want to understand those processes. So I was able to gather a lot of stories from people who were either trying to reopen the school to get the kids to go back to school, despite the challenges, despite the Syrian regime bombarding the school and preventing people from going back there or providing bread and the politics of bread and how all that operates and so on. So it was an important opportunity for me to observe the revolution from below, to see the everyday life of people resisting and trying to rebuild from the destruction that the Syrian regime imposed.

Ani White: Yeah, thanks for that. In your book, you talk about the Syrian revolution representing a micropolitics of life against a macropolitics of death, or necropolitics. Can you explain what that means for our listeners?

Yasser Munif: Yeah. Again, there was a lot of writing about the Syrian revolution, and oftentimes I felt that what people highlighted really was the geopolitical aspects and international relations and so on. So I wanted to shift the focus and try to highlight other aspects that are not necessarily very visible in the mainstream media, or even among certain academic circles, or even among activists. So I used this, I would say, theoretical tool, micropolitics and macropolitics, or what I would call also the politics of life against the politics of death, which is, I think, a really useful way to think and look at this revolution.

So what I mean by the micropolitics, or the politics of life, are all these micro processes, the everyday resistance and the minutiae of building alternatives that oftentimes are very decentralised. So people began their involvement in the revolution by organizing at the level of their neighbourhood, among family members, because those are the people you trust and their villages. Because Syria was very violent, I mean, the regime was very violent in Syria, the political parties were almost nonexistent. So when the revolution started, there was no structure, no leadership to lead the revolutionary process. So this is why it was a very decentralised process. So what you find in one place, for example, in Manbij, is very different from what you will find in other regions, either because of the demographic composition of the population or the urban texture of the city or the neighbourhood or sometimes because of the large presence of the military. In some areas, the activists were much more prepared and much more democratic and therefore they were able to build a much more solid alternative and so on.

So it’s through that process of politics of life, observing what people are doing on an everyday basis to again rebuild those institutions and the effective networks that people build to communicate among each other, either through social media or other ways or sometimes using art even to resist. And I think that’s another dimension that is oftentimes marginal. People don’t pay much attention to it. But in some of the areas, it was almost impossible to organise a protest. For example, people in the beginning would put red paint in the fountains, to remind everyone that maybe there are no protests because of the security and the military and so on. But there is something like a rebellion brewing, or people sometimes with through ping pong balls, with messages from a hilltop in some of the neighbourhoods that would go to different places downhill. And so people would find those ping pong balls and read the message, and so on and so forth. So there was a lot of creativity. It’s only through those minimalist kind of observations one can begin to understand the revolutionary process.

On the other hand, to understand what the regime was doing. I felt that it was important to look at death as a major entry point, and I think by doing that, we can understand the state logic and how the Syrian regime was regulating its forces, by looking at how it can impose more violence and more death and so on. So the book is really structured around those two processes, the macropolitics or micropolitics, and the politics of life and the politics of death. One can, I think, understand the revolution better by using those frameworks. In a certain way it’s a way to decolonise theory, because I think a lot of the social sciences are oftentimes Eurocentric and inadequate to understand what’s happening in our region and the Arab world. For example, a lot of the social movement theory, the new social movement theory was developed in a European context where social movements can operate, they can formulate demands to the state, and there is a public sphere and so on and so forth. All that doesn’t exist in the Arab region. So using a social movement theory, for example, to understand what’s happening in Syria is not appropriate. This is why I was trying to develop alternative tools, theoretical tools, to understand, on the one hand, the violence of the Syrian regime, but also the creativity of the people who are building alternatives, and fighting for a politics of dignity from below.

Ani White: Thanks for that. You argue that the prison is the central pillar of necropower or the politics of death. Can you explain how that works?

Yasser Munif: Sure. One cannot really understand Syrian history or politics without understanding the rule of prisons in it. Mustafa Khalifa, for example, explained that Syria’s history is the history of prisons, concentration camps, and massacres. And that’s very accurate. If we look at the way that the Syrian regime, the Ba’ath Party and Assad rose to power – it was through a coup. And Syria has also a history of coups. Some historians would argue that they were up to 19 different coups, depending on how you count them and so on. So when Assad took power, he wanted to build a coup-proof regime or state, and one of those central institutions to help him do that was obviously the prison. So the Syrian regime imposed an equation in Syrian society where violence really played a central role. and the Syrian regime imposed that politics of fear where one has to always be on guard and be careful. and you end up in the end self-censoring, and people avoid any kind of talk about politics. I remember even hearing from people that one should not talk about the price of vegetables, tomatoes, and what have you in public transportation because that could be understood or interpreted as a critique of the regime. So that was the level of violence. So obviously only a small portion of the population was incarcerated in prison and was experiencing the violence and the torture of the Syrian prison, which are notorious on a global scale. Only a few places really compare to the Syrian prison where oftentimes people died under torture. The Syrian regime developed the whole carceral knowledge and strategies to better torture prisoners, either to humiliate them or to get information and all that to impose that politics of fear and create this narrative that anyone can end up being there.

So the Syrian regime was not necessarily interested in preventing stories from leaking from the inside to the outside. On the contrary, it wanted the Syrian population to know to a certain extent about what’s happening in places like Tadmor or Sednaya, the massacres that happened and so on, not too much, but enough to scare the population. And so the Syrian prison obviously has its own specificity. It’s very different from the US prison system or other prison systems in – how should I call that? – in highly developed capitalist countries where the prison, like in the US, plays an economic role and is connected to the economic institutions, and in a certain way allows the state to accumulate and to punish any surplus population or unemployed population like in the US with the Black and the Brown population. In Syria, it doesn’t necessarily have that economic incentive. On the contrary, in Syria the prison costs the state money and it’s not necessarily productive in the way that it is in the US. So it fulfils a different role, which is, as I mentioned, producing that politics of fear and making sure that everyone is on their guard and making sure that there is no opposition, because there is always that possibility of ending in prison.

As a result, Riad al-Turk, who is one of the important leftist intellectuals and political leaders called Syria the ‘Kingdom of Silence’, because of the central role that prisons really played. There is a whole literature in Syria called the prison literature. And that’s also true in the region, I should say, because there are some similarities between prison in Syria and, say, in Iraq and in Egypt and so on. So this is why I think it’s very important to put that institution, in any analysis, in a central position to really understand the way that the Syrian regime operates, and the way that it projects this image of force and coercion and violence.

Ani White: I think it’s also perhaps worth noting, as many have noted, that in terms of that carceral logic and the logic of torture and the macropolitics of death, as you put it, that the Assad regime collaborated with the US on essentially rendition of people for torture during the so-called War on Terror, kind of somewhat undermining the idea that Assad is an anti-imperialist.

Yasser Munif: I think that’s an excellent point because, as you noted, not only the Assad regime but also Mubarak and others, oftentimes the European countries and the West in general would outsource that torture because it’s more difficult to execute that level of violence and torture in Western countries. And so, yes, Syria played that role, and coordinated with the US very closely in the war against terrorism, or quote unquote “terrorism”, but in the end implemented its own agenda.

The other thing I think that we should mention in relation to the prison, there are two ways to understand the prison in Syria. Some people have proposed a minimalist kind of definition, which understands the prison as simply the building and the centre where people are incarcerated. Others have proposed a more maximalist definition of prison, which basically includes the entire Syrian territory, because in some ways, all people are victim in some way or another of that system. I think it’s more adequate to find something in the middle where prison is not simply the building and those incarceration centres, but rather it has also annexes. So it’s also sometimes some hospitals, especially during the war, during the revolution, the hospital played a major role.

For example, Hospital 601 in Damascus was more feared than the famous, or infamous SedNaya prison, because people would go there and there would be doctors helping the guard on techniques of torture, and pushing the limits like almost to death, and bringing the prisoners back so that they get more torture. So that coordination between some death doctors and some prison guards is really horrifying. I think we should understand better the collaboration between the prison system and healthcare that has also parallels in the Nazi system, where doctors oftentimes were in some ways helping prison guards and so on.

Ani White: Yeah, I definitely think the carceral logic extending beyond just the prison is a real thing.
What is the state of exception and how does it apply to Syrian political history?

Yasser Munif: So that’s another important dimension of Syrian politics, the state of exception or the state of emergency. It was called the state of emergency in Syria. It’s the idea that the state can suspend the legal system to preserve itself, and preserve its interest. It represents a kind of desire on behalf of the state to, on the one hand, be legalistic and be part of the international community, but also using that powerful weapon that actually many “modern” states between quotation marks, which is the state of exception, that the law can be suspended because the state has an interest in doing that. So the way it was justified in Syria – the state of emergency was imposed in 1963 when the third party took power, and it can also be traced back to periods preceding that in the 1950s, when Abdel Nasser became de facto President through the union between Syria and Egypt. It was also imposed during the French colonization of Syria during the French mandate. So one could also trace back that state of exception or state of emergency.

But it’s been in place in Syria since at least 1963 with the rise to power of the Ba’ath party, and has become a tool that the Syrian regime always utilised against political parties, against any political dissidents and any form of political protest, to say that Syria is at war against Israel and the West in general, the Imperialist West, and therefore, it can use that state of emergency because of that, and can justify the way that it’s running the state. And it became a major demand on behalf of the protesters when the revolution started in 2011, one of the main demands was people wanted the end of the state of emergency. It was finally lifted in 2012, but was quickly replaced by counterterrorism laws which basically played the same role as the state of emergency or the state of exception, but are more acceptable for the international community because many countries

actually, whether in the West or elsewhere, have similar rules compared to laws where law is suspended because the state needs to do certain things that would not be acceptable or permissible in “normal days”.

So Syrians have no political rights. They cannot participate freely in political parties. There are no free elections. And in addition to that, they are completely powerless when it comes to the legal system because of that law. So, again, this is not to say that the state of exception is unique to Syria, but I would argue that in Syria, the state of emergency or the state of exception was implemented on a larger scale, and is much more visible and had lethal consequences, obviously.

Ani White: You describe a process of Assadist urbicide or the killing of cities. Can you explain that?

Yasser Munif: Yeah, so I use this concept of urbicide developed by a number of intellectuals – the idea of killing cities or the urban texture during conflict. One could also think about this concept outside conflict and outside war. But I use it in the context of Aleppo during the revolution, to understand the spacial aspect of the revolution. So urbicide was basically used by the regime to take control of certain areas in Aleppo. Obviously, it can be utilised in other cities but the focus in my book is on Aleppo, and I identified several strategies that the Syrian regime used. They include, for example, horizontal power and flows. We’re thinking about the spatial aspect of the revolution. And so the ways that the regime, for example, segmented the city of Aleppo in small areas that it can control better by putting checkpoints, and by making sure that there is no communication or coordination between neighbourhoods that are perceived as threatening. At the same time, again, if we look at this horizontal operation or flows, there were pro regime militias that were moving quickly from one neighbourhood to another. They’re called the Shabīḥa and they’re infamous. Everyone has seen them during the revolution, but they were also present before the revolution, again to make sure that they remind the Syrians that they are watched, that the state is present. So whenever there was any rebellion or any kind of protest in the early days of the revolution, they know the city very well. They know the families very well. They know the streets of the city of Aleppo, oftentimes narrow streets where tanks cannot enter and so on. So they would be sent there and they would crush any form of protest.

So it’s important to think about the city on that horizontal level, but also on what I call the vertical power. It’s not obviously a concept that I developed, it was developed by others. But trying to understand how the Syrian regime positioned its snipers in the city by using high-rises, including luxury hotels or administrative buildings or minarets. When you look at those different buildings where the snipers were positioned, what you find is the different forms of powers or the different groups that were allied to the Syrian regime. So the luxury hotels represented the neoliberal or traditional economic power. So those hotels were given to the regime, and the regime occupied the roofs where it positioned snipers. Then the second power is obviously the massive bureaucracy of the state and so those buildings represented that bureaucracy. There are very important buildings in Aleppo where dozens of snipers were positioned, and they were able to really kill many people in different areas, because those tall buildings had views over a number of different neighbourhoods.

Thirdly, the religious power symbolised by the minarets and the mosques where also some snipers were positioned. In addition to that, the snipers obviously, there are the helicopters dropping the barrel bombs and what have you. You could understand the geography of death by looking at the areas that were targeted by the Syrian regime, where those barrel bombs were dropped, there were almost 100,000 explosive barrels were dropped in Syria. By mapping those, one could begin to understand the state logic, and why is it that they were focusing on certain areas and not others, and dig further and understand the military logic through that spatial mapping.

I think that the Syrian regime has a really very deep understanding of space, and it was able to instrumentalise it and use it during the revolution, by positioning its military. It’s an old logic. It didn’t start with the Syrian revolution, because the Syrian regime always felt that there is a threat of rebellion. and faced actually a rebellion in the 1980s – an urban rebellion – and therefore, one can trace back that urban logic, at least to that period of the 1980s. So if you look at Aleppo, many of the military compounds and military centres, intelligence, security centres, they’re surrounding the city in a very strategic way. Additionally, there is also the topography of the city, again, a spatial dimension that can also help us understand the military logic of the Syrian regime. So, for example, the river was utilised in a certain way by the regime. The hilltops were utilised, to position its military to control the lower areas in the city. The green areas and the parks were utilised, and so on, to execute people and then drop them in the river. The river would bring those dead people to the areas controlled by the revolutionaries and so on.

So I mean, that’s what I meant by urbicide, trying to understand the lethal power of the state and the regime through space, which is oftentimes a neglected dimension in any conflict, but especially in the Syrian conflict. And we need much more, I think, studies and analysis of different areas, not only the urban but also the countryside, because it has its own different logic to really understand an important aspect of the revolution and the counter revolution.

Ani White: You mentioned the targeting of certain areas over others and I think it’s a related question: how did the regime weaponize demographics?

Yasser Munif: So that’s another important question for the Syrian regime – which is gathering information about its population. As a reminder, sociology as a field, the social sciences as a field were initially created to help the state better understand its population in order to better control it. I mean, that’s the history of sociology, which is different from anthropology. Anthropology was initially developed to further the colonial enterprise, and help the colonial power understand the population that are outside Europe, or the West. So in that sense, sociology and information or knowledge about the population is not specific to the Syrian regime. But the Syrian regime obviously had gathered a lot of information about the population, whether that’s the different religious sects, the sectarian dimension of the population, where the wealthy and the poor people live, a lot of information about the informal settlements and so on and so forth.

So I tried to look at, again, Aleppo, I used Aleppo as an example to see the ways that the Syrian regime took all these parameters of the population, whether they are young or old, whether they are living in the countryside or in the city, whether they are rich or poor, whether they are Arab or Kurds, Christian or Muslim, and so on and so forth, Palestinian or non Palestinian, and utilise all these different properties or different characteristics of the population to weaponize them and making sure that, for example, that there is tension between Christians and Muslims, if it’s local, making sure that it becomes national, if it doesn’t exist, try to provoke it and so on. For example, the Syrian regime oftentimes would send undercover militias dressed in Islamic uniform to Christian areas and massacre the population, so that people think those people were massacred by Islamists and vice versa. And same thing with the Palestinians. I mean, there were Palestinian militias, but there was also a rebellion in the Palestinian camp, so the Syrian regime took – and you could look that up, it’s been documented and it’s not even controversial, I mean, there were pictures taken and footage and so on – it took a bus of Palestinian fighters who are pro regime and killed them, and then made the Palestinian camp believe that they were killed by the opposition. So it really instrumentalised the population in different ways, to make sure that it’s fragmented in ways that will serve the interest of the state, the interest of the regime, as opposed to the interest of the rebellion.

So instead of people really working together along class lines or in their own interests, they were segmented in all these different ways at different phases of the revolution, to prevent the consolidation of a big oppositional revolutionary bloc. Some of it predates the revolution. It didn’t start with the revolution, it was intensified by the revolution. One example for that is the Kurdish population was displaced because, again, the Syrian regime had this hatred for the Kurds because it’s Arab nationalist in a very chauvinistic way. So the Kurds were displaced from the North, and the Syrian regime built an Arab belt around the border between Syria and Turkey to prevent the potential formation of a Kurdish state between Turkey and Syria. And obviously, it was coordinating with Iraq and Iran and Turkey in different ways, making sure that the Kurds don’t have autonomy or self rule. So very early on, the Arab and the Kurdish populations, there were a lot of tensions between some of the tribes that are in those areas and we saw how they were, again, instrumentalised during the revolution. Those are some of the ways that the regime weaponised the demographics. I mean, we can go much more in depth, but I think the logic is clear.

Ani White: Yes. And how did the economic policies of the Assads back to the 70s factor into the emergence of resistance? And how have the politics of bread, or agrarian policy, played out in modern Syrian history?

Yasser Munif: Obviously, the economy played a major role in the immiseration of the Syrian population, its marginalization, the high unemployment rate, and so on, and was one of the main reason for the revolt. And again, it’s not unique to Syria, many Arab countries were facing the same kind of situation. So there was an important agrarian reform implemented in the 1960s, and when the Ba’ath took power – and especially Assad – because the Ba’ath took power and a number of other leaders, but he was able to put them in prison or exile them.

By 1970, he was controlling monopolizing power. So he started reversing the agrarian reform in the 1970s, and undoing some of the gains of that reform. But despite that, the agrarian reform was important, despite the limitations. As a result, the economy in Syria, industrialization was really import substitution industrialization, and was based on agricultural production for its survival. So it was really small and ineffective and dependent on agriculture, and oftentimes that was not predictable, and therefore oftentimes depending on the seasons the industry suffered. It’s not like the kind of industry that you can plan and predict, and so on. It was depending on the season when there were droughts, obviously, that the industry suffered a lot. So, in other words, the regime was really dependent on oil revenues and aid from Gulf countries and others, and also on the remittance from the Syrian diaspora, mostly in the Gulf countries and all that was declining. In addition, the Syrian population was growing, and that was compounding and complexifying the problems of the economy.

Finally, I would say that the liberalization of the economy which begun in the 1980s but amplified in 2000, when Bashar al-Assad took power after his father, with the neoliberal turn, and that had major dire consequences on the population, which was growing at a fast pace. Many people, many young men and women with university degrees, would not find jobs. The unemployment rate among the young population was extremely high. All these factors really were instrumental in the revolt. Many people joined the revolt because of that economic situation. Not only – the political humiliation of the Syrian population is obviously very important, but one cannot really understand the Syrian revolt and the Syrian revolution without understanding that economic background that Syria was undergoing.

Ani White: And you argued that the Syrian revolutionaries developed a new form of nationalism opposed to official state nationalism. So what distinguished this new form of nationalism and what practices were associated with it?

Yasser Munif: Yeah, I think it’s important to differentiate between different forms of nationalism. Again, sometimes people have a tendency to conflate those and to talk about nationalism in general. Sometimes people think that nationalism in Europe is similar to nationalism in the Global South. So I think it’s important to differentiate between all these different forms of nationalism. Obviously, European nationalism is chauvinistic. It’s white supremacist, it’s expansionist. It’s about furthering Imperial or colonial logic. Nationalism in the Global South, not always, I mean, it can be also very chauvinistic and very racist, and there are countless examples of that in the Arab region and beyond. India is a good example of how nationalism can be deployed against minorities, or against certain populations. But it can also be emancipatory. Popular nationalism often played that role of becoming the dominant ideology, when there was colonization against, for example, the French or against the British, it was a way to bring the population together, and build a block against that Imperial or colonial power. That was the case in Syria. The early nationalism in Syria emerged in the 1920s, and it was a very popular form of nationalism. It wasn’t some intellectuals writing about the way it should be done, and so on. So it was a nationalism that was taking, and shaping, in the midst of trouble.

In order to understand what happened in 2011, I think it’s important to go back to that period of the early nationalism of the 1920s, where people were organizing in very similar ways, organizing and forming different councils and groups, in order to fight and to resist the French. As they were doing that, they were developing this nationalist identity. So I think the same thing started happening in Syria in 2011, as people started working together, opposing the sectarian logic, understanding that was imposed from above by the Syrian regime, that the Syrian people have so much in common, whether they are Christian or Muslim or they are Kurdish or non Kurdish Arabs, whether they are coming from different backgrounds. There is a sizeable Palestinian population, and so on. So there was a lot of that popular nationalism emerging in the beginning, and anyone shouting or screaming sectarian slogans in the early days of the revolution would be removed from the protests or marginalised, or people would really exclude them from the revolutionary process. It wasn’t acceptable to be sectarian. So it was playing that role of building nationalism from below, of experimenting and discovering how to be Syrian differently or otherwise, because for many decades Syrians grew up with that Ba’ath Party nationalism. The Ba’ath Party is obviously an Arab nationalist party and whether it’s Arab nationalism or Syrian nationalism, it played a major role in the curriculum in schools. But it was very archaic, and people understood that it was deployed by the state to preserve and further the state’s interests, and to preserve the interests of the Assad regime. That popular nationalism was oppositional to that. It was reacting against that state centric nationalism, oftentimes scripted. It came from a few books that the Syrian regime considered like Bibles, that almost everyone had to read, and slowly but surely Assad the father became the main theoretician of nationalism, and people had to learn the slogans and so on, as part of that state-centric official nationalism.

This is what I tried to look at, the differences and the ways that the popular nationalism was extremely important to build an identity, a glue to all these different groups to come together and to oppose authoritarian rule. So that is a nationalism that one cannot really understand by reading articles. It’s not scripted in a certain way, unlike the official nationalism. One has to go to the protest and look at the practices or praxes of the people, what they are doing on the ground, and what they’re going to find is a very messy process, very heterogeneous. It’s a very decentralised form of nationalism. It’s multiple in that sense, unlike the very centralised and singular kind of nationalism of the state or the official nationalism. So that’s what I tried to do, opposing those two nationalisms to better understand popular nationalism and its creative and innovative aspects.

Ani White: Yeah. I think one good prominent example of this was the chants and slogans of “Sunnis and Alawis are One!” and “Syrians are One”, which sort of undermined the sectarianism that the regime was deliberately stoking at the time.

Yasser Munif: You’re exactly right. Those slogans were extremely important and people were very creative in amplifying those important ideas, that we have so much in common as Christians and Muslims and Kurds and Arabs. Sometimes the Assad regime would send undercover security to actually try to scream or impose other slogans. And as I said, in the beginning, they were marginal. But again, they would try to videotape this one person who oftentimes would be like a security agent and so on, shouting very disturbing slogans that no one has ever heard and then putting it on the internet and saying, “oh, look what they’re shouting and what they’re saying”. That was part of the Syrian regimes strategy, which is trying to fragment the population and try to impose the sectarian logic which was very detrimental, and at some point it became actually very dominant, unfortunately.

Ani White: How did revolutionaries respond to the encroachment of ISIS at the extreme, and other sectarians as well?

Yasser Munif: So I think it’s important to differentiate between two forms of political Islam. One is to a certain extent nationalist and it can be democratic or undemocratic, oftentimes undemocratic. But what’s important is that it’s nationalist, and was mostly interested in mobilizing the Syrian population against the Assad regime. So I think it’s important to differentiate that form of political Islam from the internationalist Islam of ISIS or Al Qaeda, who are very much opposed to nationalism, to Syrianness. When I was in Manbij and ISIS started taking over the city, oftentimes they would remove from the walls any nationalist slogans. I mean nationalism in the sense of popular nationalism that I described, slogans like, for example, “the real Syrians are revolutionaries”, or “to be Syrians means to serve one city and one’s population, not the Assad regime”, and so on. So ISIS came and they started removing all those slogans and saying those are blasphemous, and the only language we should speak is the language of Islam and so on. There was an important moment, that I think shocked many people in the world when ISIS removed the border between Syria and Iraq, to remind everyone that they are fighting for a post-national ummah, that they don’t recognise those nation-states, that those nation-states were imposed by the west – which is true. Those are the by-products of Sykes–Picot and the Western European dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. But one, obviously is opposed to that kind of internationalism of ISIS and so on. I support, for example, a socialist Arab nationalism or an open Arab nationalism to a certain extent, that is inclusive and not exclusive of the Kurdish and other minorities, that sees a lot of common interest between different Arab countries, and therefore a little bit like the kind of internationalism or Latin Americanism of Che Guevara and others, who thought that it was important to unify, to oppose imperialist power and so on.

But obviously ISIS was not dismantling the borders for that reason. What they wanted to do is destroy the nationalist Arab state and impose an Islamic logic instead. Unfortunately, there was no powerful left to propose a different alternative to that, so we were left with that kind of post-nationalism brought by ISIS and Al Qaeda. But I think it’s important to understand that the Syrian regime was always interested in empowering Islamists again, to fight and to undermine the unions and progressive parties and the communists who were very powerful in Syria and in Iraq, to a certain extent – much more powerful in Iraq than in Syria but they had some presence in Syria – and they were completely destroyed.

The Syrian regime oftentimes was allied directly or indirectly with Islamists, despite that moment of tension with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. But then later on, it allowed the Saudi to play a major role in funding jihadists in the 1980s and to fund a certain form of Wahhabi Islam, very sectarian, in order to undermine the left. I can give at least one example of that kind of collaboration, de facto collaboration between jihadists and Al Assad. I’m not suggesting that there was a big conspiracy. Some Syrians did believe that there was a big conspiracy, that ISIS was created by security agents and so on. I think there is some truth to that, but it’s not as simple. But in 2012, the Syrian regime released thousands of jihadists, many of whom became major leaders in some of the most important jihadist groups in Syria. There is even footage of them in Sednaya up until 2012 and then they were released. Some of them were international figures that were on the wanted list of the US because of their role with Al Qaeda. So they were released in 2012, again for the Syrian regime to undermine the popular aspect of the revolt, the progressive and leftist dimension of the revolution, and the liberal dimension, and to empower the Islamists. By doing that, in a certain way, there was almost like a de facto alliance between the Syrian regime and ISIS and Al Qaeda, because the Syrian regime wanted to crush the popular revolt, and in a certain way empowered the jihadists and ISIS, and therefore almost like de facto become allied with the international community by telling them, “Look, there is no real opposition in Syria. They’re not secular, they’re all Islamists, they are terrorists. They are bombing your cities, whether that’s Paris or what have you”. And therefore there was this de facto alliance between the West and the Syrian regime.

And the same thing is true with ISIS in many areas. If you go back and look at where they were operating, and what their priorities were, they were really oftentimes behind the frontline and they were attacking the revolutionaries from behind, as the revolutionaries were on the front attacking the Syrian regime, ISIS would come to a city almost peacefully, they would enter their military forces, and sometimes they were welcomed by the population, who oftentimes didn’t know what was happening until it was too late. Then they would take those cities very easily because many of the fighters were on the front and ISIS was in the back, fighting sometimes minor battles with the opposition, to undermine the opposition, and make it clear that the only way to oppose the regime is through ISIS or Al Qaeda, by undermining any other group.

This is why I think it’s important to understand the relationship between ISIS and the Assad regime, without reducing it to a conspiracy. I think they have common interest in undermining the revolt on both sides. Oftentimes there was a number of places where the opposition was fighting towards one against ISIS, another one against the Syrian regime. In those areas, oftentimes ISIS and the Syrian regime would not fight each other until much later in the process, when it became too obvious and Assad had to start fighting them, and the Russians started supporting and helping them. But for a very long time, Assad was avoiding depleting his forces in any wars against ISIS or Al Qaeda, letting them grow, knowing that the West, generally speaking, would much prefer a “secular” Assad regime than those sectarian jihadist groups.

Ani White: Yeah, I think it’s very true that it benefits the Assad regime for the international community to perceive any resistance as sectarian, and that’s been a very deliberate strategy. But what’s next for those of us who uphold the Middle Eastern and North African revolutions?

Yasser Munif: So as I mentioned before, I think it’s very important to understand the Syrian revolution as part of much bigger process, that this is not simply about Syria, or about Egypt, or about Sudan. I mean, obviously, those processes are very much interrelated. I think one of the challenges in the past ten years has been that the amount of violence in Syria was monumental and so I don’t blame people when they are hyper focused on their own struggles, because every day there is more death and more destruction and more violence and people are very focused on that level. But I think there is need to understand the interconnectedness of those Arab revolts, and understand that we have so much in common between the Syrians opposing the Syrian regime and the Sudanese, the revolutionaries, and the Egyptian protesters and so on, with the Tunisians and so on, and learn from each other. I think that the Sudanese are doing that. I was in touch with Sudanese, who are contacting activists and organisers in the entire Arab world, to better understand some of the ways that people were organizing against state violence, and against the different weapons, and asking specific questions about specific weapons and what to do against them and so on. And I think we need to expand those kind of networks, building very grassroots network among activists and organisers and understand the commonalities among those different struggles, and also the differences and specificities, I don’t think we should oversimplify those dimensions. But obviously there is a lot in common and build strategies to oppose, for example, the prison system in the entire Arab world, or the security system in the entire world, or the violent neoliberal policies in the entire Arab world, and so on and so forth. So I think we gain a lot by building those networks.

Now it’s been ten years: the revolution started in 2010-2011. I think it’s time to learn from our mistakes and learn and share knowledge between those different revolts and processes. Learn from the myriad ways that people have been struggling and building alternatives from the ground up, whether that’s in their own neighbourhood, how to defend them, how to provide bread and how to build strategies and communicate with each other and so on, despite the violence of the Arab regime.

Finally, I would say that I think some of us were a bit idealistic in the beginning. Obviously, we knew that those regime were extremely violent, but I don’t think we understood the level of violence that they were willing to deploy and utilise against their own population. So now that question has to be central, knowing what the Syrian regime and other Arab authoritarian rulers are capable of and think about the ways that we can counter that. It’s not simply violence against violence. I think it’s a much more complex question, or equation. And so we need to develop new, innovative strategies to address that question, that central question of violence. And finally, I would say that we have to think about the long term because some of those processes are changing; those tectonic plates beneath are moving and colliding and so on and producing different processes on the surface. But those are slow, and oftentimes they take time to become visible and appear on the surface, because they are oftentimes beneath the surface.

I’m talking about social structures and social classes that are changing and developing, and people are understanding different interests, maybe in different ways. That requires a different understanding of the left, a less sectarian kind of left that is very important to rebuild, a left that is able to understand and learn from past mistakes, but also connect with other struggles in the surrounding countries in the region, but also beyond, because many of those crises are systemic. They are global. Whether they are environmental, or economic, or even crises of democracy or the nation state. We are facing all these different crises, and the crisis of fascism that takes a different form in our region. But I believe that those struggles are very much interconnected, and the challenge for us is to understand the specificity and the anatomy of those demons, and develop strategies to counter them, and develop strategies of communication and networking among all these different groups, to be ready for the second round and the third round, because I think it’s going to be a very long process.

Ani White: Yeah. Thanks for that and thanks for coming on the show. Where can listeners find your work?

Yasser Munif: Thank you. Unfortunately, I don’t have a website, but I often-times write articles and organise through the Global Campaign for Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution. We organise different events, including a year ago we organised a Summer University about the Syrian revolution. So trying to understand the Syrian revolution from below and we had many, many different panels in addition to global protests. Because I think that now there is a large number of Syrians in the diaspora and their allies. I believe that those should be understood as outposts of the Syrian revolution and the Arab revolts, and we should develop better alliances with groups that are in the West, where those people are, and to better communicate and learn from each other.

Ani White: Yeah, I think that’s a very important point. The Syrian community is global. But again, thanks for coming on the show, and thanks for listening all. If you like what we do, please contribute to our Patreon at Patreon.com/jetpack1917. Solidarity comrades. Goodnight, and good luck.

Yasser Munif: Thank you and thank you for all the work you do. Thank you very much.

Ani White: Cheers.

Razan Ghazzawi (2021): “Revolutionary moments”

Transcript of an episode originally broadcast by Where’s My Jetpack podcast, on March 15th 2021. From the Fightback magazine issue Syrian Voices – please subscribe here.

Ani White: Kia ora, hello comrades, and welcome to Where’s My Jetpack, I’m Ani White.

Derek Johnson: And I’m Derek Johnson. Hola, comrades.

This month is widely recognised as the tenth anniversary of the Syrian revolution, so we’re interviewing Syrian-American activist Razan Ghazzawi on women’s liberation and the revolution. But first, some recs. Ani..

Ani White: We’ve recommended [these] before but the books Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Leila al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab, and also, The Impossible Revolution by Yassin al-Haj Saleh. Both well worth reading…

Derek Johnson: …I also want to link to CounterVortex by Bill Weinberg, it has some pretty good articles over there and republishings. For instance this one, ‘Russiagate, Syria and the Left’ by Terry Burke with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (CISPOS) in Minneapolis and the website for that organisation is http://www.cispos.org.

Also, I want to recommend the Bellingcat website. They do a lot of very good content and they’re constantly being attacked by tankies and Nazbols as working for the State Department or the CIA, which is a crock of shit. I especially want to recommend their piece, ‘Pro-Assad Lobby Group Rewards Bloggers On Both The Left And The Right’ that exposes Red-Brown propagandists for Assad monetarily rewarding them with the Serena Shim Award. There’s winners like Jimmy Dore, the comedian turned toxic political commentator, who has been calling for a left-right populist alliance, like with the Boogaloo Boys. He won the award and was paid $250,000. You can check his IRS statements, if anybody thinks that’s a lie, as well as any of these other people. Visiting guests of the regime included Tulsi Gabbard and Dennis Kucinich who once ran for president of the United States.

Ani White: Yeah, and I recommend the documentary Women of Syria: Unheard No More by Amnesty International.

Derek Johnson: I want to also recommend a reprint that CounterVortex did of a piece by Leila al-Shami on ‘Omar Aziz: Syrian Anarchist’, which is an excellent history of an actual Syrian anarchist and the movement building he helped start with western leftists, ignoring unfortunately the Syrian local councils.

“Omar Aziz was born in Damascus, he returned to Syria, from exile in Saudi Arabia and the United States, in the early days of the Syrian revolution. An intellectual, economist, anarchist, husband and father. At the age of 63 he committed himself to the revolutionary struggle. He worked together with local activists to collect humanitarian aid and distribute it to suburbs of Damascus that were under attack by the regime. Through his writing and activity he promoted local self-governance, horizontal organisation, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid as the means by which people could emancipate themselves from tyranny of the state. Together with comrades, Aziz founded the first local committee in Barzeh, Damascus. The example spread across Syria and with it some of the most promising and lasting examples of non-hierarchical self-organisation to have emerged from the countries of the Arab Spring. In her tribute to Omar Aziz, Budour Hassan says, he “did not wear a Vendetta mask, nor did he form black blocs”.”

Ani White: …Before we move on to the interview, just a note. As well as being the official Tenth Anniversary of the Syrian Revolution, this is also the second anniversary of the Christchurch shooting in Aotearoa New Zealand when a far-right terrorist targeted two mosques and took out fifty people. Some of those attacked were themselves Syrian refugees. We remember the dead and fight for the living.

We also have another bonus episode released today with video essayist Byron Clark on the far-right in Aotearoa/New Zealand.1

…We’re interviewing Razan Ghazzawi on the Syrian Revolution. Razan is an award winning human rights defender, blogger, exiled Palestinian Syrian U.S. based scholar activist and a doctoral researcher in gender studies at the University of Sussex. Her thesis looks at different forms of mobilisation of queerness in the context of the War on Terror in the Syrian war. Ghazzawi was detained twice by the Syrian state and was exiled by Al-Qaeda and ISIS groups in Northern Syria. She is the founder of the Feminist ArQives and a co-founder of the Karama Bus project in Idlib.

Welcome to the show and thanks for coming on.

Razan Ghazzawi: Thank you for having me!

Ani White: So, can you tell us about the early days of the revolution, which is sort of widely talked about as beginning ten years ago today?

Razan Ghazzawi: Thanks for that. Well, a lot to be said about those moments. I like to talk about them as moments because it’s really a very different form of protest. When it started in Tunisia and Egypt a lot of people in Syria, at least where I was in Damascus and the people around me – I’m talking about some bloggers, because there was blogging at that time, some film makers, some artists – so me and the community around me really wanted to protest and really wanted to be on the streets. We did start a solidarity protest – and this is a very important idea; how the protest started in Syria. We started in solidarity, in Damascus at least, with the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Then throughout these protests and throughout these, let’s not say protests but these solidarity sit-ins really, it kind of shifted towards more of a protest demanding the state itself to condemn what happened in Dara’a, for example, on the 18th of March (2011) when children were tortured and some of them were tortured to death. Like Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb and others because they were drawing graffiti on their school. The idea of advocating for children’s rights is an essential ideal when we’re thinking about the protests in Syria and also when we’re thinking about the protesting in Syria in those earlier days we also need to be thinking about solidarity as a notion not just within the Syrian state or geography but also across North Africa and the West Asia region.

I wanted to quickly talk about the debate that’s been happening, like: ‘when did the revolution start in Syria?’ There’s a big debate which is referred to as a kind of a city-centred debate or a city-centred side or one is more of a suburb-centred side in the sense. That some people would say, “oh no, the protests started in February in Damascus” and others would say, “no, actually the protest started in Dara’a.” which is the periphery, outside the centre. I’m finding the either / or narratives or either / or solutions… it doesn’t have to be either / or. We can say, “protests developed in different ways in Damascus” then how would they develop in Dara’a. We can just easily embrace the protests that happened in Damascus as well as Dara’a and this is kind of my approach, that we really cannot say that the protests, the sit-ins, the movement that happened in Damascus we should erase them just because it’s the centre, because it has a different kind of symbolism against the state. Which it’s more difficult to protest in Damascus, the capital, than it was in Dara’a. So in that sense this is how I personally view the earlier days of the uprising.

Ani White: You were imprisoned twice, triggering an international solidarity campaign. Can you talk about that?

Razan Ghazzawi: Yeah. I mean, I was in detention in prison at the time and I remember in prison and detention, as was the case in a lot of authoritarian military states, you’re in prison or detention, you’re cut out of outside information. You don’t know what’s happening outside, so I had no idea there was an international solidarity campaign until I was released. When I was released I remember I logged in to my Facebook and I saw a lot of people adding me as a friend request and I was a bit overwhelmed with the solidarity campaign. I’m very thankful from my readers and my friends, bloggers, because I’ve been blogging since 2005 in Damascus. I also started in Arabic but then I shifted into English because there was a lot of bullying from how I was talking a lot about sexual harassment and LGBTQ content. So I was not able to write in Arabic and I shifted into English and I think that shift made me more accessible to a wider readership and I think that affected why there was a huge campaign, I guess. I’m very thankful and at the same time I have used that access to talk about other detainees.

Derek Johnson: Thank you for sharing that.

Your research concerns the role of the LGBT struggle in the Syrian revolution. Can you talk about this?

Razan Ghazzawi: Yeah, so This is an ongoing process. I am personally more looking into the idea of surveillance. How do we think about surveillance and how do we think about security in Syria? When we think more about those issues from a perspective of an LGBTQ positionalities and subjectivities. So how do people who actually have different or non-normative gender or sexual identities and expressions, how do they experience check points? In my thesis I focus on check points because they were an emergent form of surveillance that appeared and occurred in the uprising. They were used by the state to hunt down protesters and they wanted to close the connections, the bridges between certain neighbourhoods. They were collaborative in terms of aid, in terms of smuggling activists who were wanted.

So there’s a lot of forms of solidarity, also forms of activism that happened across neighbourhoods, across cities and suburbs, and the check points were really there to cut and rupture those connections. So this is what I’m trying to do in my thesis. Through the life histories, interviews and ethnographic research, I’m trying to capture those kind of nuances. What happens when we think about check points from the perspective of a trans woman or someone who’s a femme gay or a butch or any person who’s just for the first time in a direct, well, not the first time really but let’s say there’s different interactions depending where you are with the state

Some of my interlocutors tell me that in Latakia no one would talk to you if you look gay, whatever that means. People in Damascus would have different stories to tell about that. There’s more security, there’s more surveillance. So I’m trying to look at all of those connections and debates, and seeing how they connect together. I’m still in a writing up process so I’m all over the place with my topic and my thesis. It takes some time to make sense of everything.

Ani White: And it’s not something that I’ve seen a lot of writing on or discussion of, is the role of LGBT struggle in the revolution. So, I understand that. I’m in the middle of my PhD myself so it can be hard to talk about it mid-stream, but it’s good to get an impression of where you’re at with that research. Very interested to see how that turns out.

But can you talk about the phases of militarisation and how that has affected women in the revolution?

Razan Ghazzawi: Yeah. This is also a debate about the phases of the militarisation and I would say there’s a mainstream debate, a mainstream perspective, a general idea that people had to carry arms and to protect themselves. I do think this is correctly part of the narrative, this is essentially very important, yes. People did. The Syrian state have used, monopolised, and weaponised every single element of the state – the state infrastructure, the state hospitals. There was no safe space to go to. The campus was not safe. I have colleagues who have been tortured to death on campus. I have friends who have been disappeared on universities… Students were beaten on campus. There was really no sense of safety in any state institution during the uprising and this is early on. People were protesting; students, workers, and the state increasingly started to use weapons, thugs and also escalated. This is what pushed some communities to defend themselves and I think this is a very important acknowledgement to say that communities did want to protect their communities from the Syrian state army.

But also at the same time I’m really worried about just talking about this narrative because even though it is true it is not the full story. I think the reason why we need to talk about how communities defend themselves [is that] we need talk about what do other players in the region and worldwide benefit from putting arms in, let’s just say, some of the communities who are eager to defend themselves.

So I think this is why I think it’s very important to be critical from the early on to the role of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and also Turkey. The Muslim Brotherhood specifically did want to try to gain political grounds by militarisation and by putting arms in the hands of some of the revolutionaries on the ground. This kind of narrative when we’re talking about the state violence and how communities were trying to protect themselves I think it’s very important to remember the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, the role of the Gulf, the role of Erdoğan also trying to push for militarisation to co-opt the uprising. I think this is where I disagree with some of the experts and some of the diaspora-based experts on Syria, who see only one narrative and are trying to romanticise the struggle as if we were just pushed toward militarisation. It’s not exactly the full truth; people were also trying to resist militarisation and trying to stick to non-violence because they knew and they understood this is not the strength of the movement. But, you know, things get complicated and this is why they were bullied – non-violent, anti-violent – and also some of them like [unknown], for example, who’s really a visionary. Also Razan Zaitouneh and others who’ve been really visionary feminists and visionary human rights advocates and writers who would see that while we need to defend ourselves, at the same time we need to be careful of how militarisation would effect, not only women, but also communities in the long-run. This is true, as you said with your question, a lot of the people – I don’t identify as a woman, I identify as nonbinary femme – but we can say that a lot of the people who are non-normative, they are not cis men, they are not macho. Also, masculinities, even femme masculinities were also not welcomed to be part of the uprising. So it is something that a lot of challenges that social movements go through and it’s only the nuances and the people from within the movement who are wary about these conflicts that need to really be advocating how to get out of them and how to address them rather than to just sugar-coat them and romanticise them.

So yeah, I think that we have a lot of work to do on that front, of how to really trace how the militarisation of the movement did affect communities in the long-run and farmers and workers and nonconforming people. Not just politically but also in gender, racially and class-wise. So this is a debate that is very important to think about when we think about militarisation. 

Derek Johnson: How did the revolution become sectarianised?

Razan Ghazzawi: It’s a big question. I definitely cannot answer that fully but I personally would say when we’re thinking about social movements, new spaces emerge and new spaces open and that made a lot of people want to co-opt that space. I think this is what happened. What happened is a lot of people, like for example, Adnan Al-Aroor. Al-Aroor is a personality, a character. He’s a public figure who used really his money and his connections to disseminate really sectarian discourse early in the uprising. That’s what made a lot of people actually withdraw, critical and scared to join. Specifically people who are also scared of movements in Syria. At the time there was a lot of people who wanted to talk about the danger and harm of this discourse and there were a lot of efforts to combat this hatred but again with the militarisation things got really out of control. This is the curse of militarisation, that you have little space, you don’t have as powerful tools to convince or rather to combat this extremist, takfiri that I’d like to call them, movement.

I think that sectarianism is something that we need to – and I would say racism, patriarchy and classism – they all need to be thought about specifically as anti-revolutionary, as counter-revolutionary culture and that we really need to think about challenging.

Ani White: Yeah, I think there’s a case to be made that there’s two forms of counter-revolution that have occurred. Obviously the brutal counter-revolution from the Assad regime but then the issue of the internal counter-revolution and that’s maybe a more difficult question in a way.

Can you talk about the Kurdish struggle?

Razan Ghazzawi: So, I am personally someone who – I mean, this is a very important thing to say – I am learning. I am learning, I am someone who has been living under military dictatorship all my life. I was isolated from the Kurdish struggle. We were brought up to believe we were all Arabists and we were all Arabs, so the idea is very new to me personally as someone who is learning about my communities and different communities that are living in Syria. I do not see myself as an expert but what I can say is that what I’ve learned from the Kurdish struggle in Syria.

From early on in 2012 when the F.S.A. [Free Syrian Army] had started to gain control, there was a case, I don’t remember when, but in 2012 when the F.S.A. wanted to get into Kurdish areas and Kurdish dominated villages I remember a lot of people I respect on Facebook, they shared posts saying that this is very dangerous. When the Arab-backed revolutionaries would go into Kurdish dominated areas under the pretext of liberating it, that that would create a lot of tension in the long run. I think this is a very important sensitivity that a lot of the Arab revolutionaries do not reflect on. There’s a lot of hatred, a lot of racism.

I’m talking as someone within the movement. I’m not talking about, you know, a lot of diasporic conversation and debate about the Kurdish struggles is very much ethno-Orientalist, I would say. This is something I talked about in my article and Al Jazeera English, is how to be critical of social movements but at the same time but also careful of how this could lead into hatred towards the Kurds. For example, in an Arabist culture that the Assad regime had been advocating and the anti-Kurdish and anti-Indigenous practices that had been happening in Syria against the Kurds and against the Indigenous communities.

We’re talking also about Assyrians, we’re talking about a lot of Indigenous communities. This is an historical oppression of Kurds; not to use their language, not to use their culture, not to have their children to be named their Kurdish names. They had to be named Arabic names. They cannot own, they cannot work. All of these struggles that the Syrian Kurdish people have suffered long before Hafez [al-Assad] came. This is also important to say, it’s something that Arab opposition, Arab revolutionaries, don’t think about as much and I think we have a lot more work to learn about each other. This is revolutionary work when you dismantle a dictatorship and a military in a way that you would reflect on your own privileges as someone who is an Arab in Syria. Let’s just say that privilege is not really the right word here but more access than the Kurdish citizens or stateless, actually, people. That is very important revolutionary thinking that we don’t do as much.

Ani White: And what role have the various international states played in Syria?

Razan Ghazzawi: I call it the War on Syrians. It’s just a war on the people in Syria. In the partition, the conflict, the proxy-war – it’s a co-optation of the movement. It is how a popular movement, how a just movement, has turned into a war and how people who have been protesting with so much agency and so much energy to think about the future and to build a future, and how it is today facing the consequences of the war methods that Assad and their allies have started and chose.

Ani White: There are obviously so many states that have played various roles.

Razan Ghazzawi: That’s a big question really.

Derek Johnson: Yeah, that’s been the big problem and I think that’s played into a lot of the reactionary propaganda of writing off the revolution as just proxy wars and the U.S. or somebody just doing a regime change and that kind of talk.

What remains of the democratic revolution either in Syria or the diaspora?

Razan Ghazzawi: This is where I like to talk about revolutionary moments, not a revolution that has a time-frame of when it began and when it ended. I’m not really in favour of thinking about revolutions like that, I’m thinking about revolutions as a constant movement. It happens. Protesting in Damascus in 2011 in March or February, this is how protest was but now ten years later it could be something else, it does not mean it ended. People have changed forever. I have the very strong belief that people who protested once in front of scary powers, military and states, I do believe that people who have done that are always protesters.

As a PhD student I protested against my first supervisory team. I know a lot of students in my school did not do that. So when I hear the stories of students who are scared to change their supervisory teams because this is how academic work happens – you just have to accept, you just have to deal with it. But I did not. And because I protested once I will always protest, whether in academia or any other place or space. This is why I don’t think the revolution ended, I feel that people are creative. They have different forms of protest. This is true. I feel that today a lot of communities care about their children, they care about their relatives, they care about sending support and solidarity, caring about ‘let’s just help my friend to get to Europe’. All these forms are forms of protest.

This is why my PhD looks at nonbinary ways of protest. How can we think about protest away from the mainstream idea that a revolution only happens inside the country or only happens when there’s people marching in the street. I’m not saying that I am positive about the future, I’m definitely ten years older than I was before. I’m also very tired and I’m very burned out. I’m still healing from the past ten years. A lot of people are like that. I just feel like I’m a different person and I’m only talking about myself. And I am a stubborn person and I feel like a lot of people are like that. I do feel like people who are healing and they’re taking a break, they will make other revolutions in the next ten years.

Ani White: Yeah, it’s been good to see the recurrence of some of these uprisings, in Lebanon as well.

You’ve worked with Raed Fares of Radio Fresh in Idlib and he was assassinated by Al-Qaeda, and you had your own troubles with Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Northern Syria. Can you tell us about this?

Razan Ghazzawi: After my release and second detention I decided to leave Damascus because I was burned out from detention and I could not do it again. I was told that I was wanted for a third detention because of, as I was explaining to you, the work we were doing with Leila and Ana Uday in between in Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, specifically around medicine and aid. So after I decided to go to Kafr Nabl, in Idlib, Raed told me, ‘you can stay, you can do your work’, I decided to co-found the Karama Bus project, which is a psychosocial support project. It provides alternative education to IDP children – Internally Displaced children. In Idlib in the area at the time, we’re talking about – I went there in December 2012 – and I stayed there until the end of 2013. So we’re talking pretty much in the whole of the 2013 year. So the area at the time it was newly liberated, a lot of families had left their villages and they went to take shelter in schools. So there was a large number of families living in schools and a large number of children who did not go to schools and also they did not have access to play. So what we did is that we were a bus of four people and we used to go to six villages in Idlib. We had a projector, we screened cartoons, songs, we also played sport with the kids. We used to go there around sunset, so there was a little bit of sun there, we played sport and then we’d start preparing to screen some cartoons. We’d stay there like for like couple of hours and we’d go back home.

So that kind of movement everyday, everyday, everyday for a week. It kind of brought some headache from ISIS, which was towards the middle and the end of 2013. I started to get people coming over to say – I was not veiled at the time, I refused to wear the veil. And I used to get people coming to me, to my office, telling me that, ‘Sister, you need to put your veil on. It’s provoking people.’ And of course, when I say provoking people, we’re not talking about communities. People working with me, families and their mothers and their kids are all accepting. It’s just that ISIS and Al-Nusra, and also, I have to say, F.S.A. were not accepting of me at the time, of me being like a non-conforming female assigned at birth and who’s non-veiled. So, that was on the one hand, and the second hand, also Raed, he was very much vocal against extremists. He was very much an advocate of secularism. He used to talk about that and used to draw Kafr Nabl banners. So there was a lot of tension in the air – what we wanted and, at the same time, what was the power on the ground and how it’s changing due to militarisation.

What happened afterwards is really me and Raed were on a tour. Towards the end of 2013 in the US we’re trying to speak about Syria, speaking about Kafr Nabl, we’re talking about our work and then we hear that our colleagues in Kafr Nabl were raided by ISIS; were raided and they were kidnapped. Our toys, our tools were confiscated. Our laptops, our projector, that I was just telling you about, it was all confiscated by ISIS. Even the toys were smashed and broken, our offices were broken. This is why it wasn’t I’m able to go back to Kafr Nabl after this raid. This happened after several times of people coming to Raed and coming to my office to kind of warn us about our discourse. So that’s when Raed told me, ‘Razan, you should not come back unless you are veiled’. That’s what he said and that’s when I decided I’m not going to be coming back veiled. Raed survived the first assassination attempt. That was in early 2014. He remained underground, not even going to his place, not even seeing his kids and his wife. He remained underground for two years, escaping ever since that assassination attempt until he was killed with Hammoud in 2018 while I was doing my PhD fieldwork in Beirut, Lebanon, at the time.

Raed is someone who, I call him an intellectual and a community organiser. There’s so much to be written about Raed and people like Raed. I don’t think, even though a lot has been said about Raed I don’t think he’s been appreciated enough; what he did and what he done. He was a mayor, in my view. He was a Kafr Nabl mayor, he was an excellent mayor. He knew how to internationalise Kafr Nabl in a way to talk about the solidarity of the revolution. Kafr Nabl was one of the earliest villages to be in solidarity with the Kurdish struggle. I do not endorse all of their banners. Some of their banners, I think I disagree with. We want to we don’t want to romanticise each other’s work as well. I mean, I’m very critical of romanticisation and making people look perfect. We’re not perfect. We have a lot of issues we need to talk about. But for the most part, we did our best and Raed, he was a mentor that I still reflect on his leadership and his wisdom.

Ani White: Thanks for sharing that.

Are there strong connections between women’s groups in the Middle East and North Africa and are there any kind of internal tensions?

Razan Ghazzawi: Yeah, I like to think about women’s groups that they’re not homogenous groups. Definitely not every woman is a progressive woman, not every woman is a feminist. So, for example, I’m right now reading a book by Bouthaina Shaaban and she talks about Damascus diaries. She only talks about Assad and the peace process. So a state feminist, like Bouthaina Shaaban, or like, a right wing feminist, you know, this is also part of the women’s movement in the region. You have a lot of, also, right wing feminists in the uprising, of course. Woman groups are like huge groups, there are a lot of groups. In Syria, they are over, I don’t know, I cannot really count any more. I mean, the last time I checked, there was over 150 groups. So one of the groups I remember, their goal was to combat homosexuals in Idlib. So you see what I’m saying? There’s different movements or different dimensions or different struggles or different discourses really. I would say NGOisation of the movement is pretty much part of that. Definitely there are different not just internal conflicts. I would say it’s more political conflicts, more political, different positionalities. What kind of feminist or women’s movement that is going to advocate for the rights of the stateless, the rights of refugees, the rights of single moms, of IDPs, of sex workers? What kind of women’s movement or feminist movement is working on also talking about Palestine as an essential kind of struggle?

Derek Johnson: Yeah, it seems to seems to be that kind of complication everywhere.

Can you talk about the relationship between the Syrian revolution and other international struggles such as the Palestinian struggle?

Razan Ghazzawi: Yeah. For some reason, there’s a contested relationship between the Palestinian struggle and the Syrian revolution. I think the Syrian opposition make it difficult because they’re reactionary. A lot of the Syrian opposition and I would say some of the mainstream revolutionaries are a bit reactionary when it comes to Palestinian struggle because they see it as, ‘How has Assad co-opted anti imperialist struggle?’ He wanted to say that ‘I am the person who would support Palestine. So you have to be okay with everything I do so that we continue supporting Palestine, or be anti Zionism or anti imperialist’. And in doing so there’s no human rights whatsoever. Now the Syrian opposition, they came and said, ‘Okay, we don’t want to talk about Palestine anymore. We don’t want to talk about the centrality of Palestine. We don’t care about Palestine, we care about us. Syria first.’ Even some of them would want to talk to Israel. Actually some of them went to Israel. I will say some of the Syrian gays even went to Israel and some of the Syrian gays in Berlin they’re also practising normalisation with Israeli artists and performers.

So it’s really interesting that what Hafez al-Assad and Bashar did, they created a reactionary movement within the social movement towards Palestinian struggle. A lot of Syrians I feel are reactionary, kind of like really fed up with Palestinian struggle and I think this is what’s alarming. This is the work of intellectuals that we need to be very aware of what states push us to because of the way they co-opt struggles they push us to think about struggles the way that they do. That actually made a lot of, unfortunately, some of the Palestinians, let’s just say, [unknown] for example, in Chicago where I am right now. His discourse, for example, is very problematic towards the Syrian revolution. So because he very much believed the discourse of the Assad regime, he believed the state’s discourse. He does not want to listen to people’s discourse. So you have all of these kind of public figures in the Palestinian movement, unfortunately, who would believe what Assad is saying.

You have at the same time the Syrian opposition. They would be reactionary to what Assad has done and is doing. You would have these two not trying to push more of a collaborative solidarity discourse between the two struggles or trying to really obstruct that solidarity. So this is why the work of grass-roots was important here and the work of intellectuals, artists and activists is to kind of remember how our struggle is different. Well, it is different, because, you know, settler colonialism is different from Assad, right? I mean, we’re not to say we’re the same. But at the same time, because we live different struggles, because we have different oppressions it is important that we have this solidarity. I think that also this is something to work on, hopefully, in the future.

Derek Johnson: So what is to be done?

Razan Ghazzawi: Personally speaking I’m looking at being a teacher. I feel like I have gained so much insight and I have had been through experiences and met so many amazing people the past ten years. I’ve learned so much and I’ve made so many mistakes that I’m reflecting on. I’m learning so much about self-care and learning so much about burnout, and my limitations and my capabilities, and also self-love. I have to thank a lot of the Black feminists who have been writing about these issues a long, long time ago. So personally I would say, reading about other people’s struggle, other people’s work so that we learn how to communicate our struggle. That’s a lot of work and we need to be more creative, I feel, not just to continue to produce the same old.

I feel like there’s a lot of repetition happening, especially now with the Ten Years Anniversary. We’re going to keep on continuing romanticisation, continuing celebrating the heroics of our uprising and I’m really at the point of, that’s really nice but let’s just talk mistakes now. Let’s just talk what can be done. How can we think about the kids who have not experienced anything but camps so far? We have so much youth that are really struggling with paperwork they’re not even able to settle down, they’re not able to continue their studies. I’m really worried about the children and the youth of the region in Syria, in Yemen, in Palestine, in Lebanon.

I think about them a lot. I think this is one of the reasons why I want to be a teacher and why I’m doing my PhD is because I wanted to bring all of this insight to the academy. Academy has been learning, slowly, about the struggle but they’re a bit stuck with their buzz words. You know, ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘counter-insurgency’. I’m just thinking about how to create different curriculums, how to create different knowledge production that is very much closer to communities. To also give them tools to communicate their own struggles and how to support their work, if that makes sense?

Ani White: Yeah, absolutely – building those connections.

Thanks for coming on the show and sharing where you’re at with everything.

Razan Ghazzawi: Thank you so much for having me. I hope I made sense! I felt like some of the stuff I said maybe did not make sense.

Derek Johnson: No, it made a lot of sense. Thank you.

Ani White: Yeah, I understand we’re in the process of figuring things out and it was good to hear where you’re at with that.

Razan Ghazzawi: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Ani White: Thanks.

As always, listeners, if you found this useful please donate to our Patreon at http://www.patreon.com/jetpack1917 also please drop a review at Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening.

Derek Johnson: Solidarity! And we’ll see you, in the future.

1 All the above recommended resources are linked at tinyurl.com/syria-blog

Joseph Daher (2020): “The struggling popular classes should remain our lodestar”

Transcript of an episode originally broadcast by Where’s My Jetpack podcast, on March 15th 2020. From the Fightback magazine issue Syrian Voices – please subscribe here.

Audio: Syrian revolutionary dabke.1

Ani White: That was a Syrian revolutionary dabke2 from 2011, a time when freedom seemed nearer. The dabke had lyrics calling for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad who nine years later is still holding power through brutality. I’m personally reminded of rallies outside the Russian embassy in Wellington where young Syrian men took over the mic and performed this dabke along with various chants, including the slogan ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam or the people want the fall of the regime, a chant that crossed all borders during the Arab Spring.

Kia ora, comrades, and welcome to Where’s My Jetpack?, a politics and pop culture podcast with sci-fi and socialist leanings. I’m Ani White.

Derek Johnson: And I’m Derek Johnson.

Ani White: This month, on March 15th, the 9th anniversary of the Syrian Revolution we’re talking to Joseph Daher, a Swiss-Syrian socialist activist, academic, and founder of the blog Syria Freedom Forever. Joseph is part of the Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria Project at the European University Institute, Florence in Italy. He’s the author of Hezbollah: The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God which was released in 2016 by Pluto Press, and Syria After the Uprisings: The Political Economy of State Resilience released in 2019 by Pluto Press and Haymarket.

Welcome to the show Joseph.

Joseph Daher: Thank you for the invitation.

Ani White: Thank you for coming on.

You’re involved in the recently formed Alliance of Middle East and North African (MENA) Socialists. Can you describe how this came together and the work the group’s done so far?

Joseph Daher: Well, initially we started Frieda Afary and I, and I would like to salute Frieda for her work. She’s been the main architect and motor in the alliance, in her daily work to push forward this group of people. Initially, it was only gathering people from Iran and Syria, and after we enlarged it to various different countries of the Middle East and North Africa. The objective with this group is to establish a formal network of socialist progressives who wanted to give a particular international progressive analysis and outlook on the region, through statements, articles, and other means such as you may have seen, debates on Facebook, conferences on Facebook. I’ve tried to put people in contact. What is really important for us is exchange between socialists and progressives of the region and the diaspora in exile, and with other internationalists.

We give also particular attention to, not only issues of exploitation, against the capitalist state, but also against oppression regarding women’s rights, minorities’ rights, and how we link it to the particular political and economic system we live in. We’ve organised various conferences live-streamed. The latest one being the feminist dialogue between Iranian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Lebanese, Chilean women.

So we’re a small network but trying to do what we can to give a particular internationalist and progressive understanding of the region.

Derek Johnson: Alright, I’ve listened to one of the live-streams. I was watching that. There was a lot of people on that! That was pretty well coordinated.

Joseph Daher: Indeed.

Derek Johnson: What are the main things everyone needs to know about the Syrian Revolution?

Joseph Daher: Well I think one of the most important things people should know about the Syrian Revolutionary process, is to remember that it started in the framework of the other general uprisings in Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, etc, with the same fundamental objective roots. Meaning the absence of democracy, the absence of social justice with blockades of the productive economic forces, and a willingness also for popular sovereignty against their despots but also against all kind of foreign interventions, whether regional or international.

Another very important aspect is the strength and the deepness of the popular movement in Syria, and especially in the two first years of the uprising. Remembering the coordination committees, the local councils, the youth organisations that came out, the various strikes that occurred on different occasions, civil actions, there were definitely attempts of a situation of double-power, meaning that the state had disappeared from large areas and people were self-organising. I think this is really important to remember, especially now when we’ve only been hearing about Syria through war, conflict, extremism, etc.

Derek Johnson: What are the most dangerous myths circulating about the Syrian Revolution?

Joseph Daher: What’s interesting when we look at the different myths circulating about the Syrian Revolution it’s always, whether directly or indirectly, a vision from above. A vision from above meaning that people see not what is happening from below, from the dynamics of the popular uprising, people self-organising but, for example, portraying the Syrian Revolution as a conspiracy. Foreign powers controlling protesters, they’re pushing them to go in the streets and controlling the movement. This has been one of the most dangerous myths in terms of conspiracy.

Also very much linked, most of the time, to the geopolitical view of war, only seeing various regional and international powers as struggling against each other. One of the most famous examples of this vision of saying ‘it’s a geopolitical war only’ is saying that it’s an issue of oil, gas, and petrol that started the war – opposition between these various regional and international actors.

Similarly, I think it’s very dangerous to portray the Syrian Revolution as a sectarian war from its beginning, and only portraying this uprising as opposing Sunni majority against an Alawi minority. Or portraying everything that is occurring in Syria according to a kind of Orientalist lens that understands people of the region through their religion or ethnicity.

And finally, it’s less dangerous than the others, but it’s still a bit limiting of the prospect of understanding Syria, is limiting understanding to a democratic struggle. And this is not particular to Syria but throughout the Middle East, especially among liberals throughout various parts of the world, seeing these popular uprisings as only a way to achieve parliamentary democracy. While I think it was much more than this, much deeper. It was not only democratic issues but it was also socioeconomic issues and a protest against the decades of neoliberal policies being implemented in Syria, and in the region more generally speaking.

Ani White: Could you talk about how the situation became armed, because I know along with the myths that circulate there’s also a lot of accusatory accounts of basically why the rebels became armed, so could you maybe talk about how that situation developed?

Joseph Daher: Indeed, we should not forget the militarisation of the Syrian uprising which became total, I would say, two years after its beginning but started in nearly June 2011. It started first as a way to defend protesters against the violent attacks of the security services and sections of the army. So people started to organise on a neighbourhood level; village, city, to defend the protesters and allow them to continue the protests. The composition of the people that took arms – there were a section of the people who took arms that had defected from the army but actually, the vast majority of people were civilians that took arms. As we always say, it was forced upon the Syrians to defend themselves, to take up arms. So the dynamics were very much from below, at the beginning with coordination with civilian activists, the civilian protest movement trying to have both hands. On one side maintaining a strong civilian protest movement, while being able to defend itself against the violent attack of regime forces. But throughout time these dynamics from below progressively unfortunately disappeared and the civilian protest movement lost its power, its strength, especially when the Syrian uprising turned completely into a military battle, I would say after 2013 / 2014, limiting the resistance against the regime mostly or dominated, at least, by military struggles. This is without forgetting as well the role played by foreign forces and the Assad regime in strengthening, through their different ways, but leading to the same result; to the strengthening of Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist forces.

The regime, for example, liberated from its prison jihadists and Salafists at the beginning of the uprising – while it was continuously imprisoning, repressing and killing democrats, progressives, putting them in prison, and letting them develop. And the regime continuously for most of the uprising concentrated on democratic forces of the Free Syrian Army while letting develop the Islamic fundamentalist forces. At the same time, foreign countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar supported mostly reactionary armed forces, turning them into proxies or, as well, Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist movements that were opposed to the initial objectives of the uprisings, just as the regime. This is why they turned their arms very often against civilian activists of the protest movement, against local councils and also attacked other groups of the Free Syrian Army.

Ani White: Can you tell us about the contemporary situation in Syria, particularly what’s happening in Idlib?

Joseph Daher: So we can see a new forced displacement of nearly a million people in Idlib since the beginning of the military offensive lead by the Syrian armed forces, assisted by Russian bombardments and also various militias controlled by Iran. So as I mentioned, more than 7 million people have been forced to leave their homes with this military offensive. The Syrian regime has reached the symbolic and strategic city of Saraqib. Saraqib was a city that was known for its democratic civilian protest movement that opposed the regime initially and later when Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist forces entered they also opposed them. It was a very active and vivid city of democratic aspirations and it’s also very strategic in terms of locations because it allowed the regime to access several main highways that connected Aleppo to Damascus. So the situation in Idlib is absolutely catastrophic, and this is without forgetting that this region has been suffering for the past few years of bombardments of the regime and Russian airforces targeting civilians, hospitals, medical institutions and other civilian institutions with catastrophic consequences.

I would like to remind people who perhaps didn’t know, but Idlib was between having a population of 2.5 to three million people with half of them already being internally displaced, while Turkish borders are still closed and people cannot leave. So there are refugee camps close to the border and people live in horrific conditions. This is the situation in Idlib and it’s a catastrophic humanitarian situation in all aspects.

Otherwise, when we speak about the country, the country has suffered vast damage and widespread destruction because of the Damascus war machine, backed by its allies Russia and Iran. Of course, we shouldn’t forget other foreign actors contributed to the displacement of the population and destruction in the country, particularly the military interventions of the US, Turkey and to a lesser extent the armed opposition forces such as the Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist forces.

Today, six million Syrians are IDPs – Internally Displaced in the country. More than nearly the same amount of people are refugees outside of the country, so more than half of the population in Syria is forcefully displaced. Around 90% of the population live under the poverty line, while 11 million people are in need of humanitarian aid inside the country. The cost of reconstruction is estimated at around 400 billion US dollars. So, as you can see the situation in Syria is catastrophic. People are very much suffering, the socioeconomic situation is getting worse with the depreciation of the Syrian pound, high inflation, while you have a small minority around Bashar al-Assad and this elite that made huge fortunes out of the war and their contacts with the regime. Nothing to be happy about currently regarding the situation in Syria, unfortunately, the catastrophe is continuing.

Ani White: It has been inspiring to see the revival of uprisings elsewhere in the region like in Lebanon. Do you think this could in any way affect the prospects in Syria?

Joseph Daher: Indeed it is very inspiring to see the massive and deep protest movement in Lebanon as well as in Iraq and Tunis, the protest movement in Sudan and Algeria, remembering people that started in 2010 – 2011. It’s still continuing. It’s a long revolutionary process with ups and downs. At the end of 2018, we thought we were really in a period of deep counter-revolution, which we are still, but these movements gave us hope. Who would have thought that in the beginning of 2019 two dictators that had been in power for more than 30 years would be overthrown, Omar al-Bashir in Sudan and Bouteflika in Algeria? So this is very important, while in Lebanon and Iraq, two neighbouring countries to Syria, is also a key aspect in this issue and especially in your question.

It will have and it already has consequences in Syria. What we can say is that the regime has survived and will survive for the short and midterm, especially with the assistance of Moscow and Tehran but its resilience does not mean the end of its contradictions or of any feeling of dissent in the country, especially in areas that were formerly held by opposition forces. Despite engaging in repression the regime still faces challenges. These challenges are very big challenges for the regime and they are the reasons that lead to the uprisings in the first place – absence of democracy even deepened socioeconomic injustice inequalities. But this does not mean that it translates into political opportunities for the opposition and especially the problem is that no viable organised opposition has appeared, especially today. The failure of the opposition in exile and armed opposition groups have left. Many people who had sympathised with the uprising are feeling frustrated and bitter. The absence of a structured independent democratic inclusive social Syrian opposition which would appeal to the popular classes and social activists has made it difficult for various sectors of the population to unite and challenge the regime on a national scale. For example, the latest demonstrations in the region of Suwayda are against the economic situation and difficult living conditions in the country, which is an often repeated criticism in many other areas of the country, even in the so-called loyalist areas. Also, the continued protests and armed clashes in the region of Daraa against regime forces demonstrate this situation in many ways, that you have regional protests without coordination between them.

So what I would say to this question, yes it gives us hope – the struggle in Lebanon and Iraq, especially challenging sectarianism and neoliberalism – but as well without the construction of this political alternative that is appealing, that is social, secular, and opposing both the regime and Islamic fundamentalist forces, it will be hard to transform these political opportunities into something on a national scale opposing the regime, I would say.

Derek Johnson: How would you describe the political economy of the Syrian regime prior to the revolution and the role that this played in fostering it?

Joseph Daher: I would say that the acceleration of neoliberal policies with the arrival of Bashar al-Assad in 2000 had deep consequences on the Syrian social-economic situation. Obviously, you had, with Hafez al-Assad coming to power in 1970, he opposed basically the most radical of the socio-economic policies of the, if you want, the left-wing of the Ba’aths between ’66 and ’70. He actually imprisoned the president of Syria, who’s a left-wing Ba’athist and he started the slow, what we called, ‘infitah’ – opening – which was an opening in economic terms. But this opening was quite slow, in 30 years. It was mostly a state-led capitalist regime on the half of Assad with increasing liberalisation of the economy, first following the fiscal crisis of the ’80s with diminishing social-economic assistance and provision to the poorer classes and popular class. In ’91, first opening with a particular law of an investment but it was really under Bashar al-Assad that you had a rapidly and deepening implementation of neoliberal policies with, sometimes, the assistance of the IMF that welcomed the policies of Bashar al-Assad. So it was privatisation of vast sectors of the economy, pushing forward what we called the non-productive sectors of the economy, especially banking, finance, luxurious real estate, tourism, leisure activities etc. against more productive sectors of the economy which were agriculture and manufacturing that suffered throughout the 2000s. And so their role diminished in the Syrian economy so you had increasing social-economic inequalities in Syria. Prior to the uprising more than 30% of the people in Syria were living under the poverty line, while just 30% of others were living just above or at the limit. So it meant that nearly 60% of people living under or close to the poverty line, while people close to Bashar al-Assad, what I call crony capitalists, meaning that they benefited from their contacts to the centres of power to accumulate capital made huge fortunes in Syria. So we had more and more difference also between the centres of cities such as Damascus and Aleppo with its more popular surrounding neighbourhoods. If you see the geography of the uprising, we can see that the popular neighbourhoods of large cities such as Damascus, Aleppo and Homs had a very important role in the uprising, such as also mid-size cities that suffered increasing lack of social services from the state in the past two or three decades.

The economy, just as other states of the region, was characterised by deepening neoliberal policies and with forms of economic opening that benefited the ruling strata, the highest strata of the society while also unemployment was also between 20 and 30%. Graduate unemployment was above this. It was an economy at the benefit of a small minority of people around Bashar al-Assad against the vast majority of the people of Syria.

Ani White: Your book is called The Political Economy of State Resilience, so can you talk about that, how has the state functioned in terms of its political economy when responding to the revolution?

Joseph Daher: One of the first things Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar al-Assad, did when he came to power in 1970 was to start the building of a very strong neopatrimonial state where the centres of power and where most of decision making power was in its hands; a very strong presidential, monarchical state. And through different means and by fostering primordial identity he divided the Syrian people. He built a very close, surrounding him, a group of military men, militias and the army, that were from very close kinship, taking also very much a sectarian colour while aligning himself as well with sectors of the bourgeoisie such as in Damascus. This is what I was explaining, it’s economic opening while also having different links to certain petit-bourgeois and some popular classes through corporatist organisations such as the General Federation of Trade Unions or the Peasant Association. Through the three decades he built this neopatrimonial power which completely transferred into a patrimonial power with the arrival of Bashar al-Assad, who in many ways even more concentrated the power of the state. In the hands of a few people, him and his close associates, being the family or business partners, etc while weakening also the links of the regime with sectors of the society which had historically been linked to the regime and the Ba’athists especially peasants, petit-bourgeois sectors of the society, more popular classes through corporatist organisations, such as I mentioned, the General Federation Trade Union or the Peasant Association, which of course were not instruments of emancipation of the workers and peasants. They were instruments of co-optation, control and repression but were still able, to some extent, until the 2000s, to give some forms of redistribution even though it was diminishing increasingly at the end of the ’90s. You had a concentration through this complete transformation into a patrimonial power, also reinforcing the primordial identities of Syrians through various policies, instrumentalising sectarian ethnic differences as well, according to region. This is how we have to understand the repression of the Assad regime during the uprising, through its nature it should not be separated. It used different ways to repress through different instruments according to the region, sometimes through sectarian differences, ethnic differences, trying to push people against each other notably by committing crimes in mixed sectarian regions to push to a complete civil war, to make the sectarian appeal the most important.

The resilience of the regime came because of its patrimonial nature meaning also that it wasn’t like the situation in Egypt or in Tunis, that you could cut off the head and let the regime continue. The thing is, in Syria it’s much more difficult, such as actually the vast majority is of the countries of the MENA region, Middle East and North Africa, where the centres of power completely concentrated. The political power being in the hand of Bashar al-Assad before the economic power but now it’s a bit more debatable. Rami Makhlouf, who was the cousin of Bashar al-Assad, the military power was in the hands of the brother of Bashar al-Assad, being Maher al-Assad and other collaborators but really the centres of power were completely concentrated and not separated. And in addition to this – and I think this is the most important reason why the regime was able to sustain – was intervention of foreign forces, especially Iran and Russia, which helped the regime sustain politically, economically and militarily. These were the two main reasons why the regime was able to survive until today although, as I mentioned before, with huge contradictions, with huge challenges. This does not mean that it’s the end of this story. But without providing a political alternative that is inclusive, social, secular, it will be hard for these contradictions of the regime to seek to accumulate, within Syria and not only outside, forms of organisation, collaboration, to challenge once more in the future, hopefully, this regime.

Derek Johnson: Can you further discuss the role of these different powers like Russia, Turkey and the US?

Joseph Daher: Well, something must be clear, that all of them played a very negative role in Syria but let’s start with the allies of the regime, Russia and Iran. Both entered on the side of the regime for geopolitical reasons mainly. Iran, very early on it intervened mainly through the Pasdaran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, from nearly the beginning of the uprising, providing first military advice but increasingly sending thousands of Iranian individuals. Plus sending also militias, Afghan militias and Pakistani militias to combat against the different opposition armed forces while training and funding sectarian militias in Syria, whether being foreign or locally based. For Iran the most important thing was to maintain the route open basically between Tehran, Syria and Lebanon. The regime had been playing a very important role in Iran, a strategy in the region of allowing the weapons transfer to Hezbollah in Lebanon. So it was mostly for geopolitical concentration.

Russia also intervened to save one of its main allies it had in the Middle East that the time. This occurred also after Libya that was also a state with which Russia had collaboration and contracts. So Russia also wanted to maintain also an ally in the region, it was a geopolitical ally – Syria – it has been for decades. Syria used to be a big purchaser of weapons in Russia. So these two players played, as I said, a fundamental role in the regime surviving the uprising. Russian massive intervention from 2015 was definitely the game changer. The main considerations were geopolitical, but today they also want to benefit from the spoils of war and we’ve seen increasingly, especially Russia, through various private companies linked to President Putin, taking control of natural resources in Syria, or taking management of key installations such as the port of Tartus for Russia. Iran is a bit less benefiting from the spoils of war until now, especially because it’s facing increasing internal opposition, and because of financial difficulties whether being sanctions or of its own economic policies.

When it comes to the so-called Allies of the Syrian Revolution or the Friends of the Syrian Revolution, as it was presented, as I always say, ‘if you have friends like this leave them now, you can’t have worse’. But Saudi Arabi, Turkey and Qatar played a destructive role among the opposition by supporting the most reactionary opportunist elements of it. But it’s important to remember also that prior to the revolution these actors were close allies or at least had close relations with the regime. Turkey and Syria had very good relations with free trade agreements. Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad spending vacations together, while Gulf monarchies were very important or the most important investors in Syria. Especially Qatar and Syria shared a very good relationship. And in the first six months of the uprising these states tried, actually, to find a solution to maintain this regime. They did not want to see it overthrown so they sought superficial reforms in Syria but Bashar al-Assad refused, while Turkey and Qatar wanted to be included in a so-called United National Government, sectors of the Muslim Brotherhood which are allies of Turkey and Qatar. As the uprising was pursued and continued, these actors saw less and less ability to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and have a friendly regime in Syria, and did not want to overthrow the regime but to change Bashar al-Assad, their objective changed, especially following Russia’s intervention in Syria. For now Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf monarchies, the clear thing is that they don’t want to see the influence of Iran to continue to grow in Syria. Mohammed bin Salman has said, ‘we don’t have any problem with Bashar al-Assad, our problem is that he doesn’t become an Iranian puppet.’

While Turkey’s main issue is the Kurdish issue in Syria and the fact that the PYD, which is the sister branch of the PKK, has been able to establish areas over which it has control. Therefore Turkish effort until today has concentrated on trying to end the influence of the PYD in Syria, leading to the occupation of Afrin with democratic changes, more than 150,000 forcefully displaced by Turkish and proxy forces of Turkey, very often Syrian Islamic fundamentalist militias committing daily crimes. They play the role of furthering the sectarianism of various actors of the opposition, or towards ethnic differences and tensions between Arabs and Kurds. And Gulf monarchies furthering, by their television and media, a sectarian understanding of the regime, like Sunnis opposing minorities, especially the Alawis.

When it comes to the US, there’s been a lot of myths about the US’s role in Syria. First of all, we should remember that in the first weeks of the revolution Hillary Clinton declared – at the time she was US Secretary of State – that Bashar al-Assad was a reformist and wasn’t like his father, so time should be given to him to prove that he could reform, control the situation. This situation changed progressively, Barack Obama asked for the departure of Bashar al-Assad but without joining any kind of practical policy to lead to this objective. On the opposite, the main lesson that the US had from Iraq is that they don’t want to change a regime, they only want to have superficial changes. They actually also prevented the sending and transfer of particular weapons to the Syrian opposition armed forces, especially when it comes to weapons that could have targeted planes and air forces. It could have helped the Syrian armed opposition, so it prevented it. The US wanted a solution in Syria with minimal changes.

And actually with the advent of the so-called Islamic state (ISIS), this changed completely the focus of the US towards ISIS-first policy. Concentrating all its forces to putting an end to the so-called Islamic state and this is where the collaboration with the Syrian democratic forces lead by the PYD started. So the US never wanted at any time to overthrow the Syrian regime, quite the opposite. Today, even though Trump has some difference with Obama, it is maintaining its main position of wanting minimum change in Syria. While the only difference might be the targeting, by Trump, of Iranian influence in Syria and this is why it is supporting very much and pushing because it has the power to intervene in Syria. Israeli strikes in Syria targeting Hezbollah and Iranian forces or supported forces. But all these actors played, in many ways, a counter-revolutionary role in Syria and never supported the aspirations of the Syrian popular classes for democracy, social justice and equality, because a democratic Syria would be a threat to the authoritarian regimes of the region and would be a threat to Israel as well. I remember very well the foreign minister Walid al-Moallem at the beginning of the uprisings in the region saying, ‘the biggest threat after Iran is a democratic region in the Middle East and North Africa’. He understood very well that if there’s more democratic aspiration and more democratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa they would put more pressure on Israel again and support the Palestinian liberation movement, the aspiration of the Palestinian people, while all these regimes in the region have used the Palestinian issue, or have actually repressed it or want to put an end to it.

Derek Johnson: It makes me really smack my head into my hands that so many people still think the US is trying to carry out regime change in Syria.

What do you say to the refrain on sections of the left that ‘the main enemy is at home’ so we should not oppose the Syrian regime?

Joseph Daher: Yeah actually it’s really a shame, and it’s not looking at what happened regarding US imperial policy since 2003. Obviously at the beginning of the 2000s mostly, and in the 90s we had a mostly unipolar moment, with the end of the USSR, not saying that it was a model obviously to follow, on the opposite it was a quite autocratic regime, but meaning the US was its heyday in the 90s. But following the British-American invasion of Iraq it was the beginning of, if you want, a unipolar moment for the US, in many ways. Obviously the US remains the main imperialist, military and economic power in the world, but it’s not alone and it cannot act in the same way as before.

International actors have taken more importance, such as Russia, China, but also regional actors such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and obviously Israel. And the second weakening, if you want, after the defeat of the US in Iraq was the economic financial crash of 2008, and finally the uprisings in the Middle East in North Africa, that first started by overthrowing two dictators that were closely aligned to the US. All these uprisings were shaking to the US but also other regional actors.

This said, I think by using the citation of Karl Liebknecht, a very important German communist, ‘the main enemy is at home’ and turning it to say, we only need to focus only on our ruling class is completely not understanding his famous citation. When he said ‘the main enemy is at home’, which is a statement of condemnation of imperialist aggression against Russia, led by his native state of Austria-Germany, many have decontextualised it, the views of Liebknecht. Liebknecht’s perspective, fighting against the enemy at home did not mean ignoring foreign regimes repressing their own people, or failing to show solidarity with the oppressed, indeed Liebknecht believed we must oppose our own ruling class’s push for war, by cooperating with the proletariat of other countries, who struggle against their own imperialists.

So it does not mean erasing the Syrian people, on the opposite, it’s putting them forward in your own struggle. We as leftists must support revolutionary people’s struggles for struggles for self-emancipation. Again, I would like to – and this the same text, where he said ‘the main enemy is at home from Liebknecht – he said: “Ally yourselves to the international class struggle against the conspiracies of secret diplomacy, against imperialism, against war, for peace within the socialist spirit. When you read this, which actually reflects a lot of the current situation in Syria – “conspiracies of secret diplomacy, against war, against imperialism, for peace within the socialist spirit” – in this perspective, none of these aspects should be excluded from our struggle to build a progressive, leftist if you want, platform for the Syrian Revolution, but also for all the revolutions occurring, all the protest movements and uprisings.

It’s very important that in the face, especially in this last few months, of increasing geopolitical tensions, instrumentalised by imperialist powers such as the US or Russia, or regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others, the struggling popular classes should remain our lodestar for progressives and internationalists around the world. Our main identity as leftists, I believe, is to be in solidarity with people struggling for freedom and emancipation. And therefore not to decontextualise, answering your question, this sentence ‘the main enemy is at home’, and erasing people in struggle.

Derek Johnson: You got the next one, Ani?

Ani White: Yes, thank you. We’re firmly in agreement. What’s the role of sectarianism in the conflict, and how do you respond to those who equate the rebels with ISIS?

Joseph Daher: So, regarding sectarianism in the conflict, sectarianism in the region has been used by the ruling strata of society, ruling classes, as an instrument to divide popular classes, as an instrument for repression, as an instrument of co-optation and control. It’s a way for ruling classes, if you want, to divert class struggle, to prevent people coming out together in solidarity across sectarian differences. And this is why what we are witnessing today in Lebanon and Syria, both countries that have suffered huge sectarian tensions and crimes in the past few decades, coming out together saying ‘We Are One’ is very important in this aspect.

And therefore the regime has not been different, it has used, as I explained before, I mentioned this sectarianism and, since Hafez-al Assad came to power in 1970, to divide the people, to scare sectors of the society, to blame others. But, saying this, it does not mean per se that the regime is Alawi, no the regime has not served the interests of the Alawi popular classes. You find, in the ruling strata in Syria various sectarian differences… that band together because of loyalty, because of nepotism, clientelism and other forms of networks. And, again sectarianism has been used throughout the region by different regimes, to divide the people, repress, and put an end to popular movements.

At the same time, we cannot deny that also sectors of the opposition in Syria, especially Islamic fundamentalists and jihadist forces, but not only, even some liberal sectors have used sectarianism because of the lack to provide an inclusive and social and political [inaudible], so appealing to the sectarian identities of the people. But, it played also a catastrophic role, the sectarianism of these sectors of the opposition, especially Islamic and jihadist forces, that scare not only as we often say, religious minorities in Syria, but also large sectors of the society, Sunnis or people who do not want to live in a reactionary Islamic state.

And their behaviour was also opposed in what we used to call the liberated areas, by the popular classes. And this answers, basically your second question, by saying the revolutionary forces are the same as ISIS, is not knowing the history of the Syrian uprising. Actually, the first people, even before the Syrian Democratic Forces led by the PYD, to oppose ISIS were Syrian-Arab popular classes, with the collaboration also of the Syrian-Kurdish popular classes, not only in Aleppo and various areas of the Northeast in the end of 2013, beginning of 2014, there were vast protest movements against ISIS, because of opposing their authoritarian and reactionary behaviour, but the opposition have been seen [inaudible].

And this is what I was saying, that the most important thing to not forget about the Syrian uprising, it was how it drew together vast sectors of the Syrian society that not necessarily used to meet to talk to each other, in the first two years of the Syrian uprising up to now, but in the civilian protest movement it was very, very strong, you had all the sectors of the society present. Arab, Kurds, Assyrian, Turkmen, Armenian etc, all the various sectarian differences, Sunnis, Alawis, Christian, Druze, Shia etc, and the main struggle is the Syrian people are one united, we are against sectarianism, having also social appeals, you had social solidarity between cities such as Salamiyah, which is majority-inhabited by Ismailis, with Hama, which is majority-inhabited by Sunnis. They broke the siege on Hama at the beginning of the uprising.

The Coordination Committees had democratic aspirations, the Local Councils, obviously they had limitations when it came to democratic issues, women’s rights issues, minority issues, but some of them were still able to provide a democratic alternative to the regime, and to the Islamic fundamentalist forces. And people continued to oppose forces such as ISIS, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaysh al-Islam, all the Salafist forces so no, the vast majority of the uprising especially in its first years, was democratic with equality and social objectives as well. And you had many figures and personalities, groups I could cite that played a very important role in the civilian and protest movement, while Islamic fundamentalist forces and ISIS did not play this role in these Coordination Committees and Local Councils. On the opposite they established their own Local Councils to oppose the democratic actors.

And again, it was the Syrian Revolution popular classes, with the Arabs and Kurds that opposed first these reactionary actors that are a second wind of the counter-revolution. No, no, so definitely the accusation is not true, that ISIS and revolutionary forces, democratic forces are the same, quite the opposite.

Ani White: Yeah. I think it’s worth noting, a lot of people nowadays strangely imply that ISIS played a role from the start, when they didn’t get involved until around 2014. And as you said we’ve seen clashes, even through to today, so in Idlib from what I understand you’ve seen clashes where basically, revolutionary protestors would try and keep HTS [Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham] out of their rallies, and you had Radio Fresh which was a revolutionary radio station, which was attacked by Islamist forces for having women hosting, and obviously the founder was assassinated, so those tensions are ongoing, where in the rebel regions you still have these democratic forces that will challenge the Islamists. So absolutely, I agree.

Another question, you mentioned the Community Councils [sic], can you talk about those? We understand Omar Aziz, an anarchist played a role in popularising the Community Councils [sic], can you talk about them?

Joseph Daher: Yeah, Local Councils. So the Local Councils were actually started even prior to Omar Aziz writing his piece, on the necessity to provide a political-social alternative to the state, and state institutions, which was a very famous text, I think it was end of 2011, beginning of 2012. He was an inspiration obviously for the foundation especially of Local Councils in {inaudible], which was a Damascus movement, in Duma, and other areas. But it started in areas where the regime where people disappeared, so people had to self-organise, and this is how Local Councils started to appear, and to be established in areas where the regime forces and authority had disappeared, to manage the society, the local population, provide institutions. And this started to appear end of 2011, beginning of 2012.

Obviously, as I mentioned before, not all of them were democratic. At least 50% or a bit more, throughout the time, were designated by Arab forces, or were established through consensus of local families, local tribes, or personalities of the cities, but you did have democratic experiences. As I said, there were lack of women, there were lack of religious minorities in some cases, some other issues, but they did at one point, provide this alternative, and what I call this attempt of a situation of dual power, meaning that this is one of the main characteristics of a revolutionary socialist situation, where you have an alternative political power present [to] the state. This aspect of Local Councils were a very interesting experience, and one of the things we should remember of the Syrian uprising, or revolutionary process is this energy for self-organising despite difficulties, despite the threats coming from different sides, whether from the regime, or from Islamic fundamentalist forces, jihadist forces, which very often sought to establish their own Local Councils.

So it was really important. And we should also mention it because it also has been interesting institutions in what we call Rojava also, self-administration, although it had also some authoritarian aspects on many occasions, it was mostly controlled by the PYD but it did also have very positive characteristics, such as the secularisation of laws and institutions, women’s participation and inclusion, and religious minorities also’s inclusion, and some social aspects, even though this was not at the forefront.

Ani White: Yep, thanks. And it does seem like the Rojava councils, for some reason there’s been a lot more attention to them than the councils in Syria.

But what role has the Syrian diaspora played since the crackdown?

Joseph Daher: Well obviously, the Syrian diaspora played a role. Obviously we have to say that is not homogeneous, it has political differences. I mean not only that you have people that are pro-regime, some people are neutral, and you have various differences among the opposition. People being supportive of conservative forces, some other being more liberal forces, some have supported various Syrian opposition forces in exile, while others (such as me) tried to support progressive actors, progressive groups within Syria.

A lot of the diaspora played an important role when it came to medical assistance, military assistance. Syrians have established lots of numbers of NGOs, of different types of organisations to come and help Syrians, you also saw various forms of organisation of political level outside as well, or helping newspapers within the country, dozens of newspapers were established, even more than 50 newspapers were established at the beginning of the uprising in Syria. Whereas before it was only… many newspapers controlled by the state, or by figures of the state.

Syrian diaspora also played a role in trying to control in trying to control the Syrian issue on the agenda of various countries, providing different discourse. Also very often now, what we see is they’re playing an important role, [Syrians] living in exile, part of the diaspora, when it comes to making sure the regime’s human rights violations, trying to push forward these cases in various international or local tribunals. So, [members of the Syrian diaspora] have had different roles, and it’s not homogeneous, it has its differences. Yeah.

Ani White: So the Turkish regime is now saying that Syrian refugees are able to return to their homes. What’s your take on this development?

Joseph Daher: Well the Turkish regime and the Lebanese regime also have been trying to push refugees to go back to Syria, forcefully more often. And both countries putting their blame for their socio-economic negative situation on Syrian refugees. This is obviously not true. For the vast majority of Syrian refugees, they are not able to go back to their homes, because the war is continuing, or because the economic crisis in Syria is very hard, or because of security issues, very often you need particular permission of the security services, you need to pay various offices to reach your home, your home might have been destroyed, you’re also under the threat of entering military conscription, for a man between 18 and 22 years old.

Only a small amount of Syrian refugees have come back until now, a very small amount, and this should be said. So no, the situation is definitely not allowing a safe and secure return of the vast majority of Syrian refugees for the reasons I mentioned, whether the threats of being arrested, imprisoned, being killed, there have been situations of refugees coming back to Syria and being killed or arrested, being forced to go serve in the military. So, what we witnessed a bit is some IDPs [Internally Displaced People] or, mostly refugees coming back are elderly people, or women with their children, and even these are a very small amount… so no no, the situation is not safe for people to come back to Syria.

Derek Johnson: Is the plan still being suggested by other countries, and by Syria and Russia and Turkey, to have camps within Syria, that they then send Syrian refugees back to Syria, and then they hold them in the camps, so they can figure out who’s loyal, and then like you said who to conscript, etc?

Joseph Daher: For the moment, the only kind of border refugee camps you have are in the North, as Turkey is closing its border, and not only closing its borders, its gendarme… are even violently killing Syrian refugees trying to go to the Turkish side. They’ve been doing this for the past few years, they built a wall as well.

But also, in this case it’s very important to denounce the role of the European Union, that has transformed the Mediterranean sea into a big cemetery. Not only of Syrian refugees, but of refugees more generally speaking, thousands of refugees are dying in the Mediterranean Sea, you have companies such as Frontex, which is a border patrol, police patrol, security patrol, funded by the European Union, preventing refugees to reach Europe, and Europe has turned into a fortress…

In refugee camps it’s catastrophic, people are even killing themselves because of the situation, it’s completely overpacked, so the European Union is playing a destructive and murderous role, while still still funding the Lebanese [refugee effort], the Turkish [refugee effort], in officially saying it’s helping the refugees, while in Turkey only 10% of the refugees live in camps, so this money doesn’t go for the refugees… so it’s very important to denounce the role of the European Union in this perspective, and it’s not only the extreme right-wing forces, it’s also the so-called liberal [parties], the liberal right-wing [parties], having the same policy regarding this. So the most important thing [for European liberal and hard right] being for the European Union to not have a new wave, as they say, of Syrian refugees.

And Turkey has also used this in its relationship with the European Union to pressure them, on many occasions in a very racist way saying ‘I will unleash another wave of refugees on you if you don’t come to an agreement on these issues with me.’ It’s a catastrophe, regarding the refugee situation, and even though you have, especially in the European Union a very nice and superficial discourse regarding the suffering of refugees.

Derek Johnson: Why have sections of the left so singularly failed to correctly appraise the Syrian Revolution?

Joseph Daher: Well I think, first of all, we have to acknowledge the weakness of the left internationally speaking, it’s [partly] a reflection of this situation. Linked to this, I think the internationalist aspect of many progressive groups, and leftist groups, has been weakening, but it also linked to the first reason. Also, it’s a bit linked to the myth we mentioned in the beginning of the interview, I think a lot of the left has concentrated only on the geopolitical consideration, following very much ‘campist’ policies, meaning in other words that you follow a bloc, whether you’re with US imperialism or against US imperialism, without looking at the struggle from below, and seeing that it’s a much more complex situation.

Obviously we oppose US imperialism, but we also oppose for example Russian imperialism, or we oppose the various regional powers, whether they might have a so-called rhetoric opposing the US, which unfortunately has been understood as anti-imperialism, which it is not at all, by Iran, Hezbollah. So I think also, a lack of understanding of the various dynamics of the region, understanding of the nature of the regimes we’re facing, and in this case of course much more could have been done, in terms of international solidarity. And again I think the main reason is due to a generalised crisis of the left.

Before [the left] used to raise the internationalist flag very high, but you do have some sections of the left having a more nationalistic perspective, sovereignty etc. And taking sides with, as I mentioned before, with this or this particular ‘camp’ and not with the people in struggle. And this is a direct result of, I would say, weakening of class consciousness, and forgetting that all our destinies are linked. We should not forget that the beginning of the Middle East uprising inspired the whole world, the Occupy movement came out of Tahrir Square, and other forms of these kind of experiences.

Also you have some sections of the left, as I said, only focusing on Western imperialism, without trying to learn from popular struggle in the Middle East, they point to the limitation alone, without noticing that these uprisings are shaking the world. They also, these sections of the left, refuse to denounce some regional despotic regimes. And, as Lenin said, some expect a perfect social revolution – this never occurred in history, not even the Bolshevik one was a perfect, nice one without contradictions, problems etc.

This said… [for] some small sections of the left, internationalism is still very important, and I have collaborated throughout the world with various sections of the left that have supported the Syrian uprising. Not only in a rhetorical sense, but as a means to learn from certain experiences abroad, regional revolutionary experiences, revolutionary dynamics, and this is without forgetting the large participation of progressive and democratic groups and individuals occurred initially in the Syrian uprising, especially in the first years there was a lot of presence of progressives in the Syrian Revolution.

Derek Johnson: Some who despair at the left responses (I know I do), to the Syrian Revolution, say socialism is no longer relevant. Why do we continue to support a socialist political project? What relevance does this have to contemporary uprisings?

Joseph Daher: Well, especially coming from this political background, I would say it’s not because Stalin claimed to be a Communist that this was communism, quite the opposite. I mean, I think, he was a form of counter-revolution again the Russian Revolution of 1917. And just as it’s not because people claim to be on the left, with very bad policies and politics, that I should stop struggling for the emancipation and freedom of popular classes, within a socialist project that is internationalist, that is linking issues of oppression and exploitation, and we don’t differentiate it.

And because, what is the alternative? Move to the right? I don’t think the right has a better record regarding the Syrian Revolution, or at least in supporting the aspirations for democracy, social justice, and equality…

And I still believe that a socialist political project, not only for Syria, but for the whole world, is still very much of relevance, and especially when you see the crisis of neoliberalism, and the hegemony of the neoliberal ruling classes since 2008, but more particularly in the past year. We shouldn’t focus only on the Middle East, but these revolts were against authoritarianism, but also against a project of neoliberalism. And we see it throughout the world, in Chile, Haiti, rising protest movements in different parts of the world, Hong Kong as well, and Catalonia, for self-determination of the people.

We see also in the US, now saying you’re a socialist is not any more an insult – well depending for who obviously, but it’s some things that are interesting to see – in that what the famous conservative Fukuyama said, that it was the End of History, it is not. It is not. And unfortunately, what we’re seeing is that this crisis of neoliberal hegemony of the ruling class is not necessarily directly benefiting to the left or progressives alternatives, but also unfortunately to right-wing, fascistic movements or personalities, from Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Putin, we can see similar things occurring in the European Union.

We have to provide an alternative that is against these far right-wing or fascistic political actors, but also against a form of neoliberal authoritarian project, represented mostly by Trudeau, Macron, or Merkel. Both of these are enemies of the popular classes, we should be very clear, and aren’t providing anything better for the popular classes. And especially when we see all the challenges, do we seek a solution from the right, from a capitalist perspective, for the ecological crisis? No, obviously not. What about the borders? They mostly all agree on transforming Europe, or all Northern countries, into a huge fortress, huge barrier preventing people that are in need to seek a better life.

So even, again as I mentioned, it’s not because some claim to be socialists that we should abandon the ideals of socialism. I mean, the track record of capitalism since it became dominating the whole world, is catastrophic. Do we blame capitalists for this? No we blame the personality of people, I don’t know what, etc. So no, I still believe, and I will always believe, that what we need is an internationalist socialist perspective, and that the solution is not obviously in one country but across borders, because I believe that our destinies are linked, when I see a struggle, wherever it is, I feel it’s my struggle as well, because I know if they [achieve] victories, it’s also victories for our camp.

And, as also the ruling classes know that they are leading a class struggle, we should be aware of it as well. So this is why I believe that it’s very much of relevance, today and more than ever with all the challenges facing the popular classes across the world.

Ani White: Yeah, when you talk about the liberal authoritarian regimes, I think of the recent stuff in Canada with the encroachment into the Wet’suwet’en territory, having Trudeau hasn’t stopped that. And having Trudeau as a president hasn’t stopped that.

Joseph Daher: [Also in] France, the repression of the Gilet Jaunes has been terrible, as well.

Ani White: Yep, yep. And what can people outside of Syria do to show solidarity with the Syrian Revolution?

Joseph Dagher: Well, I think still many things can be done. First of all, it’s on two main aspects I would say. Continue to support solidarity groups with the Syrian Revolution that have a democratic, non-sectarian and equality aspiration, and social justice as well. I think this is very important, to continue to support these groups, to support the memory of the Syrian uprising, that was strong and democratic, and had this initial aspiration. Not as you mentioned in the beginning, not portraying the Syrian Revolution today only as a geopolitical and sectarian war. Not forgetting that you had millions of people in the streets, so this is very important, having this memory being transmitted to the people, whether Syrians or others.

One of the biggest advantages, I think, of this Syrian uprising, compared to the protest movement and the resistance we had in the 70s and 80s, is that a memory has been accumulated in these past few years. That has not been the case, unfortunately, in the 70s or 80s, where you had huge strikes, strong leftist and trade union movement, this was not transmitted to the new generation of Syrians. So this is very important, to build on these experiences for future experience.

Also pursuing democratic struggles regarding the condemnation, and denouncement, of violations of human rights in Syria. For example, it’s very important what happened at the end of the 2019 in Germany, where two former members of the security services were arrested in order to condemn them for violation of human rights in Syria. And I think this is very important: all criminals should be pursued for their criminal actions in Syria, but to continue to put the pressure on this aspect, to put pressure, to know where are the disappeared, the people that were kidnapped, the political prisoners, the prisoners in general, pursuing to know what happened to them is very important.

Also what I think is important is linking these uprisings to the struggles we have in the countries we live in. Meaning that we link the refugee issue, to the socio-economic situation, to the political appeals, to the political struggles, such as struggling against Islamophobia, struggling against racism, struggling against austerity measures that attack all of us. Also making the links between these uprisings, and these causes where we live. Because a refugee that wants to be politically active, it will be very difficult to him if he’s not able to have a proper job, housing, to be able to not have a document saying he can only stay a year, or he has to leave, where he’s under the threat of being kicked out every minute.

And this is linked to our own political struggles for democratic and socio-economic issues. When we struggle against anti-terrorist laws it’s not only about struggling against Islamophobia, more repressive policies, but it’s also because these laws are used against activists, against ecological activists, against trade unionists, or against other types of activism. So I think it’s very important, again as I very often say because really I believe it, that our destinies are linked.

And just understanding as well the way imperialism works. The various imperial interventions in the region, the Middle East, has not helped the people of the region. On the opposite, it has forced the problems of this country, whether by supporting directly or indirectly these authoritarian regimes, or by bombing and creating the conditions for the rise of groups such as the Islamic State, or al-Qaeda, etc. Many reasons, sectarianism, authoritarian regimes, neoliberal policies, but I think it’s very important to link these two issues when continuing to show solidarity with the Syrian Revolution.

And understanding that the Syrian Revolution is not only something isolated from the rest of the uprisings also. Making links with the regional uprising, and trying also, challenging the sectarianism and ethnic tensions that are currently occurring in Syria, while putting forward a democratic and social framework.

So I would say a lot can still be done, even though the conditions are very difficult, the situation in many ways is worsening.

Ani White: Really I think, in terms of the analysis of imperialism, I really think 2011 was a set of revolutions obviously, but I think it also overturned our understanding, as any revolution does. And so, as you say, we had these coordinates before, that it was all about the USA, but then you had these uprisings that were against various regimes whether they were officially aligned with the USA or not, so we kind of had to re-orientate, and so it’s actually not all about the USA. There’s a lot that I think is still to learn from that, and I agree, keeping the memory alive is a part of that.

And we’ll link recommended sources [on the revolution] in the description for the episode.

Derek Johnson: Yeah, what are the next steps for your group, the Alliance of the Middle East and North African Socialists?

Joseph Daher: Well, to continue to work, we know we’re still a small network, but we try to expand, to have new people contributing to the website, contributing to articles, analysis, statements, doing these kind of livestream conferences that have been I think a success, trying to do translation work as well, from Arabic, English, Persian, sometimes Kurdish if we can. Continuing to expand this small network, we don’t see ourselves as going to change the whole situation tomorrow, or after tomorrow, but it’s important for people to know that they can find people with internationalist aspiration, with a socialist appeal, and inclusive.

And foster debates among us that want to build something new, and better for the popular classes of the region. So even though we know we’re small, we’ll continue in this perspective, and bring our support as much as we can, through our work, through our different activities, to the liberation and emancipation of the popular classes of the region, and elsewhere, continue collaboration with internationalists such as you and others, this is what we think is important, while knowing that we’re still a small network, but trying to do as much as we can.

Derek Johnson: Well thanks for coming on the show.

Joseph Daher: Thank you.

Derek Johnson: You’re very welcome. Just a reminder for our listeners, Joseph released a book last year entitled Syria After The Uprising: The Political Economy of State Resilience, so be sure to check that out if you want to know more. Thank you for listening, good night, and resist.

Audio: Protestors chanting ‘Asha’ab yurid izquat an nizam/The people want the fall of the regime’.

1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCS8SsFOBAI&t=12s

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dabke

FREE DOWNLOAD: Fightback Issue 47, Syrian Voices

Fightback is pleased to offer a free download of the latest issue of our magazine, Syrian Voices.

From the editorial by Ani White:

It has been over 10 years since the Syrian Revolution first broke out in early 2011, as a part of a broader regional uprising widely dubbed the “Arab Spring.”

After beginning as an inspiring democratic moment, the Syrian Revolution has become increasingly fragmented: bloody Assadist counter-revolution forcing armed conflict, opportunistic intervention by international actors, and sectarianism have all displaced the memory of the democratic revolution for many. Yet Fightback maintains that remembering the democratic, non-sectarian, popular nature of the initial movement is essential. There are still many lessons to learn from this experience, both positive and negative.

A revolution in practice demands a revolution in thought. However, sections of the left have learnt nothing from a regional uprising which challenged dictatorial regimes regardless of their geopolitical alignment. Instead, these ‘anti-imperialists’ have maintained a US-centric perspective that focuses solely on geopolitics, and erases ground-level experiences in Syria and elsewhere. Fightback rejects this perspective, in favour of a renewed left internationalism relevant to contemporary movements.

We must centre Syrian Revolutionary voices when discussing the Syrian Revolution, in keeping with the general principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ which applies to many struggles. In this issue we have compiled a series of interviews with Syrians reflecting on the revolution, conducted over 2018-2022, including one Fightback interview and three transcripts of interviews from the Where’s My Jetpack podcast. The interviewees are all diasporic, reflecting both the structural barriers which silence those remaining in Syria and surrounding refugee camps, and the diasporic nature of the Syrian community generally.

We hope these interviews help to keep the flame of the revolution alive, readying us all for the fire next time.

Migrant women and family violence

By BRONWEN BEECHEY. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy.

Content warning: Suicide, violence against women. Note: The case studies in this article are based on the experiences of several women who I supported in my role as a social worker. Names and identifying details have been changed.

Tina Sharma arrived in Christchurch in June 2017 to join her husband. By September, she was dead. According to Coroner Alexandra Cunninghame’s report, released in April, Sharma took her own life because she was in a violent relationship. Evidence was given to the inquest that her husband, Narinder Singh, was controlling and abusive.

Sharma and Singh married in India in January 2017. Following her move to Christchurch, according to the coroner:

There is no evidence that she ever left the flat by herself to exercise, explore her new city, or shop. She did not have her own EFTPOS card or New Zealand bank account, and she could not drive.

The inquest heard that Singh discouraged Sharma from talking to her brother, who also lived in Christchurch, or her best friend. There was also evidence that Singh physically abused his wife.

According to Sharma’s relatives, she would not have known that there were organisations that support women experiencing domestic violence that she could have approached.[1]

While intimate partner violence is a widespread problem in Aotearoa New Zealand – we have the highest rate in the OECD – women from migrant communities are particularly vulnerable. Approximately half of the homicides in Aotearoa New Zealand are family violence-related, and a large proportion of these are migrant women. As well as language barriers and cultural beliefs that normalise IPV, many migrant women struggle with complex, bureaucratic and inflexible immigration and social welfare systems.[2]

Migrant victims of IPV can apply for the Family Violence Temporary Work Visa and Family Violence Residence visa if they were in a relationship with a New Zealand citizen or permanent residence. The latest figures show that 1,614 of these visas were granted between 2010 and 2021. The five main source countries have been consistent during this period: India, China, the Philippines, Fiji and Tonga. As the first three countries are major sources of immigrants to Aotearoa New Zealand, this partly accounts for their predominance in these statistics; but all of these countries have high rates of IPV (as does Aotearoa NZ). The number of FV visas granted in that 10-year period is low compared to the levels of family violence in Aotearoa New Zealand, and it has been noted that women from Middle Eastern, Latin American and African backgrounds make up only 11 per cent of applications.[3]

For many migrant women, their immigration status is tied to that of their husband or partner. Usually, the male partner is the principal applicant for a temporary or resident visa or sponsor for his wife’s application. This means that he can delay her visa process and/or refuse to sponsor her partner resident visa, leaving her on a temporary visa, restricting her access to employment, education, welfare and health services. The threat of withdrawing sponsorship or removal from a joint application for residency is often enough to stop victims of IPV from seeking help. An Australian study in 2017 of family violence against women on temporary visas found that many women had not been directly involved in obtaining their own visas, and the majority did not know their migration status or visa type[4].

The Australian study reported that out of the 300 cases that they examined, 20 involved forced domestic labour, where women are sponsored to migrate (usually after an arranged marriage) and then forced to maintain the household for the immediate or extended family of their partner. In some cases, the woman’s passport and documents were confiscated, her movement restricted, and the perpetrators told her that they were a “slave” or “owned” by the family[5]. A 2016 study conducted in Aotearoa New Zealand among Indian women survivors of domestic violence also found that this occurred frequently[6].

“Ayesha” is one Indian woman who experienced this form of abuse. Ayesha was from a relatively well-off family and had a university degree. She had married an Indian-born New Zealand resident who lived with his family. Ayesha was expected to do all the housework and cooking, including heavy lifting that caused her to have a miscarriage. She was physically and emotionally abused by her husband and also her mother-in-law. After becoming pregnant again, Aysha fled the home and went to the police station. Fortunately, she was taken to a refuge, where she stayed until she gave birth to her child. Ayesha was eventually offered accommodation by a member of her church.

Because she had married a NZ resident, Ayesha was able to apply for a Family Violence residence visa and temporary work visa. However, she had no income during the 3 months it took to grant the visa, other than child support and her Best Start payment Work and Income will pay a special benefit, Emergency Maintenance Allowance, once the temporary FV visa is granted, but not before because the Social Security Act specifies that only NZ citizens and permanent residents are entitled to any Work and Income benefit.

The process for granting a FV temporary work visa or residence visa is complicated and confusing, particularly for those who do not have English as their first language. The application is usually lodged by an immigration lawyer, not many of whom will agree to work pro bono. The applicant needs to show documents such as police reports, protection orders, criminal convictions for family violence or a statutory declaration stating that the violence has occurred plus two supporting statutory declarations from professionals. If applying for the FV residency visa, the applicant also needs to satisfy the health and character requirements for residence, and give reasons why they would be unable to return to their home country (such as having no way to support themselves financially) or facing abuse or social exclusion due to stigma associated with reporting family violence, being separated or divorced, or a sole parent).[7]

Ayesha was supported with food parcels, clothing and baby gear by the refuge and social workers, as well as advocacy with Work and Income and Immigration NZ. She was able to get her learner’s permit and once her temporary visa was granted, moved into a flat with her child who was also enrolled in daycare. Because she was an educated, articulate woman with good English, Ayesha was in a better position than others to find support and advocate for herself, but she still found the process stressful and frustrating.

For “Mele”, the process was even harder. Mele came to New Zealand from Tonga on a visitor visa. She then met her partner and they eventually married. He was also Tongan but had permanent residence. Mele believed that once they married, she was covered by his residency. Her husband was abusive, and the abuse worsened after Mele gave birth to their child. After a violent assault by her partner, Mele called the police who removed her partner from their home and served him with a police safety order. He was charged over the assault and Mele was given the number of a women’s refuge outreach service.

Because Mele was not legally in New Zealand, she was not able to apply for the FV temporary visa immediately. Instead, she had to apply for a visa under Section 61 of the Immigration Act as a “special case” to allow her to stay in the country. [8]As part of that process, she had to apply for a police report from Tonga to prove that she had no convictions there. After receiving the report back from Tonga, the report was sent to Immigration NZ. After several weeks passed with no response, contact was made with INZ who said they were still waiting for the police report. It turned out that the report had been received and scanned, but not attached to Mele’s file. The Section 61 visa was granted, but Mele was not eligible for the Emergency Maintenance Allowance until she was granted the Family Violence temporary visa. (She also had to request another police report from Tonga, despite the fact that the information had not changed since the first one). Mele survived on her Best Start payment (which she was entitled to due to her ex-partner’s residency) and food parcels.

The outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 made the situation for Mele even worse. Immigration NZ, like other government departments, closed its offices and sent its workers home. However, apparently, INZ staff were unable to access their work files for some time, so Mele’s case, along with everyone else’s, simply came to a halt. Phone calls and emails went unanswered. Mele was not in a position to return to Tonga even if she wanted to, due to border closures, but Work and Income still refused to grant any payment. Mele felt hopeless and depressed, even considering giving her child to her ex-husband to care for as she worried that stress and lack of money were affecting her ability to care for the child.

At this point, social workers supporting Mele took the issue to her local MP’s office, and a couple of weeks after that, Mele’s Temporary FV visa was granted. She was finally granted an Emergency Maintenance Allowance which was back-paid to when she had applied for the visa. Mele is still waiting for a decision on her residency visa, and her economic situation is still precarious as most of her benefit goes on rent.

Both Ayesha and Mele are educated women who speak English well. They had good support from community agencies and, unlike many other survivors of family violence, did not have serious harassment or pressure from ex-partners or family to return to their abuser. Yet they still struggled with a complicated, inefficient and inflexible response from government agencies that were supposed to help them. For many other migrant women, the struggle is too much and they go back to the violent relationship.

If Mele and Ayesha’s partners had not been permanent residents, neither would have even been able to apply for the FV visa. The only recourse for those women is to apply to the Immigration Protection Tribunal on the basis of “exceptional circumstances of an humanitarian nature.”[9] This is a long and expensive process. Women in this position will often stay in the relationship until their partner has residency, but sometimes the abuser will remain on a temporary visa so that they are able to keep their victim dependent on them. This is particularly the case when the abuser is on a long-term temporary visa with high-paid employment, such as a Talent Work Visa, as they are eligible for publicly funded healthcare and have no need for any other benefit of permanent residence.[10]

Aotearoa New Zealand is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In 2018, CEDAW’s monitoring committee raised concerns about Aotearoa New Zealand’s treatment of recent migrant victims of family violence, including:

  • The situation of migrant women with children who do not hold permanent visas and lose their partner’s sponsorship through separation or divorce; and in some cases, women have been deported to their countries of origin, leaving their children with the abusive partner
  • That women may stay in violent relationships so as not to lose their visa status
  • Migrant women face obstacles in seeking justice due to knowledge and language barriers, as well as a lack of legal aid

The committee recommended that Aotearoa New Zealand’s immigration laws be changed to allow access to permanent residency for mothers of children who hold Aotearoa New Zealand nationality. It also recommended that shelters and free legal, counselling and support services be provided for migrant women victims of family violence; and that information on family violence and how to respond to it are available in community languages[11].

However, even these modest recommendations have been ignored. There need to be major changes to the Immigration and Social Security legislation so that migrant women can leave violent relationships, access benefits and “fast-track” residence visas. Successive governments have treated migrants as a source of cheap labour, causing many to live in poverty and substandard housing, which increases the possibility of family and intimate partner violence. While this continues, more women will die.


[1] Gates, Charlie. Woman takes her own life after being in abusive relationship, coroner says. Stuff, 14 April 2022. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/128358803/woman-takes-her-own-life-after-being-in-abusive-relationship-coroner-says

[2] Ministry of Business,Innovation and Employment. Recent migrant victims of family violence project 2019: Final report. Wellington, NZ, 2019. https://www.mbie.govt.nz/dmsdocument/12138-recent-migrant-victims-of-family-violence-project-2019-final-report

[3] Ayallo, Irene. “Intersections of immigration law and family violence: Exploring barriers for ethnic migrant and refugee background women.” Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work [Online], 33.4 (2021): 55–64. Web. 19 Apr. 2022. https://anzswjournal.nz/anzsw/article/view/913

[4] Segrave, Marie, Temporary migration and family violence: an analysis of victimisation, vulnerability and support, Monash University, Melbourne, 2017. https://www.monash.edu/arts/gender-and-family-violence/research-and-projects/completed-projects/temporary-migration-and-family-violence

[5] Ibid.

[6] Somasekhar, Sripriya, “What will people think?”: Indian women and domestic violence in Aotearoa / New Zealand, A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at The University of Waikato, New Zealand, 2016. https://researchcommons.waikato.ac.nz/handle/10289/10592

[7] Community Law Manual. Immigration: Family Violence, vulnerable migrants and other special visa policies. https://communitylaw.org.nz/community-law-manual/chapter-29-immigration/family-violence-vulnerable-migrants-and-other-special-visa-policies/

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10]  Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Recent migrant victims of family violence project 2019: Final report. Wellington, NZ, 2019. https://www.mbie.govt.nz/dmsdocument/12138-recent-migrant-victims-of-family-violence-project-2019-final-report

[11] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Concluding observations on the eighth periodic report of New Zealand. 2018. https://women.govt.nz/sites/public_files/CEDAW_C_NZL_CO_8_31061_E%20%283%29.pdf

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – an interview with Eric Draitser

Transcript of an interview originally broadcast on March 12th, on the podcast Where’s My Jetpack. Transcribed by John Smith. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy.

Eric Draitser

Ani White: Kia ora, welcome, comrades, to Where’s My Jetpack, a politics and pop culture podcast with sci-fi and socialist leanings. I’m Ani White…

Derek Johnson: …And I’m Derek Johnson. Hola, comrades. Apologies for the delay in episodes, which is due to personal health circumstances being in America and Florida, but we’re back with an episode on the invasion of Ukraine. We’re interviewing Eric Draitser, an independent political analyst and host of CounterPunch Radio. You can find his exclusive content, including articles, podcasts, audio commentaries, poetry and more at patreon.com/EricDraitser. He can be located at EricDraitser@gmail.com and we’ll put all the links [in the blog description].

Welcome to the show, Eric.

Eric Draitser: Thanks so much for having me.

Ani White: Yeah, thanks for coming on.

So, we’ve been watching your daily YouTube videos, and also Facebook and that. And you’ve been reporting back on Russian-language media. Can you give us some context for your own connections to Russia and Ukraine?

Eric Draitser: Yeah. Well, I will say that I have been monitoring all kinds of media, all kinds of press. I’m not 100% fluent in the sense that I can speak Russian very well. But reading complicated subjects like political issues and analysis and things like that can be a little bit difficult. But I do monitor Russian press as much as I can. I try to keep up with all the different outlets as much as I can for the purposes of, as you said, kind of taking that information and distilling it down into pieces that people can absorb and then use to sort of formulate their own analysis. And I think that we have a major sort of gap on the left in the alternative media when it comes to being able to analyse these kinds of things, especially a conflict as complicated, politically charged and ideologically divisive – and whatever – as this one. I’ve found that for various reasons that we probably won’t have time to go into, but for various reasons, there seems to be a real lack of solid analysis that can be truly understood as objective, that sees the situation for what it is, rather than cheerleading NATO or cheerleading Russia. Hopefully I am able to provide that for people and to help them pick through what I think is definitely the most complicated and propagandised and disinformation laden conflict in our lifetimes.

Not just a crime, but a blunder

Ani White: How do you characterise the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Eric Draitser: How do I characterise it? I mean, it’s a lot of different things. I think probably first and foremost, we should say that it’s an egregious war crime. I mean, it’s a crime against the general peace as established in Nuremberg. It is the supreme crime, as the Nuremberg precedent established, that is the crime against peace. So it is that. Now we must say, just so that our political or at least my political orientation can be understood, this is not to ignore the fact that the United States has committed the very same supreme crime countless times in my own lifetime, all over the world. So I don’t mean to suggest that what Russia is doing in Ukraine is without precedent. These kinds of war crimes have precedents. However, just because the United States is a serial war crimes perpetrator doesn’t mean that Russia somehow is absolved of having committed this egregious crime. And I think that’s an important point to establish because you see a lot of people allegedly on the left who really do genuflect about this idea about whether or not this is some kind of crime against humanity, which it most certainly and clearly is.

Now, that being said, beyond just being a crime, this is a blunder. I believe this is a blunder of historic proportions. I think it will be remembered as such years, decades, maybe even centuries from now when historians look back on this period and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an extreme blunder by the Russian state that undoubtably led to all kinds of other things that we still today can’t foresee because we’re just at the beginning of this. So it marks a turning point. It marks a turning point in what we’ve historically called the post-Cold War period. The post-Cold War understanding of the world seems to have evaporated, at least in the sense that the United States is a single global imperial hegemon that guarantees a sort of Pax Americana, Peace in Europe, et cetera. These things have sort of gone out the window now, as we see not only the economic rise of China and sort of a more aggressive rise from Russia and Turkey and other countries in the world, but now we see it spilling over into what we would call a theatre of conflict and the creation of a theatre of conflict by the Russian invasion. So this really also, I think, in my view, needs to be sort of understood, at least to some extent as being established in precedent by the neocons [neoconservatives] and what they did in Iraq. Let’s not forget that the invasion of Iraq was predicated on a series of lies, each of which fell apart to only be supplanted by the next one. It was pushed forward by ideological, I would say, criminals, ideologically driven neocons who are non-military men, but who were driven by an ideology of imperial power. And that was rooted in the idea that they are, as Karl Rove famously said, “we are the creators of reality and with every decision we make, we create a reality, and you are left to analyse our decisions. And while you analyse them, we make new decisions to create new realities.” That’s Karl Rove in 2004 quoted by Ron Suskind or allegedly Karl Rove, although he claims he never said that.

So this is something that is, I think, really critical to understanding Putin and understanding the Russian view on the world. The Russian view on the world says that we are not to be treated as second class. We can do anything that the United States can do. And now what we see is that Russia is trying, or was trying, to establish that it too can do imperialism, right. And that’s unfortunately, how we’ve blundered into. And by we, I mean the world has blundered into this nightmare, disastrous scenario.

Derek Johnson: What is your take on supposed leftists or anti imperialists who go even farther to make a case for Putin?

Eric Draitser: It’s interesting because in some ways it’s a continuation of a divide that’s been present on the left. And I mean, when I say the left, I guess we should probably be even more specific and really say the terminally online left, because the left is much more broad than the sort of insane sliver that you see on Twitter and Facebook and the rest of it. I mean, the left involves all kinds of different elements of our society. It includes unions and grassroots organizations and all kinds of things that exist in the real world that are not really reduced to this chattering on social media. But I know what you mean. We’re talking about sort of the vocal sections of the online left. This is in some senses a continuation of the divides over Syria, the divides over Trump and ‘Russiagate’ and a lot of other things. But ultimately this is rooted in something that I’ve been talking about since at least 2015. And that is what I consider to be the infiltration of anti-imperialism, the infiltration of anti-imperialism with what you might call a sort of fascist and fascist collaborating element that sees anti-imperialism as being able to align with any and all forces that are in opposition to the United States and to the global Empire. In other words, it’s what you might call a sort of vulgar anti-imperialism, just like we would call reduction to strictly economic analysis as a kind of vulgar Marxism that ignores race and identity and gender and all of these other things that we understand to be critical today. And just as vulgar Marxism is to a large extent rooted in everything from a kind of white supremacist attitude to a lack of understanding of the way the world actually works. Similarly, vulgar anti-imperialism is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of imperialism today, in my view.

And I should know because I used to very much have a lot of those views. And I’ll just explain what I mean. I grew up, or I shouldn’t say I grew up, but my politics are forged around the Iraq war. I was in college when the Iraq war was launched. I was in the 12th grade on 9/11, and then the next year we were at war in Iraq. I was a freshman in college. It was my first real exposure to politics outside of the right wing Zionist neocon politics of my parents in the house that I grew up in. So for me, it was an eye-opener and I really began to form a world view rooted around the way in which the United States uses imperial power and the way in which the United States is in many ways the root cause of so many conflicts and problems in the world. As I sort of evolved from there, my understanding of things like imperialism began to become more, I guess you could say, mature or evolve. My understanding of the mechanisms of power began to evolve and I sort of began to call myself an anti-imperialist. And seeing the world as the product of the forces of Empire, just as Lenin wrote more than 100 years ago, and seeing that the United States really was the global bully, the global imperial hegemon.

What’s happened since, I would say about 2015 or so, is that things continue to evolve globally, and China’s rise, of course, and Russia’s return as a military power and all of these things and Turkey expanding its footprint, Turkey having won multiple wars just in the last few years, these changes globally – and of course, Trump and all of the domestic conflict in the United States that has kind of turned at least some of that attention that the US would normally have reserved for the rest of the world inward – you’ve seen other sub imperialist, Patrick Bond would say, sub imperial powers rising, and that has, in my view, changed dramatically the dynamics of the period that we’re living through so that it is no longer 1997 or 2003 or even 2010. We are now in a very different period of global history, one in which we have competing imperialisms. And I say all of that, I say all of that, only to say that those who would even dare make excuses for these war crimes and crimes against humanity that Russia is carrying out, are those who have completely misunderstood these changes, these shifts over the recent years, and who have for various reasons, some of which are self-interested, some of which are driven by ego, some of which are just misunderstandings and failures to understand that has led to what I said, a vulgar anti-imperialism that interprets anti-imperialism as being anything that opposes the United States. But the problem with that, then, is that you misunderstand the fact that what we actually are witnessing is neoliberal imperialism coming up against a kind of far right imperialism. Ultimately this conflict is the nature of what we’re actually dealing with. And that camp on the left that can’t understand that, well, of course they’re going to make excuses for Russia.

Anti-imperialism or anti-US?

Derek Johnson: I first started seeing it, I know, being politically active in the early 2000s there of seeing how ANSWER and all these different groups that were anti-war were taking these sides of supporting the Shining Path and supporting all these other really weird positions of siding with dictatorships and anything against America. I found that strange going back all the way to, I remember NATO going into Yugoslavia, and it was like that was some of my first exposures to different kind of sectarianisms and factionalisms on the left, where I kind of saw how some people on the left were like, defending Milošević. It’s like I saw how bad NATO was, and yet there was different sides of it that struck me very strange in that way of like, okay, but why would you support Milošević?

Eric Draitser: Yeah, I guess I have a sort of take on that, that’s again, is sort of rooted in my own experiences. And it was extremely – Derek, you probably remember this – but it was extremely, extremely unpopular to protest against the war in Iraq. You would be name-called. You would have people yelling at you. Whatever it was.

Derek Johnson: Right.

Eric Draitser: Often one of the most common things you would hear is “Saddam gassed his own people. He gassed the Kurds. What? Do you love Saddam? Why don’t you go live in Iraq?” And I learned then that it doesn’t really matter what you say and what you stand for, these people are going to find a way to twist it and turn it on you. But the truth is that you can oppose a war against a country despite the leader of that country not being a good guy. You didn’t have to support Saddam to be opposed to the Iraq war. And that is true in a number of other examples, each of which I think is different. But it’s splitting hairs. It doesn’t really matter because ultimately the point is to oppose an imperialist war. And as an American citizen, as a US citizen, obviously, I always saw my primary responsibility as opposing the United States. And a lot of these Russia apologists, these Kremlin propagandists and stuff, they say that today. They say, well, if you’re in the United States, your job is to oppose NATO. Well, yes, and I do.

But my job is also not to misrepresent the nature of this war, not to pretend that the side that started it isn’t the side that started it, not to pretend that crimes against humanity that are being committed aren’t being committed, or that if they are being committed, the people that are perpetrating them aren’t actually responsible for it, because the other side actually did all these other things, right? It’s not about trying to find a nuanced position, it’s just about understanding the complexity of the world that oftentimes if you are anti-imperialist, what that actually means, in my view, it’s opposing imperialism. It’s not opposing the United States. It’s opposing imperialism. In this case. This is Russian imperialism. I know everybody wants to just act like it’s heresy to even suggest it, but I even had somebody on Twitter being like, “have you even read Lenin?” And I’m like, “what? Are you fucking kidding me? I’ve read Lenin’s Imperialism like, a dozen times. Do you think Lenin, if you were alive today, would look at what Russia is doing and be like, yeah, no, that’s not imperialism.” I mean, come on, people need to be serious. By the way, speaking of Lenin, Lenin has been endlessly bashed by Putin through all of this process because Lenin and the Russian revolution, irrespective of any mistakes that came later. One of the issues was self-determination for the peoples of the Russian Empire. That’s what created Ukraine. Ukraine exists because the Empire was dismantled. And so that’s one of the things that Putin absolutely can’t stand. These right wing oligarchs and the revival of the Orthodox Church and sort of nostalgia for the Tsars and all of this. They absolutely can’t stand the fact that in 1917, a revolution took place that ended the Empire and gave self determination to Ukraine.

Derek Johnson: Yeah, there’s quite a few people who even insist that there’s no such thing as Russian imperialism, that only America can be imperialist.

Eric Draitser: Well, there is an element of truth to that. But the problem is that it is like reducing a pretty complex issue to a very, very narrowly defined point. Yes, it is true that if you’re talking about the levers of global finance, only the United States sort of reaches that level. I mean, look, the United States was able to shut off the Russian Central Bank off of three quarters of its reserves. That is imperialism. That is power. The United States being able to just shut a country out of its money. I mean, come on, that is serious imperial power. But it is not to say that a former imperial power that then invades essentially a former colony for the purposes of more or less dismembering that country, seizing its resources, imposing a puppet government, and essentially dictating terms – I don’t know what else that is, but imperialism.

Derek Johnson: Yeah. What do you think is motivating Putin and the Russian regime?

Eric Draitser: Boy, that’s tough. I wish I knew. I mean, as with all wars, there are many factors from many different ways that one can look at interests and so forth. I guess we could put it into kind of a few different categories. One would be the oligarchs themselves, aside from Putin. There are oligarchs in Russia. There are oligarchs in Ukraine. And I understand that I’m reducing this to the extreme. But the oligarchs in Russia more or less don’t accept that the oligarchs in Ukraine control Ukraine’s resources. So there is an economic and material motivation here. And there are very specific oligarchs that control, like Akhmetov and Kolomoisky and Poroshenko and Firtash and some of these other Ukrainian oligarchs that control critical infrastructure, resources, everything from coal and gas to the pipelines that Russia needs to deliver gas to Europe and all kinds of different things. These oligarchs control them. This is part of the outcome of the post-Soviet kind of criminal strip-mining of the Soviet Union by the west that more or less allowed a very small number of business people to accumulate all of these resources. So just like in Russia, in Ukraine you have these oligarchs.

On the other side of the border, there are Russian oligarchs. Those oligarchs see these Ukrainian oligarchs as a bunch of piss-ants that should be just pushed out of the way. So there is this element of it that they should seize that and they have ideological justifications for it. “Right. Well, this is actually Russia. Excuse me, Novorosia, new Russia under Catherine the Great, Imperial control and the resources, the land, the agricultural output, all of this. This actually belongs to Russia, for you see it as Russia that developed this land, Russia that colonized it” etc. And it’s true. It was colonization; really not that significantly different from how colonization happened in the United States or what we call the United States today, the displacing of an Indigenous group in the case of Crimea, the Tatars. In the case of the rest of Ukraine, as sort of strange combination of German immigrants and people from various parts of the region that had been living in that area, ultimately colonized by Russian agricultural interests. And that’s what makes Ukraine what Ukraine is today.

So it is a complicated country. The east is more Russian speaking, the west is more Ukrainian speaking. There’s a whole history associated with the divisions here, including the fact that the west is not Eastern Orthodox Christian, but Roman Catholic. It is much more closely associated to Poland, Polish culture, et cetera. Ukrainian language is spoken much more in the west than it is in the far east. Anyway, I don’t have time to go into all of the differences, but the point is that there are sort of practical material reasons. There are also ideological ones, as I just said, a kind of imperial revanchism. I don’t know that Putin is necessarily purely driven by ideology, but people like Aleksandr Dugin are leading Russian fascists and fascist sort of thinkers who have sketched out what we call Eurasianism. They certainly think this way. So, yeah, I think that between the economic interests, the ideological pull of a sort of reconstituting of the Russian Empire, and ultimately for Putin, I think that he expected this to be striking a strategic blow against NATO and the United States, essentially establishing that Russia not only has red lines and that it will enforce those red lines militarily, but that Russia ain’t scared of NATO, basically. I don’t know. I mean, that’s three of the reasons. I could probably list a dozen more, but we’ll run out of time.

“Dugin is kind of a joke”

Derek Johnson: Yeah, I noticed that. I wanted to get your answer on this. When Putin had his rambling. I don’t know, how long was that? What a 45 minutes, two hour casus bellis there on live Russian television arguing for why he was going to do what he did. All I could think of was, did Dugin write this?

Eric Draitser: I know. You know, it’s funny. I did an interview with a Russian Marxist, a really popular blogger named Andrei Rudoy. Really interesting conversation. And one of the things that I asked about Dugin and ideology and these things, and he laughed. He said people on the Russian left are going to really get a kick out of the idea that people in the US and elsewhere are talking about Dugin because Dugin is really kind of a joke in Russia. He’s like an Alex Jones type figure, you know what I mean? He’s not somebody who people really take seriously. And I said that I can fully understand. But Dugin’s propaganda and the propaganda that comes out of the Kremlin, that is associated with the sort of Fourth Political Theory, Eurasianist crap that Dugin peddles, that was never really directed at the Russian people, that was directed to the west. That was directed at a lot of people like us who would be absorbing these things from an anti-US perspective. So I think that we should be, on the one hand, careful not to read too much into the influence that Dugin has in the Kremlin. And at the same time, we should also be careful not to underestimate the power of some of those ideological arguments that he’s been making. And like I said in my interview with Andrei, I was like, whether or not the Russian left or Russian people give a damn about Dugin, Dugin is taught in the military academies. Russian military officers know all about Foundations of Geopolitics, his book, et cetera. Anyway, I only say all of that because I’m sort of constantly trying to negotiate between reading into what Putin is saying and connecting it to Dugin, which it does. And there’s many ways in which it does. But also trying to caution myself not to read too much into it, because I know just as well as a lot of other people know that Putin is not an ideologue. Putin doesn’t have beliefs. He’s a postmodern politician, very much like Obama and very much like Trump. He allows everyone to project onto him what they want. So that’s why Putin, even in the middle of this disaster, is still able to garner a significant amount of support. A lot of people project their hopes onto Putin in Russia. A lot of people project their hopes onto Putin in much the same way that people did for Obama and for Trump irrespective. And remember, Trump was kicking his own constituents in the teeth over and over and over again and they were just slobbering over him, you know what I mean? So it’s like, not that different with Putin, really.

Derek Johnson: Yeah, I tend to see politicians like that, he’s a Putinist. Trump’s a Trumpist in a sense. You know?

Eric Draitser: In a sense, yeah, in a sense. No, I agree. He doesn’t have an ideology. His ideology, to the extent that you could call it an ideology, it’s a combination of imperial revanchism and Soviet revanchism mixed with anti-communism, which is a strange kind of mix. It’s like a nostalgia for the Soviet Union minus the communism part.

Derek Johnson: Yeah.

Eric Draitser: In other words. It’s a nostalgia for Soviet power, Soviet prestige, but none of the actual economic bases that made the Soviet Union powerful. Things like universal education and healthcare. I don’t need to explain what the Soviet Union was like, but you know what I mean?

Derek Johnson: Well, hence the Nazbols [National Bolsheviks].

Eric Draitser: Right, exactly.

Derek Johnson: I noticed that once Crimea was done and the propaganda served its purpose, Dugin was pretty much kicked out of his positions in the university and everything and was back to normal and didn’t have any special place in anything.

Eric Draitser: I don’t know what to make of it, to be honest with you. Like I said, Russian comrades are saying Dugin is a joke and irrelevant. I get it. I’m not going to discount what they’re saying. They’re there. On the other hand, I don’t know how much I trust the idea that Dugin is just completely irrelevant now and totally side-lined just because he’s no longer at the university or whatever. There could be all kinds of reasons why that would have happened, including the fact that he was toxic because of the Novorossiya terrorist actions. You know what I mean? Like, maybe they wanted to distance themselves from an internationally wanted criminal, you know what I mean? But still kind of maintaining ties.

Anyway, I don’t know that I want to devote 30 minutes to Dugin. I just want to say that I am constantly evaluating and reevaluating my own opinion about just how influential Dugin is. But from the Western perspective, his type of propaganda has been very influential because that is precisely the vehicle that was used to infiltrate anti-imperialism on the left.

Derek Johnson: That’s what I find frightening.

Colonialism in Ukraine

Ani White: There’s a kind of Federal Nationalism, in a sense, with Duginism, which was very specific, was very much targeted at fascists elsewhere, kind of saying, “you can have your regional power and we’ll have our sort of regional power.” That was part of the whole Fourth Positionism thing.

But anyway, you’ve kind of touched on this, but how much do you think the historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine factors into all of this?

Eric Draitser: I mean, a lot. It depends on what exactly we mean by historical relationship. In some ways, this is a coloniser or colonised relationship, or imperial colonial power and neo-colony or however you want to call it. I mean, that is how Lenin described it. Lenin had talked about this, and Ukraine was how do I want to put this? Ukraine was critical for the Russian Empire because of its raw materials, because of its fertile soils and a lot of different reasons. And so for that reason, the relationship between those countries has been basically one of Russian domination for several centuries. To the extent that there is a relationship, I guess we probably shouldn’t even call that a relationship. It’s an imperial power and it’s a neo-colony. Now, there is a history, though, that is, of course, also relevant, because that history ties to a lot of the justifications that the Russians are attempting to use with regard to all of this.

Derek Johnson: Well, don’t you think, a lot of the Russian speaking Ukrainians that live in the east are there because they were brought in by the Soviet Union to be miners, workers and stuff like that?

Eric Draitser: Yes, but they weren’t brought in really by the Soviet Union. That was in the Russian Imperial days. The coal mines of the Donbass go back to the 19th… actually, they go back even further than that. But really in the 19th century. So it was Russian Empire. Now, in terms of around the revolution, like I said, Lenin described Ukraine as equivalent to Ireland to England, that it is not just exploited but super exploited; that its entire existence is to basically sustain the imperial power that controls it. Right? That’s, I think, correct, because the way that we have to understand Ukraine’s history is one of essentially multiple countries. The west of Ukraine, like I already said, is so vastly different and so when the Nazis invaded in 1941, there were very different reactions depending on what part of Ukraine you were talking about. The Nazis had a tremendous amount of sympathy in the west. Now, that led to the organization of Ukrainian nationalists upon Bandera and the Hitler collaborationists, who then allied with Hitler against the Soviets, who had in various ways been destroying them for a couple of decades at that point.

So what happens after that, of course, we know how World War II goes, and that element within Ukraine and actually within all of Eastern Europe, that fascist political element, which is very real and very strong, that was forcibly suppressed by the Soviet Union, of course, Gulags and all of it. So with the end of the Soviet Union, this begins to re-emerge. We can see that in Hungary. We can see that in all of the countries of Eastern Europe that were behind the, quote, unquote “Iron Curtain”, et cetera, that they all have very active far right parties, they all have a virulently, ultra nationalist right wing, and that it is rooted in anti-communism, and that is a legacy of the 20th century. So the history of Ukraine is one of sort of conflicting political orientations, conflicting nationalisms, conflicting alliances. And so when Putin talked about it in his speech, he said that Lenin basically laid a bomb under the Russian people. Right. Which, in other words, what he really means is that Ukraine should not exist. That’s how he justifies what he’s doing. Ukraine shouldn’t exist because it’s essentially a made up country made up by the Communists, by the Bolsheviks.

Now, obviously, there are other historical episodes that play into this. Everything from the Holodomor ten years earlier, or I guess eight years earlier, to the liquidation during the Russian Civil War, the liquidation of a number of different factions. We don’t have time to get into all of that history. Suffice to say that Ukraine represents a huge historical wrong that needs to be righted from the perspective of Putin and the Russian imperial revanchists.

Derek Johnson: Yeah and that alone just sounds genocidal.

Ani White: Yeah. Well, it reminds me of the way people talk about Palestinians, that “these aren’t really a people” kind of thing. But I dug up that quote. It was: “What Ireland was for England, Ukraine has become for Russia. Exploited in the extreme and getting nothing in return. Thus, the interests of the world proletariat in general and the Russian proletariat in particular require that the Ukraine regains its state and dependence, since only this will permit the development of the cultural level that the proletariat needs.” Close quotes.

Eric Draitser: Thank you. And I just want to say, I bring up Lenin not because I want everybody to agree with Lenin on all things. I bring it up because Lenin was grappling with the issue of Ukraine and with the issue of the colonies of the Russian Empire, and he ultimately was in a position to make certain decisions about how these things would be addressed. So Lenin’s understanding of the issue really frames, in a sort of counter-positional way, how Putin understands these issues. So Putin basically takes the 180 degree opposite approach, basically saying that not only do they not deserve self-determination – they don’t really exist.

Ani White: Yeah and the fact that, as you said, Putin has very explicitly defined himself by opposition to that Bolshevik position. He basically argues that Ukraine only exists because of the Bolsheviks, in this almost conspiratorial way. But yeah, another line from Lenin was, he called Russia “the prison house of nations”. Which I think you could also very much apply to, say, the US or China, like these very much overextended kind of powers that then suppress all these sort of internal kind of contradictions. But anyway, as you say, it’s not so much that people have to agree with everything Lenin said and did. But that to understand Putin’s position, you partly need to understand what it’s opposed to, which is that position that does exist in Russian political history of Ukrainian self-determination.

Blood libel

Eric Draitser: And I just want to say very quickly, there is an inherently fascist sort of anti-Semitic streak to all of this, too, because Bolshevism is in many ways a euphemism for Jewish conspiracy. Right? So that is something that has historically and today been promoted by the Russian Orthodox Church. There are things like blood libel, conspiracies about Jews sacrificing Christian babies and drinking their blood and all of those things. We could go all the way back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was created by the Okhrana, the Tsar’s secret police, for the purposes of fanning these flames of conspiratorial thinking. This led directly to pogroms. I have whole branches of my family tree that are empty because of pogroms, carried out in 1919, and carried out at other times in that period as well. So when Putin makes these kind of anti-communist, anti-Lenin ideas that “oh the Bolsheviks planted a bomb under Russia.” It’s another way of saying the Jews conspired against Russia.

Derek Johnson: Exactly.

Eric Draitser: Because the Jews are the Bolsheviks and the Bolsheviks are the Jews. And that is a fundamental principle of fascism, is to understand Bolshevism and Jewry as being inseparable.

Derek Johnson: Yeah, that’s something that I’ve seen in the propaganda that they pushed inward, that we haven’t. We’ve only heard so much that Maidan was a coup, like a colour revolution pushed by the CIA in America. There’s the Nazis in the Azov Brigade, and then other stuff. That fascists took over the parties, even though we know it’s like 2% now. A Jewish president. But when you look at the totality of some of the propaganda they’re pushing that we don’t hear in the west. Some of it I saw was that they were saying how, and this is typical anti-cosmopolitan “the Jews” type of language and conspiracies, of this corrupt and cosmopolitan Ukrainian illegitimate elite ruling things under this new status quo is pushing homosexuality on Ukraine and stuff. And I was thinking. Yeah, you combine that with the Jewish president and the rest of this stuff.

Eric Draitser: Oh, not just the Jewish president, Derek – a coke sniffing, degenerate pervert Jewish President! Right? All of those things. One insult on top of the other. I don’t particularly have all that much positive feeling about Zelenskyy one way or another. Well, no, I should say I have positive feelings for him because his life is in danger. But I mean, to say, as far as what he comes from, the forces that backed him, how he rose to power, et cetera, it’s all very dirty. Ukrainian politics is extremely dirty. It is driven by oligarchs. None of the oligarchs are good guys, et cetera. But to your point, the way that Russian propaganda frames not only Zelenskyy but just the nature of the Ukrainian state is basically the idea that they have a Jewish puppet and a bunch of Nazis running the country. And in fact, that’s obviously not the case. Like I said, the far right is very real. Some Nazi elements are absolutely real. But you can’t then take it to the next step, which the Russian propaganda does, which is to say that they quite literally control the politics of the country, which is false. They have some degree of influence. Their influence is definitely larger than their electoral results would indicate, but they are not exactly like the kind of force that controls the streets of Kiev or anything like that. If you were to listen to Russian propaganda, you’d think that this was the Third Reich in Ukraine. You know what I mean? When in fact, it’s kind of just a normal country with a far right element.

Derek Johnson: Yeah and not only does it fall apart, but it bounces back because really the worldwide focus and the font of fascism right now is not Germany, but it’s Russia, and fascists look towards Russia. So to act like some other country is the Nazi is to completely ignore how modern Neo-Nazism is fixated in Russia and spread by Russia.

Eric Draitser: Yes, and I want to say not just Neo-Nazism, but all the various flavours of contemporary fascism, because, again, like somebody like Richard Spencer, who was a prominent fascist in the United States. I don’t know if he’s still prominent. He’s kind of disappeared a little bit. But Richard Spencer is an example. I mean, I know that he actually has an anti-Russia position now, but who knows how much of that is because of his ex-wife being Dugin’s protégé. But that’s their business. I think that you’re correct in the sense that they look to Russia for some inspiration. But I think it’s even more material than that. Russia provides material support to the far right all over the world in a lot of different ways, and they have in many different ways. Now, I don’t want to go so far as to say that all elements of the far right globally are emanating from the Kremlin. It’s not quite so simple. I mean, each country does have its own political dynamics. Sometimes some of the things that the Russians push totally fail. Sometimes they don’t. But, you know, that Russian influence was used to help to push forward Brexit. Then the momentum of that helps to push forward Trump. Some of the same elements and players were involved, including Peter Thiel and Cambridge Analytica and Palantir and these corporations and the data-mining and the data-harvesting. All of this stuff that was done in the service of Brexit, in the service of Trump. This is all part of a global far right network. Bannon and the Chinese billionaire whose name I’m blanking out on at the moment – Guo [Wengui] and the others. I mean, they are part of what you could call a global fascist conspiracy. But maybe conspiracy makes people nervous. So we could just call it a global far right movement or the far right camp or the fascist camp or whatever. And Russia’s the heart of that. But there are also ideological reasons. And the Russians push these ideological reasons in various ways. One being that Russia is the defender of Christianity, of Christendom, of traditional values. Right? That they will as a country, by national pride or whatever, fight against equality for LGBT people or fighting against “the trans agenda” or race education or “critical race theory” or whatever. Right? A lot of the things that the far right in this country has pushed got their start in Russia. Russia already has a lot of the legislation that our Nazis would love to see put on the books – from banning books to criminalizing transgenderism to whatever. So anyway, yes, Russia is absolutely at the heart of the global far right.

Influence operations

Derek Johnson: Well, I would say it depends on the kind of far right, too. I mean, if you look at the 1990s, they were putting a lot of money into the religious right here. And maybe not all different conservative groups and stuff, but it took to later of moving through the religious right to getting through groups like The Family and…

Eric Draitser: Yeah but that was more in the 2000s.

Derek Johnson: …and then the Russian Orthodox members or chapters of the Family basically run the thing now and through that they went through the NRA and then they got through into the GOP.

Eric Draitser: Yes but these are fairly standard influence operations. This is not anything earth shattering as far as the Soviets did stuff like that, too. There’s all kinds of Cold War books about ways that they were doing influence operations. US was doing it. Soviets were doing it. Those type of things – yes, absolutely. I guess I’m more thinking about ways in which they created political outcomes that fundamentally altered the course of events. In other words, if the Russians hadn’t provided the material support that they provided to help bring along Trump, well, then we definitely would never have had Bolsonaro either.

Derek Johnson: Exactly, right.

Eric Draitser: So some of the things that happened because Bannon was instrumental in bringing Bolsonaro to power. Bolsonaro comes to power through the use of WhatsApp disinformation propaganda that was basically perfected in the 2016 election in the United States. So these things are all kind of connected and I guess really all I was trying to say is that Russia is not orchestrating everything, but Russia helped put things in motion that have then sort of evolved from there.

Derek Johnson: Yeah and I understand they just throw shit at the wall and see what sticks.

Eric Draitser: Totally.

Derek Johnson: I had heard of campaigns that they did around the time of the Brexit stuff, that they were pushing antivaxxer and pro vaccine stuff on the internet just to see if they could stir controversies. They were taking both sides of the issues.

Eric Draitser: Yes, yes.

Derek Johnson: See what would work. And we saw how – and this is something stupid – but you can see even the connections, because of Bannon, of the cultural war issues of Gamergate and how then, because of Trump being in there, we get all these people like Spencer and Unite the Right rally and now January 6 and all this stuff, Trump trying to pull a self-coup to stay in power. But if you look at it, too, they even tried, just out of stupidity, of how asinine – they hacked Rotten Tomatoes and sent a whole bunch of bots at Star Wars VIII [The Last Jedi] just to see if they could, by causing controversies and cultural issues and subcultural issues, if that did anything.

Eric Draitser: Yeah. I mean, they were testing the waters…

Derek Johnson: And then they ended up doing that on Facebook.

Eric Draitser: Yeah. They were testing the waters, sort of testing out, gaming out scenarios, gaming out how easy or difficult it might be to move the global conversation or whatever.

Derek Johnson: Nudging theory.

Eric Draitser: Exactly. Now, I will say, just to be very clear about this, there’s nothing – nothing – that the Russians have done that the United States hasn’t done, right. So the United States engages in all of these same things. It’s just that what we’re talking about in terms of a global far right, that is very much Russia’s project. The United States absolutely has supported the right and the far right in a number of different contexts, especially in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, using the ultra-nationalist elements and former Nazis and fascists to kind of undermine the Soviet Union, undermine communism, all of these things. The United States has done it. I’m not even talking about Latin America, where fascists carried out genocides thanks to the United States.

Derek Johnson: Or the World Anti-Communist League.

Eric Johnson: Yeah, so, we could point to a thousand examples of how the United States has done these things a hundred times over. So I don’t mean to suggest that Russia is the sole source of evil in the world, but given that we’re talking tonight about Ukraine, I think we could be forgiven for focusing on Russia’s transgressions.

Competing empires

Ani White: You’ve described this as a situation of competing imperialisms. Can you go into that?

Eric Draitser: I think that that’s correct. The first time I really heard that – I want to just give credit to Patrick Bond, who was on my show like six years ago probably, talking about that. About BRICS and that BRICS was no alternative to Western global hegemony, that BRICS was basically just a sub-imperialist construct. I didn’t totally agree with him at that time. And here we are six years later, and I’ve come around to that because I think that’s actually borne out by the facts.

Let me start off with the question and the answer, and then I will explain what I mean. The question, what comes after US global imperial hegemony? Or what comes after US global imperialism? More and deadlier imperialisms. That’s the answer, unfortunately. It’s like when we talk about capitalism. Well, what comes after capitalism? Well, it’s not necessarily socialism, it could also be feudalism. You know what I mean? So anyway, the point here is that the world that we understood; the unipolar world, to use Russia’s terminology, where the United States dictates everything and the United States is the arbiter of all conflicts and the United States is the one that is meddling everywhere – this is now part of the past. Because 35 years or 31, 32 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has now re-established itself as a regional imperial power. The Chinese, without question, are establishing themselves as that, using different means, to be sure. But Chinese activity in Africa, the Belt and Road policies, the way in which they basically flex their financial muscle for the purposes of extending their soft power, et cetera. The Chinese absolutely are global in a sense, but they’re still kind of a sub-imperial power. And similarly, Turkey. I think people probably may forget that Turkey has intervened and won three wars in the last three years. Turkey is the reason why Azerbaijan defeated Armenia in their recent war, which was the first truly drone war. Using Turkish drones, by the way. Turkey intervened in Libya. They are the reason that the so called Libyan National Army, led by General Haftar, was beaten back and why the government in Tripoli survived. It survived pretty much entirely because of Turkey’s direct intervention. Turkey has also intervened, of course, in Syria. Turkey currently occupies part of Northern Syria. So Turkey is pursuing what Erdoğan has openly for 15 years called a neo-Ottoman foreign policy. What is neo-Ottoman but neo-imperialist? I mean, it literally is that. And so you see the vision of Turkish hegemony as stretching from Istanbul all the way east to the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, because the Uyghurs are a Turkic people. These are people whose language is of Turkic origin. They see themselves as Turkic people, not Chinese people. They are not Han Chinese, et cetera. And, of course, that includes all of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and all of these places. They are all, in various ways, Turkic peoples. And so, from Erdogan’s point of view, he’s in competition with both China and Russia to re-establish the Ottoman sphere of influence. And that Ottoman-Russian conflict was probably one of the central conflicts of the later part of the 18th and early part of the 19th century. That is how Russia gained Crimea, ultimately. That is how Russia gained most of its influence around the Black Sea. That is how Russia pushed into the Caucasus. That’s where Chechnya and Dagestan and Ingushetia and all of these places that are part of Russia, they all come from those wars.

Ani White: Yeah. And can you talk about how Turkey’s role has played out with the current conflict?

Eric Draitser: Well, Turkey is very opportunistic. Erdoğan specifically is very opportunistic. And so as this war was beginning to take shape, or rather, the build up to the war was beginning to take shape, Erdoğan quickly swooped in and signed a deal with Zelenskyy to build a massive drone facility outside of Kiev. Now, whether or not that is ever going to get off the ground now doesn’t really matter. The point is he was sticking his thumb directly in Putin’s eye right at the moment that Putin was saber rattling, preparing to go to war. So Erdoğan on a number of occasions has outmaneuvered Putin and Russia. Like I said, in Libya, Turkey ended up intervening and winning against Haftar, who was backed by the Russians. Similarly, in parts of East Africa where the Wagner mercenaries have been present, Turkey has also moved in quickly. Turkey is also pushing in the Black Sea for energy resources and other things, and, of course, in the Caspian region as well. So Turkish interests, both economic interests and political and strategic interests, seem to continuously run up against Putin’s interests. And that’s one of the really interesting dynamics here, because, of course, it should be always remembered that at the end of the day, Turkey is a member of NATO. So any conflict between Russia and Turkey is a Russia-NATO conflict, and Putin knows that. That’s what Erdoğan is counting on.

“Disinformation is so thick”

Ani White: There’s a lot of disinformation flying around in general. How do you think we can filter for that?

Eric Draitser: Boy, I wish I had a good answer for that. The disinformation is so thick on all sides, so many lies coming from everyone, really. The Russians – goes without saying – are pushing their propaganda and their disinformation through their various channels, even with RT and all the rest of them booted off of YouTube and booted off of cable TV. I mean, there’s still ways of disseminating their propaganda and their disinformation. Similarly, the Ukrainians have gotten better at propaganda. They put out a lot of disinformation. I feel like every day is some new feel good story about a ghost pilot or a mother saving her children or whatever, and a lot of them have proven to be false. What does that mean? Not a lot. I mean, these are the things that happen in war. People exaggerate, people do what they do to convince other people to act or whatever it might be. So I don’t necessarily worry so much about that disinformation. I think the more dangerous disinformation is really kind of about the nature of the conflict. One of the key elements of Russian disinformation is that, it’s not even really disinformation, it’s more just the Russian line here, is namely that Russia, by definition, has not been the aggressor, because it is NATO over the years that has been the aggressor. Like with all good propaganda, there’s so much truth to that. NATO is an absolutely belligerent force. NATO should have long been dismantled, just as George Keenan, the famous Cold War Hawk, said at the end of the Cold War that NATO should dissolve, that it was a dangerous force, a destabilizing force in Europe, and that eventually it would push the Russians into a confrontation. So the Russians are correct to point to NATO in that way. Now, I guess I shouldn’t say the Russians so much as those who lick their boots. But I mean, of the various Putin boot-lickers and the way that they sort of speak about it, you would think that somehow the United States was provoking Russia endlessly on a daily basis and Putin had no choice. This is false. This is absolutely false, and it is deliberately trying to obscure the nature of the war. If you obscure the nature of the war and you cast a doubt on who is the aggressor, people aren’t going to really have a very clear position. And that’s the whole point. Russian propaganda and disinformation is meant to muddy the water, meant to make it difficult to understand what is going on. And the more difficult it is, the more difficult it is to have a really principled and staked out position.

So in any event, I think that the real dangerous disinformation comes from Russia when they push a lot of that. Also the major disinformation, maybe it’s not even disinformation, just lack of information and stupidity comes from the liberals who are calling for a No Fly Zone. This is so extraordinarily dangerous, I almost shudder to even think about it. Right? They’re calling for a No Fly Zone as if we’re dealing with Libya or Serbia or Iraq. I mean, No Fly Zones have only been imposed in those three examples – Libya, Serbia and Iraq. And in none of those examples was the other country armed with a thousand nuclear warheads. So I think that people have to be a little bit smarter about how they use the language of resistance. It’s perfectly righteous and legitimate for the Ukrainian people to resist a criminal invasion force like this. But when people in the west who are not even engaged in the fight start talking about sending NATO jets into the air to protect the skies over Kiev, I don’t think they’re really thinking through the implications. None of that is to say that just give Putin everything he wants, let him do whatever he wants. I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that people have an obligation to think very carefully about the consequences of every decision that gets made in a war. This is a war. Right? Wars – you can’t undo things. If a NATO jet shoots down a Russian jet, you can’t undo that. And it forces escalation. It forces responses. Right? It takes away options for de-escalation. It takes away options to get out of this conflict. It forces a response. That is the problem here is that, again, we’re talking about a country that can respond. This is not Iraq in ’98. This is Russia. They have nuclear warheads that would hit Europe in a three minute window.

Derek Johnson: Yeah. What I’m afraid of with Putin is he’s escalating no matter what. So, like, if we stopped our governments and we’re able to protest against those kinds of actions that could accelerate and escalate things, even diplomacy or giving him what he wants is going to make him escalate and keep doing it.

Eric Draitser: It depends. I think it depends. I think it’s going to be about practical considerations. There’s no way the Russians can prosecute a full blown European theatre war. They can’t. They don’t have the money. They don’t have the resources. They don’t have the material. I mean, look at how badly they’re getting beat up in various places in Ukraine. I’m not saying they’re losing the war. I think that’s nonsense. But they’re definitely taking heavy losses. This is not a country that has unlimited resources. This is definitely, in my view at least, feel free to disagree with me, but in my view, Putin vastly underestimated what he was walking into in Ukraine. And so the idea that he’s looking to expand and escalate, I mean, maybe if he feels like he has absolutely no way of backing out of this. Right? But I do believe that he will be looking for some way to basically declare a victory, have his mission accomplished moment like Bush did, and get the hell out of there if he can take away some pieces of what he wants. But he’s not going to get away. He’s not going to leave. He’s not going to do any of those things if he doesn’t get anything. You know what I mean? This is part of the paradox of what we’re dealing with here. The paradox is you don’t want to, quote-unquote, “reward his aggression”, but if you don’t let him get some elements of victory here, you’re forcing escalation on his side.

Derek Johnson: The Pyrrhic, quote-unquote “victory”, because he gets to rule over the dirt and all the dead bodies of Ukrainians.

Eric Draitser: And that is an interesting point you bring up, too, because let’s say hypothetically, they carve up Ukraine and Russia takes what is now Donbas: the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions, and they’re incorporated into Russia. Then they have some kind of a treaty that establishes some sort of neutrality for the rest of the country, or however that might look. Right? What is Putin gain? Well, the oligarchs and Putin gain some resources, control over those resources that I talked about earlier. That’s true. But they also then inherit a totally devastated country that they will then be financially responsible to rebuild. They inherit the debt. They inherit all of the other aspects of Ukraine itself. And on top of that, they have thrown away pretty much all of the global goodwill that they had. They have burned bridges with many of the countries with which they had fairly decent relations. They really only maintain relations with a very small number of countries that are very dependent upon Russia for a variety of reasons. So ultimately, yeah, he’ll walk away with some of the things that he wants. He has to, if any of us want to avoid a larger war here, Putin’s going to have to get some of what he wants. And I think that it’s fairly clear that the question of Crimea is settled. Crimea is Russia, and it’s going to be Russia, and it’s going to be internationally recognized as that. And if it’s not, then this war will not end. The so called DPR and LPR, Donetsk and Luhansk, will probably end up being Russia as well, with some kind of demilitarization of Ukraine. If he could get those things, then he could turn around and claim victory and go home. Maybe we could avoid this spilling over into a broader war.

Putin overshooting?

Derek Johnson: But if he demilitarises Ukraine, doesn’t he get to just reinvade them again when they can rebuild forces?

Eric Draitser: Potentially, potentially. But things are dynamic. It doesn’t just happen. One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, because Putin’s idea would be to get a more compliant Moscow-friendly government. But he’s destroyed whatever goodwill he had in Ukraine. Forget it. Never going to happen now. Never going to happen.

Derek Johnson: It’s destroyed a lot of infrastructure, too.

Eric Draitser: He’s destroyed a lot of infrastructure. I was just thinking from the political perspective, but yes, obviously actual infrastructure, not just roads and pipelines and things, but literally the fields where the wheat is supposed to be growing. You’re going to have military debris and chemical waste spills and all of the other things that happen in war. But I do think that ultimately, to your point, yes, even a demilitarized Ukraine would still raise some kind of question for Russia. But I think ultimately that’s what Donetsk and Luhansk become. They become buffer states for Russia.

Derek Johnson: Yeah. It’s like the cost-benefit analysis here is almost negligible, even for Russia, because it’s like you said: yeah, the oligarchs get stuff, but it sure as hell is outweighed by all the cons.

Ani White: I feel like that’s something empires have a long history of, is overshooting.

Eric Draitser: Yes.

Ani White: It’s certainly overshooting. And getting into things that end up costing more than they profit is actually something empires have a long history of doing. On which note, do you think Putin has overplayed his hand here?

Eric Draitser: No question. No question. Biggest blunder, certainly of his career. Probably one of the biggest blunders, at least in my lifetime, that I could think of in terms of on a global scale. Yes, I think he misplaced it. I think he overshot it. I think he miscalculated on a number of fronts. I could speculate a number of different reasons why. I imagine one of the major reasons is that a lot of the more moderate, reasonable voices that used to be around Putin have been side-lined for various reasons. This is part of the reason why General Ivashov, who was a high ranking chief of staff of the Russian Federation’s military at one point, he was one of the top officials in Russia. Several weeks before the invasion, he wrote an op-ed demanding Putin’s resignation over his Ukraine policy and over what he was doing, saying that this was an insane policy that would lead Russia down the road of ruin. So there were voices that at one time had influence in the Kremlin that today don’t. And so I think that Putin may have found himself in the trap, just like you were alluding to just a minute ago, that many empires and many kings have found themselves in the past where they’re surrounded by yes men, surrounded by people who tell them that everything that they want to hear, rather than maybe the unvarnished truth about what they can’t do versus what they can do. I think that he’s a victim of that. I don’t want to say he’s a victim, but I mean to say that that was some of the process.

I also think that there might be an element of time in all of this. I think that Putin, he’s not super young. Maybe he feels that his time is running out to really accomplish the big goals of his regime, which would be as I said, sort of reconstituting some of the Russian Imperial footprint or some of the Soviet footprint. So I think there’s that element as well. And I think there’s also a political calculation or miscalculation rather, regarding Biden and US politics and Trump and the timing of all of this. Putin has a lot of options even today. Putin could conceivably extend this war for another two years and wait and see what happens in our general election in the US. If he wanted to, he could just bleed Ukraine very slowly for the next two years, keep minimal forces there, keep wrecking the place, keep everything going, and then let Trump come back into power and see what he can do. So there are possibilities and there are options for Putin.

I think, though, that he may have misjudged not only how deep the fractures were in the European Union, in the EU and US relationship post-Trump. I think he also may have overstated just how positive certain elements of the European and especially German business community were towards Russia and Russian gas. I think they may have overestimated how important that would be. So anyway, it’s just a long way of me saying, yes, I think he miscalculated on a number of things.

But I also think that people in the west and elsewhere really should be very careful not to make the assumption that he has no options. I did a whole video last night or two nights ago or whatever about all of the economic weapons that Russia has. Russia’s going to get blasted economically. They already are: their economy is being destroyed and everything is tanking. At the same time. Russia can absolutely harm the entire world economy by holding off on its chemical exports, fertilizer exports, precious metals exports, other things like that that it provides to the world that will have shocks around the world. Just wait six months from now when food prices are 30% higher and governments start collapsing because of it.

Ani White: The interconnected nature of the economy does mean this is a bit complicated for everyone.

Derek Johnson: Yeah. No country can be isolationist. They don’t seem to be learning this lesson, whether it’s here or Hungary or Russia, whoever, everybody seems to think in this world of post-globalization or globalization 2.0 or 3.0, that they somehow could be isolationists again, there could be economic isolationists still.

Eric Draitser: Yeah, the Russians are sort of being forced into being isolationist at this point. They don’t have a choice.

Derek Johnson: Well, I think they chose to do it, though.

Eric Draitser: Well, no, they chose to invade Ukraine. But like I said, it’s my personal opinion that they did not expect this level of economic war to be waged. I don’t think they thought that there would be such unity between the US and Europe on these wide ranging sanctions. I definitely didn’t. I definitely don’t think that they thought that companies like BP and Shell and Mobil would just run out away from Russia. Which they have. I think that they miscalculated in terms of how deep the investments were and whether or not capital was going to be willing to walk away. And it has been, that’s the part of this that I think has been somewhat shocking to me personally, and I think it definitely was shocking to the Kremlin. So while they do have options, they are also the ones taking the brunt of the pain. So, it’s both.

Derek Johnson: Yeah. It seems like they overplayed the thinking that, “okay, we got China, we got India. Boris Johnson and the Tories are on our side, with all the oligarchs living in England. And maybe these different people will help us with the sanctions or kind of stop some kind of international consensus.” Yet it didn’t work.

Eric Draitser: Yeah, I also think that Putin, read Biden and the Biden administration as weak and that they would not have a strong response to this or they would be caught on the back foot because of US domestic politics, because of the insanity of just the US political life these days. And in some ways, he was right in the sense that Biden hasn’t militarily escalated. He hasn’t confronted Putin. But where Putin was wrong was that, and I don’t mean Biden himself, but the Biden administration, the people around him, that they wouldn’t respond forcefully, and they have. And in fact, I would say that the Biden administration’s response has been absolutely devastating to Russia. I think Biden is just loathsome in every way and the Biden administration, I have nothing positive to say about them, really. But I will say that in the course of the last two weeks, they have definitely shown themselves to be pretty adept at managing this situation, because every time they’ve been put on the spot, in my view, they’ve made the correct decision: no to the transfer of the jets. That was a correct decision. No to No Fly Zone. That is a correct decision. They are forcing Russia to be an aggressor and not giving Russia the pretext that the US is escalating. So the only people that believe the US is escalating are Russians, who feel the escalation literally in their pocketbooks. But for the rest of the world, they can see the US – they haven’t sent in the military. They’re not even really sending that much in the form of weapons. If anything, the British are sending more weapons in the US, at least it seems. Right?

So I would say that overall, the Biden administration seems to have played this pretty well. I think that they understand that Putin made a tremendous ghastly mistake, and they’re going to try to slowly bleed him dry.

Derek Johnson: Well, do you think the part of why they do to act as well is because of a lot of leaks coming out of the agency of that guy he dressed down in that one meeting on television?

Eric Draitser: Could be. I mean, the FSB, which is the internal security service in Russia – there are leaks in the FSB. But I will tell you, I just read an absolutely insane article today, supposedly by an insider from the FSB on one of these blogs right now. It’s insane. If you read it and you assume that it is true, it is deeply unsettling because it paints a picture of extreme, extreme aggression in the Kremlin and preparations for an extreme response. So it’s very terrifying, actually. But the reason I bring it up is only to say that I am personally sceptical of all of these alleged leaks because the Russians also know the various levels of psychological warfare and creating leaks and managing leaks and manufacturing leaks is also part of the game. I personally am a little bit sceptical. I’m not saying that they’re not real. I’m just saying that I’m cautious about accepting those leaks as true only because I have absolutely no way of knowing. Just like with the CIA. It’s not that different, right? In the United States, with the CIA, something comes out from the CIA. Well, okay. Was something just revealed, or did the CIA deliberately reveal something because they have an ulterior motive? You know what I mean? And we’re constantly facing that question, and it’s not really that different with FSB in Russia.

Derek Johnson: Yeah, sometimes I guess the spy agencies of our different countries seem to do that because they figure “it’s getting out anyway. So let’s get ahead of it.”

Eric Draitser: Get ahead of it, frame it in a way that works for our benefit. Yeah, absolutely. Exactly. So it could be any number of things. And that’s true of a lot of stuff in this conflict. It’s like there’s a wide range of possibilities. One of the things I mentioned in one of my videos this week was how it’s extremely disorienting for a lot of people. You know what I mean? It’s like you try to follow what’s going on in Ukraine and you don’t know what the hell to believe. You go to one Telegram channel and the Russians are about to conquer Kiev. You go to a different channel and it’s like the Russians are being beaten back to Moscow, you know what I mean? And it’s like, well, which one is it?

Sci-fi news

Derek Johnson: And the news in Russia is sci-fi.

Eric Draitser: Oh, I know. It’s totally insane.

Ani Johnson: There’s a lot of triumphalism, oddly, on the Ukrainian side. Maybe not oddly, but there’s a very strong sort of triumphalist narrative on the Ukraine side, which I think in terms of the quagmire of it, an important phrase I heard was “the Ukrainians don’t have to win, they just have to not lose.”

Eric Draitser: Yes.

Ani White: And so this for Russia could be a very protracted thing, much like, again, many entanglements that Russia and the US and other countries have had in the past.

Eric Draitser: Yeah, exactly.

Derek Johnson: Afghanistan.

Eric Draitser: Well how did the Taliban win a 20 year war? By not being destroyed.

Ani White: Yeah.

Eric Draitser: Their very existence is a win it means they won. And it’s just to your point.

Ani White: And how do you respond to the claims that Russia is denazifying Ukraine or, more importantly, how do you characterise the role of Nazis in this whole dynamic, I guess, because obviously we disagree with that claim.

Eric Draitser: Yeah, well this is one of the real complicated issues of the narrative here because like I’ve said before, all good propaganda is rooted in some degree of truth. Right? And the more truth there is, the more believable the propaganda becomes. And there’s a tremendous amount of truth in the Russian propaganda about Nazis in Ukraine. Obviously Azov Battalion, but it goes beyond that. There are political parties, there are networks, patronage networks, there are criminal gangs, there are street thug gangs, there are gangs in suits. There are all kinds of different elements of the far right that exist in Ukraine, some of which have wormed their way into positions of political power, including very high levels. Dmytro Yarosh, who was the founder of Right Sector, which is a Nazi outfit there was chief adviser, one of the advisers to the army chief of staff, Arsen Avakov was the interior minister, et cetera. You could point to several examples of this. But the point is…

Derek Johnson: It sounds like a description of most countries, including our own.

Eric Draitser: Yes, exactly. Well, that’s what I was about to get to is that if you go in other countries, even in Eastern Europe, places like Hungary and even in Germany and elsewhere, fascists make up a pretty significant chunk of the political life. I mean, in Germany they’re one of the biggest political parties, the Alternative für Deutschland, which is a fascist political party. Similarly in Sweden with Sweden Democrats, in Hungary, obviously with Orbán and the Jobbik and all the various far right elements there. And you could point to a number of examples. So in that sense, Ukraine is not particularly unique.

Where it is a little bit unique is in the paramilitary component: that there are sort of fascist paramilitaries that operate there. But again, this is part of the effectiveness of the propaganda because while that is true, the Russian propaganda doesn’t tell you that the primary forces that they were fighting against were Russian fascists in Donbas. Various Russian supported Nazi groups and skinheads and other types that had been recruited by Russia, including their mercenaries from Wagner, which itself was founded by a Nazi. So actually, what we’re really talking about in Ukraine is essentially a form of projection by the Russians. Russia has without a doubt the largest concentration of fascists in the world. The fascists of Europe don’t compare to Russia in that regard. And so it should be said that Jason Stanley, who is professor of philosophy at Yale, he wrote the bestselling book, How Fascism Works. He was on my show this week talking about one of the critical elements of fascism is projection, basically accusing the other side of doing all the things that you do. Right? And that that is one of these sort of hallmarks of fascist political power. And that that is ultimately what Russia is doing. Yes, there are Nazis in Ukraine. Yes, there is a terrible historic legacy of that. Just to be very clear, both two of my great grandfathers were murdered by Nazis and Nazi collaborators in Minsk and in Odessa, respectively. My great aunt and her entire family were murdered by Nazis in the Odessa ghetto. So this part of the world and that element, that part of history is as close to my heart and my family as anything could be. So I am particularly sensitive to Nazi collaboration, the history of Nazi collaboration in Ukraine, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, the glorification of Stepan Bandera, all of these things that the Russian propaganda points to constantly are absolutely a concern. However, the idea that that is a primary concern when a literal military is bombing your country, this is where the upside down logic of the Putin apologists and boot lickers comes in. Right? Where they will focus on photographs with Nazi emblems on Ukrainian soldiers and not pay attention to the family of twelve that just got blown to smithereens by Putin’s bombs. You know what I mean?

Derek Johnson: Yeah, they seem to have no comments on the hospital full of babies and everything in Mariupol.

Eric Draitser: There’s no reason to comment on it. It’s not defensible, it’s indefensible. That’s why they’re not really defending – I don’t see very many people outright defending Russia. I mean, some of them do, but most of them kind of sort of go through this mental gymnastics of. “Well, yeah, no, of course, what Russia is doing is not great. But it was NATO and the US that did this really.”

Derek Johnson: Yeah, they act like Russia is being unfairly isolated or targeted here and censored.

Eric Draitser: Yeah, exactly. But apply that to the United States in any context. Right, because that is how that is somewhat how the Bush administration pushed the Iraq war. That if we don’t act, the smoking gun will be a mushroom cloud, as they used to say. Right? That we have to act. We are being forced by the other side to act and if we don’t, there will be major, deadly consequences for the entire world. Hitler said the same about Sudetenland and Poland. So it’s kind of a standard operating procedure.

Strengthening NATO

Ani White: An example I point to is the US during the Cold War and the Vietnam invasion. and the way they justified that through Domino Theory. Which I think is very similar to the logic of, “well, NATO forced Russia to do this.” It’s essentially saying that this country is entitled to invade other countries because there’s another imperial block or there’s a rival imperial block kind of thing. And as you’ve alluded to, Russia has done things like this in the region long before NATO ever existed. Imperialism doesn’t need another imperialism to sort of force it into existence.

Eric Draitser: That’s right. And I will just say, the point I wanted to make is one that I’m going to record a whole video on it at some point in the next day or two. I think we need to be pretty sober in our analysis of what the outcomes are here. Obviously, the war is still very, very young and so many things can happen and everything is dynamic. But just taking a look at it so far, realistically looking at it in total, Putin’s move into Ukraine has probably been the thing that has strengthened imperialism more than anything in my lifetime maybe. I can’t remember a time when NATO was seen as more important, more significant, more unified. I don’t remember a time when Europe and the United States were as unified as they were now in response to Russia. So by doing this, he’s galvanized all the forces that he claimed were already arrayed against him. It’s, what’s the phrase? Cutting your nose to spite your face, right? That Putin, by virtue of allegedly acting in an anti-imperialist way, has, in effect, strengthened imperialism.

Ani White: He’s given legitimacy [to it].

Eric Draitser: Of course!

Derek Johnson: Well, his justification didn’t make any sense, because his whole justification is that NATO is moving its borders too close to him. So his answer is to seize another country.

Eric Draitser: Right. I mean, look, from the great powers’ perspective of imperial history or whatever, it does make sense. If you want to think of the world as in a Napoleonic kind of way, you know what I mean? Buffer States and all of that. Everybody knows history and how these things have gone, but we don’t live in the world of Frederick the Great and Napoleon or whatever, you know what I mean? Those are not the right people to have picked because they’re from two totally different time periods. But anyway.

Derek Johnson: Well, these fuckers think they’re playing Risk, though.

Eric Draitser: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying, is that, yes, if you think about it in those terms, then what he’s doing makes sense. But that’s not what we do. You know what I mean? We don’t think that way. Shit, Lenin didn’t think that way. Anarchists in the early 20th century didn’t think in those terms. The Left doesn’t think that way. That’s not what we do. That’s not what we are. We think about working people, international solidarity, opposing imperialism in all of its forms, opposing capitalism. These are the things that we are supposed to unite around. It’s not unite around a right wing authoritarian, because sometimes he acts against the Empire that we live in. Putin is absolutely one of the enemies.

Derek Johnson: He’s the richest man in the world, right?

Eric Draitser: *laughs* Who knows? Who knows, right. But he’s definitely, definitely a form of oligarch himself. We need to be clear eyed about these things and I’m sorry to those people who see the world in terms of anything that opposes the United States is inherently anti-imperialist. I’m sorry to tell them that reality has come crashing down on that fantasy. That fantasy is dead. The truth is that we are now in an era where there is a neoliberal imperial camp and a far right fascist Imperial camp. And I personally ain’t picking any of those sides.

Derek Johnson: So what is to be done?

Eric Draitser: Yeah, what is to be done, to quote [Lenin], well several famous Russians. Honestly, I know it’s not sexy or whatever, but we have to have a negotiated settlement. There’s no other way to end this. This has to end. We have a responsibility to our children to stop a nuclear war. You know what I mean? To stop the potential for a nuclear war. My kids are five and two. They have their entire lives ahead of them. I cannot even fathom the world walking into a global catastrophe. And that, unfortunately, is absolutely within the realm of possibility and absolutely on the table. If you read the literature of the summer of 1914, you begin to understand just how Europe basically blundered its way into World War. A World War that really none of them wanted, but because of the nature of the politics and because of the interplay of the actions and the decisions that were made, it ultimately created a world war, even though realistically, no one wanted one. Unfortunately, I fear that that is a very real possibility for us here, that I don’t think that Putin is angling to have nuclear holocaust and the end of all things. I don’t think that the United States wants that either. But sometimes things can spin out of control if you’re not careful. And this is one of those times where events could spiral very, very quickly and it’s extremely, extremely urgent that we find a solution. So for my mind, the obvious solution is that you have to first establish some kind of a temporary ceasefire that then becomes a permanent ceasefire leading towards some kind of a treaty or a settlement. If not, I really worry that things become too big and the genie is out of the bottle. I think we should probably focus on what it is that we want, which is peace, here. I’m not a big fan of Zelenskyy or of the Ukrainian state or of the gangsters that run it, or those who steal the mineral wealth of the country and leave it impoverished with a lower GDP than it had at the end of the Soviet Union. Ukraine has a lot of problems, but shit, I don’t want to see it destroyed and wiped off the map. You know what I mean? This needs to end. I mean, we’re supposed to be anti-war here, and we need to end this war, and we need to end it immediately.

Ani White: Thanks for coming on.

Eric Draitser: Thank you so much for having me.

Ani White: Yeah, and thanks, everyone, for listening. In place of our usual request for Patreon contributions, we suggest donating to the Ukrainian horizontal volunteer group, Operation Solidarity, at Operation-Solidarity.org. Goodnight, and good luck.

Nationalism and authoritarianism in the Balkans

by BYRON CLARK. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy.

Milorad Dodik, president of the “Republika Srpska” entity within Bosnia

The violence that occurred in the western Balkans in the 1990s has shaped the region’s politics to this day. An uneasy peace has been maintained but as Russia acts on its imperial ambitions in Ukraine Putin’s support of groups in the Balkans who glorify the war criminals who committed atrocities against the region’s Muslim populations and harbour desires for ethnostates means that violence could once again erupt.

Following the breakup of Yugoslavia into nation states, ethnically-Serb separatists in the new state of Bosnia carried out a genocide of the predominantly Muslim Bosniak population with the goal of creating a Greater Serbia in the region. Those events gave the world the euphemism “ethnic cleansing” and led to the deaths of over 100,000 people. The conflict ended with an agreement that saw Bosnia governed by a tripartite presidency representing the country’s three major ethnic groups- Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s Serb-dominated autonomous region, denies that any genocide took place, describing it as a “myth” and a “deception.” He has long been advocating for the region’s secession, to become part of Serbia.

Dodik has chastised members of the European Parliament for not opposing the “Bosnian Islamic state” he believes Muslim Bosniaks are planning.[1] At the meeting where he made those comments he was echoed by Dragan Čović, leader of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina political party, and a former member of the tripartite presidency, who joined Dodik in blaming Bosniaks for trying to establish “a unitary Islamic state”.

In February Dodik moved to pull the Republika Srpska out of key national institutions, such as the tax system and judiciary. He also announced plans to set up a separate military, something the Washington Post described as essentially resurrecting the forces that carried out the massacre of eight thousand people in Srebrenica in 1995. Over the past fifteen years Dodik has cultivated a relationship with Russia, which has served the interests of both his secessionist movement and the Kremlin.[2] Last December, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to support Bosnian Serbs in their disputes over power-sharing. Russian investment in Republika Srbska has ensured a cheap source of raw resources for Moscow, and established a useful strategic offshore satellite. Following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU almost doubled the peacekeeping force in Bosnia as a precautionary measure.[3]

The Biden administration had announced new sanctions against Dodik in January, accusing him of “corrupt activities” and undermining the U.S.-brokered Dayton accord which ended the war in 1995 and established the tripartite presidency.

Writing in 2014, Bosnian political scientist Jasmin Mujanović described Dodik as “Moscow’s man in Banja Luka”.[4] In light of the situation in Ukraine Dodik has advocated for Bosnia-Herzegovina to remain neutral in the conflict – a decision that requires the backing of all three presidency members.[5] The two others, Šefik Džaferović and Željko Komšić support sanctions against Russia. Dodik has accused them of toppling the constitution and hence the state, with Komšić responding that Dodik was implementing Putin’s plan of destabilisation.[6] This view was shared by Džaferović, who told The Guardian that Dodik:

is encouraged in his behaviour by Russia, which is always keen on showing that it can destabilise the soft underbelly of the EU and NATO. These are dark days for Europe and the whole world. We are witnessing something that is horrible. We saw a similar horror here in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s.[7]

Neighbouring Serbia is “definitely back on the path towards strongman rule” according to Jasmin Mujanović. Aleksandar Vučić has served as president since 2017. Early in his term he was the target of protest as a result of clamping down on free media and on NGOs critical of the government, and by labelling large segments of Serbia’s parliamentary opposition as anti-state elements. Vučić has attempted to maintain close relationships with both Western Europe and Putin’s Russia.[8] Tabloids loyal to him have spent the last five years spreading pro-Putin propaganda. Protesters waving Russian flags and carrying pictures of Putin have marched in Belgrade to demonstrate their support for Russia.

Far-right groups have been among the protesters. Damnjan Knezevic of the People’s Patrol spoke at one rally wearing the letter Z on his jacket, the letter has become a symbol of support for Russian militarism. The Kremlin-backed bikers’ club Night Wolves also participated, as did a number of individuals previously accused of fighting alongside Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Mladen Obradovic, leader of the banned Serbian far-right group Obraz described Russia as “a beacon of freedom.” claiming that “That is why we, the Serbs, have an obligation to stand by our Mother Russia.”

“Since they first went out into the streets, they have always advocated for ‘Mother Russia’ and claimed that Serbia belongs with Russia, not in the European Union,” Darko Sper told BIRN (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network).[9] Sper is an activist with the NGO coalition Civic Vojvodina who have organised rallies in support of Ukraine.

The crowd at the rally chanted the names of Vladimir Putin and Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic, who is currently serving a life sentence for his role in the Srebeneca genocide.

“The Serbian people have not forgotten all that Vladimir Putin did for the survival of the Serbian people,” claimed Srdjan Letic, who travelled from the Bosnian town of Brcko to attend the rally in Belgrade. Letic is the leader of Sveti Georgije. The group claims that they carry out humanitarian work- with the help of two cars presented as a gift by the Russian embassy in Bosnia. Notably Letic was convicted in 2007 of falsifying banknotes and trading in weapons.

Russians wanting to leave the country have found Serbia to be one of the only options on the continent, with regular flights leaving Russia for Serbia at a time when other countries have banned them, but emigrants aiming to flee the regime are then finding themselves among some of its strongest supporters. “Some locals tell me they support Russia when they learn I am from Russia.” a former travel agent now living in Belgrade told AFP. “They say it to express their support, but it turns out this support extends to supporting Putin and his actions and the war.”[10]

Vučić’s regime has backed the U.N. resolution that deploring Russia’s aggression, but rejected sanctions on Russia. A stance Politico described as trying “to take his balancing act to a new level”.[11] The relationship between Russia and Serbia predates Vučić. In 1999 Russia opposed NATO’s bombing of Serbia (Putin has more recently cited the NATO bombing, which did not have U.N. Security Council approval, in attempting to justify his military incursion into Ukraine.)

NATOs intervention in Kosovo, where Serbia was persecuting the predominantly Muslim ethnic Albanian population arguably prevented a repeat of the genocide that had occurred in neighbouring Bosnia four years prior. “The atrocities of the 1990s had taught many American opinion makers that they could not simultaneously demand both an end to genocide and a policy of non-intervention.” wrote Samantha Power in A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. “Diplomacy without the meaningful threat of military force had too often failed to deter abuse”. NATO bombing in Serbia was not done for purely humanitarian reasons, according to Power, and likely would not have occurred without the perceived threat to US interests.

Kosovo president Vjosa Osmani told The Guardian that Russia is attempting to destabilise the western Balkans.[12] Prime Minister Albin Kurti believes that the country is significant in Putin’s plan to expand Russian power in Europe “He wants the state of Kosovo to fail in order to show that NATO success was temporary, just like in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In early March the Bosnian branch of the Night Wolves organised a rally in Trebinje in southern Bosnia. Deputy leader Goran Tadic – who is the official driver of Republika Srpska energy and mining minister Petar Djokic – was in attendance, carrying a Russian flag. The Night Wolves also had a presence at a rally in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, alongside members of the Serb nationalist Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement. The original Chetniks were Serbian nationalists that collaborated with the Nazis in fighting communist Partisans during the second world war. The Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement has been accused of financing the travel of volunteer fighters from the Balkans to eastern Ukraine. Russia wants to maintain a sphere of influence in eastern Europe, a buffer zone between the Russian Federation and the countries in the European Union (and/or NATO) regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine, it will likely continue to exert influence over the nations of the Balkans via its support for Serbian nationalists and far-right groups, this could be disastrous for the region’s minority Muslim population.


[1] https://www.boell.de/en/2022/03/28/eu-must-stop-appeasing-putins-puppets-bosnia

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/lidiakurasinska/2022/02/23/as-the-world-watches-ukraine-possibility-of-disintegration-looms-in-bosnia/?sh=190f0a45410d

[3] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/bosnias-pro-russian-serb-leader-tried-stop-countrys-un-vote-report-2022-03-03/

[4] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/moscows-man-in-banja-luka/

[5] https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/dodik-ready-to-block-bihs-decision-to-join-eus-russia-sanctions/

[6] https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/dodik-tries-to-push-for-bihs-neutral-stance-towards-russia/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/11/russia-may-pressure-serbia-to-undermine-western-balkans-leaders-warn

[8] https://www.politico.eu/article/vladimir-putin-russia-serbia-aleksandar-vucic/

[9] https://balkaninsight.com/2022/03/10/at-pro-russian-balkan-rallies-a-whos-who-of-the-far-right/

[10] https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/03/25/fleeing-putin-russians-resettle-in-pro-kremlin-serbia-a77078

[11] https://www.politico.eu/article/vladimir-putin-russia-serbia-aleksandar-vucic/

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/11/russia-may-pressure-serbia-to-undermine-western-balkans-leaders-warn

Pandemic insignificance: how Germany’s left failed to defend life against capital during the COVID pandemic

By JONNA KLICK. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy.

A “Querdenken” protest in Berlin holding the symbol of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and flying the flag of the German Empire (1871-1918). Right-wing populists often fly the German Empire flag because they refuse to recognise the authority of the existing German Federal Republic.

Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic reached middle Europe it finally happened: I caught the virus. I was sick for two weeks, which I spent mostly in bed, despite three vaccine shots. Getting infected is not surprising right now, since Germany is in the highest wave of COVID-infections since the beginning of the pandemic right now (with more than 1700 infections per 100,000 people per week at the end of March, though it has decreased since then). At the same time, a lot of anti-COVID measures are being lifted, including mandatory masks in shops. I am recovered now, but not all are that lucky. Even though the vaccination gives relatively good protection, people can still suffer from long COVID and especially for vulnerable groups (e.g., with previous illnesses) there is still a significant risk of a severe course of the disease or death.

This situation is a result of the loud voices of COVID-denialists and individualists, but most of all of the fundamental function of the capitalist state that systematically prioritizes capital’s interests over the health of workers and marginalized groups. In this piece I will look at responses to the pandemic from the left in Germany and try to analyse how it failed to counterpose those forces effectively. Germany may serve as an example here for the situation in many other European countries, but I will focus on Germany since I know more about the situation here and also since it was often called a good example for handling the pandemic during the first COVID wave in 2020.

Germany’s reaction to COVID

When the pandemic started in China or even when the virus infected masses in Italy and also started spreading in Germany, very few people on the German left predicted that it was something that would affect “us” to a huge extent. Only when there was the official recommendation to cancel events with over 1000 participants in the beginning of March 2020, people started to take it seriously. Things went fast then and two weeks later there was a lockdown with most shops closed and one was only allowed to meet one other person outside of one’s own household in public.

This was of course a new situation since this kind of regulation of people’s private lives has not been seen before, at least not in recent decades. However, to most people it soon became clear that COVID was a serious threat that should be acted upon – at least when there were pictures in the news that showed military trucks in Italy transporting dead bodies since the crematoriums were overloaded. So most statements from the left in this first wave tried to find a balance between, on one hand, criticizing authoritarian state measures such as those against people meeting in public, and on the other hand, agreeing on the necessity to fight the virus and calling for health safety measures (sometimes tending to emphasise one or the other position). The anti-authoritarian communist alliance “Ums Ganze” wrote:

The irrationality of capitalism becomes all the more apparent in the crisis: when meetings of more than two people are banned except at work, capitalism shows that it will go over dead bodies for its survival. The biggest corona parties do not take place illegally in playgrounds or parks, but are state-sponsored: every day in open-plan offices, Amazon fulfilment centres and the country’s factories, as well as, not to be forgotten, in the refugee housing facilities where the state cramps the unwanted people together.

https://www.umsganze.org/no-time-to-die-corona-crisis-statement/

Broader interventions in the discourse from the left focussed on calling for health and safety for all. For example, there was a campaign by the anti-racist alliance Seebrücke for the evacuation of the Moria refugee camp in Greece. Since normal demonstrations were not possible, protest took creative and decentralized forms, such as putting shoes on public squares to represent protesters, or holding signs while queuing in front of shops. In the first days of the lockdown, spontaneous networks of mutual aid were also formed; not only by leftist activists, but in many cities they played key roles in them. Those networks organized via messenger groups where people offered to do grocery shopping for people who were either in quarantine or who were elderly of other members of vulnerable groups and did not want to risk an infection while shopping. There was a huge willingness from many people to offer those acts of mutual aid that outnumbered those that needed or wanted it by far.

However, there were also some demonstrations that downplayed or denied the threat of the pandemic. They came mostly from esoteric and conspiracy-theorist milieus and the far right, but also some people from the cultural sectors and leftists participated in them. This combination was quite similar to that of the red-brown “peace protests” that spread over Germany during the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, where those forces had taken a conspiracy-theorist and pro-Putin position.

Neither the party Die Linke (“The Left”) nor the trade unions offered their own answer to the pandemic, but mostly accepted the stance of the government, a coalition of Social Democrats and the conservative CDU/CSU. However, some members of Die Linke, including MPs, sympathized with or participated in the denialist protests.

Quickly, neoliberal voices, e.g., from the liberal party FDP, also called for loosening the restrictions for economic reasons, which many on the left criticized as an attempt to sacrifice the health of workers and marginalized groups for the interests of capital.

However, when the number of cases went down and restrictions were loosened in May, there was no resistance against the loosening, even though some – including on the left – warned that this might be too early. Many people were also happy that there was a partial “return to normal”, and many leftists were happy to be able to do demonstrations and events again, even though many leftists acted more carefully than others. The pandemic was not really an issue that the left or progressive social movements acted upon during the summer of 2020. It was, however, for those reactionary forces that kept on protesting against the restrictions that were still in place, mainly mandatory masks. That movement began to organize mainly under the label of “Querdenken” (“lateral thinking”). There were some counterdemonstrations by Antifa groups, but they were mostly outnumbered by the Querdenken-protesters.

Flattening the curve

By loosening the restrictions as soon as the number of cases went down, the German government like most governments chose a “flatten the curve” strategy. This means that measures are implemented to keep infections low enough to prevent the collapse of the health system, but as long as the health system is not under threat of collapse, infections and deaths are tolerated. This shows that a simple demand for a better health system with more capacity – as good and supportable as it is – is not a sufficient leftist answer to the pandemic. In the context of a “flatten the curve” strategy, more capacity in the health system would actually mean more cases and more deaths since they do not threaten the health system’s collapse. An alternative to the “flatten the curve” strategy is to prevent outbreaks at all, a zero-COVID strategy as implemented by New Zealand but also China in the early waves. A few eco-socialists already called for this during the first wave in Germany and Austria. The third kind of strategy is that of uncontrolled infection, called for by many forces on the far right. This led to mass deaths in countries where the far right is in power, such as Brazil. It was however also adopted by non-far-right governments, like Sweden.

In the context of decisions by governments of capitalist states (China included of course), all three strategies are different attempts to find a balance between two interests: On the one hand, making sure that the population does not get sick or die en masse (because that could bring into question the government’s legitimacy, but also because it needs a relatively healthy population as a workforce); on the other hand, making sure that capitalist production and circulation do not get interrupted for too long, since economic growth is the base of the power of every capitalist state. Capitalist states need economic growth to provide their population with jobs and to earn tax money in order to finance whatever the state wants to do. Which strategy a government chooses, and which is the best way to balance those two interests, may change depending on context, and governments are also capable of making decisions that are bad even from their point of view – especially if there are two potentially conflicting interests. A radical left or Marxist point of view, in my opinion, should prioritize the health of workers and marginalized groups, and work towards an end of the capitalist growth imperative that endangers peoples’ health as well as the environment.

But let’s go back to the course of the pandemic in Germany. In autumn and winter, cases were rising again and got a lot higher than in the first wave. However, the federal government as well as the state governments (who made most decisions concerning the pandemic together) hesitated to decide on another lockdown. In November 2020, they introduced a “lockdown-light” which meant restrictions on the number of people that were allowed to meet, bars and restaurants were closed, but other workplaces as well as shops and schools stayed open. Several voices on the left criticized this imbalance between harsh measures for activities in people’s leisure time and few to no restrictions on most workplaces. That changed only slightly, when a harsher lockdown with shop and school closures was introduced in December as cases kept rising. The virus seems to stop spreading when people do things that raise the GDP, was a common joke in those days. Die Linke mainly criticized that the government instead of the parliament held power over most decisions concerning lockdowns, but besides that it again did not promote a distinct position.

It was scientists across Europe who acted more politically than most politically active leftists in this situation by publishing the call “Contain Covid” on 19 December, arguing for a zero-COVID-strategy. Finally, some leftists from Germany but also other countries in Europe spoke out in favour of that strategy and formed the campaign “Zero Covid”. They called for a just shutdown accompanied by a redistribution of wealth, and stressed the importance of also shutting down workplaces and lifting patents on the vaccines that slowly started to be available. However, no bigger organization supported “Zero Covid”, it consisted mainly of individual leftist intellectuals and activists from undogmatic, libertarian communist, eco-socialist and Trotskyist traditions. Many other leftists from different factions ranging from Die Linke to anarchists criticized “Zero Covid” for demanding “authoritarian” state measures. The question of how to implement a “Zero Covid” strategy was also debated within the campaign. The campaign did manage to make their voice heard and was debated in newspapers, despite not being a movement with a presence on the streets. It is hard to say if it achieved anything besides that. At least, there was now a distinct leftist position regarding the pandemic, while previously the discussion was only between the line of the government and calls for loosening restrictions from the right. Maybe “Zero Covid” thus managed to prevent a quicker loosening in spring 2021, but the implementation of a proper Zero Covid strategy never seemed even close to being carried out.

“Free Left”, conservative left

Warmer temperatures as well as vaccinations brought cases down in summer 2021. Vaccination now started to be the main issue concerning the pandemic. Querdenken, which had been full of anti-vaxxers from the beginning, now made this their main concern, while leftists – no matter how their position had otherwise been on measures against the pandemic – mainly called for lifting the patents and making the vaccines accessible globally. However, there were no mass protests for that demand, even though Germany is until today one of the main forces globally to uphold the “necessity” of patents for the COVID vaccines. There were also some vaccine-sceptical voices on the left, the most prominent being the politician Sahra Wagenknecht from Die Linke. Wagenknecht is a picture book example of conservative leftism (she even claims that term for herself) and takes over every reactionary talking point that becomes popular. Some leftists even formed an outright red-brown organization, the “Freie Linke” (“free left”) and participated in Querdenken-protests. They seem to come from different factions of the left, including autonomists and anarchists, but mainly from the conservative leftist crowd of Sahra Wagenknecht-supporters. A critical investigative research by the anarchist podcasters “Übertage” who participated in their meetings revealed a wild melange of Marxist jargon and far-right conspiracy theories in the talking points of “Freie Linke”. It also showed that “Freie Linke” is well connected to the leadership of Querdenken.

After the federal elections in October 2021, a new government was formed consisting of Social Democrats, Greens and the liberal FDP. The latter had been the party most critical of anti-COVID measures (with the exception of the far right AfD who took more extreme talking points and tried to be the parliamentary arm of Querdenken).

During winter 2021/22 with a high number of COVID cases, there were thus only very few restrictions, most of which only concerned unvaccinated people. Fortunately, the vaccines prevented a lot of severe cases and the number of COVID patients in intensive care units was no higher than in the previous winter. Since the collapse of the health system was thus prevented, the strategies of “flatten the curve” and unrestricted contamination are now becoming the same, and the government is tolerating high numbers of infections and most restrictions are lifted. With the exception of some hashtag-campaigns, there is no resistance against this development and critical voices, e.g., from “Zero Covid” seem to be rather insignificant in public discourse. The war in Ukraine is now also overshadowing almost any other issue. Some of the COVID-denialists, including “Freie Linke” are now also shifting to this issue, and adopting reactionary Putin-apologist positions. At the same time, most on the left are struggling to take a clear stance in solidarity with Ukrainian resistance against Russian invasion. One could see a parallel here between the relative insignificance of the left in the face of the pandemic as well as in the face of Russian imperialism – but here is not the place to elaborate on that, and I will focus on the pandemic.

Where was the left response?

So what are the reasons why the left did not manage to take a clear stance for defending the health of workers and marginalized groups against the interests of capital and the capitalist state?

On the one hand, there seems to be a general problem that “we” as leftist groups, organizations or movements are not very good at reacting to new situations, to crises that we may not have foreseen and where we would have to develop a new analysis and act upon it. If the left reacts at all it is often by saying things it has said before and thinks are somehow fitting for the current crisis, e.g., “more money for the healthcare system” when the pandemic hits or “against all wars” when Russia invades Ukraine. And those slogans are often right, but they still fail to really answer the questions that new complex situations pose. It is still an open question to me how we can develop ways to organize, analyse and react in situations that we did not prepare for before. But it is crucial that we pose ourselves this question and look for answers since if we are not able to act in historical turning points, we will not have a meaningful impact on the course of history (in the direction of emancipatory goals) at all.

However, I think there are also some specific issues that one can point out concerning the pandemic. I will first focus on those on the left that opposed or at least did not support a “Zero Covid”-position and tended towards playing down the pandemic, or even went into alliances with the far-right and conspiracy theorists.

One of these problems is that there is a lack of understanding for natural processes like the exponential growth of virus infections, as eco-socialist and “Zero Covid”-initiator Christian Zeller also points out. The virus is not something that we can negotiate with. The range to make compromises between different goals, e.g., of not limiting “personal freedoms” and of containing the virus, is limited by the virus’s feature to grow exponentially once it is allowed to do. Most politics, and here I mean mainstream politics, are concerned about making compromises between different goals. This becomes catastrophic when natural forces are ignored, which is also true for climate change. Concerning climate change, the left is often good at pointing out this problem, but when it came to the pandemic many left positions actually reproduced the same problem. This problem is deepened in some factions of the left by a postmodernist approach of viewing reality as primarily constructed through discourse. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who ignores the reality of the virus and sees the crisis as primarily a discourse used to justify biopolitical control, is an example of how postmodernism can go dangerously wrong. While there are some good insights from poststructuralist and postmodernist theories about discourse, the left needs to be able to analyse the materiality of the metabolism between human and nature if it wants to be able to answer to the crises set off by capitalist human-nature relations.

Another problem is the question of how we analyse the state. Anarchism sometimes tends to see the state as an institution that simply oppresses, dominates and controls people out of pure evil. This kind of view lacks a materialist analysis of the role of the state within capitalist society, meaning that the main function is actually to secure good conditions for capital accumulation. While the former view tends to only criticize oppressive things that the state does, e.g., restrictions on how many people are allowed to meet during a pandemic, a materialist analysis can also analyse and criticize the state’s inaction when it comes to protecting people’s health. While both views conclude that the state cannot be used for our ends and that we need to fight for the things we want against the state and finally abolish it, they come to quite different conclusions when looking at how the state deals with the pandemic.

Sometimes connected to this tendency within Anarchism is an individualist understanding of freedom. The state then oppresses my individual freedom to do whatever I want. This notion of freedom is not something specifically anarchist (and social anarchist currents do not share it), but it is indeed the mainstream liberal bourgeois understanding of freedom. The pandemic showed that any emancipatory concept of freedom needs to centre the dependency between us all. If it is “freedom” to go around unmasked and infect everyone with COVID, this cannot be a useful concept for the left. Instead, we should understand freedom as the collective capacity to form our social relations in a way that allows us to care for each other.

Those forces on the left that sympathized or participated in the Querdenken protests shared all of these problems, and in addition also that of a lazy populism that supports every position that is being shouted in the streets, no matter how reactionary it is. Interestingly, this position is itself inconsistent since during the pandemic, the Querdenken position was always a minority, even though a loud one. At most times, the majority either supported the state’s anti-COVID measures or actually thought they were not strong enough.

On the other hand, those on the left that did support a “Zero Covid” position also have to ask ourselves why this did not become a significant force. The fact that a lot of people and organizations on the left did not share this position can only be a partial answer. Another part is that the problem lies in the matter of the pandemic itself: People who are not afraid of getting infected or infecting others have no problem of taking to the streets in masses while the more careful people who tend to support a “Zero Covid” strategy also tend to hesitate more before going to protests. But the insignificance of “Zero Covid” also points to the same problem that causes the relative insignificance of radical leftist positions in general: our groups and organizations are small and barely rooted within the working class. From a materialist analysis of the capitalist state, it is clear that publishing a call alone will never move the state towards shutting down the economy. The only way to introduce a “Zero Covid” strategy in Germany would have been by shutting down the economy ourselves through mass strikes. Most of the intellectuals who signed the call probably knew that. It is still good that they did publish this call, since pointing out alternatives to the status quo even when there are now forces to push through these alternatives has a value in itself and maybe makes it more possible to do things differently in the future.

It is still unclear how the COVID pandemic will develop in the next couple of years and if new variants will make it more dangerous again. But it is clear that in the future, capitalist agriculture as well as climate change will lead to more frequent pandemics. That is why we should try to learn from what happened during the COVID pandemic.

Is the internet the problem?

By ANI WHITE, doctoral candidate in Media and Communication. From the new issue of Fightback magazine on “Ideology” – please subscribe.

La-prochaine-révolution-internet-sera-celle-des-contenus

The utopian moment of the internet seems dead. Throughout the 21st century, various negative features of the internet-as-we-know-it have become apparent: surveillance, the commodification of social life, algorithmic bubbles, ‘Fake News’ and conspiracy theories, and the far right’s effective use of the internet for recruitment. Faced with algorithmic capitalism fostering increasingly toxic content, we may be reminded of Professor Farnsworth’s words from Futurama: “Technology isn’t intrinsically good or evil. It’s how it’s used. Like the Death Ray.”

Yet utopian accounts persist, emphasising decentralisation, post-scarcity, new sharing and collaborative practices, and replacement of labour offering the possibility of a post-work society: socialists such as Paul Mason and Nick Srnicek have argued that the internet prefigures ‘post-capitalism’, although the contradictions of ‘platform capitalism’ must be resolved to get there.[1] The purpose of this article is not to advance a purely utopian or dystopian account of the internet, but rather to enquire into the broader social relations the internet reveals.

In this historical moment, the social relations revealed by the internet do appear largely dysfunctional. Yet this may not be determined by the internet. A cross-national psychological study found that while the internet does not necessarily make people more hostile – people who are hostile offline tend to be hostile online – the behaviour of hostile people is more visible online than offline.[2] A similar principle may apply with misinformation and backlash: this is not a problem that originates with the internet, but the internet certainly provides a platform for it. The contemporary backlash against vaccination has precedent: mandatory seatbelts,[3] mandatory helmets (which were ruled by the Illinois Supreme Court as an unconstitutional restriction of personal liberty),[4] and drink-driving laws[5] all received a backlash when introduced. In the early-to-mid 20th century, the far right took advantage of the popular media channels of the time – such as the printing press, posters, and cinema (such as the work of Leni Riefenstahl) – to propagate conspiracy theories and far-right ideology. Contemporary anti-Semitic memes in particular bear remarkable resemblances to this ‘classical’ anti-Semitic propaganda, in large part because memers directly borrow from it.

Yet internet platforms have distinct features that reward certain kinds of content over others. Algorithms often reward negative content. Anti-capitalist gaming commentator Jim Sterling, who has achieved some success with 850K followers on YouTube, notes that they are often criticised for only producing negative content, yet their negative content receives the most engagement. Sterling comparatively cites the viewing and engagement figures of their own videos to demonstrate this, with more positive videos receiving less engagement.[6] Facebook’s algorithms, ranking ‘reaction’ emojis such as the angry face as five times more valuable than ‘likes’, also seem to have factored into the growth of negative content.[7]

Communist theorist Jodi Dean argues that “the net is not a public sphere”, meaning that it does not serve as a space for rational deliberation and debate. Yet Dean does not bemoan that the net falls short as a “public sphere.” Rather, Dean defines the net as a new “zero institution”, an unavoidable bottom line for all contemporary politics, one which favours contestation over consensus, and argues that political activists should engage on these terms of contestation rather than attempt to turn the web into a rational public sphere.[8] It’s worth noting that the “public sphere” has involved exclusions from the start – the French Revolution, idealised by theorists such as Jürgen Habermas as the birth of modern public discourse,[9] excluded everyone but property-owning European men. Therefore, contention has always been necessary to expand public discourse.[10] Media and Communications theorists Kavada and Poell have recently argued that rather than deliberative national public spheres, the context for contemporary social movements is one of transnational “contentious publicness.”[11]

Yet contentious publicness is often weaponised by the right, particularly the far right. As outlined in Gavan Titley’s essential Is Free Speech Racist?, the far right has proven adept at casting reactionary views as a ‘free speech’ issue, by provoking ritualistic clashes over the ‘right to offend’ that give legitimacy to long-discredited ideas such as race-science.[12] In general, the far right has proven very adept at using the affordances of the internet to propagate its ideology. If nothing else this is demonstrated by the widespread adoption of far-right talking points, such as ‘free speech’ for racists, across the political spectrum: even many professed leftists buy into this framing.

So, in this toxic ideological environment, are we now reduced to pro-government fact-checkers? Fact-checking may be necessary to a point, but it relies on a common agreement about what sources are authoritative, among other related issues. Fact-checking can even be counterproductive, as seen with the backfire effect, where people presented with facts that contradict their views not only reject these facts, but may even defensively strengthen their existing beliefs. For example, a study examining parents’ intent to vaccinate their children found that when presented with facts that contradicted their views, anti-vax parents sometimes become more likely to believe in a link between vaccination and autism.[13]

As an anecdotal example, I recently circulated a study highlighting that over 4 times as many people are offended by ‘Happy Holidays’ (13%) than ‘Merry Xmas’ (3%).[14] Posting this in two separate places prompted two independent response rants about snowflakes offended by ‘Merry Xmas’, the ideological schema apparently preventing any logical engagement with the facts of the article. This is not simply a matter of irrationality, rather all of us have background schemas that can lead us to confirmation bias, seeking out facts (and ‘facts’) that confirm our schemas while ignoring or denying facts that contradict them. This ideological schema also shapes our views on questions like what kind of sources are reliable, meaning that citing ‘reliable sources’ does not necessarily work.

Not all schemas are equally valid. The very visible online denialism regarding COVID has revealed the prevalence of background schemas such as xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and consumer entitlement (as shown by harassment of service workers). In an article on “The Reality of Denial and the Denial of Reality”, Antithesi / cognord note the narcissistic individualist ideological schema revealed in denialist reactions to the pandemic:

Contagious diseases differ from other diseases in a very substantial way: they are by definition social. They presuppose contact, co-existence, a community – even an alienated one. What the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has shown us, however, is that we are in a historical period where social relations are perceived as the burdensome void between solid, closed-up and inviolable individuals. Individualities that are self-determined, non-negotiable, non-contagious. At this point, it makes little difference whether this predicament gets interpreted as signifying the prevalence of a narcissistic character or that of a (neo)liberal imaginary that mystifies the social character of capitalist relations and the subjects who reproduce them…

Instead of a social movement that would fight as much against a management geared to minimise disruption of economic output, as well as for universal and unconditional access to existing protective options (from vaccines to renumerated withdrawal from work) and expanded health care, we have the development of tendencies that demand, in the name of “freedom” and self-determination, the right to pretend that Sars-CoV-2 does not exist.[15]

Although we are forced into a defensive rather than proactive position, the apparently contradictory stance of Aotearoa/New Zealand leftists who’ve previously been critical of the Ardern government now defending key policies stems from a broader pro-public health schema. We support vaccination not because the Ardern government is doing it, but because of the historical record of vaccination as a public health measure (and call governments, including the Ardern government to account where their public health response is inadequate).

Conversely, being right is not enough. We must keep in mind Marx’s reminder that “it is essential to educate the educator”;[16] none of us arrived fully formed socialists, and all of us have something to learn. We need to construct educational spaces beyond the academy that can challenge preconceptions, facilitate informed debate, and work towards shared understanding. It may be possible to create such spaces online with careful moderation, but it’s clear that corporate ‘social media’ platforms are not generally geared towards productive discourse, so we need our own educational infrastructure both online and beyond.

Yet to a point, we can appropriate mainstream platforms for our own purposes. This was made apparent by the social movements of 2011, and more recently by the Black Lives Matter movement, with a central slogan that was popularised via hashtag. Just as neo-reactionary movements are not created by the internet but promoted through it, many have highlighted that the 2011 movements could not accurately be described as ‘Twitter Revolutions’ or ‘Facebook Revolutions’, as they were neither determined nor even primarily organised through social media. Yet they demonstrated that progressive movements can use mainstream platforms effectively. The logic of these platforms tends more toward promotion rather than education, so keeping this in mind, we can use them to supplement other forms of communication and organisation. The internet, including mainstream platforms is necessary but insufficient for any contemporary communication strategy.

We need our own independent projects that transcend corporate social media platforms. Promotion through mainstream platforms must be complemented by the development of independent online platforms, independent media more generally, and ‘traditional’ forms of organising such as doorknocking, strikes, and mass mobilisation. This is more difficult in a pandemic environment, which has tended to force communication and organisation online, an acceleration of an existing trend that has both pros (such as the reduced barrier of geography) and cons (such as the reduced capacity to take direct action). Yet it’s also possible to mobilise relatively safely in ‘meatspace’, as demonstrated by mass Black Lives Matter rallies which implemented health measures such as masking – there is no evidence that these protests led to increased spread of COVID-19.[17]

The internet is no more the problem than previous media forms such as mass printing, cinema, or television was the problem – and you could certainly find many arguing that they were (such as Guy Debord in “Society of the Spectacle”[18]). Yet leftists were able to utilise media forms such as mass printing: this was the main infrastructure for mediated political communication, as the internet is now. The internet also has affordances that these prior forms did not, such as the greater ease of circulation across the political spectrum. More than purely utopian or dystopian accounts of the internet, we need to identify how social contradictions play out through and beyond digital platforms, and to develop strategies with an awareness of both these platforms’ advantages and limitations. As the post-capitalists argue,[19] we can also seek to construct a different kind of internet, driven not by the self-serving imperatives of Silicon Valley but by sharing and collaborative practices for social ends.


[1] Mason, Paul. PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. Allen Lane. 2015; Srnicek, Nick. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Verso. 2015

[2] Bor, Alexander; Petersen, Michael Bang. “The Psychology of Online Political Hostility: A Comprehensive, Cross-National Test of the Mismatch Hypothesis.” American Political Science Review, First View , pp. 1 – 18.

[3] Ackerman, Daniel. “Before face masks, Americans went to war against seat belts.” 27 May 2020, Business Insider Australia (https://tinyurl.com/mandatory-seatbelts). Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[4] Jones, Marian Moser; Bayer, Ronald. “Paternalism & Its Discontents: Motorcycle Helmet Laws, Libertarian Values, and Public Health.” Am J Public Health. 2007 February; 97(2): 208–217.

[5] Lerner, Barron H. “How Americans Learned to Condemn Drunk Driving.” What It Means To Be American (Smithsonian and Arizona State University), 17 January 2019 (https://tinyurl.com/drinkdriving-backlash). Web. Accessed 21/12/2021

[6] Sterling, Jim. “Mister Negative (The Jimquisition). 31 March 2020, YouTube (https://tinyurl.com/sterling-negative). Web. Accessed 21/12/2021

[7] Merrill, Jeremy B; Oremus, Will. “Five points for anger, one for a ‘like’: How Facebook’s formula fostered rage and misinformation.” 26 October 2021, The Washington Post (tinyurl.com/fb-angry). Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[8] Dean, Jodi. “Why the Net is Not a Public Sphere.” Constellations 10(1):95 – pp112 · April 2003

[9] Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An enquiry into a category of bourgeois society, translated by Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. MIT Press. 1962.

[10] Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text, No. 25/26 (1990). JStor (https://www.jstor.org/stable/466240). Web. Accessed 12/03/2018.

[11] Kavada, Anastasia; Poell, Thomas. “From Counterpublics to Contentious Publicness: Tracing the Temporal, Spatial and Material Articulations of Popular Protest Through Social Media.” Communication Theory 00, 2020: pp1-19, published by Oxford University Press on behalf of International Communication Association.

[12] Titley, Gavan. Is Free Speech Racist? Polity Press. 2020

[13] Brendan Nyhan et al, Effective Messages in Vaccine Prevention: A Randomized Trial, Pediatrics Journal, April 2014: https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article-abstract/133/4/e835/32713/Effective-Messages-in-Vaccine-Promotion-A?redirectedFrom=fulltext

[14] Ingraham, Christopher. “Poll: Conservatives most likely to be offended by holiday greetings.” 20 December 2021, The Washington Post (https://tinyurl.com/offended-conservatives). Web. Accessed 20/02/2017

[15] Antithesi/Cognord, “The Reality of Denial and the Denial of Reality.” 9 December 2021, A Contrary Little Quail (https://curedquailjournal.wordpress.com/2021/12/09/the-reality-of-denial-and-the-denial-of-reality/). Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[16] Marx, Karl. “Theses on Feuerbach.” Originally written 1845; originally published as an appendix to Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy in 1888; translated by W. Lough for Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume 1 published by Moscow: Progress Publishers 1969; transcribed for Marxists.org by Zodiac/Brian Baggins, 1995/1999/2002 (https://tinyurl.com/k6b4ce7 ).

[17] Berger, Matt. “Why the Black Lives Matter Protests Didn’t Contribute to the COVID-19 Surge.” 8 July 2020, Healthline (https://www.healthline.com/health-news/black-lives-matter-protests-didnt-contribute-to-covid19-surge). Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[18] Debord, Guy. “Society of the Spectacle.” Marxists.org, written 1967; Translation by Black and Red 1977; Transcription/HTML markup by Greg Adargo (https://tinyurl.com/debord-spectacle). Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[19] Mason, ibid; Srnicek, ibid.

Bringing workers and science together

Review of A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World by Jess Berentson-Shaw (Bridget Williams Books, 2018) by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From the new issue of Fightback magazine on “Ideology” please subscribe.

Cover of "A Matter of Fact"

Reading Jess Berentson-Shaw’s A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World – published in 2018, before the COVID excrement really hit the fan – is eerie, precisely because so much of what she was talking about three years ago is doubly important to understand now. Those of us who are despairing at the way science denialism has infected our communities, movements and families, and how it leads them slowly but inevitably down the fascist rabbit-hole, should take the opportunity to learn its lessons now.

In this review, I want to discuss how Berentson-Shaw’s argument both parallels and adds to the concept of “ideology” as Marxists usually understand it; and consequently, what Berentson-Shaw’s approach to communicating science to a mass audience might mean for the whole project of socialist agitation and propaganda, as we understand it.

Facts and narratives

Jess Berentson-Shaw trained as a public health scientist and describes her agenda as being “how we build public and political support for more inclusive and evidence-based policy” (page 137). Her job, and the project of this book, is to examine why building public support based on evidence and scientific logic faces so many obstacles in a modern media environment. Berentson-Shaw’s colleague at communications non-profit The Workshop[1], Marianne Elliot, puts the problem succinctly in her introduction:

I’ve spent many years trying to communicate research evidence in ways that move people to action… I was trying to persuade people with facts, despite those facts being in conflict with their previous experiences, and the stories they had constructed to make sense of those experiences. (4–6)

Elliot talks about her experience with trying to promote the concept of a rise in basic benefit levels as the best response to child poverty. But all the evidence and social science in the world wasn’t enough to convince people who deeply believed that the needy would simply waste that money on drugs and alcohol. Even people who had grown up in poverty accepted this self-blaming story.

The question of stories – or to put it another way, narrative – is crucial for understanding how ideology works:

People process information (facts or data) more accurately, understand it and engage with it better, when it is conveyed through a narrative – whether that be written, told, painted, danced or acted. Story is retained; data less so…

Narratives are not a simpler form of information – rather, they are complex and enduring. They map well to the way in which our brains process information and lay down memory. Narratives may simply be the default mode of human thinking (91)

Narratives are so resilient because, once established, they effectively filter out information that contradicts them. Narratives are mental models in which:

people build a causal chain of events. If new information seeks to replace a single link in that chain but no other links, then it causes a failure in the mental model. People no longer have a coherent story. It stops making sense, so they reject it. Once a good story is formed, it is very resistant to change because all elements in a good story fit together. (38–9)

More than a decade ago, psychologist Drew Westen noted that “stories always trump statistics, which means the politician with the best stories is going to win”, while author Thomas Frank lamented: “It’s like a French Revolution in reverse in which the workers come pouring down the street screaming more power to the aristocracy.”[2]. Westen and Frank were referring to the G. W. Bush era, a time which seems gentle and rational in retrospect compared to the full-throated embrace of irrationality of the Trump movement. The sad fact is that the narratives of the reactionary Right were getting more public traction than the neoliberal centre, or the radical left, 10 years ago; since then, matters have gotten much worse.

However, while Berentson-Shaw agrees that “a basic understanding of the science of story is an important skill for anyone dealing with, and talking about, good evidence” (108), it’s not just as simple as some argue, that the liberal establishment are just “bad at messaging”. (It’s probably not a coincidence that the people who say things like this are often “messaging experts” themselves, looking for a job.) The great virtue of Berentson-Shaw’s short book is that it explores, in ways backed up by evidence, the reasons why people become prone to believe misinformation and stories which work against solidarity. It’s not enough to simply repeat Marx’s dictum that “the ideas of the ruling class become the ruling ideas” – we need to explore the process by which this social process takes place.

Misinformation: supply and demand

In my article on the spread of Red-Brown ideas in the movements in this country and overseas, I was at pains to point out that there was both a “supply and demand” problem with this kind of misinformation.[3] There certainly was and is a very prominent apparatus of government agencies, media outlets and rogue billionaires doing their best to defecate in the meme pool; but all of that could only be effective if it was telling people things they were already happy to believe.

Berentson-Shaw ably discusses both sides of this issue, and points out that there’s nothing new about the rich and powerful sowing disinformation. The New Zealand Herald was founded during the settler government’s wars in the Waikato and Taranaki, with a specific agenda (a “red lens”) of depicting Māori as being bloodthirsty savages and a threat to Pākehā colonists, thus justifying wars of confiscation against them (21). Corporate science denial – a set of tools developed originally in the 1960s by tobacco companies, and more recently deployed to prevent significant action against climate change – is aptly described by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in Merchants of Doubt, and its playbook was being used by anti-vaccination fraudsters such as Andrew Wakefield long before COVID arrived (24-5).

At the heart of misinformation is often power and money, followed up by a human appetite for the shocking or controversial. Misinformation is used to subvert democracy, to sell the cultural stories that maintain people’s relative position and power in society, to make money, or because people fear change that truth brings with it. (22)

Media bias and social media algorithms also help to shovel disinformation in front of people’s eyes, of course; research has indicated that:

false news was more novel and therefore more sharable… the structure of new media fosters the quick and wide dissemination of misinformation and a resilience to correction (21, 27).

The Marxist concept of ideology – whereby capitalist ideals of individualism and competition become seen as “natural”, even where they contradict ordinary people’s tendencies to solidarity – is recalled where Berentson-Shaw complains about “wider social narratives” discouraging pro-social behaviours:

One of the barriers to people being able to express or act on their pro-social values is when the wider social narrative acts in opposition. It does not make it impossible, but it certainly makes it harder to act on pro-social values, and feeds into a perception that there is a gap between an individual’s prosocial values and everyone else’s values. (109)

But the other side of the coin with which Berentson-Shaw deals are the psychological factors which make individuals, or communities, liable to resist facts and truth and accept misinformation. It’s worth paying particular attention to some of these, because socialist activists or even intellectuals are certainly not immune from these cognitive traps.

The most important thing to remember is that – in contradiction to the “just-so” stories of neoclassical economics – people are not simple rational calculators of their own best interests:

most people incorporate technical and scientific issues quickly into our thinking using mental shortcuts. Rather than rationally weigh the strength of evidence in a scientific claim we analyse it immediately using our values, beliefs and feelings as a guide. Our emotional response is critical to developing the initial impression of validity. (17)

Berentson-Shaw mentions concepts familiar to anyone who’s dealt with the questions of how people form their beliefs, such as “cognitive dissonance” and “confirmation bias” (37). But an additional factor that paradoxically helps misinformation to spread is that we trust our friends – or, at least, we assume that people with whom we are having a friendly interaction are telling the truth. When alienated people “go down the rabbit hole” and find a supportive community in a conspiracy theory or even a cult, it becomes increasingly hard to re-join the “reality-based community”.

With many options to choose from, people can seek sources that only confirm their existing beliefs and worldviews. Incorrect information is more likely to go unchallenged and echo chambers and ‘cyber ghettos’ are built that create a more polarised public – polarisation being the strengthening of one’s original position or attitude, measured by how absolute that position is. (27)

Another factor is for loud minorities to be able to pretend to be majorities, and to build consensus around themselves (something we can see happening in real time with anti-vaxxers and transphobes on social media):

Repetition can become particularly problematic in social media contexts… Pluralistic ignorance is when the frequency and volume of a minority-held belief leads the majority of people, who do not share this belief, to mistakenly believe that it is what most people think… As a consequence, they move to accepting that minority belief out of a desire to fit in… Conversely, this frequency can mean those in the minority believe they hold the majority opinion – the ‘false consensus effect’. (43–4)

Perhaps the most important factor in Berentson-Shaw’s account, however, is the role of values and beliefs in what kind of narratives people tend to believe:

Where facts and issues become very polarised – for example, genetic modification, climate change, immunisation, gender pay inequities – there tends to be a clear conflict over values and beliefs… What the knowledge-gap literature shows is that people can be aware of, even understand, the evidence, but it may not match what they believe. Or they do not see it sitting well with the values they feel are most important. (28)

To illustrate this, Berentson-Shaw discusses the contrasting values of those who hold anti-vax ideas, and those who accepted the case for anthropogenic climate change. Anti-vaxxers were “much more likely to believe in the conspiracies, highly valued their personal/individual freedom and had strong individualistic values”, while in contrast climate change believers were “people who prioritised egalitarian and communitarian values”, more likely to “accept restrictions on commerce and industry as a way to mitigate the risks” (30).

There’s a rather cynical saying from the world of small-group socialist politics: programme generates theory. That is – far from the conceit of “scientific” socialism that political ideas emerge from study of the facts, evidence, analysis and logic – groups usually decide what they want to do first, then come up with rationalisations and justifications for it. This seems to have similarities to what Berentson-Shaw argues: that beliefs “tend to be contextually dependent and uphold our values” (61), rather than the other way around. You can’t argue someone out of a position that they weren’t argued into.

Against intellectual elitism

Berentson-Shaw knows from her own experience that having “truth” and “facts” on your side isn’t quite enough when you’re trying to make a public argument:

I also became quite rigid about ‘scientific truth’. That is not unexpected when your job is to find only the best evidence researchers can produce and eviscerate the rest. I did not easily listen to the concerns of others about science, or bend to consider their experience… I considered more the lived experience of others, what they value and why. I understood that my facts might not matter to people, regardless of how true they were. (9)

This is refreshing humility coming from a trained scientist.The progress of the COVID Delta outbreak in Aotearoa New Zealand has tragically shown the limits of “official science” in communicating with marginalised communities – particularly with Māori, who have no reason to trust anything coming out of a colonial state and its intellectual apparatus.[4] Berentson-Shaw understands the problem with the inherent biases of the scientific institutions themselves:

It is well documented that science itself can be biased in regard to who gets to do research, whose issues are researched and what questions are asked and how… In New Zealand, we are coming to see that science is not neutral across ethnicity, race and gender. …We are working to ensure that indigenous Māori knowledge – mātauranga Māori – and European systems of science work in partnership. (32)

It’s not just a matter of getting the information out there – if “the phone is off the hook” (to use a rather outdated metaphor) in the target communities, then the message will not get through:

The information deficit model of communication assumes that we (as purveyors of evidence) simply need to plug a knowledge gap to ensure that people both understand and act… Knowledge is rarely a good predictor of people believing in evidence or acting on it. Research has found that once a range of personal and cultural factors are taken into account, there is actually a very weak and, in some cases, negative relationship between knowledge and attitudes to evidence. (16)

All the most successful lies are based around a kernel of truth, and the kernel of truth upon which fascistic disinformation goes something like this: the neoliberal corporate and technocratic elite aren’t on the same side as ordinary people, and you can’t trust what they say. This could almost be mistaken for a dumbed-down version of Marxist analysis of how ideology works under capitalism. The mischief comes with the reason why this is supposed to happen. Instead of a materialist discussion of how the ideas of the ruling class become the ruling ideas, the Right-wing populists offer conspiracy theories. The effect of these is to build an alliance between the most oppressed and some of their worse oppressors – as “the ordinary people”, bearers of “traditional values” or “common sense”– against a supposed conspiracy of degenerate Others who act out of sheer wickedness, or perhaps allegiance to Satan.

Some argue that the problem is a lack of “critical thinking” skills among the masses. Berentson-Shaw agrees that “putting in place the building blocks of critical thinking when people are young is key” (47). However, she also stresses the factor of sheer overload in the modern mediascape:

The mountain of new information that comes the way of both professionals and the general public, and the presence or absence of the necessary skills to apply to that information, is perhaps less relevant than simply having insufficient mental bandwidth and time to consider it all (19)

It’s probably also worth noting that conspiracy theorists think they’re doing “critical thinking” when what they’re doing is reflexively dismissing official sources, while effortlessly swallowing memes they saw on an anonymous Facebook account. Berentson-Shaw distinguishes scepticism, which is real and valuable, from this kind of combination of extreme distrust and extreme gullibility.

Eerie predictions

Reading this at the peak of New Zealand’s COVID Delta outbreak was eerie at times. The parts which are most striking are the sections dealing with vaccine resistance and associated conspiracy theories – which have been a problem long before COVID brought the body count into the millions worldwide. Berentson-Shaw’s account of scientific bureaucracies neglecting to deal with the values and beliefs of their audiences, and then wondering why “the facts” are rejected, uncannily predicts exactly the kind of holes in the science communication response which have led to resistance to vaccination and public health measures, particular among alienated Māori, and its exploitation by fascist opportunists such as Brian Tamaki. I almost jumped to see a reference to the work on science communication of Dr Shaun Hendy (107) – who since August has become one of the most prominent modellers of the Delta outbreak in the New Zealand media, and recipient of death threats from the anti-vax mob.[5] It’s also chilling to realise that, long before COVID:

In a study of YouTube videos, in which the search terms ‘vaccination’ and ‘immunisation’ were used, around half of the videos returned in the search were unfavourable to immunisation and the content of those that were unfavourable to immunisation contradicted the science. (27)

Those who had very unfavourable beliefs about the science of vaccination were much more likely to believe in the conspiracies, highly valued their personal/individual freedom and had strong individualistic values. Education and other individual characteristics relating to people’s position in society or experiences did not feature in their attitudes towards vaccination (30)

Truly, COVID has brought into sharp public relief these issues of disinformation and communication which were the concern only of political obsessives and “ivory tower elites” a couple of years ago; in the same way, it has highlighted the massive disconnection of Māori from not only New Zealand’s public health system, but even the sphere of public debate. Misinformation is a plague as deadly as COVID, and the two reinforce each other as they consume the most marginalised communities.

What’s in it for us?

Berentson-Shaw is writing from the point of view of a science communicator, rather than a political theorist. Once upon a time, Marxism used to pride itself on being “scientific” – Australasian communist author Jean Devanny once gave it the delightful name of “working-class science and philosophy”. But whether we see ourselves as scientific or not, we have the goal of communicating ideas and facts that (we believe) will help working people and oppressed communities defend themselves and organise to create a better world. Like science communicators, we are struggling against not only deliberate misinformation spread by governments, corporates and their paid “communications experts”; but against cognitive biases, communication difficulties, and what Berentson-Shaw describes as ”the wider social narrative act[ing] in opposition” (109).

Berentson-Shaw is clear about the stakes involved, in terms that socialists would heartily endorse:

If people do not act on good information, if misinformation prevails, if we cannot get traction on big and difficult issues with science and good evidence to guide us, then climate change goes unmitigated, children go unvaccinated, gender inequity persists, negative stereotypes prevent action on racism, poverty is perpetuated (33–4)

Berentson-Shaw’s essential insight for socialists as well as science communicators is that communication has to go both ways.

Trust and credibility involves relationship-building. Understanding the extent of that erosion requires that individual researchers, communicators and institutions who have information to convey first listen, attend to, and connect with the experiences of people before they can talk (33)

The equal and opposite danger to the arrogant scientist (or sectarian activist) lecturing people on what’s good for them is the opportunist pundit who tells people what they want to hear:

One way to overcome this kind of unhelpful emotional response, the research shows, is to avoid making threats to people’s beliefs. That however has its problems, as to simply avoid challenges to people’s beliefs to keep people’s feelings in a useful zone does not always allow people to see new and more accurate information…

What the values literature adds is that instead of simply avoiding threats to people’s beliefs or engaging only with their emotions, if we prioritise helpful values then it is possible to engage emotion constructively. (73)

The goal is therefore to understand the values held by a given target audience, and to craft a narrative whereby those positive values are reinforced by the evidence and factual information being provided.

Berentson-Shaw identifies two symmetrical mistakes that communicators can make. One is known by the traditional name of “preaching to the choir”:

It is spectacularly easy to fall into the trap of only ever communicating with people who value and believe the same things as you… We call these people ‘our base’, and communicating directly with them is called ‘activating our base’… However, we cannot focus exclusively on the base to develop and deliver messages – we need others to see the evidence. (83).

On the other hand, it’s also important not to overstate the importance of the “rabbit hole community”. A lot of attention has been put on how to get people out of the rabbit hole – similar to great debates on how to “deradicalize” someone who has become a white supremacist or a violent jihadi. To overly concentrate on this group, however, neglects the fact that it is still a tiny minority:

One danger of polarisation to communicators is that it drives them to focus only on the vocal minority – polarised people. The ‘silent majority’ of bystanders is overlooked and we can end up talking past, over or around the very people we most need to connect with (28)

The political priority should therefore be “building a fence around the rabbit hole” – preventing more ordinary people from falling in, focusing on that section of the population whom Berentson-Shaw refers to as “the persuadables” (83).

Berentson-Shaw argues that a problematic prevailing myth in current society is “the values perception gap” whereby we imagine that other people are more selfish and less caring than they really are: “we underestimate the care we have for each other, and this prevents collective action on the big social and environmental issues of our time.” (78–9) Conversely, “using messages that primarily engage with economic or fear-based arguments as a reason to believe evidence and act has little evidence of impact” (79) – something that activists both in the field of public health and climate change activism might pause to consider.

It seems as if Jess Berentson-Shaw has ended up dealing with the question that Rosa Luxemburg posed more than 100 years ago – of bringing together science and ordinary people (perhaps not “workers”, precisely). Her approach is, in the best sense of the term, a democratic one; neither elitist nor populist, neither telling the great unwashed what’s good for them, nor backing away from challenging bad ideas for fear of unpopularity. She emphasises the need for “public participation”, which, she stresses,

…is utterly different from consultation, consultation being a very didactic process with clear power imbalances between people. At their best, public participatory processes are iterative, deliberative processes that bring together research experts with community experts and political experts and give them equal voice… (80)

Deliberative processes may help uncover the values involved in the consideration of research and make clear what the public is concerned about. If we plan to engage people’s values as part of communicating evidence, then which values specific groups prioritise involves a different sort of work (82)

It’s worth quoting Berentson-Shaw’s conclusions in depth, because they seem equally as pertinent to political activists as they are for science communicators:

It is important to first understand the values currently held by those who you most need to connect with and persuade, in order to build a robust approach. Then frame existing ideas about the world … using cognitive and linguistic techniques and technologies to engage the values that are most helpful. A strong narrative is also needed to work with people’s default mental processes for attending to and recalling narrative information, and to convey a whole causal chain of events. To construct a strong narrative we must first understand the existing stories in society. Finally, and most importantly, however, all of this starts with debiasing ourselves as researchers and communicators, finding technologies of humility [emphasis added] to listen to and be receptive to others, and so creating a space in which a better transfer of good information is able to occur. (101)

If a socialist might find something lacking in these conclusions, it may be that Berentson-Shaw might be a tad overconfident in the power of good science communication and participatory processes to overrule the basic ideologies of capitalism. We can heartily agree that “psychology has a role in researching and working to diminish ‘contemporary culture’s focus on consumption, profit, and economic growth” (109-10) – but only alongside and informing a mass democratic movement. That’s surely not a job for the science communicators – but perhaps the political activists can learn.


[1] https://www.theworkshop.org.nz/

[2] BBC News, 30/01/10, “Why do people vote against their own interests?” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8474611.stm

[3] https://fightback.org.nz/2018/05/09/the-red-brown-zombie-plague-part-one/

[4] See for example Flo Kerr’s grim article from October: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/coronavirus/300440848/covid19-vaccination-how-mistrust-shadows-the-rollout-in-a-time-of-crisis

[5] https://www.odt.co.nz/news/national/shaun-hendy-siouxsie-wiles-file-complaint-against-university-auckland