Much has been written on the contemporary plight of the Kurds. Sandwiched between rivals and granted no homeland by the Sykes-Picot Agreement that still has a heavy influence on contemporary mideast politics, the Kurds are an interesting, and in many cases polarizing, people among anyone interested in politics. As Armenian nationals I’ve talked with would say, “they’re always caught in the middle”.
Currently their situation is the locus of crisis, under attack by Turkey, abandoned by the US, and turning to allegiance with western Syria, Iran, and Russia in a desperate struggle for survival amid the vacuum of the US pullout from the region. Hotly contested across both ends of the political aisle, the question of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq were a point of interest for both the mainstream Right in an effort to find a stable ally in the region and the Left, which viewed the social policies and internal politics of the Kurds as a model for praxis in leftism. Involved in combat for at least the past five years, leftist activists romanticizing the Spanish Civil War sought their piece of the action and a chance to fight for their larger revolution. But the question remains as it did in the late 1930s; are these concepts viable as a governing system?
The Syrian region under Kurdish control and largely granted autonomy, Rojava, has been looked towards by the contemporary Left as proof positive that the politics of Revolution indeed have merit. Imagery, philosophy and praxis of what they term ‘ecological feminism’, rooted in voluntarism, syndicalism and anarchism have headlined thesis statements of the op-eds and praise pieces coming out of its ideological defenders and in turn the universal condemnation of US’ pullout. While there should be no question that the decision has severely damaged the US’ capability to build allies in any region- it’s not the first time we’ve ducked out on groups fighting the good fight for Ol’ Glory– the current conditions on the ground paint a very painful reality for ideologies which reject the existence or importance of a nation state.
Anarchism, despite any clarifying hyphen, is at its heart a question. A question on the role of authority, the need for authority over autonomy, and the source from where such an authority draws its legitimacy. It is a question, answered in that context, through the definition of the role of the individual in terms of liberation from a central authority. Is one to be liberated? And if so liberated from what, exactly? Marx defined this liberation as liberation from alienation due to exploitation. Bakunin would call this the ‘flower of the proletariat’, or the awakening of the most socially oppressed through direct revolt. Bookchin would define this as liberation from consumerism. Chomsky will define this as political alienation from a larger global economy due to the entanglement of both. And Rothbard would define this as alienation from one’s sense of destiny or self ownership.
They are all in some ways correct, or, at least, not all wrong.
The question then for anarchism, voluntarism, and any philosophy focused solely upon the individual is where they lay amid the power of a State. Not their State in a collective or representative sense. But a State against them. Rojava is a fundamental answer of the viability of such a philosophy amid outside powers willing to either exert a relationship of hostility or one of exploitation. The power of the individual amid a larger mechanism of influence will certainly be insignificant amid larger social forces at work. In the very visceral example of Rojava, that role is one certainly to be crushed in a vacuum from which it is no longer fostered.
A pullout of US forces had been anticipated from the region for a long while now. Talking with vets from the conflict in Syria, both in the US uniform and under the banner of the YPG International Battalion, it was assumed for nearly six months now that amid a US pullout a bloodbath would ensue. Unfortunately no one was wrong. The Turks are no ally of anyone and have proven historically to have no compulsion toward the preservation of human rights. Theirs was a model of genocide. Many of the traditional Armenian villages of eastern Turkey no longer exist, crushed under the weight of the Ottoman Empire in an effort to crush internal rebellion during WWI. Most recently Erdogan, who fancies himself the inheritor of an Ottoman reincarnate, has alluded to a genocide of the Kurdish people in the same vein as the Armenian Genocide which they still refuse to acknowledge. He has made good on his promise to exterminate anything which threatens his own territory whilst looking to expand Turkey’s influence in the region. This should not overlook Turkey’s support of the jihadists in the region, both clandestine and overt.
So we have the might of a State pitted against the plight of the Individual. The Kurds were left as a people without a state as a result of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The Ottoman Empire was broken up as a result of their loss in WWI, and the individual allied tribes were given their respective homelands. The Kurds had aligned themselves with the losing side and as a result were left without any of the spoils of war. Fortunately they were not subjected to forced migration from their traditional territory. The Soviets brought their philosophical influence and that tradition continues today. Kurdish culture could be described as many of the leftist politics embodied in a people; feminist liberation, ecological justice, Marxism, and a strong reverence for American Anarchist Murray Bookchin. Their attitude is one of individualism against the world, against the State, and against all that threaten Revolution.
Its certainly one that’s resonated with a larger world community, either through political ideology or through mutual respect. There is something to be respected about a people who stand against certain death. The very name Peshmerga means exactly that. And as one who was active in training and fighting alongside them in northern Iraq I can say that their validity as fighters is one to be respected above their peers. But with that said, and in taking the totality of the circumstances, is there an answer of the power of the individual amid the weight of a State looking to crush their very existence?
The power differential of the individual versus a defined people unified in common cause is a stark repudiation in real time of the very validity of anarchism or voluntarism in any form. Within twenty four hours of the US announcement of withdrawal from the contested regions, Turkey had made moves to capitalize on their promise to eradicate the region for “breathing room”. And in the same span of time the Kurdish authorities both pleaded for a change in policy and immediately began talks with Syrian (and at the time of this writing, Russian) forces for aid in defending Rojava.
Were the ideology of anarchism so effective why then would they defer to the power of nation states, first the US, then Arab Syria, Russia and by proxy, Iran, to combat the weight of a nation state? Why, if no borders are to exist, would you seek so rapidly to define your own? If such an association is exclusively voluntary, why would you expect anyone to come to your aid at the cost of their life?
That answer is simple- in reality it doesn’t work. Without a State of your own, without a central authority, without a feasible and realistic plan for defense that does not include reliance on outside nation states, and only deferring to the ‘individual’, nothing can be expected to be accomplished in any real sense. This is not to negate the principles of personal liberty or control of one’s destiny, rather, a recognition that the preservation of such a principle requires at least a definition of borders and a means to defend them as such. A people without a nation will continuously be at the mercy of the one who is. The person clamoring about individual sovereignty alone absent any recognition of this reality is delusional at best; that is, unless you enjoy the churning of your own families, tragic though it is, those Kurds are now experiencing. Anarchism absent the recognition of the very real role of larger society and realpolitik cannot and will not survive. It can only exist where it is allowed to exist. To that end, Rojava serves as a tragic lesson in the infeasibility of anarchist schools of thought and direct democracy amid the plight of a State willing to crush them.