Western Civilization and Its Discontents: “What’s Left?” December 2015, MRR #391


Mistah Kurtz—he dead…

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1902

We need only glance at the awesome population figures predicted for the year 2000, i.e., twenty-eight years from now: seven billion people, only nine hundred million of whom will be white.

Jean Raspail, author of The Camp of Saints, 1972

I’ll put it bluntly: Nothing you love will survive without white people.

Jared Taylor, “An Open Letter to Cuckservatives,” American Renaissance, July 2015

Let’s take two people: Bill Maher and Gavin McInnes. Both are writers, actors, political commentators, media personalities, and comedians of a sort. That’s what they do for a living however, and there the similarities end. These two individuals couldn’t be more different when it comes to what they believe.

Bill Maher calls himself a liberal, albeit one with a libertarian streak, an advocate of decriminalizing if not legalizing most “soft” drugs and prostitution, a pro-choice, pro-feminist, gay-friendly atheist who is anti-racist and against US military interventionism abroad. Gavin McInnes considers himself a conservative with libertarian tendencies, an opponent of legalizing “adult vices” like drugs and prostitution, a pro-life, anti-feminist Catholic with assorted issues about the usual suspects—gays, trans-folk, blacks, illegal immigrants—who likes his wars necessary and just. Funny thing is, despite these obvious political disagreements, Maher and McInnes both agree on a political tenet so fundamental as to constitute a common worldview, the need to defend Western civilization.

Catch Maher’s tirades on Real Time with Bill Maher, or McInnes’s rants on Red Eye and TheRebelMedia, and they sound remarkably alike. Muslims suck. Liberals are brain-dead or self-hating idiots and need to wake up. The West is ashamed or oblivious and needs to cultivate some brass. We’re at war. We need to defend Western civilization, the West, our way of life from those goddamned Mooslims!

This umbrella sentiment—defend Western civilization—held by mainstream left-right-and-center, as well as certain elements on the fringes, relies upon volatile, highly emotional symbols. The Muslim hordes are once again at the gates of Vienna and Poitiers, symbolically speaking. And, there is a search for the next 9/11 to wake us all up. 11/M—the Madrid train bombings of 3/11/05—was the next 9/11, and 7/7—the London bombings of 7/7/05—was the next 9/11. Now, the Paris shootings of 1/8/15 (and 11/13/15) have been equated with 9/11, and the hope was that the events in Paris would act as a rallying point around which the West could marshal its resolve.

A reporter once asked Gandhi: “What do you think about Western civilization?” Gandhi replied: “I think it would be a good idea.” So while I broach the subject in this column, I can only scratch its surface. Consider for instance just the distinctions between Maher and McInnes among the myriad “defenders of the West.” For McInnes, Islamic culture is backward, violent, inbred, not civilized, requiring a culture war or a religious war to protect “our entire civilization.” For Maher, all religion is a bad idea, but Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, necessitating a war against them by those holding liberal Western values and ideas to preserve “our way of life.” But what the hell is “Western civilization” anyway?

If we use strict political categories and define Western civilization as that aggregate of liberal democratic nation-states that purport to be based on and supportive of Western (e.g., Enlightenment) values, this is entirely ephemeral. Liberal democracies often become authoritarian or totalitarian regimes with alarming consequences (Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 1930s, Czechoslovakia in the 1940s), and those nations touted as “the Switzerland of X” (Uruguay in South America, Uganda or Rwanda in Africa, Singapore in Asia) are anything but upon closer examination. Maher and McInnes are proud citizens of liberal Western-style democracies even as they consider liberal democracy the Achilles heel of those countries. And despite their professed libertarianism, when push comes to shove, Maher and McInnes often advocate very illiberal, undemocratic means such as racial profiling to combat the perceived threat of Islamic extremism.

If we defer to what we learned in our primary and secondary education, Western civilization is based on some combination of our Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian traditions. Right off the bat, atheists like Maher would take issue with any form of religion counting positively toward the heritage of the West. For the classic liberalism that Maher claims, the Enlightenment legacy of reason, science, and skepticism constitute the best of what the West has to offer. For McInnes, he accepts the whole vague social/cultural package defined as Western civilization, having converted from atheism to Catholicism and from anarchism to conservatism. Certain white power types would take offense at inclusion of the Jews in any affirmative evaluation of the West, since the Jews and Judaism are evil incarnate. This leads the ultra-right to efforts to redefine Christianity without its Judaic core, as in Christian Identity, or to abandon Christianity altogether for some amalgam of European paganism or out-and-out atheism. As for the Greco-Roman part of the equation, and again aside from the Enlightenment emphasis on these roots as the classical West’s cultural and philosophical beginnings, there are many contenders for more-European-than-thou sources. The Celts and Germanic peoples—the latter a part of some mythic Aryan race—to pan-Slavism and Eurasianism—which seeks to shift the focus of European civilization from west to east, and to a Greater Russian geopolitical dominance that rejects Western European values—are all contenders for the origins of Western Civilization.

So, which values are real, true Western values? Is Western civilization at its core pagan Celto-Germanic tribalism, or Talmudic Judaism, or Greek city-states, or Roman imperialism, or crusading Medieval Christianity, or Enlightenment modernism, or Slavic orthodoxies, or Russian Mongol corporatism? Aside from broad and banal generalizations, can anything uniquely Western be discerned in the music, literature, dance, painting, and architecture subsumed under the label Western culture? Can Western and Eastern be convincingly separated? Are the rule of law, secularism, science, and technology what distinguishes Western civilization? Can any combination of the above stand for the whole, or must we be satisfied with an undifferentiated, cumulative understanding of Western civilization? Or is Western civilization like pornography, something that cannot be clearly defined, but we know it when we see it?

If the political is ephemeral and the social/cultural is vague, the biological seems to offer certainty. Western civilization is the product of white people, and white people are the source of all that is good in the world. Hence the current popularity of DNA ancestry analysis that attempts to associate certain DNA markers with geographic locations as when, for instance, the distribution of the maternal haplogroup H is correlated overwhelmingly with the European subcontinent. From there it’s a small step to equate such analyses with a genetic causation for ersatz races and their behaviors, bringing us back to the “scientific” racism and eugenics of two centuries prior. Maher clearly detests and denounces such racialized definitions of Western civilization and resists taking this step. But McInnes shamelessly flirts with them. According to McInnes, sub-Saharan Africa had no written languages before white people arrived. Our advanced technologies were all invented by white people, and our material superiority is all due to the hard work of white people. “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of. […] I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.” (NYT, 9/28/03) McInnes even denies that black people had much to do with creating rock and roll, he’s so dead set on affirming that “white is right.”

When he’s not playing the contrarian, McInnes is responding in part to increased anger and frustration on the ultra-right as white racists feel increasingly besieged. The issue here is power. When white people held uncontested social power, white racists gloried in being white supremacists, fully backing the superiority and domination of white people over all others. When that power was challenged in the slightest degree and Enlightenment values such as equality threatened to emerge, white racists became the voice of the “embattled white minority” and fancied themselves white nationalists seeking to secede as a separate white nation. Countering the biological explanation for Western civilization does not merely require invoking the statistical truism that correlation is not causation, that the correlation of genetic factors with geographic location is not the cause of a so-called race’s achievements and failures. What also is required is countering a logical fallacy that confuses the repeatability and predictability of hard science with the lack of either in history.

That the past 10,000 years of human history and 2 million years of human evolution have led us to a world where capitalism, the nation state, white supremacy and patriarchy reign supreme tells us only so much. We cannot repeat history over and over, like a scientific experiment, to see whether or not we get the same results. Science depends on predicting future experimental results from successful past experimental results. But despite some historians seeing patterns in history, any ability to predict the future based on a study of the past has remained elusive. A particularly virulent configuration of wealth and power won the game we call history this time around, but since we can’t ever play the game again there’s no way to know whether that win was a fluke due to luck or a certainty due to merit.

Marx committed this fallacy himself in seeking to formulate a scientific socialism based on historical materialism. But there you go, another dead white European male whose ideas and the movements he inspired are very much a part of Western civilization. Again, whatever the fuck that means. Maybe the only way to make sense of Western civilization nowadays is how Joseph Conrad did it by counterposing Europe to The Other, in his case Africa, as a “foil to Europe, a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” as Chinua Achebe once commented.

Maher, McInnes and other defenders of the West against radical Islam consistently contend that what Islam needs today is its own Reformation or Enlightenment. Seriously? Consider that from 1517 (the start of the Protestant Reformation) to roughly 1650 (an arbitrary start for the Enlightenment) between 10 and 30 million people perished across Europe in various conflicts related to the clash between Protestantism and Catholicism. In less than 150 years, on a subcontinent of roughly 4 million square miles and 70-80 million people, something like 20 million people died in Reformation, Counterreformation, the Thirty Years War, indeed scores of major wars and upheavals. This doesn’t include the “New World” that Europe was exploring, conquering and colonizing at the time. The period in Europe from the Reformation to the Enlightenment was truly a slaughterhouse, yet a comparable social transformation is being urged onto the Islamic world as a great idea.

Or maybe, perversely, it’s already happening. Perhaps Islam is undergoing it’s equivalent of the Reformation and Enlightenment right now. But to soberly compare 16th/17th century Christian fratricide to the modern Middle East—to the sectarian, ethnic, national and class conflicts engulfing vast swaths of a region with some 7 million square miles and half a billion people for the past 2 to 3 decades—we need to realize that we’re are all in for some nasty shit. The exponential expansion in firepower from Medieval Europe to the Middle East today alone should give us pause.

Our brave defenders of Western civilization have a hard time seeing what’s under their noses, much less the future.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

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Rojava and Syriza: “What’s Left?” April 2015, MRR #383

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The disadvantage of having “been there, done that” in politics for almost fifty years now is that nothing ever really surprises me anymore. I’ve gone from left anarchism to anti-state communism, with stops along the way in the Industrial Workers of the World and Anti-Racist Action. After organizing scores of ad hoc anti-authoritarian groups and producing hundreds of flyers, posters, zines, publications and like propaganda over that span of time, I’ve gotten a bit jaded. The last thing that truly surprised me in a good way was the shutdown of the WTO in Seattle in 1999. Since then, I’ve been only mildly surprised with some aspects of the Arab Spring, the European anti-austerity protests, popular autonomous movements in Mexico, and the Occupy Movement. So, let’s consider a couple of things that are kind of cool and interesting in politics these days.

First, let’s be clear that I no longer claim any type of politics to the left of the Left. I still have sympathies and solidarities, but no overt affiliations. Which means I tend to be less concerned with purity and much more pragmatically inclined. Which, in turn, means I’m not into the game of “more anarchist/communist than thou” as I analyze existing politics and evaluate current events. So, let’s consider two subjects that seem to have anti-authoritarian knickers in a twist.

Begin with the plight of the Kurdish people. The Kurds have asserted a common ethnic identity through shared language and culture for over nine hundred years, ever since the high Middle Ages of the 11th or 12th centuries. Modern Kurdish nationalism arose after 1880, and if anything gives anti-authoritarians the screaming heebie-jeebies, it’s nationalism. Patriotism, the nation-state, national liberation struggles; nationalism in all its variations and permutations is anathema certainly for anarchists and also for most left communists.

The Kurds struggled for national self-determination for a greater Kurdistan against the Ottoman empire until British/French imperialism divided up the Middle East after the first World War. Most of the Kurdish population found itself in southern and eastern Turkey, with sizable minorities residing in northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran. This arbitrary division of the region into artificial nation-states fractured the Kurdish national movement into separate nationalist struggles; the PKK in Turkey, the KDP and then the PUK in Iraq, and the KDP-I and PJAK in Iran. All of these Kurdish political entities claimed to be, to varying degrees, political parties/guerrilla armies fighting for national liberation against their respective non-Kurdish regimes.

Sectarianism, nationalism, and imperialism have continued to keep Kurdish struggles fragmented, among the most intransigent being the Kurdish PKK’s incessant “peoples war” against the Turkish state. Even Kurdish successes have been piecemeal as a consequence. This is illustrated by decades of conflict between the Iraqi Kurds and Iraq’s Ba’athist regime in aborted revolution, back-and-forth war, and state instigated genocide, finally mitigated only by the happenstance of American imperialism. When the US military enforced a no-fly zone over northern Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Kurdish peshmerga consolidated autonomous power in the three northernmost Iraqi provinces (Dohuk, Arbil, and Sulaimanya) and surrounding territories, even as various Kurdish political factions fought a civil war for control of what would be called by 1998 the Kurdish Federation. This territory has been governed as a state-within-a-state by the Kurdistan Regional Government after the US/Iraq war of 2003, a pro-Western, pro-Turkish sovereign Kurdish state in all but name and UN recognition with pretensions to being the first puzzle piece fit into a greater Kurdistan.

Iraqi Kurdistan is the most staid, orthodox expression of Kurdish nationalism imaginable, however. Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK now in a Turkish prison for terrorism, recently rescinded the organization’s staunch Marxism-Leninism and replaced it with a libertarian communalism that has strong anarchist overtones. Traditional Leninist democratic centralism has been replaced with the democratic confederalism of Kurdistan, which:
[I]s not a state system, but a democratic system of the people without a state. With the women and youth at the forefront, it is a system in which all sectors of society will develop their own democratic organisations. It is a politics exercised by free and equal confederal citizens by electing their own free regional representatives. It is based on the principle of its own strength and expertise. It derives its power from the people and in all areas including its economy it will seek self-sufficiency. [“Declaration of Democratic Confederalism” by Abdullah Öcalan]
Ostensibly influenced by libertarian socialism, Öcalan and the PKK have given a particular shout-out to Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism for their ideological turnaround.

The Kurds have now seized the opportunity offered by Syria’s disintegration into civil war, and the threat posed by the resurgent Sunni fundamentalist Islamic State, to fight for an autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria known as Rojava. The PYD party, which fields the YPG/J guerrilla army, has close ties to the PKK and governs Rojava with the pro-Iraqi KNC through a Kurdish Supreme Committee. The PKK’s communalism and democratic confederalism pervades Rojava. The territory is organized into cantons (Afrin, Jazira, and Kobani), governed by councils and communes, all defended by armed militias. The peshmerga have even joined the YPG/J in defending Kobani against the IS. So, here is the conundrum for anti-authoritarians. Is Rojava a genuine libertarian revolution of the Kurdish people, or is it window dressing for the post-Leninist Öcalan and his crypto-authoritarian, unapologetically nationalist PKK?

When the EZLN broke onto the international political stage in 1994, the Zapatistas were mum about their origins in Mexico’s 1968 student Marxist/Leninist/Maoist politics, as well as coy about their own political ideology. Nevertheless, anarchists and left communists embraced the EZLN wholeheartedly, without reservation, and events in Chiapas were defended as both revolutionary and anti-authoritarian. Not so Rojava. The anarcho/ultra milieu is being asked either to show unconditional solidarity for the revolution in Rojava or to summarily denounce Rojava as a Trojan horse for autocratic Kurdish nationalism.

Apparently, no nuance is permitted.

Let’s now switch to another of the anti-authoritarian Left’s abominations—party politics. Political parties are universally vilified by anarchists, and less consistently condemned by left communists, whether liberal democratic, Marxist, fascist, what-have-you, and whether in the context of parliamentary democracies or one-party totalitarian states. No surprise then that the anarcho/ultra milieu views with intense suspicion the rise of Syriza in Greek politics.

The 2008 international economic collapse forced the European Union to the brink of default, and the Greek economy into bankruptcy. The Greek government economic crisis distilled down the general European economic crisis into a painful Greek depression in which Greek debt soared, GDP growth went negative, and a third of the population became unemployed. Numerous factors were blamed for this—unrestrained government spending, unsecured lending by rapacious creditors, corruption and tax evasion in society, etc. But the consequence was economic default, downgrading Greece’s credit rating, and two Economic Adjustment Programs (EAPs) of debt restructuring, severe austerity, and public sector privatization forced on Greece by the Troika of Eurozone, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. More to the point, social misery and unrest followed, with demonstrations, labor unrest, strikes, and riots becoming a daily occurrence.

The Greek government, comprised of the socialist PASOK and conservative New Democracy parties, accepted the bailout constraints, disciplined their respective memberships, and implemented the austerity, restructuring and privatization measures of the EAPs. Meanwhile, social suffering and rebellion escalated. One result was the resurgence of a xenophobic, anti-immigrant, fascist right in the Golden Dawn party, but another more important upshot was the formation of Syriza as an anti-austerity, EU-critical, opposition political party. Syriza itself is a unitary party forged from a diverse coalition of much smaller constituent parties claiming liberalism, social democracy, revolutionary socialism, communism, ultraleftism, eco-socialism, environmentalism, green politics, and feminism. The dominant, democratic socialist, euro-communist, feminist Synaspismós party is in Syriza side-by-side with the Trotskyist DEA, the Maoist KOE, the ultraleft ROZA, the green AKOA, and a dozen more fractious political parties.

Talk about herding cats!

The thought of Trotskyists and Maoists working together is mind-boggling in itself, and speaks simultaneously to the incredible fragility and astounding audacity of Syriza as a unified party project. Syriza got 36% of the popular vote in the 2015 Greek elections, enough to form a government in parliamentary alliance with one other, very minor Greek party. That this was with the right-wing, national-conservative, Euroskeptic party called Independent Greeks (with 4.7% of the vote) instead of the old-school KKE Communist party (5.4% of the vote) was also quite interesting, allowing Syriza flexibility on its left flank. Syriza’s stated goal is to force the Troika to renegotiate the EAPs in order to end economic austerity and privatization for Greece.

Far from hoping that Syriza is “workers’ power” in waiting, as some on the ultraleft have speculated, the general anti-authoritarian Left is adamant that nothing good can come from Syriza’s recent electoral victory. Crimethinc delivers the stock anti-party line, repeating tired old tropes from the anarcho/ultra milieu. Capitalism is in perpetual crisis and needs to be abolished. The social revolution required to abolish capitalism cannot be initiated and carried out, let alone won through political parties, electoral politics, or parliamentarianism. Syriza will succeed only in disciplining Greek social movements and social unrest to the exigencies of a capitalism in crisis, even in preparing the way for outright fascism: Many anarchists hope Syriza will put the brakes on state repression of social movements, enabling them to develop more freely. Didn’t Syriza essentially support the riots of 2008? But back then, they were a small party looking for allies; now they are the ruling elite. In order to retain the reins of the state, they must show that they are prepared to enforce the rule of law. Though they may not prosecute minor protest activity as aggressively as a right-wing government would, they will still have to divide protesters into legitimate and illegitimate—a move out of the counterinsurgency handbook that guides governments and occupying armies the whole world over. This would not be new for Greece; the same thing happened under the social democrats of PASOK in the early 1980s. Even if Syriza’s government does not seek to maintain the previous level of repression, their function will be to divide movements, incorporating the docile and marginalizing the rest. This might prove to be a more effective repressive strategy than brute force. [“Syriza Can’t Save Greece: Why There’s No Electoral Exit From The Crisis” by Crimethinc.]

That I was mildly surprised by Syriza’s electoral showing doesn’t mean I hold illusions that Syriza will usher in social revolution, or even a “workers’ power,” for Greece. There is the very real danger that Syriza might act to effectively bridle Greek social movements and social unrest. That Syriza cannot resolve capitalism’s crisis in Greece goes without saying. But still, I want to see Syriza poke its thumb into the eye of the Troika causing Greece’s misery, if it can. I want to see Syriza cause as much trouble as possible before it is inevitably coopted, defeated, crushed, or liquidated. That too, goes without saying.

That’s also how I feel about Rojava. I am mildly surprised by the successes of the armed Kurdish uprising in Rojava. But Öcalan is not Durruti reincarnated, nor is Kurdistan, even the Rojava part of Kurdistan, some anarchist utopia in the making. The limitations and shortcomings of national liberation politics, even those that proclaim socialist struggles for national liberation, are historically self-evident. Any movement for a greater Kurdistan, no matter how communalist, is also up against a capitalism in crisis. But still, I want to see Rojava take things as far as the Kurds there can with respect to liberatory social organization and self-defense. I want to see the Kurds of Rojava, and of all Kurdistan, kick up as much of a ruckus as possible before they are inevitably coopted, defeated, crushed, or liquidated.

If Rojava or Syriza actually, fundamentally, completely wins? Well, that would be truly surprising. Finally, that goes without saying.

ACRONYMS: WTO – World Trade Organization; PKK – Kurdistan Workers Party; KDP – Kurdistan Democratic Party; PUK – Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; KDP-I – Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan; PJAK – Party of a Free Life in Kurdistan; PYD – Democratic Union Party; KNC – Kurdish National Council; YPG/J – People’s Defense Units; EZLN – Zapatista Army of National Liberation; SYRIZA – Coalition of the Radical Left; PASOK – Panhellenic Socialist Movement; DEA – International Workers’ Left; KOE – Communist Organization of Greece; ROZA – Radical Left Group; AKOA – Renewing Communist Ecological Left; KKE – Communist Party of Greece

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