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Commentary :: International
The soldier and the bus-driver or, how much state do we need?
02 Jan 2019
The decision recently announced by Trump to bring to an abrupt end the military presence of the US in Syria, has given rise to a growing current within the US anti-authoritarian movement which has been surprisingly outspoken and unequivocal about its demand for a continuation of US military intervention in the country.
“Not all roofs can provide shelter”.
Jamaican proverb

The decision recently announced by Trump to bring to an abrupt end the military presence of the US in Syria, has given rise to a growing current within the US anti-authoritarian movement which has been surprisingly outspoken and unequivocal about its demand for a continuation of US military intervention in the country. The reasoning behind this unprecedented embrace of US military power by a section of professed anarchists, pertains to the defense of the territories under the political control of semi-anarchist YPG/YPJ and which are now under the threat of a full-scale invasion to be carried out by islamist Turkey once American troops pull out from the positions they currently occupy in the area. J. Biehl, a well-known proponent of social ecology and a life-time companion of the great anarchist thinker M. Bookchin, has even embarked upon such controversial actions as petitioning congressional authorities to overturn the presidential decision for withdrawal. This action is questionable both in terms of selected methodology, which affords formal recognition to established political institutions by politely asking them to intercede, as well as with regard to its declared political purpose, the mobilization of US troops abroad. To this objection, the new generation of US anti-authoritarians who vehemently denounce traditional anti-imperialism as a false movement in the service of third-world dictators, simply retort that these are issues of doctrinaire purity that should be dispensed with in favour of a more “flexible” approach to political reality. They reject criticism by claiming that it signifies nothing less than an attempt for the imposition of ideological uniformity from above, a violation of the diversity of views inherent in the ideological constitution as well as the very organisational structure of the anarchist movement.
Even so, addressing well-behaved appeals towards state officialdom is a matter of political principle which oversteps the boundaries of the libertarian project, not a mere case of diffrence of opinion within the anarchist movement. It is reasonable to suggest that in order to exist as a separate and clearly-defined political entity, a collective political project does not necessarily have to be internally homogenous and completely unified under a central governing authority, but it should adhere to a common set of principles and political values. If this lowest common denominator is not upheld, then declaring oneself an “anarchist” would mean absolutely nothing (or could mean absolutely anything). The anarchist movement, for all intents and puropses, would fail to demarcate itself as an anti-systemic project for the enhancement of individual and social autonomy. It would fail to provide evidence of the content of its distinct political identity, in a historical juncture when it becomes apparent that the subordinate social classes once again look to anarchism as the model for a political movement which is best suited to defend their class-interests and collective desires.
In relation to the Kurds, it has been argued by Alexander Reid Ross that anarchists need to employ “all tricks in the bag” so as to prevent islamist Turkey from slaughtering the YPG and overthrowing the system of democratic confederalism that has been created in the territories under Kurdish control. However, this is precisely the qualitative feature which serves to separate anarchism from other political projects and attributes to anarchist philosophy a moral superiority far gerater than the one possessed by the various heteronomous schools of political thought. To effectively abandon the fundamental anarchist commitment to consistency between political ends and means and adopt an “anything goes” approach, would be to dillute the potency of anarchist criticism against existing social structures. Indeed, it would be tantamount to depriving anarchism of the political point-of-reference which allows it not only to embody in its theoretical formulations and collective action, the effective negation of the social ills perpetuated by the system of the internationalized market economy.
At this point, the advocates of the “enlightened”, “non-dogmatic” outlook would bring our attention to the fact that members of the lower social strata rely on institutions administered by the state apparatus for their social reproduction. They also employ the social services of the state in order to successfully carry out certain indispensable social functions. People make use of the medical services belonging to the public sector, or of public transportation to move around. No anarchist in his right mind would denounce the doctors who practice medicine in public hospitals, the patients treated in them or the passengers who use the buses and the other means of public transport as wilfull “instruments of state power”, or as “servants of empire”. According to post-modern anarchists, this demonstrates that some degree of creative engagement with the state is bound to render beneficial, and indeed desirable, results for the non-privilleged social groups belonging to the bottom layers of institutionalized social hierarchies. Yet to compare the introduction of welfare-state institutions at the home front of the social struggle, with overseas military intervention is to overlook some very important differences. To begin with, there is a great difference between driving a public bus or being engaged in the disposal of waste and participating in military intervention with the aim of expanding the dominance of representative “democracy” and the market economy system in the countries which belong to the capitalist periphery. The former activities are social functions which are inherent in the social reproduction of a social totality as such, while making war in the service of imperial expansion is an actvity necessary for the reproduction of the capitalist social totality, which is based on institutionalized dominance, oppression and exploitation.
Secondly, the establishment of the welfare state was the insitutional outcome of the protracted social struggle waged by the organized movement of the working-class against the unequal distribution of power reproduced by hierarchical structures and insitutionalized relations of domination within the system of the market economy. The edifice of the welfare state had to be forcefully appropriated from the bourgeoisie, because, ultimately, its dynamic runs counter to the internal dynamics of the market system for incessant and continuous economic growth. Now that the traditional working-class movement is in a state of disintegration, the systemic elites are gradually abrogating the concessions made to a formerly powerful opponent. By contrast, US anarchists are now imploring the US governement to intervene on behalf of the Kurds, because the US proletariat, as well as the armed people's protection units in Kurdistan, are in a desparate situation due to their utter impotence and weakness. While in the case of the historical emergence of the welfare state, the proletarian movement was powerful enough to impose its terms on the capitalist state, in the case of the Kurds it is the transnational system of power which is in a position of strength and capable of dictating its terms to proletarians both at home and abroad. Besides, one would be quite justified to wander whether the literal application to anarchist politics of the bus-driver analogy, might in effect warrant “creative engagement” with the state in the form of anarchists enlisting in the US army so as to fight alongside their “brothers” in Syrian Kurdistan.
Traditional anti-imperialists have been vilified and severely chastised by anti-authoritarians for their overt statism. That is, for their tendency to ascribe positive characteristics to authoritarian state entities and identify with them as central instruments for the continuation of class struggle in the international sphere. Undoubtedly, this criticism is not without merit. However, the tendency to act as the long arm of systemic imperialism by inviting the war machine of NATO to invade foreign countries and replace the local authority with governments subservient to the transnational elite, is nothing more than an inversion of the statism exhibited by anti-imperialists. If anarchist “purism” is to be abandoned and our tactical alliances reconsidered, it is our duty to point out that the real danger which threatens to obliterate humanity comes not from the local imperialisms of Syria or, for that matter, Iran, but from the devastating onslaught of systemic military and economic neo-imperialism generated by the internal dynamics of the internationalized capitalist system. Also, if anarchist politics should incorporate a “realpolitik” dimension wresting upon a conditional acceptance of statism, and if this qualified acceptance is to be made dependent on the “democratic” virtues embodied by each state structure, then this would lay the groundwork for the establishment of a more permanent, although informal, alliance between systemic imperialism, on one hand, and post-modern anarchism, on the other. This is because third-world states will always be found lacking in terms of the conditions guaranteeing their “legitimacy”, given that the standards which have to be fulfilled so that such legitimacy may be obtained is determined unilaterally by the dominant advanced economies of the global North, which have conferred upon themselves the sovereign right to pass moral and political judgement on to others. For instance, one of the main reproaches levelled against the Baathist regime in Syria is that it is an authoritarian, one-party state. This, in turn, would seem to imply that a multiparty political system is somewhat less authoritarian, or that it offers some sort of assurance that the class-interests of subordinate social groups are indeed taken under account and somehow adequately represented in the institutional decision-making process. It is hard to see how one could maintain such a belief in representative “democracy” and still subscribe to a virulently anti-statist political project, which calls for the abolishment of hierarchical institutions of representation, that reproduce institutionalized social heteronomy, and their substitution by direct democracy structures, guaranteeing the equal distribution of power among all the citizens of the commune. No wander then that post-modern anarchists do not seem to oppose the existence of systemic hierarchies as such, but reserve their wrath for only those particular types of hierarchy engendered by those political forces associated with the neofascist extreme right. In view of the above, it would be prudent not to forget that albeit all anarchists are by definition implacable enemies of fascism, not all anti-fascists are by definition also anarchists.

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