Class Power on Zero-Hours: A chat with Angry Workers
This week, you’ll hear Kiran and Marco of the Angry Workers, a collective of anti-authoritarian communists struggling to think through and build workers autonomy from the UK. For the hour, they talk about their organizing and the book they just published, “Class Power On Zero-Hours” (available from PM press and currently 50% off if you purchase from the publisher using the discount code ‘GIFT’).
Over 6 years, the Angry Workers got jobs in West London in factories, warehouses and logistics, building relationships with coworkers and neighbors from origins worldwide, and getting their hands dirty building working class power alongside other precarious and gig workers. The book documents attempts at building a solidarity network, their newspaper to open dialogue (called Workers Wild West) and engagements in workplace action and organizing. They worked inside and outside of trade unions and the IWW, assessing victories, defeats and lessons to move forward with and sharing glimpses into the struggles and ideas of the people they worked and lived with. This book is an amazingly detailed exploration of building solidarity, learning from mistakes and working towards a collective vision for liberation amongst the labouring classes at the points of production and reproduction.
Jason Renard Walker Parole
Incarcerated journalist and author Jason Renard Walker, minister of Labor for the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (Prison Chapter) will have a parole hearing coming up soon in Texas. Jason has faced serious backlash from white supremacist gangs and guards due to his activism and reporting while held by the TCDJ, so much so that he was recently transferred to a new prison, apparently because of the threats he was facing at Clements Unit. Jason’s book,about which we got to interview him earlier this year, “Reports from Within The Belly Of The Beast: Torture and Injustice Inside Texas Department of Criminal Justice”, is now available in paperback as well as digital via Amazon, and his writings have regularly been published by the SF Bay View National Black Newspaper. Letters of support for his parole will go a long way toward getting the parole board to release Jason so that he can finish his Federal stint and get back to the outside. Check our show notes for details on where to write and suggestions on content.
Here’s some information about supporting Jason in this effort:
Board of Pardons and Paroles
8610 Shoal Creek Blvd.
Austin, TX 78757
Things to mention (per Jason):
* Your relationship to Jason,
* Any credentials you have,
* Positive things you know about Jason,
When Jason is paroled from Texas he will immediately begin a minimum six-year federal prison sentence.
Jason said that the most common reason for denial of parole is that the prisoner is a threat to the community, and that his continued incarceration will prevent him from any contact with the general community. He is also worried because TDCJ has poor covid prevention measures.
As many of you know, Jason was facing problems with a white supremacist gang recently and in response, he has been moved to another prison. Jason’s current address is:
Eviction Defense, Community Resiliency, and Getting Free
This week I got the chance to sit down with Olive and Yousef of the Durham NC based eviction defense group HEDS-Up! HEDS-Up! stands for Housing Eviction Defense Solidarity and is a group which formed in Durham North Carolina when COVID was first hitting the area and folks’ housing was becoming more and more unstable.
We get to talk about a lot of topics in this episode, among which are gentrification in Durham, what the NC eviction process might look like, and about the group’s handbook the Eviction Defense Handbook, vol. 1312, as well as their all points call for autonomous, abolitionist jail support, on their website https://cantpaywontpaydurm.org/.
The Eviction Defense Handbook is extensively written and researched, and was put together by HEDS-Up! for educational and empowerment purposes. It covers topics from abolition, to how one might structure an eviction defense team, pertinent information regarding COVID and evictions, how to look up information on a specific property, a step by step of what to expect in eviction court, and many more topics.
The Wabanaki Community Herbal Apothecary in so-called Maine is working to support their tribal communities during these Covid-19 outbreaks. They are asking for herbal medicines and medicine making supplies or monetary donations to support these efforts. The supplies list can be found on their fedbook page, linked in our shownotes, and monetary donations can go to their fiscal sponsor WhyHunger, via https://whyhunger.org/ewrematriation/.
You can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for coordination or more details.
Loren Reed, a 26 year old Diné (Navajo) man residing in the small town of Page, AZ, is facing ten years for comments left on facebook during the nationwide protests because some dumb ass white with no scruples or sense of humor reported him to the cops. There is a breakdown of the case available at ForgiveEveryone.Com/blog . At the end of that, you can find Loren’s address and tips for writing him, as well as how to put money on his commissary, how to make donations to Tucson Anti-Repression Crew via cashapp ($TusconARC) or paypal (PayPal.Me/prisonersupport), noting “For Loren Reed” in the comments.
“As of last week, Santos Torres-Olan (#ML7947), a comrade of Dwayne Staats of the #Vaughn17, is on hunger strike at SCI Albion. He’s protesting the physical, psychological, and emotional abuses at Albion — the prison administration uses meals, showers, rec and mail as a form of punishment, retaliation, and psychological torture. His protest is against the prison system as a whole. Santos has also been charged with assaulting a guard, and the courts, public defender and prosecutors are trying to railroad him. He ended up having to go pro se in order to fight his case.
Help out Santos’s struggle against the prison system by calling SCI Albion at (814) 756-5778. Ask to speak to the superintendent and make sure they know people on the outside are paying attention to their torture and abuse of prisoners.
Our incarcerated comrades are struggling against prisons on a whole different level — we MUST support them from the outside when they ask us for help!”
Since late October, there appears to be a spike of Covid-19 at the Federal BOP’s prison at Fort Dix, jumping from prior reported numbers of 57 infections to at least 127 cases. The BOP is exacerbating the problem by moving all of the folks with infections onto a single floor and the back to their former dormatories, increasing spread. FCI Fort Dix is also denying PPE, medical care and compassionate releases from the prison population.
Jorge Cornell, 44, has two daughters, and recently moved to Fort Dix. Jorge has high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and is obese and borderline diabetic. This, along with a previous heart attack, make him high risk. He is being held on the third floor of Building 58-51.
Jorge is a friend of many in central NC organizing communities. As an outspoken community activist, candidate for city council, and police critic, Jorge was frequently targeted by law enforcement. Despite beating dozens of bogus charges prior to his current incarceration, Jorge is currently being wrongfully held thanks to overly broad RICO laws and targeting by the FBI, leading to a trial and conviction in 2012. He maintains his innocence, but still has 15 years left on his unjust 28 year sentence. You can hear two interviews about the case from 2013 at our website by searching ALKQN.
To press FCI Dix administration to give PPE, free medical care, stop spreading the virus in the prison by shuffling people around and to give compassionate release to people like Jorge with compromised immune systems, you can contact:
Federal BOP Health Services Division: 202 307 3198, press 4 for “other” and then 6 for “general medical inquiries” and select any of the four available recipients, leaving a voicemail with your demands. Email BOP-IPP@bop.gov or PublicAffairs@bop.gov .
Regular listener, Jay in Aotearoa brought to our attention this week the passing of anarchist prisoner, Brian Caswell McCarvill in the so-called state of Oregon.
Brian McCarvill was a radical social prisoner who in the early 2000’s was involved in taking the Oregon Department of Corrections to court challenging their censorship and rejection of anarchist publications for prisoners with his cell mate Rob Thaxton. The ODOC was attempting to declare anarchists to be members of a Security Threat Group, sort of like a gang, based on their shared political tendency and use of language and symbols, their stances to protest unfair circumstances. By winning the court case he forced the Oregon prison system to allow anarchist materials into its prisons.
Brian had terrible problems with his health and following his victory in the court case, he was being punished by the authorities for taking a stand. He passed on his 68th birthday, September 27th 2020, causes unknown to us. Rise In Power, Brian!
I found this interview extremely illuminating, perhaps like many other people who might not have strong ties to either academia or popular education models of learning, I had sort of written Oscar Wilde off as this kind of white dead rich guy who carried little to no relevance apart from a model of queerness that we could look back on. This interview very much proved that this isn’t the case, and that he and the circumstances around him very much influence how we as queers and as anarchists can sense historical threads that pull on our lives very tangibly today. Thanks a million to Scott for researching and conducting this interview!
You can learn more about the author, Kristian Williams, who is most known for his book Our Enemies in Blue, which is a critical history of American policing and police, at his website kristianwilliams.com.
Help Charlotte Jail Support Rebuild!
One announcement before we begin from our comrades at the Charlotte Uprising, Charlotte Jail Support has been getting extremely targeted harassment for some months from CMPD and the sheriff’s department. In times of rebellion or revolt, it is the support infrastructures that are often the most vulnerable to repression and violence. All of their supplies have either been seized or destroyed by the police, if you would like to support them re upping their much needed materials, you can Venmoing them @Ashwilliamsclt or Cash App $houseofkanautica.
This is a slightly edited transcript of Scott’s interview of Kristian Williams on Kristian’s book, Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde, published in 2020 by AK Press. Thanks to Jim of the MKE Lit Supply for all the work!
Kristian Williams on The Final Straw
First aired on 9/12/2020 at https://TFSR.WTF
Scott (TFSR): I’m talking to Kristen Williams, who just published the book Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde. Kristian, would you please just introduce yourself, your pronouns, your name and any information that you think would be pertinent to the listeners of the Final Straw?
Kristian: Sure. I’m Kristian Williams, author of a handful of books, probably most famously Our Enemies in Blue, which is a history of the police in the United States. As you mentioned, my most recent book is Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde, which is probably the book that has taken me the longest to write. I started working on it about 13 years ago.
Scott (TFSR): Oh wow. Is it nice to have it out? Was it a big passion project for you?
Kristian: Yeah, it was the thing that I was always working on, never finishing, and had a surprisingly hard time interesting publishers. I think everyone I approached about it, their first response was, “that sounds great, but no.” Eventually AK [Press] asked to take another look at it, and I don’t know, here it is.
Scott (TFSR): Well, that’s exciting. And I’m glad [for] that.The shadow of Oscar Wilde kind of loomed large for a long time on anything that was related to him,so I’m glad that’s not still persisting, and they published the book. I also just incidentally, as an aside, I was writing my dissertation with a chapter on Wilde and got super sick during it, writing about Dorian Gray. And I ended up in the hospital, and I couldn’t finish that chapter, so I don’t know if there’s like a curse with writing on Oscar. I always thought about that. All right. Well, I’m really excited to talk to you about Oscar Wilde and anarchism. The main argument of your book is that to really understand Oscar Wilde, or at least to understand Oscar Wilde as a political thinker, we need to think about all of his art and philosophy through the lens of anarchism. And it’s really exciting to read the book and see how Wilde kind of intersected with anarchism and anarchists at the time. To read about the history, like the fear of anarchism that we’re [still] presented with today, and then just like getting another perspective on Wilde as a person, his relation to the aesthetic movement, the beginning of the queer movements, and all of these things I think still are pertinent today. I think a lot of people have heard of Oscar Wilde, maybe read a little bit or heard his epigrams, but do you think you could just give a quick overview of who he was as a figure and a person?
Kristian: Sure. Let me see if I can do this at all efficiently. So, Wilde was born into the Irish aristocracy, educated at Trinity College in Dublin and then in Oxford, where he excelled in classics. Immediately, [he] became of sort of an early example of a person who was famous for being famous.Having developed a kind of celebrity and notoriety before he had really accomplished very much,[he] then leveraged that notoriety into a year long, a little bit more, lecture tour in the United States on the aesthetic movement. After that, he went on to publish a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and then really rose to prominence with a set of four society plays, which were sort of nominally comedies about the manners and dramas of the elite of English society. At the peak of his popularity he became embroiled in a dispute with the Marquess of Queensberry, because Wilde was having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, who was Queensberry’s son, which led Queensberry toward more and more public and offensive behavior toward Wilde, which then led Wilde to file a ill-advised lawsuit for libel, which Queensberry very aptly turned back on him and produced criminal charges for gross indecency, which was the criminal term for homosexuality. That led Wilde to prison for a couple of years. He lost his family, lost his fortune, lived the short remainder of his life in exile in France and died virtually penniless.
Scott (TFSR): Thanks for that overview. And I want to touch on a few of those elements that you brought up just, [but] because this is an anarchist radio show podcast—I [want to] to start with anarchism in particular—did Wilde identify as an anarchist?
Kristian: There are two occasions when he did. One was an interview in which he said, “once I was a poet and a tyrant, but now I am an artist and an anarchist.” And another, in a separate interview, he said, [when] asked about his politics, he said, “I’m a socialist, but we’re all socialists nowadays, so I must be something more. I think perhaps I’m an anarchist.” There were other occasions where he sort of flirted with the term, and probably my favorite is in a letter.He tells the story of being on a sailing trip with these two young men, and them getting caught in a storm, and it taking hours for them to get back to port. And when they got there, they were freezing cold and completely drenched and they rushed back to their hotel and ordered brandy. And the hotel proprietors sadly explained to them that because it was after 10 o’clock on a Sunday, the law prohibited him selling brandy. But given the circumstances, he decided he would just give them the brandy. And Wilde’s comment was along the lines of,“Not a bad outcome, but what utterly stupid laws” and then he finishes by saying that,“the two young men are, of course, now anarchists.”
Scott (TFSR): If I knew that that was the way to convert people, I’d be taking more sailing trips with young men. I’m always wondering. So, he used the term sometimes, but clearly anarchism and anarchists were out and about in Wilde’s time. I’m wondering a little bit what the common conception at the moment was of anarchism, and anarchists, and how it might have changed since then.
Kristian: At the time, it was considered practically synonymous with terrorism, and in particular of a foreign Eastern European sort of conspiratorial, random blowing things up kind of terrorism. That reputation has in different forms haunted anarchism really since the beginning. And while the sort of bomb throwing aspect has always been very much a minority affair of what anarchism is about, it wasn’t entirely baseless. I mean, there was a tendency called propaganda by the deed, which had this theory that a spectacular attack against the symbols of authority would reveal authority to be both artificial and vulnerable and inspire the masses to an uprising. In fact [though] it never worked out that way. It was a theory that was partly developed under the circumstances of autocratic rule in Russia, and then exported into Western democracies. In Russia, where it was basically illegal to even speak about anarchism, there was a certain rationality to moving to direct attack.And that was also in a way legible to the population who was also suffering under this kind of censorship. But when it moved into the Western countries, really the effect was to baffle the population and to largely turn them against anarchism, as it became synonymous with things randomly blowing up. Wilde, in fact, in one of those interviews that I quoted earlier immediately followed his statements that he must be an anarchist with, “But of course, the dynamite policy is quite absurd.” Meaning that even at the point where he was embracing this term, partly for its shock value, he also felt like he needed to distance himself from its more extreme and somewhat bloody elements.
Scott (TFSR): And that’s interesting. Do you think that there’s a way that he uses the term specifically for it’s just like surface level or superficial subversiveness or, as you said, the shock value?
Kristian: I think that he always wanted to be just shocking enough to be interesting, and not so shocking as to actually get himself into trouble. Which was a line that he was not always successful in judging, obviously. And so yeah, I would suspect that some of his rhetoric about that was chosen, like in those particular instances, [it] was chosen for the way he positioned himself outside of the mainstream. When he said, “well, I’m a socialist, but we’re all rather socialists nowadays. So I must be something more,”it suggests that he’s looking for the position, which is just slightly too far. Interestingly though, in his most directly political writing, which is called “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,”what he describes is a socialism without the structures of coercion or authority. And he’s very explicit about that. He doesn’t use the term anarchism anywhere in the essay. And in fact, he begins one paragraph by saying “Communism, socialism or whatever we choose to call it,” sort of signaling that the particular distinctions may not be that important and that in any case the word is certainly not the thing that matters.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that’s really interesting. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, because there’s a strategic way to use the word anarchism to get people interested, to get people to talk about things, and to use the way that it’s presented and represented in media. But then attachment to the word doesn’t necessarily help it if people are sort of doing their own thing. That was really illuminating to me to hear you put it that way. Since you brought up “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” kind of the central argument of your book is that this provides a key to give Wilde’s whole body of work a certain kind of cohesion through the lens of anarchism. I was wondering if you’d talk a little bit more more about some of the ideas that he presents in that essay. And then if you want to move on to how it shows up in other writings of Wilde’s.
Kristian: He begins the essay by saying that the main value of socialism is that it would free us from the burden of living for other people. Basically, in a society where everyone’s needs were being taken care of, it would be possible for people to pursue their own interests and to develop what is unique about themselves in a way that the burden of earning a living and the responsibility for taking care of your family, your dependents and all that sort of thing really limits a person’s ability to freely explore whatever it is that they find fascinating, both in the world and of themselves. And so he starts right at the beginning by arguing that the purpose of socialism is that it would make a kind of individualism possible. And in his conception, these two notions of socialism and individualism are tightly bound together. And that it’s possible for certain extremely privileged people to exercise a kind of individualism under capitalism, but for the vast majority of humanity, their lives are too taken up with drudgery and the struggle for survival.And a socialist economy would relieve them of that set of burdens, and therefore makes individualism a universal pursuit. He argues that when that becomes available we’ll see this whole renaissance of culture and art and science and intellectual and an aesthetic sort of blossoming of the human spirit. And then at the same time, he argues that any kind of authority or coercion is corrosive of that entire project, and that therefore no authoritarian socialism would be acceptable. What’s needed is socialism as this kind of voluntary association between free and equal individuals, which I’m not the first person to note is basically the anarchist conception.
Scott (TFSR): Right. That’s interesting, the emphasis on individualism. So in the way that puts him in a different place than some of the other aesthetic aesthetes and decadents. It made me think of that famous line [from the] Goncourt brothers about, you know, living our servants do that for us. The way that Wilde talks about some people, the people who are allowed to live some version of individualism are [enabled] to create beautiful things or even to think like that. Profound thoughts are relying on the work of others to do that. So his his individualism isn’t like a kind of selfish, narcissistic individualism, but one that is trying to extend that privilege to everyone.
Kristian: Exactly. And what I argue in the book is that if we take Wilde’s political writing, and in particular,“The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” seriously, it helps us understand a lot of his other work, and that you see [that] marriage of individualism and socialism (and that version of individualism that should not just be the special property of the aristocracy) show up in other respects. And maybe the place where that pairing is clearest is in those lectures on aestheticism that he delivered in the United States. Where in addition to talking about the importance of sort of surrounding ourselves with beautiful things and treating life itself as a kind of art, meaning making the process of living as beautiful as possible. He also talks surprisingly much about labor and about investing in the skill and the craftsmen of the workers, such that the process of work becomes a creative pursuit and is pleasurable and then also produces beautiful things. Rather than everything being simply judged by its commercial value, and the worker simply being this kind of cog in a giant capitalist machine, where all of his initiative and all of the creativity is removed from the process in order to maximize the efficiency of profit.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that was really exciting to me to read your argument in the book. One line that that especially stood out to me. You make the claim that while socialism is more aesthetic than economic, because, “ it takes as its model the artist, rather than a proletarian, and as much concerned to free the repressed bourgeois as the oppressed worker.” And that sticks out to me because I think you can [take as model the artist], just thinking about anarchism today. But I was wondering if you maybe would elaborate a little bit on this idea of shifting the revolutionary subject away from the traditional understanding of the workers, that kind of disciplined [and] manly person, and maybe that can also verge onto a critique of work, too. There’s a lot of anarchism goes away from this kind of idolizing of the worker as the person that will lead us to freedom. So, yeah, if you could talk a little bit about what this shift in thinking allows us to see for revolutionary politics.
Kristian: Yeah. I don’t know if he had an idea of a revolutionary subject, as you put it. Like, I don’t know that he thought that there was a particular class of people who were going to be responsible for the transformation of society, or at least not a particular economic class. What I meant in that passage was that rather than seeing the proletariat as the class that would become all of humanity, and therefore the model of how human beings would be, he looked to the artist. And so part of that, I think shows the influence of William Morris, who considered himself a Marxist, but whose politics are pretty hard to fit into any current conception of Marxism. And Morris largely thought that the purpose of socialism was to—rather than sort of a standard Marxist conception where industrialization will produce a particular class of worker who will then take over society—Morris thought that the purpose of socialism was to destroy industrialization, that he wanted to get rid of the factory system and its rigid division of labor, and in particular, this conception that there was a class of people who sort of designed and created and imagined the products of the world, and then there was this other class of people who were basically just like hired hands, who just did the work by rote without any input into the process. Instead, he wanted production to take the form of skilled artisans, bringing their full creativity to their work, and also therefore experiencing the work as an expression of their creative selves and finding joy and pleasure in the process of creation. And Wilde basically took Morris’s conception on the whole, which suggests that under socialism, rather than society being organized on the factory model with this mass of proletarians, who basically just like have the position in the assembly line and do the same rote task over and over again, that society would be organized as this free collective of artists and craftsmen, who would be able to express their individualism in the creative process while also providing for the needs of the society. So I don’t know that it’s a question of the revolutionary subject. It’s more a question of like: Under socialism, is the world populated by proletarians or is the world populated by artists? And the hope was that under conditions of freedom and equality, work would be more like art and therefore the individuals doing it would be more like artists and less like assembly line workers.
Scott (TFSR): Right. And that’s interesting these ideas, like you said [with regard to] industrialization, modernization. I mean, in Wilde’s concept of socialism there are machines that do the kind of dirty work so that people don’t have to and they kind of replaced that class of people. But this isn’t to enable some hyper-modernization, but to enable a kind of smaller scale of life that allows people to engage in the pursuits they want rather than this larger idea of driving civilization on, or something like that?
Kristian: Yes, I think that’s exactly right.
Scott (TFSR): There’s another thing that they’re brought up for me that is interesting because, you know, when you think of aestheticism, you think of Wilde and Art—art with a capital A—there’s already a kind of class distinction that’s assumed within.High Art versus other forms of art, but Wilde maybe through Morris and also Ruskin, [who] I know was like a teacher of his, isn’t making this big distinction between high art and crafts or other forms of creation. So then he’s also kind of envisioning a classless art world—would you say that’s right?
Kristian: I would say at his best, that is right. I think he was also prone to a certain amount of snobbery and ready to claim certain privileges of an Artist—with a capital A—that may not extend to everyone in society. And both sides of that showed up in his trial, where on the one hand when they tried to cite his writings as evidence against him and brought in The Picture of Dorian Gray and a set of aphorisms he had contributed to an Oxford magazine and that sort of thing,and they would ask him things like, “well, what is the interpretation that an ordinary person would put to these lines?” And Wilde would say something to the effect of, “I know nothing of the opinions of ordinary people, I’m only concerned with the opinions of artists.” And so he was willing to fall back onto a sort of special status for the artist, and in particular that artists could only be judged by other artists. At the same time, though, the prosecutor was absolutely outraged that the young men that he was associating with were often men of the lower classes. They were servants of various kinds or people who were just frankly out of work. And though nominally the court was concerned with the sort of homosexual nature of these relationships, the fact that he was bringing these servants into polite society was as much a focus of the cross-examination as any sort of sexual relation. And so the prosecutor would repeatedly ask questions like, “is this the sort of young man that a gentleman should associate with?” And Wilde would respond,“Absolutely—if the young man is interesting.” And he said over and over again, “I recognize social distinctions, not at all.” Meaning he didn’t care about their origins. He didn’t care about what they did for a living. What he cared about was their personal beauty and their radiant personalities. And that in particular was outrageous to polite society, in a way that [with regard to] mere same sex relations (there was a lot of that sort of thing at like the British public schools and then at Oxford and Cambridge) the men of Wales class were somewhat ambivalent about that. But the cross-class nature really was outrageous to public opinion and ultimately to the law.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, and that’s something that you elaborate [on] a little bit in the book in a way that I found very interesting. That people at the time, [some of whom] were anarchists and some weren’t, were kind of thinking about the cross-class same sex relationships as a sort of liberatory engagement. And that made me think that there’s sort of seeds of the radical gay liberation or queer liberation movements already in place in the end of the 19th century when these things were kind of being defined. I mean, I don’t know if any of these thinkers would go so far, but I was like reading into this this idea that men across class having relationships would be a sort of undermining of capitalist society. Could you talk a little bit about how the ways of this kind of cross-class relationship were being fought by the queer and anarchist thinkers at the time?
Kristian: Yeah, [and] this wasn’t just an anxiety on the behalf of the aristocracy. The men engaging in these relationships often did sort of theorize that it was going to destroy the class barrier and thus crash the social hierarchy, and that for them that seemed like an advantage. Of course, in retrospect, that all seems very naive, right? Like the ideas that wealthy aristocrats paying young men of the lower order for sex would destroy class relations just seems sort of fanciful. But it was a popular notion among radicals in those circles at the time. And I think to understand that, we need to remember sort of the difference between the traditional British class system and the sort of emerging capitalist system, where they still had the trappings of an aristocratic hierarchy, so that class position wasn’t simply a matter of who had money and who didn’t. And the divisions between the classes weren’t simply a question of one class being an employing in class and one class being a laboring class. The differences were also cultural, and it was possible to be kind of a destitute aristocrat, and it was also possible to make a fortune and yet remain ultimately sort of a middle class person. That [it] was a matter of both of the culture and the expectations and the values that people in those positions would have. But it was also a matter of how they would be regarded socially. So that in some way would even be more respectable to be an impoverished aristocrat than it would be to be a wealthy merchant. So there was this element where simply having kind of intimate contact with people of other social classes seemed subversive, seemed destructive of the barriers that kept them apart. And in particular, Wilde’s interest in the culture of the lower classes, and then also his interest in exposing them to what we would call High Art seems deliberately like trying to erase that cultural line between the upper and [the] lower. Though interestingly, he had basically no interest in the middle classes at all.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, which I guess makes sense. So there’s something interesting there, too, because you know, Wilde initiated a libel suit against the Marquees of Queensberry because he left this card at the hotel, where Wilde was staying.[And] that at least one reading of it, you say in the book of that card, posing as a sodomite reads like a misspelling. So he is being accused of posing as a homosexual. So this just made me think about how the class positions weren’t necessarily tied to actual wealth. But you could kind of portray the image of an aristocrat. And I wonder to what extent that relates to an understanding of aestheticism, like the kind of the idle dandy and the aristocratic bend to that. But you’re arguing that even though that’s one understanding aestheticism, it actually has a kind of anarchist political and ethical value or valence or something. So, yeah, I’m kind of thinking [and] wondering about this idea of posing, posing as queer [or] posing as an anarchist, and how Wilde uses these different positions.
Kristian: So artificiality was, in Wilde’s schema, a value rather than a vice. And part of that was that he had this idea that the purpose of life was this kind of self-cultivation, [this] sort of self-creation, which means that to a certain extent it is going to be an artificiality, that is going to be an element of artistry to the life that you create for yourself and the character that you develop in yourself, and also the presentation that you make to the world. And Wilde very deliberately created an image of himself early on as this sort of idle genius, and also as this person who in some ways was outside of the categories of conventional society. And he relayed that with his sort of flamboyant dress. He created that image by making a habit of saying outrageous things as he matured, the outrageous things that you said tend to have more of a subversive undercurrent to them. But especially early on, [it] seems like he was often just reaching for the thing that was going to outrage public opinion. So there was always this matter of posing.And one of his aphorisms is that it’s only shallow people who don’t judge by appearances. One of the things he meant by that is that it is the appearance that we choose for ourselves. That is the way that we decide to present ourselves to the world. And that that’s important, right? And that, you know, it’s like you can tell a lot about somebody from what they choose to show you. So there was always this self-consciousness to Wilde’s presentation, especially publicly, and there was connected in that a gendered element where he presented himself as the sort of foppish, flamboyant aesthete, which was always interpreted like the dandy, [which] was always understood as sort of an effeminate character. But it actually wasn’t really until Wilde’s scandal that it was fully identified also as a homosexual character. And so he was often seen and sometimes mocked as this living affront to the ideals of masculinity. And this is hard for us to kind of imagine now, but at the time that wasn’t necessarily associated with homosexuality. Which makes Queensberry’s claim that he was posing as a sodomite, a little bit complicated. And part of the work that the trial did was to construct this notion of what a sodomite is like, such that a person could be posing as it. And this gains a kind of circular momentum, where the image that it constructs is partly the negation of the ideal of a respectable middle class family man, but partly just the reflection of the image that Wilde has been projecting all along. And so in the course of the trial, what a sodomite is, the figure of the sodomite, is built so that Wilde will resemble it. Then once that equation takes hold, Wilde really becomes the icon of sort of what a gay man is expected to be like. I’m borrowing here from the work of Alan Sinfield, who wrote a book called The Wilde Century, which makes this argument in about 250 pages. So if you’re interested in that, and how exactly that happened, that is the place to look.
Scott (TFSR): It seems really important, and something maybe a lot of people don’t know, is that we’ve inherited a kind of gay male type or stereotype that can be traced back to Wilde, and these trials.That even over over 100 years, a lot of that hasn’t changed that kind of identity type that Wilde embodied, or even like the lampoon of Wilde’s identity still marks understandings of gay male effeminacy and campness, how Sontag talks about him. So I think you bring that out really interestingly. But like in your book, the thing that I think is really important that you add is that in the aftermath of Wilde’s trial, the queerness of Wilde sort of has an influence on anarchist thinkers at the time. In a way not only is Wilde’s queer identity becoming politicized and codified, but also there’s an anarchist element to that, and I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on that—about the trial and how his sexuality became influential for anarchist thinkers.
Kristian: Sure. This went in a lot of different directions and had several different elements. But maybe the clearest is that Emma Goldman. Other American anarchists as well, but Emma Goldman in particular was initially extremely sympathetic with Wilde, but simply as an example of the puritanical hypocrisy of the legal system, and as a victim of state oppression, it wasn’t until later that she became exposed to the sort of sexological literature that was elaborating the theory of homosexuality, where she realized that it wasn’t just a particular case of the state doing what the state does, but there was also an element[of] Wilde’s trial was intimidating and terrorizing for anentire group of people. And that it wasn’t just a matter of individual suffering and individual persecution, but that there was a group element to this. And so it became important to her to specifically stand up for the rights of homosexuals, sort of as a class rather than simply opposing the state putting people in prison, because of course we’re against the state putting people in prison. Another direction that that developed was that in Great Britain and in the US, the anarchist sexual politics at that time were already interested in sexual liberation, but mostly in the framework of a critique of marriage and free love and advocacy around issues of legitimacy, meaning really the rights of children who are born out of wedlock. And so adding to sort of queer element to that, they were already kind of primed for that development. And then what that meant was that it wasn’t just that Wilde’s trial affected anarchist’s sexual politics, it meant that a particular kind of sexual politics came out of that, that [they] were interested in gay rights as an expression of sort of sexual freedom overall. There was a natural affinity between the way anarchists were already thinking. And the sort of challenge and rethinking posed by the Wilde trial. Another direction that developed was that in Europe, and especially in Germany, individualist anarchists took a somewhat different lesson from the Wilde trial, and were less interested in conceptions of group identity and more interested in understanding it simply in terms of sort of individuality, individual rights and [an] individual person’s ability to express themselves and find pleasure in whatever way they chose, regardless of laws or social convention, or religious or moral precepts. And that, curiously, also circulated back into the United States, partly through Benjamin Tucker and his paper Liberty, which reprinted some of the European coverage of the Wilde trial, and also editorialized on its own, and very much in a more sort of individualist, libertarian kind of approach. So there were a couple of different developments from that in terms of how Wilde’s persecution shaped anarchist politics in the generations after.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that’s interesting. This is a still a kind of problem and paradox within queer liberation—the idea of an identity and a group type or a minority group demanding rights, and then [the] kind of queerness that critiques and wants to do away with identity. And obviously, the way you were outlining Wilde’s understanding of posing and artificiality is already showing kind of ambivalence to that, even as he’s being put in the position of defining this type. So it’s interesting to see these things that [still] are. Anarchists today are always fighting identity politics as well, whether or not they’re queer. So I think it’s interesting to see that these things were already happening at that moment.
Kristian: Wilde himself directly addressed this question in a short story called The Portrait of Mr. W.H., which the story itself is complicated, and I’m going to do my best to sum it up quickly. Basically it involves a relationship between two men, one of whom has a theory that Shakespeare’s sonnets were inspired by and devoted to a young boy actor named Willie Hughes, the W.H. of the title.[He] then persuades the other man of this. The other man then goes and engages in a relationship with a third man and also tries to persuade him of this theory. And the whole thing is in some ways an excuse to make this argument about the history of homosexuality and its influence on culture. So it looks at the presence of homosexuality in ancient Greece. I mean, there’s no way to talk about this that isn’t anachronistic. I should say that,first of all. Like, Wilde never used the term homosexuality, but the presence of homosexuality in ancient Greece, the importance of homosexuality in the Renaissance, the importance of homosexuality for Shakespeare, and then more recent examples. The thing about the story is that they have this argument about the sonnets, but there’s no proof for it. And in order to try to persuade each other, each of the men engages in this fabrication of evidence [of] different kinds. The evidence itself, including the portrait of the title, is a beautiful work of art, but it’s also false. It’s also a fraud. And each of the men, once he persuades the other one of the importance of the theory, is then fatally compromised and dies–one of them by suicide, one of them by consumption. And at the end, you’re left with, on the one hand, this exercise in the construction of a homosexual genealogy, like a cultural genealogy of homosexuality. And on the other hand, the story itself exposes that construction as this kind of artifice and draws into question the wisdom of sort of latching your identity onto anything exterior to yourself. And so it’s both this exercise in the creation of a gay identity, and it’s also this deconstruction and critique of that exercise at the same time.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, and that seems like it could also be like a fitting parable for the attempts to naturalize or biologize sexuality and gender towards increasing rights for so-called gender or sexual minorities. Like these stories that we’re telling ourselves here in that essay or whatever you want to call it, like a story essay.
Kristian: Yeah, it’s a little hard to know how to characterize it. It queers our categories.
Scott (TFSR): I mean, it’s all just part of the seduction anyway. I think that you’re reading of that is really interesting. One of the things that [is] still kind of going on, this idea of identity.The thing that stood out to me after reading your book was that the legacy of Wilde, in a way, entangles these three groups, the people that are are kind of unwanted or undesirable anarchists, the aesthetes or the dandies or decadents or whatever, and and whatever was being defined at the time as homosexual, we might say queer now. And thank you for pointing out that we’re talking pretty anachronistically. But, yeah, just these three types. Right. Anarchists, aesthetes, and queer people even at the time were sort of confused in people’s minds and had this sort of like specter haunting people as like unwanted types. Could you talk about how that sort of legacy still persists today? [How] these entanglements of these different positions politically, artistically and sexually persist today?
Kristian: Yeah.Well, I mean, some of it I think you’ve already hit on. Anarchism, as it existed circa 1895, was already a sort of hospitable environment for a gay politics to emerge in a way that most other sort of political realms were not. Because anarchism already had this critique of sexual morality, it already has its critique of the family structure. It was already advocating for birth control and the rights for children who were born out of wedlock and the equality between men and women and free love and all of that kind of stuff. So it was ready for the addition of the concern of homosexuals. And I think once that took root there, of course, gay politics have then expanded far outside of anarchism and even arguably outside of the left. But it’s now just very infused with the sort of culture of anarchism and also the values and those sort of self perception of what anarchists do expect ourselves to be like. The fusion between aestheticism and queer politics has developed somewhat differently, but it also remains there, right? Where on the one hand, this becomes an annoying stereotype,and on the other hand, it’s also something that gay men especially sort of celebrate about their shared culture, such as it is. Where it’s like there’s an expectation that there are going to be these sort of fabulous creatures with good style sense and immaculately decorated houses and an interest in music and theater and that sort of thing. And also for the same reason, it’s always a little bit suspicious when an adolescent boy takes too strong an interest in painting or poetry,right?So there’s a weird kind of both good and bad aspects to the two of those things coming together and forming a type, or a stereotype. The connection between aestheticism and anarchist politics is in a way more complicated. On the one hand, it means that on a shallow level it has helped inform the attraction of anarchists to sort of the artistic avant-garde, which has shown up really throughout the 20th century from Dada to the beats to punk, really. Greil Marcus territory there. And on a deeper level, though, I think that the notion that life should be the sort of splendid adventure, and that the way individuals live should be reflective of their character and personality, rather than bounded by convention and predictable and productive, but not necessarily very creative or interesting. I think that this has done a lot to maintain sort of the spirit and attraction of anarchism. And that puts us more in the lineage of the situation as to crime think, right. But then there’s also this this paradox, where especially in the last couple decades anarchism has taken a very moralistic and sort of puritanical turn that has also always been sort of a feature of it. You know, at sometimes if you look at a figure like the early Alexander Berkman, his ambition toward martyrdom and his sense of asceticism and his harsh judgment of other people is just annoying. So there’s always been that kind of puritanical element to anarchism as well. But at our best, that is counterbalanced by this free and flowing and urge toward the beautiful. At the moment, it feels like the sort of purist and puritanical element is more to the surface.And the notion that the life should be anything other than, [or] something more than, just the political struggle and the urge to purify oneself and the group of people around you. It seems to have receded. I worry that we’re at the moment insufficiently aesthetic, and I. I wish we could bring that back more to the surface.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, it’s a beautiful idea. I really like the way that you politicize Wilde’s aestheticism because I mean, it is such an old argument in a way that’s kind of like tedious and boring.That, even like Sartrean committed literature is against the art for art’s sake, because that is like amoral or even elite. But your reading of Wilde’s shows that even within the stuff that isn’t explicitly political, there’s like an ethical and political understanding that we can get. You say one line that I really liked—your reading [of] the plays is that Wilde’s evasions often hide the seeds of subversion. So there’s a way of reading Wilde that when he’s not saying, like, I’m an anarchist and let’s smash the state, he’s not saying that, but there’s something that happens in his work that allows the subversiveness of his thinking to come differently, [while] not hitting you over the head.
Kristian: Let me run with a couple of points of that. One is that I think that had his politics been more direct in his writing, probably his work would not have survived as well as it has. And while I think that there is even something which on the surface just seems like this exercise in silliness, like The Importance of Being Earnest. If you read carefully, it’s actually shot through with political concerns. Concerns about legitimacy, concerns about the rights of women, concerns about Irish independence and Fenian bombings, right? There’s all sorts of political elements, political themes, political subtext, political references in what at first seems like just this almost Dadaist banter about nothing in particular. But I think [that] had Wilde instead taken the approach of like a movement writer or a message writer, then the work would seem dated and less interesting and wouldn’t remain as fresh as it actually does. The other thing I wanted to say, and this goes back to aestheticism, is that my argument about Wilde’s aestheticism is that it’s not just the places, especially early in his career where he said things about, like the importance of labour and re-conceiving labour, conceiving of labor as a kind of art. It’s also that he pushes the sort of values where beauty doesn’t have to justify itself. And that’s really what art, for art’s sake means. It doesn’t have to have a moral message. It doesn’t have to have a social use. It doesn’t have to be commercially viable. That just the fact that something is beautiful and gives you pleasure is itself important. And I argue that that is an implicit critique of the values, especially of Victorian capitalism, and what Max Weber would later articulate as the Protestant Ethic.Which was supposed to value sobriety and hard work and thrift, and that every moment of every day was supposed to be invested with this improving moral weight, which meant making yourself a better person, but chiefly meant making yourself a better person through hard work. While aestheticism is just like a torpedo in the hull of that ship. Interestingly for us, I think it is also a good corrective to the more stoical and dour and sad faced parts of left wing thinking, the kind of Marxism that thinks that we should sacrifice everything for the party, or the kind of anarchism that thinks that the main purpose of politics is to morally cleanse ourselves of anything that may be socially compromised. That kind of puritanism, that kind of stoicism, that sort of often workerist, but also often workaholic element, I think need something to temper it. And I think the Wilde’s work, if we take it seriously, and also if we are willing to accept it as lightly as he produced it, can help us to avoid some of the temptations, if you will, of that kind of puritanism.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. And the way you elaborated that is really helpful because we see how, you know, anarchists then and other people who might identify as leftist or Marxist are replicating some of the kind of capitalist mindset of that work and seriousness. And Wilde, [with his] emphasis on pleasure and pleasure as a kind of perversion, I think is specifically queer and specifically helpful in a way as a corrective, as you said, to those tendencies. While you were talking, I was thinking a little bit also about like James Baldwin, who makes similar kinds of arguments [yet manages an] avoidance of being explicitly political in his fiction, [and how] he still he speaks to anarchists, as another kind of queer figure. These people who value the ambiguity of art, are also evading that Protestant ethic that goes along with the kind of capitalist path of individual development. I’m just really grateful for the way that you you expand on that in the book. There’s a bunch of a bunch of things that I can bring up. But one thing that we haven’t really spoken about, but that also I think resonates with today’s anarchism is Wilde’s experiences in prison. And so I wonder, he was incarcerated for two years and then his final writing was on prison. And I think that a lot of people are coming into anarchism specifically now through the abolitionist movement. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Wilde’s experience in prison, his relationship to prison and how that fits into his writing, and what he gives to us today as current abolitionists?
Kristian: Yes, I guess the first thing to say is that Wilde was against prison for his entire career. He thought that the whole notion of punishing wrongdoing was self-defeating and also barbaric. And in The Soul of Man Under Socialism in particular, he predicts that in a future society, there will be no need for crime, because there will be equality and there won’t be either the desperate need to resort to fraud or violence in order to meet one’s needs,nor the kind of resentment that results from being in the lower position of an unequal relationship. And that whatever traces of criminality remain, he argues, would just have to be the product of some sort of mental illness which should be treated by a physician, and not by the courts. So from early on, he was arguing a kind of abolitionist line. He also, partly from seeing the example of Irish nationalists who were being imprisoned, thought the prison could also be the sort of heroic and elevating kind of experience. And he had almost a Thoreauvian line that they could jail your body, but your spirit would remain free. What he learned when they put him in prison was that that was completely wrong. And he should you really should have known better based on what he already understood about the degrading nature of menial work and about the elevating possibilities of beauty and beautiful surroundings versus the degrading and oppressive nature of ugliness. And then he was put in this environment, which was really just designed to concentrate ugliness with the idea of breaking the prisoner’s spirit. And it was anticipated when he was put in prison that he would not survive the two years, that a man of his age and his class would not be up for the hardship and the deprivation, and were it not for the political intervention of some of his friends and the agitation of especially anarchists in Europe, who were demanding his freedom all together, he likely wouldn’t have survived those two years. And instead he was offered a number of privileges that were there to avoid the government’s embarrassment of him dying in prison. And he was very aware that that was the thing that was keeping him alive and that he was receiving this kind of special treatment.Much to his credit, he did his best to extend those benefits to the other inmates around him. [Mainly in that] he was allowed to request books and was allowed additional books from outside the prison. And reading his letters, you can see that among the books that he requested, there are books that he doesn’t particularly have an interest in, but he knows that the other prisoners would. And then for a while, he got the job of taking the library cart around to the cells to give prisoners the books they wanted, which importantly gave him the opportunity to talk to other people, because at that point, the prison system was entirely on a solitary confinement kind of basis.And then also gave him the opportunity to learn about the interests of the other prisoners, and again, sort of facilitate their intellectual pursuits. And then once he was released, he immediately set about agitating to improve the conditions for the prisoners and wrote a couple of long letters to the Daily Chronicle about conditions in the British prison system. In particular centered on the case of a prison guard named Thomas Martin, who had been fired essentially for being too kind to the prisoners. Martin’s specific offense was that he had given ginger cookies to very small children who were locked in prison for poaching rabbits. Wilde pursued both publicly and also less directly, through writing public officials and that sort of thing, the reform of the prison system, noting specific things that could improve the conditions for the prisoners, while also insisting that no amount of reform was ever going to be adequate, and in fact [stating] that the entire basis of British justice was badly founded and needed to be scrapped. This sort of reached its peak with his last published work (during his lifetime anyway) which was the Ballad of Reading Gaol, which I also think is his best poem, which his correspondence makes clear really intended as both a great work of art and also as the sort of political message that we were talking about earlier. It was intended as a pamphlet that would outrage the public against the prison system as a whole. And for what it’s worth, his agitation had some effect. There was a parliamentary commission that was investigating prison conditions at the time, and it took up many of the reforms that Wilde had suggested in his letters to the Chronicle. And just in terms of literary genealogy, The Ballad of Reading Gaol in particular became this almost scripture for anarchists talking about prisons in the decades that followed. So you you find references to it over and over again in the anarchist literature about prison, really all the way up into the 60s.
Scott (TFSR): That’s really interesting. I mean, there’s part of Wilde that is like the “Be Gay Do Crimes” sort, romanticizing the prisoner. But then there’s this seriousness, and it’s especially after his two years of hard labor imprisonment, where he is specifically acting against the prison system and going outside of the romanticism of the like criminal type or something like that. In your going over that history, another thing came to me that you show really well, there are somethings, like Wilde just seemed like a good person, like someone you want to hang out with and be friends with. And in that way, there’s [almost] another aspect of like Wilde the person and his actions that I think are worth reflecting on, [and] not just as a figure, thinker, a writer, but that he embodied this anarchism in his relationships with people, even about the way that he engaged in relationships, whether they’re like intimate or just in passing.
Kristian: Yeah. For a person who is renowned or notorious for being extremely individualistic and extremely sort of egotistical, he was also very, very generous. And he was generous with his wealth when he had wealth, and he was generous with other people’s wealth when he did not. Toward the end of his life, he was practically penniless and living on the generosity of his friends. And yet when people that he knew in prison would get released, he would send them money. And one of his friends and benefactors got kind of annoyed with him about this, because here they are giving him money, so that he can keep body and soul together, and here he is just giving it away. And he said, but if my good friends like you take care of me, how could I not take care of my prison friends? Which I think really captures both something of his spirit and also something of the spirit of mutual aid and solidarity. Friendship for Wilde was not a trivial matter. He didn’t think of his friends as just like people that you happen to know, he saw friendship as this deep and complicated ethical commitment, this kind of like practice of life. Which I think goes back to his reading of the classics, and probably Aristotle in particular. And so it’s also interesting that, lacking the vocabulary that we have now about like homosexuality and queerness, he described those relationships and the possibilities of those relationships in terms of things like passionate friendship and really saw them as, in addition to the sexual component and the political implications, also saw them as this tight interweaving of two people’s lives, and a sort of practice of generosity and engagement. Like a way that people could relate that was in a way deeply ethical, and in another way unconcerned with the conventionality and what at the time was was viewed as morality. So, yeah, I think there’s was something very anarchic about how he looked at that. And again, it was that very generosity that turned out to cause him so much trouble in the trials. Like had he just been hiring prostitutes and paying blackmailers, it wouldn’t have had the, I mean this is somewhat bizarre from our point of view, but it wouldn’t have had the outrageous moral implication that it had—that he was like taking these young men to expensive dinners, and buying them champagne, and taking them to the opera, and buying the suits, giving them silver cigarette cases with personalized inscriptions on them. All of that was like… You know, prostitution and blackmail was just old hat for a Victorian aristocrat. But that kind of intimacy with people of the lower classes and that effort to sort of extend to them the benefits of the society was politically very troubling and morally outrageous.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting how all of these things sort of overlap. I don’t know, like reading your book, I’ve always loved Wilde and had an affinity for Wilde and in a way Wilde has explained to me my gayness, my queerness. But then reading your book, I’m like, oh, my affinity for Wilde also has something to do with my anarchism that I’ve had over my whole life. And I just think the way that you tie those together and show them through going through his letters, his the biographical details, [and] the anarchists kind of response to him. And his work is really compelling. I guess the final question, you know, going back to talking about the role of art and the kind of corrective that we can bring to the sort of dour anarchist politics. The other aspect of him, maybe the term we could say is a utopian, and he uses that in The Soul of Man Socialism. Is there anything that you can say about Wilde bringing a sort of utopian anarchist politics or any way really you want to kind of send us off with, like, how Wilde speaks to us today? Because I think that this book is something that we can learn from in our current moment. So, yeah, any anything in that line that you want to kind of send us off with on Wilde, the utopian anarchist.
Kristian: Yeah. You know his utopianism makes sense, given his aestheticism, given the emphasis on the imagination and on sort of the fanciful and the artificial and the the creative possibilities. And therefore, he didn’t see Utopia as this thing that we achieve and preserve, which might be more of the Puritan model. Instead, he saw Utopia as this this aspiration of humanity that was always just past the horizon. And so it kept us moving. And so he says in The Soul of Man Under Socialism that all the progress is a realization of past utopias. And the utopia is a country where once we land, we immediately set sail looking forward again. And so there’s the idea that in order to achieve progress, we have to be able to imagine the better world. That once we achieve the world that we think we want, we’re going to imagine a better worlds still. And that, rather than that being a frustrating Rosero problem, in fact [it] is this beautiful hope that we can always be doing better. And, you know, right now I think we are pretty desperately in need of some utopian imagination, you know, with the pandemic really throwing our our usual social practices into question, and revealing the threadbare nature of many of our institutions, and the failure of hierarchical leadership structures to address the crisis in any sort of meaningful way, along with the increasingly present effects of climate change and the existential danger that that poses. And then also with the bizarre and perverse political culture that we inhabit in the United States, with the kind of polarization that makes every position a point of conflict and makes any sort of like of, I don’t know, reconciliation or even notion that we will arrive at an understanding of shared humanity, seem increasingly remote. We really need to be able to imagine something better. The alternative, I think, is a very bleak nihilism that just sees the future as only an extension of the present. And I think that from that view, nothing good can come. I saw a picture of some graffiti that said,“another end of the world as possible.” And I think that that that captures pretty well the need for utopian thinking right now.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. That even the dystopian stuff has dried up, I think. Yeah. I mean, you just said it pretty beautifully, so I don’t really have anything that I really want to add. I really love spending time with Oscar Wilde’s thinking and writing, and just thinking about him as a person. And you do, I think, a really important thing in kind of bringing him out as an anarchist thinker and bring him to us right now. And maybe it’s just like something worth living for. Like that in the end is like something, you know, he, sorry, my mind starts going in all these different directions…
Kristian: Oh, good! That’s what I’m aiming for.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, going from like living up to the blue China to dying so that he doesn’t have to see his wallpaper. But I think Wilde actually took things seriously in a way that’s instructive, even for all this kind of humor and artificiality. So, yeah, I don’t know. Again, I’m like really grateful for the book and for the chance to talk to you. And if you have any last things you want to add or also any other places you want listeners to go to the to access your work or whatever you’re up to at the moment.
Kristian: Yeah, I have a modest website it’s kristianwilliams.com, Kristian spelled with a K. Whenever I have a new article or whatever, I put something about it there and put a link to it. And then there’s some sort of category-based archives that you can look and see what I’ve written about the criminal legal system or about literature or about comics. And yeah. So if you’re interested in seeing what else I’ve done, that that would be a good place to start.
Scott (TFSR): Cool, and yeah I recommend people pick up this book, Resist Everything Except Temptation, and of course, Our Enemies In Blue is super important too. But yeah, I’m grateful for the time that you gave to talk about Wilde with me.
Kristian: Yeah, well, I appreciate the invitation. It was a good conversation.
History Repeats Itself?: Peter Gelderloos On Where We’re At
Its not uncommon to hear pundits and regular folks making comparisons between the crises we are now facing and other historical moments, such as the 1920s in Germany or the global rebellions of the 1960s. But is this an effective approach for gauging the potential of now?
For the hour, anarchist author and activist Peter Gelderloos shares some of his thoughts on those comparisons, on the revolutionary potential of this moment were living in and some lessons from past movements that we might keep in mind now to make the most out of these dire times. You can find many of Peters writings on TheAnarchistLibrary.Org, available through AK Press and independent bookstores. You can hear our past interviews with Peter by visiting our website.
Wayne Price is longtime anarchist, author and currently a member of Bronx Climate Justice North and the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, or MACC, in New York City. After reading his book, The Value Of Radical Theory: An Anarchist Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy (AK Press, 2013), I got excited to speak to him about his views on anarchists engaging Marxist economic concepts and some of the historical conflicts and engagements between Marxism and Anarchism. We talk about his political trajectory from a pacifist Anarchist in high school, through Trotskyism and back to anarchy. Wayne talks about common visions of what an anarchist economy might look like, how we might get there, class and intersection of other oppressions, critique of State Capitalism. Wayne sees the oppressed of the world having a chance during this economic freeze to fight against re-imposition of wide-scale capitalist ecocide by building libertarian, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist and heterogenous future societies in the shell of the old.
I’m really happy to share a chat with anarchist and historian, Barry Pateman. Barry, born in the early 1950’s, grew up in a working class coal mining town of Doncaster in the UK and became an anarchist in the 1960’s in London. He is a longstanding member of the Kate Sharpley Library which covers histories of little-known anarchists and events in history. Barry has also contributed to and edited numerous books including “Chomsky on Anarchism”, a two book document collection with Candace Falk and many more titles, many on AK Press. We talk about anarchist history, community, repression, defeat, insularity, popular front with authoritarian Marxists, class analysis and how to beat back capitalism. Find Kate Sharpley Library at KateSharpleyLibrary.Net
General Strike Call
I’d like to recommend listeners check out a recent call to General Strike by People’s Strike, which includes Cooperation Jackson. The beginning of their call, which can be found linked to in our show notes, is:
The CODVID-19 pandemic has starkly revealed the inequalities and injustices that daily plague the world.
The triple crisis of viral plague, systemic economic breakdown, and the failure and/or unwillingness of Governments to provide necessary protections, especially for the poor and people subjected to white supremacy, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and mysogyny has thrown us into a fight for our lives.
The “Free Markets” that right-wing political figures like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro and others are seeking to protect and rely upon to address the COVID-10 pandemic will continue to produce chaos and needless suffering for millions of people. The economic nationalism and imperial rivalry we see on full display in the midst of this pandemic magnify the threat of war.
In the U.S. we are fed a steady stream of lies and authoritarian posturing. From Palestine to South Africa to Brazil to the U.S. and beyond, ooppressive regimes are actively sacrificing vulnerable peoples and communities and treating frontline workers as uttlerly disposable.
We say ENOUGH! It is time to stand up! It’s Time To Strike Back – For Our Lives and Our Futures!
Anarchist Views on Pandemic
You’ll notice that in this chat we’re mostly taking a slight break from the 24-7 covid-show for our broadcast, though the topic is touched on briefly. If you’re looking to hear anarchist-relevant perspectives concerning the pandemic and organizing, we do suggest people check out Episode #33 of A-Radio Networks “Bad News: Angry Voices From Around The World” which is up at our website and also available at A-Radio-Network.Org. I would also suggest checking out some of the awesome shows in the Channel Zero Network, of which we are a member. For instance, Kite Line Radio produces a weekly show featuring the voices of prisoners and the formerly incarcerated on all sorts of topics.
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Featured tracks this episode:
Apollo Brown – The Pursuit – Trophies Instrumentals – Mello Music Group
Chumbawamba – I Never Gave Up – Showbusiness! – One Little Indian
Release Ramsey Orta! / Housing Struggle in Asheville
Sean Swain’s segment on Bernie Sanders withdrawal the Democrat candidacy.
Release Ramsey Orta!
This week, we hear from Deja, the fiance of incarcerated cop watcher Ramsey Orta. Ramsey has been in prison since 2016 and during his short time inside has he’s been transferred around a lot and spent over a year in isolation. Ramsey’s name may be familiar as the police accountability activist who recorded the killing by police of the unarmed community member and grandfather, Eric Garner, in New York in 2014. Ramsey Orta’s video went viral and drew NYPD harassment and attention to him and his family and since his incarceration led to many threats by cop-sympathizing CO’s. Orta is currently about 90 days from his release date for his non-violent conviction and falls within the categories of prisoners that NY is considering releasing before the pandemic is in full swing. If you can help lean on the powerful in NY to get Ramsey Orta released, you can email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can learn more about Ramsey’s case at RamseyOrta.com, or the SupportRamseyOrta fedbook page, as well as WeCopWatch.org or that groups fedbook page.
News just came out that Midstate Correctional, where Ramsey is currently being held, has shown its first infections of covid-19, so this issue of securing Ramsey Orta’s release is dire. He is being denied showers, soap, tissue, enough food. Ramsey is also not being giving cleaning supplies for his cell. A source of his mistreatment is Sgt Mayo at Midstate. Supporters suggest phones contact the following officials and share freedom for Ramsey. Ramsey’s prison number is 16A4200.
Then we hear from two activists from Unemployed Humans Organzing Help, or UHOH Asheville, talking about tenant organizing for a rent freeze and pushing the government and hoteliers to open up those empty rooms to houseless folks in Asheville. More at their fedbook page, or by emailing email@example.com. Apologies for the sound in this second portion.
COVID-19 and the Prison System: 5 Voices from the Front Lines of Resistance
Today we have a show about COVID-19, specifically how the pandemic is being handled in prisons and detention. This show includes a lot of voices, and we structured it that way in order to both include as many perspectives as we could and also to take some of the expectation that interviewees speak to us for an extended period; everyone who is working on this is very busy and we wanted to respect that.
In this show you’ll hear from:
– Rebekah Entralgo who works with the non profit Freedom for Immigrants,
– Finn, a healthcare worker and member of Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR) working in an outbreak epicenter here in North Carolina,
– Elijah Prioleau who is incarcerated at Waupun Correctional in Wisconsin, where there is a COVID-19 outbreak and they are currently on lockdown,
– and JM and Nikkita of (among other groups) COVID-19 Mutual Aid in Seattle, which is at the outbreak epicenter in the Pacific Northwest.
Because I couldn’t include everything that each person said in full, and frankly that was the hardest part about editing, I’m making a page on our collection at archive.org which will include each interview in full. Just give me until tomorrow to get that up, cause my eyes are starting to cross from all the radio related screen time!
Many thanks go out to everyone who was interviewed, and a special thanks to Ben Turk and the folks at Forum for Understanding Prisons who passed along his phone call with Elijah. More about them, their updates, and lists of demands can be seen at prisonforum.org
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To write to Elijah at Waupun Correctional, address letters to:
Leon Elijah Prioleau 420053
Waupun Correctional Institution
PO Box 531
Waupun, WI 53963-0351
To get plugged into mutual aid efforts in Asheville, you can follow the Asheville Survival Project on Facebook, and if you are interested in donating to these efforts in our town the venmo is @AVLsurvival.
List of people and projects that I’m aware of who are boosting prisoner’s voices right now:
Kite Line Radio, which has a Coronavirus call in line for people who are both impacted by incarceration and by Coronavirus, that is 765-343-6236
Social Justice and Struggle in Lebanon and Syria: Joey Ayoub and Leila Al-Shami
This week on The Final Straw we’re featuring a chat with Joey Ayoub and Leila Al-Shami. In this conversation, Joey tells us of some of the history of Lebanon, since the civil war that ended in 1990 and up to the current demonstrations against the clientelist warlords in power in that country. Intertwined with this, Leila speaks about the sparking of the resistance to Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, the tumult of the civil war, and the state of anti-authoritarian and social justice organizing and media work in that country. Then the two talk about the experience of countering disinformation, conspiracy thinking and poor solidarity in the so-called Left in the West and ways to combat ignorance.
This is another long conversation, covering a lot of the last 30 years in these two neighboring nations. The guests proposed speaking about the interrelations across that border because of the similarities, differences, and shared experiences between the two places. Lebanon has Syrian refugees, it was occupied by Syria until 2005. Both spaces share Palestinian refugees, experienced war with Israel, are politically influenced from Hezbollah, mostly speak Arabic and even the flames of the recent wildfires that ignited anti-regime sentiment in Lebanon last fall crossed the border between Lebanon and Syria. We hope to have future chats that play with borders in this way to explore ways we can bridge these borders in our understanding in hopes of increased solidarity.
Lebanese Protests of 2015 & 2019 [00:21:35 – 00:31:40]
Syrian Revolution to Civil War [00:31:40 – 00:41:34]
Current Social Justice Struggle in Syria [00:41:46 – 00:45:56]
Daesh / ISIS and Syrian Civil War [00:45:56 – 00:49:56]
Solidarity with Syrians in Lebanese Protests [00:49:56 – 01:05:38]
Leila on Tahrir-ICN [01:05:50 – 01:09:18]
Educating Ourselves on Syria and Lebanon [01:09:18 – 01:23:07]
White Helmets and other Conspiracy Theories [01:23:07 – 01:32:59]
Syrian Diaspora and Western Left [01:32:59 – 01:37:19]
Rojava and the Syrian Revolution [01:37:19 – 01:41:56]
Better Practice in Solidarity with people in Syria and Lebanon [01:41:56 – 01:53:38]
Michael Kimble Benefit
Last week we announced a fundraiser for Michael Kimble. Because of issues with the platforms, the fundraiser for Michael Kimble’s legal benefit to help raise money for his fight to get him released from prison has been moved. Now you can find it at ActionNetwork.org/Fundraising/Support-Michael-Kimble . Because the fundraiser had to be moved a couple of times, some of the initial push to get word out and initial donations may be irreplaceable. So, folks are asking for an extra push to help rasie this money to get our comrade out and organizing on the outside after 33 years behind bars.
BADNews February 2020 (#31)
This month, the A-Radio Network released it’s monthly, international English-language podcast featuring voices from anarchist and anti-authoritarian radio shows, pirate stations and podcasts from around the world. The episode is up at A-Radio-Network.org by clicking the B(A)DNews. If you’re interested in joining the network or learning more, info’s up on that site.
Thank you both very much for taking the time to chat with me.
Leila al-Shami: Thank you.
Joey Ayoub: Thank you.
FS: I thought we could talk about anti-authoritarian aspects of popular movements against the regimes in both Lebanon and Syria and for new ways of living, and what solidarity can look like, within that region and from outside, with those popular anti-authoritarian movements. This is a really big conversation, and I’m very excited for the information that y’all are going to present.
First can y’all lay out a thumbnail of the post-colonial development in the respective countries—in Syria and Lebanon—including a bit about the interrelation between those neighboring countries, at least up until those anti-corruption and anti-authoritarian protests known as the Arab Spring?
JA: The primary thing to remember when it comes to the relationship between Syria and Lebanon is that historically they are the same region, “Greater Syria.” With regard to contemporary events, what’s important to understand from a Lebanese perspective is that the Syrian regime was one of two military occupiers of Lebanon—the other being Israel—between 1976 and 2005, when it was essentially forced out after a popular uprising.
Since then, the relationship between the two countries is extremely complicated, to say the least. On the one hand there is a major Lebanese political party that is active in supporting the Assad regime in Syria—I’m talking about Hezbollah. On the other hand, when we speak of Syrians in Lebanon we have to differentiate between the Syrian regime and Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees are effectively powerless and living in pretty bad conditions—I’m phrasing this lightly. It is really bad these days. They are often the victims of scapegoating by xenophobic sectarian parties that have played the same card against Palestinian refugees in the past—they are just using it against Syrian refugees today.
Any relationship is very complicated; there are historical links, but there are activist links as well. But other than that, the two countries are fairly separated due to this power dynamic.
LS: From my side, I think it’s important to understand how the Syrian regime, the current regime, came to power. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party came to power in 1963 through a military coup, and it was founded upon an ideology which incorporated elements of Arab nationalism and Arab socialism, both of which were witnessing popular resurgence in the wave of decolonization. Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970 through an internal coup within the Ba’ath Party. It was under him that the totalitarian police state was built, which repressed all political freedom. Any opposition or dissidents were dealt with very severely under Hafez al-Assad, and what became known as the ‘Kingdom of Silence’ was built. People were not able to express themselves politically.
Bashar inherited the dictatorship from his father in 2000, and when he came to power, Syrians were hoping for an opening—that they would have more rights and freedoms. But really he continued the policies of his father in terms of political repression, and the prisons were full of Muslim Brotherhood members, Kurdish opposition activists, leftist activists, and human rights activists. And there was also a very desperate socioeconomic situation: a wave of liberalization of the economy under Bashar which really consolidated the wealth in the hands of crony capitalists who were loyal to or related to the president, meanwhile subsidies and welfare that the poor relied on were dismantled.
It was these two factors, both the political repression and the very desperate socioeconomic situation, which led to the uprising which broke out in 2011—which of course arrived in the context of this transnational revolutionary wave that was sweeping the region.
FS: I think a lot of people in the West get confused with the term socialist in the expression of Ba’athists, and don’t have a specific understanding of what that term means in that instance. Can you break it down for those of us who are confused about what socialism refers to in terms of Ba’athism?
LS: The Ba’ath Party advocated socialist economics, but rejected the Marxist conception of class struggle. The Ba’ath believed that all classes among the Arabs were united in opposing capitalist domination by imperial powers, proposing that nations themselves, rather than social groups within and across nations, constituted the real subjects of struggle against domination.
So when they came to power, they pursued top-down socialist economic planning based on the Soviet model. They nationalized major industries, and engaged in large infrastructural modernization to contribute to this nation-state building enterprise: redistributing land, erasing the land-owning class, and improving rural conditions. It was these kinds of populist policies which brought the party a measure of cross-sectarian public support.
But at the same time, leftists were purged from the Ba’ath Party right at the beginning. Hafez al-Assad’s coup within the Ba’ath Party was against the leftwing faction. And later, all left opposition was either co-opted or crushed. Independent associations of workers, students, and producers were repressed, and para-statal organizations said to represent their interests emerged—a kind of corporatist model.
And like I said, under Bashar there was an increasing liberalization of the economy; it really moved away from any kind of socialist economic model towards a model which created a great deal of wealth disparity within the population.
FS: Joey, I wonder if you could set up how, after the civil war and occupation in Lebanon, power was distributed through the state structure there.
JA: It’s been thirty years since the end of the civil war. The postwar era, as we call it, started in 1990, when the civil war officially ended with the signing of the Taif agreement—Taif being the city in Saudi Arabia where they signed it. So it’s been almost exactly three decades since then.
The postwar era is defined by a number of things. The primary two components relevant to what is happening today are the format in which this so-called peace happened, and what happened after that. The format can be symbolized through an amnesty law that was passed in early 1991, which pardoned most crimes which were committed during the war—the only exception being the killing of other important people. If you had assassinated a prime minister or something like that, you might be exempted from the amnesty law. Other than that—if you were involved in kidnappings, enforced disappearances, torture, murder, all of these things—all of your crimes were wiped clean overnight.
Warlords who made their names during the war became the warlords who entered government in the nineties. They removed their military uniforms, put on their business suits, and became the government. The people we’re dealing with today for the most part are the exact same people who were the warlords during the civil war. The two very easy examples I can give are the current president, Michel Aoun, who was a warlord in the eighties, and the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, who was also a warlord in the eighties.
These people have each created clientelist networks—we call it wasta in Arabic—and the result is we don’t really have one state. We do in theory—but that state is subsumed within these sectarian networks.
The second thing that happened in the postwar era which is also important is what you might describe as actually-existing neoliberalism. There was a rabid form of capitalism, the “shock doctrine” scenario that Naomi Klein famously coined in her book, wherein all the ruins of the war were further demolished. The most symbolic example of that is downtown Beirut, which saw a lot of the violence. Large parts of it were completely demolished instead of being renovated and public spaces being made accessible again, and everything was privatized.
Fast forward three decades: what we’ve been seeing since October 17, 2019, this symbolic date when the current uprisings started, are attempts by a number of protesters to reclaim this public space that has been privatized, and to reclaim a sense of identity that transcends these sectarian limits which were implemented in the postwar era.
They were always there—they have been part of Lebanon’s de facto legal reality. Sectarianism is institutionalized. Political confessionalism is the official term for it. In the postwar era there have been quite a lot of protest movements trying to move beyond sectarianism, calling for some kind of secularism, some kind of trans-sectarian identity, with the knowledge that sectarianism isn’t just a social ill in itself (as in, it’s bad to be sectarian) but also understanding that sectarianism is used in a specific way in Lebanon that benefits those who are already at the top.
That’s a simplistic summary, of course, but that’s essentially what we’ve been seeing since October 17. And this time there is a momentum that is explicitly anti-sectarian, and an awareness that as soon as sectarianism wins, the movement immediately loses. There’s an extreme sensibility towards remaining anti-sectarian.
FS: Would you mind talking a little bit about how the clientelism and expectations of social infrastructure, and the lack of following through on these expectations, led to the October protests, and how clientelism stands in opposition to the idea of a social contract?
JA: It is very difficult in Lebanon to do anything unless you have the connections. Education, healthcare, basic services like electricity and water—people tend to rely on private networks for all these things. I went through a private education. Most people in Lebanon have to pay two electricity bills, one private and one public, because the public one is not 24/7. For water, technically you pay three different bills, because there’s public and private running water, and separately there is bottled water because the tap water is not potable. This is a small example of how the clientelism functions in Lebanon.
It really precedes the civil war, and going all the way into that would require a different kind of analysis which I’m not the most capable of giving. But what we saw in October—and in the months and years preceding October 17—was this lack of social contract becoming even more painful. Before then, there was always a way for a percentage of the population—I can’t even say for sure it’s a majority—to sort of get by. There was always a way to make ends meet, so to speak, one way or another. Living conditions were never extremely good, but they were decent enough for you to have an okay life. Especially, obviously, if you’re middle class. That has declined in the last decade or so.
The 2011 uprisings had an impact on Lebanon. Cutting off Syria economically from Lebanon impacted business locally. It also reduced significantly any kind of Gulf investment, which had been reliable up until 2011-12. That’s what has been breaking down slowly in the last decade, and that’s part of the spark that led to October 17, 2019. But that week, that same week, there were very bad wildfires that ravaged through the country and even reached parts of Syria; it was over forty-eight hours before they were fought off through a combination of luck—it started raining—and airplanes that were donated by foreign governments.
And just a day later, the government decided to impose a tax on WhatsApp calls, which are obviously free and used by virtually all Lebanese because actual phonecalls are so expensive due to the corruption and clientelism. That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
On the night of 17 October, the day the WhatsApp tax was proposed, people spontaneously went to Beirut, to Nabatiyeh in the south, to Tripoli in the north—people went out in cities across Lebanon. In the first couple of weeks, the momentum was so overwhelming. It was on all levels across all regions of Lebanon, with almost no exceptions, touching all socioeconomic classes (there were even protests where I live; this has never happened before), and there was a very explicit anti-sectarian component.
This is remarkable because sectarianism in Lebanon has created a reality where it is virtually impossible—in practice it just never happens—that if you are from a certain region and you’re just used to seeing people from a certain sect (with the exception of the big cities like Beirut), you don’t really know much about other parts of the country where a different sect has a majority. If you come from Mount Lebanon you don’t necessarily know much about the south or the north, unless you have family connections.
That’s been our reality for three decades. And nonetheless in the first month or so, it was very common to see people in Tripoli (the Sunni-majority city in the north) sending their solidarity to Nabatiyeh (the Shia-majority area in the south) and vice versa. In Jounieh (which is Christian majority) and Beirut (which is very mixed) and Mount Lebanon (which is Druze majority), there were always explicit statements of solidarity from one region to another, from one sect to another, saying, essentially: we have this thing that unites us beyond our sectarian allegiances.
The other extremely important component is summarized by the chant kelon ya’neh kelon, which means “All of them means all of them.” It’s very simple. Every single politician that has participated in this postwar status quo has to go. It’s a complete rejection of every single political leader of the postwar era, basically, whether they are currently in government or not.
That’s very important, because there have been a number of sectarian parties that were previously in the government and currently are less so—they still have MPs but they are not the ruling parties—that have been trying to ride the wave of the revolution by presenting themselves as opposition parties, trying to play with the binary that is the March 8 and March 14 movements.
What are these two? March 8 and March 14 are the names of two coalitions that were formed on those dates in 2005. Following the assassination of then-prime minister Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005, there were mass mobilizations on these two dates with different orientations towards the Syrian regime. On March 8 was the pro-Syrian regime protest, led by Hezbollah and Amal at the time. On March 14 was the anti-Syrian regime protest, led by the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces, the Phalangists, and the Progressive Socialist Party and other parties. Since then they have created a power-sharing agreement following the model of the postwar era, where it’s one coalition or the other that’s ruling, always fighting with each other but always finding more things in common than things that distinguish them—especially when there are independents trying to run against both of them, that’s when they close ranks.
Because the current government, for various reasons, is a March 8 government—Hezbollah, Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement—there are parties that were traditionally associated with March 14—the Future Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Lebanese Forces, and the Phalangists—that have been trying to place themselves in the position of opposition against the March 8-led government.
The protesters are rejecting that. No. All of them means all of them; you will not be able to ride the wave of the revolution. In five days it will be the four-month anniversary of these protests, and the momentum has changed, but it is still firmly anti-sectarian.
FS: Let’s turn and rejoin Leila in the chronology of how anti-corruption movements had been developing in Syria and then come back to anti-corruption in Lebanon. Leila, Joey had mentioned Syrian refugees being present and the way the forest fires crossed the border; these two countries have had a lot of interaction between each other. I’m wondering if you could talk about how the anti-corruption and reform movements and revolutionary movements of the Arab Spring effected and impacted Syria, with the Syrian revolution and subsequent civil war.
LS: People in Syria were generally quietly against the regime prior to 2000. The last major uprising had been at the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties, and started off as a broad-based movement against the regime but ended up becoming very dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood due to the severe repression of those who were participating in it. It culminated in the massacre of Hama, when thousands of people were killed and much of the old city of Hama was destroyed by Assad’s forces. In addition to that, thousands of people disappeared into regime detention; many of them were never seen again. This experience of such brutal repression had kept Syrians quiet since that time.
But when the Arab Spring, as it came to be known in the West, emerged in 2010-11, people in Syria were seeing what was happening in Egypt, what was happening in Tunisia, and the governments being brought down there, and they began to ask, “Why not us?” This gave people—a new generation that hadn’t directly experienced the repression that had occurred before—the strength to go out onto the streets and start demonstrating themselves. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, though, people in Syria didn’t go out into the streets calling for the fall of the regime, initially. What they were calling for was reforms: things like a multi-party system, the release of political prisoners, a free press.
These were demands which had been taken up in 2000 when Bashar first came to power, and people thought there was an opening for change. There was a small movement—it wasn’t a popular broad-based movement like we saw in 2011, but it was a movement among intellectuals and human rights activists that started to call for reforms when Bashar came to power. That movement, again, was severely repressed, and all hope for change under Bashar died at that point—until 2011, when what happened in Tunisia and Egypt really reignited the hopes of a new generation.
So they came out onto the streets calling for reform, but the brutality of the response by the state—which immediately began meeting peaceful, unarmed pro-democracy protesters with gunfire, massive waves of detention, and repression—radicalized the movement. It caused it to spread rapidly across the country, and it encouraged people to start calling for the fall of the regime and even for the execution of the president. It was the regime’s repression which really catalyzed the movement’s spreading and becoming a revolutionary movement.
I think it’s very important to recognize that when this happened in 2011, it was a broad-based, inclusive movement. It included many women from all different backgrounds, a diversity of Syria’s religious groups and ethnic groups, all united around the demands for freedom, for democracy, and for social justice. The social justice element is often not focused on very much in the West. But it was a large component of the revolutionary demands.
Many people went out on the streets and chanted against the crony capitalists who had amassed a great deal of wealth under the current regime. For example, Rami Makhlouf, who is Assad’s maternal cousin, was estimated prior to 2011 to control some sixty percent of the Syrian economy through his business interests—in real estate, mobile telephone companies, etcetera. There were large chants against him on the streets and against other crony capitalists.
There was a strong element of awareness and strong social and economic demands as part of the revolutionary movement, but those were not focused on very much in Western reporting.
FS: In your book Burning Country that you coauthored, y’all made a point of saying when people took up arms to defend themselves against the government, the inclusivity of the popular movement started to dissipate. That’s how I remember reading it, at least. Can you talk about what the integration of armed struggle into the movement against the government did to the dynamic of the revolution, and how it became a civil war?
LS: Taking up arms was a response to the massive repression by the state against peaceful protesters. At the beginning it was still inclusive—this wasn’t an organized military or army. This was people taking up weapons in their communities to defend their communities and their families from assault. People were being taken from their homes and detained; there was also a mass rape campaign carried out in oppositional communities by Assad-affiliated militias. So people took up arms to defend themselves in loosely-coordinated defense brigades.
By the summer of 2012, we started to see the Free Army label being used. Now, the Free Army was never really an organized army; it was never centrally controlled or centrally funded, although there were failed attempts to do so. It was an umbrella which different groups and different militias could come under with two main aims: one was the fall of the regime, to force Assad out of power, and the other was to see some kind of democratic transition take place. The people who signed up to the Free Army label were people who were united behind those aims.
But as time went by, the armed opposition became more and more fragmented, due to external pressures on them. They couldn’t get the weapons that they needed to really defend themselves and their communities from regime assaults. There were light weapons going in, but the anti-aircraft missiles which people desperately needed were not being provided. Aerial assaults were the main cause of destruction and main cause of death, and it was Assad who was controlling the skies—later alongside his Russian ally.
We also saw, around December 2013, an increasing Islamization among armed groups in Syria. The main reason for that was the failure of the democrats of the Free Army to attract funding and support from the Western states that they were reaching out to. Some brigades started Islamizing their rhetoric in order to attract support from Gulf donors specifically.
So there was an increasing Islamization of the opposition groups, and an increasing fragmentation of armed opposition groups. There were so many different armed brigades that were present at that time, and we see now that most of the armed groups operating in Syria do have an Islamist leaning and have eclipsed in strength the democrats of the Free Army.
But while there was this fragmentation of the armed opposition—which was due in large part to this competing struggle for weapons, competing struggles for military dominance and political dominance in areas they were controlling—there was also, in parallel, a continuing civil movement which was committed to the original goals of the revolutionary struggle and remained an inclusive and diverse movement.
FS: Fast-forwarding now into what has been nine years of one of the most deadly civil wars of the twenty-first century so far, I’m sure what a lot of people are experiencing on the ground in opposition areas at this point is simply a struggle for survival against this genocidal regime. But can you say anything about what exists, as far as you’re aware, of democratic movements for social justice in Syria?
LS: There are plenty of Syrians who are still committed to those ideals of the revolution, and there are plenty of Syrians working today within their communities trying to keep things functioning; plenty of civil society organizations that are continuing to do media work, continuing to assist the displaced, trying to keep hospitals functioning. But it has become a matter of survival, a struggle for survival. Today the main area which is outside Assad regime control, or still in the control of rebel groups, is Idlib. Idlib today is facing an absolutely relentless assault, a war of extermination against the civilian population there.
Since the assault on Idlib began in April 2019, over a million people have been displaced, nearly 700,000 since December alone—just gone. There have been massive attacks on civilian infrastructure; dozens of hospitals put out of action. People are fleeing for their lives. It’s very hard in such circumstances to talk about any kind of organized movement, because people are really just struggling to survive. People are fleeing outside of Idlib city or to the north of Idlib, and there’s no place left to go, no remaining safe haven for people. Many of these people had already been displaced multiple times, when their communities came under attack or were forced to surrender and recaptured by regime forces. And the borders are not open. The situation on the ground today in Syria is completely desperate.
In areas that have come back under regime control, whether we’re talking about Dera’a in the south or the Ghouta around Damascas, there have been massive waves of repression against the population who stayed. Anyone who is seen to have been in any way affiliated with the opposition has been arrested and detained. Young men have been rounded up and sent to the front lines to fight, basically on missions from which they are not going to return.
But we have also seen that resistance has continued. There have been waves of protests happening in Dera’a. Extremely courageous people in regime-controlled areas have still been protesting, calling for things like the release of prisoners, protesting against the desperate economic situation. Just in the last couple of weeks in Sweida, which is a Druze-majority area, people have been out on the streets protesting against a very desperate economic situation, protesting against the corruption they’re seeing.
In Dera’a, we’re seeing waves of assassinations against regime forces as well. So while the organized resistance movement and organized civil society has been very much crushed over recent months as the regime has taken control, we see that those desires for freedom, for justice, for this regime to end, have not gone away. And when others have a chance to organize, they’re still trying to organize—they’re very clear that they’re not going to accept this regime. There’s no life for people under this regime.
FS: This is a subject that I’m sure gets brought up a lot in conversations about Syria with Westerners, but it seems like the democratic social movement had a few different fronts on which they were being attacked, including with the uprising of Daesh as a movement across Iraq and Syria. In your experience, is Daesh still a threat against social movements, or has it been crushed, as it’s been presented in the Western media?
LS: Daesh hasn’t been crushed. There’s this idea that you can defeat an ideology militarily when the conditions that fed that ideology are still very preset, when the chaos which allows such extremist groups to thrive is still there. Daesh has certainly lost a lot of its organized power, but it has the ability to regroup and re-form—we’ve seen that in Iraq, and in attacks that have been carried out in Syria in recent months.
It’s not just Daesh which is a threat. If we look at Idlib—I said that Idlib was the main province still under rebel control. The group in control of a large part of Idlib is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly al-Nusra, which is a very extremist Islamist militia. They have repeatedly tried to wrest power away from the democratic opposition structures which were established in Idlib following the liberation from the regime, and have tried to impose their own extremely authoritarian religious strictures upon a population which overwhelmingly rejects them.
This is something which is not spoken about much in the West. People often say Idlib is an “al-Qaeda enclave” because this group HTS was formerly affiliated to al-Qaeda. What they’re overlooking is all the people protesting against the group. We’ve seen continuous demonstrations in Idlib, up until now, people calling for HTS to leave their communities and hand over power to democratic opposition structures.
So yes, Syrians have had a battle on two fronts. They’ve had a battle against this fascist tyrannical regime which is committing genocide against a population which demanded freedom, and a struggle against extremist Islamist groups such as Daesh and HTS and others.
The third battle, of course, has been against people in the West, often people who identify as being on the left, who have continuously slandered revolutionary Syrians, have equated revolutionary Syrians with groups like al-Qaeda, and have in fact thrown their support behind the Assad regime. Free Syrians have found that they have very few friends. But they retain their desire for freedom, and they continue to maintain that they are not going to accept one tyranny being followed by another.
FS: Joey, on an episode of the Arab Tyrant Manual from November 2019, you and another guest, Timour Azhari, were talking about calls for solidarity with the Syrian people that were coming up in the chants of Lebanese protesters, and I wonder if you, or both of you, could talk a little bit about solidarity against authoritarian structures across that border, between Lebanon and Syria, and between the popular mobilizations against sectarianism that you’ve seen.
JA: The anti-sectarian component of the protest movements in Lebanon essentially appeals to some kind of national identity. It’s one thing to have my religion as a Christian, as a Shia, as a Sunni, as a Druze, and that’s fine, but there should be something that unites us further than that—we’re all Lebanese. Of course that’s a double-edged sword: nationalism can unite people across sects within one nation-state, and it can also otherize people who are not Lebanese.
That’s a very common thing, and it’s a reality that anti-authoritarians, progressives, radicals, lefties, and others in Lebanon have to contend with: the overwhelming presence of xenophobia. Much of it was created during the civil war; the Syrian regime was an occupier, so many Lebanese, especially those of the older generation, equate Syrians with the Assad regime. This is very ironic and self-defeating, because obviously Syrian refugees in Lebanon are fleeing a conflict that was started by the Assad regime; there could have been opportunities for cooperation and unity. But what is happening is xenophobia and nationalism.
In the same way as in Hong Kong, where there is a segment of the population which is anti-China in the ethnic sense rather than being anti-Chinese-government, there is in Lebanon a segment of the protesters that is anti-Syrian, not just anti-Syrian regime. There are even Lebanese who oppose the Syrian regime, who oppose Hezbollah, who still share the same xenophobic, racist attitudes towards Syrian refugees.
And this power dynamic is worsened by the fact that the economic situation in Lebanon is already shit. It’s really bad. It creates the opportunity for scapegoating Syrian refugees, modeled after the scapegoating of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon since the Nakba: they faced this type of attitude, especially during the civil war because there was an armed Palestinian faction, but that’s a different story.
To try and counter that, there is a segment of Lebanese protesters, most notably the feminists, who are trying to create a movement that is more inclusive. They are openly intersectional and speak about class struggle, and about gender equality beyond the confines of citizenship—which is already very restrictive in Lebanon. You cannot become Lebanese other than by marrying a Lebanese citizen or inheriting it—and even then it is only passed on by a man. You can inherit citizenship if your father is Lebanese, but you cannot inherit it if only your mother is Lebanese. So there is a percentage of the population in Lebanon that are “not even Lebanese” but who are in fact Lebanese. What the progressives are saying is that if someone can be Lebanese and not Lebanese at the same time, we can also accept that there might be more than one way of being Lebanese. This is why I insist on calling myself Lebanese-Palestinian, to refuse to relinquish my grandfather’s identity. It’s not even considered something that can be a reality. You’re either one or the other, and that’s it.
Something being called a “revolution” or having revolutionary momentum does not automatically mean that everyone participating in that uprising has the best politics in the world. Even in Syria in 2011-12, there were conservatives who would take part in the protests. That’s completely normal. There’s more than one way of expressing opposition to illegitimate authority. If we’re talking about the Assad regime, there are multiple ways of opposing it. There are even Islamists who oppose the Assad regime. As a progressive who would not want to have an Islamist regime either, you still can’t automatically reject everyone who doesn’t share every single one of your politics. It’s complicated.
In Lebanon it’s complicated in different ways. In the beginning, there were sectarian people participating in the protests. There were members of Hezbollah, members of the Lebanese Forces, and members of other sectarian political parties among us. Even to this day, there still are, but to a lesser extent. They were in fact going against their own parties, without renouncing their parties. What happens in that space, within that momentum, is a sort of negotiation. Chanting kelon ya’neh kelon made lots of people uncomfortable. Calling out certain specific politicians by name made certain people uncomfortable. That alienated some people, whereas other stuck around. Some people were “converted.” Other people still participate without chanting these specific chants.
So there’s an ideal: kelon ya’neh kelon, anti-sectarianism, a vision of a fair society. And within that ideal, there are multiple ways of negotiating, because at the end of the day, if I want a society that is better than the current society, I have to face the contradictions of that society. Those contradictions, whether we’re talking about sectarianism, xenophobia, nationalism—all of these things exist everywhere in Lebanon. They exist within your own family, within your community networks. It is very difficult just to say, “Screw all of you, I am going to create something without all of you.”
FS: Leila, the reason I first heard your name besides Burning Country was in reference to Tahrir-ICN coming up in the 2010s. Can you talk a little bit about that project and what became of it, how it developed, and what impacts you saw it have?
LS: Tahrir-ICN was an attempt to address the issue of a lack of knowledge of anti-authoritarian struggles in the region, outside of it. A group of activists came together, myself included, with the idea to build this network among anti-authoritarian activists in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. It had two components to it. The first was an information-sharing platform, establishing a blog and social media accounts. The second was to build a physical network where we could work on practical actions and build solidarity together, sharing experiences.
The first aspect of it was quite successful. It started in 2012, just after the revolutions in the region broke out. Different collectives from across the region and in Europe started sharing information of what was happening in their country. This was a time when there were lots of uprisings across the region and also in Greece and in Spain: the Occupy movement, a lot of exciting things were happening. It didn’t have one vision. It was trying to learn from a wide variety of experiences and struggles loosely labeled anti-authoritarian. We had quite a wide readership for our blog, and I think it was very useful for people outside, in Europe or in America, to find out more about anti-authoritarian struggles in the Middle East and North Africa, and vice-versa..
The second aspect, building a physical network—we had a number of discussions about having an event to bring people together. There was certainly a lot of interest in that. But then the counterrevolutions broke out very strongly. People became very bogged down in what was happening in their countries. People started losing a lot of energy, and the network kind of fizzled out. I myself decided that I had to prioritize what was happening in Syria due to my connections with Syria. People got very caught up in their own stuff, and it kind of died out. But I think that for the time when it was operative, it provided a useful source of information to learn about each other and to see the wide variety of struggles that were occurring.
FS: For the sake of us staying informed and educated about what’s actually going on in this region of the world, can y’all talk about maybe some resources that we have, particularly in English, that we could be relying on to get a better grasp? And also maybe some resources that you think are trash and we should avoid? That would be very helpful.
LS: I would encourage people to look for resources which are produced by people who are living in or connected to the regions themselves. It’s very important to try to go to native sources where possible, to people who have a very real understanding of the issues because they’re directly affected by them. We’ve been very privileged that there is so much information available in English. There are so many activists who are very active on social media across the region who we can connect with on Twitter, on Facebook, who are telling their stories. From Syria, there are so many great independent media initiatives. There is Enab Baladi—Joey worked on producing a book of some of their texts—which was established by women in one of the main revolutionary towns known as Daraya. There were some amazing experiences of self-organization in that town. There is al-Jumhuriya, which was established by Syrians, which is great for analysis of the region.
I would encourage people to find out a bit more and to go to these sources, and to try to educate themselves. The first and most important aspect of solidarity is correcting the information. There is so much disinformation circulating about what is happening in the region. It’s so exhausting for activists who have much more important struggles than focusing on correcting the narrative. It would be great if some of that work could be done from the outside. It would certainly free up Syrian activists to focus on other more practical things that they need to address.
JA: On the Lebanon side of things, I can start by recommending a podcast that’s called The Lebanese Politics Podcast. Starting with the episode which was released just after the October 17 revolution started, they’ve put out about an episode a week, in English, in which they go back to the events of that week and interpret them and talk about them. It is as objective as you can get, from an archival perspective. Both of them are on the left and are analyzing from the anti-sectarian angle.
Other than that, most good media in Lebanon is in Arabic. Recently, especially since 2015 when there was another uprising—which was not as successful but laid the groundwork for what was to come—there were things like Megaphone News, which is mostly in Arabic but sometimes has English stuff; they are really good. There is the Public Source—again, these are mostly in Arabic but occasionally have some English stuff.
A lot of the voices of anti-authoritarian Syrians are present in mainstream Anglo media. Just recently there was For Sama, the documentary that was nominated for an Oscar and won many film festival awards. There was the White Helmets documentary from 2017. There are a bunch of really good war-related but more personal-narrative documentaries popping up. All of these are available with English subtitles, and are very easy to find these days.
The main thing to challenge, really, is disinformation. The decision is whether people want to believe what they are seeing with their own eyes. For Sama is literally just footage put together to tell a story. You can think whatever you want, but if you’re starting to doubt what you see with your own eyes, the bombing that you’re literally seeing in front of you, then we’re entering a world that has not just implications for Syrians and Palestinians and Lebanese and others, but indeed implications for everyone else.
The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote and the so-called wave of far-right populism (which is a nice euphemism for fascism a lot of the time) didn’t really surprise a lot of us who live on this side of the world and have been involved with anti-authoritarian politics. Some of the signs that we were going into a dangerous international moment were already present in Syria as early as 2013, with the chemical massacre in Eastern Ghouta, among other things. The reactions to that started signaling that we’re slowly moving towards a normalization of blatant violence against civilian bodies.
What progressives in Lebanon are trying to do right now is create a different media landscape outside the norms, a counternarrative to the dominant narratives in Lebanon, because they are very influenced by the sectarian status quo. Many of them are owned by the sectarian parties. With Syria it was very different at first, because there wasn’t really any independent media before 2011. But an explosion of creativity came after 2011 (Enab Baladi, the project I worked on, is one of the examples of that), so now it is very easy to get very decent, advanced, sophisticated information. The question is how much energy people are willing to put into it.
It’s always good to inform yourself as much as possible about what’s happening in the rest of the world, just as a general rule, and there tends to be enough information these days. But the other thing is calling out disinformation when you see it online. To do that convincingly, you do need to arm yourself with quite a lot of knowledge, because the disinformation campaigns, especially since Russia decided to intervene militarily in Syria, have been pretty extraordinary. We’re not just dealing with RT and Sputnik. There are horrific takes being taken for granted which if they were on Palestine would be the abode of the far right, but for some reason when it comes to Syria, lots of lefties repeat basically the same things that rightwing Zionists would repeat on Palestine—the same takes! They just go with that narrative instead of looking at the facts on the ground and reading the books by Syrians who have been writing for decades now, many of whom are translated into English.
Information is power, and it can be used for good. But we have to deal with all of the disinformation around us. It’s been exhausting. Many of us have experienced months of burnout. Most activists I know, including those who were in Aleppo until recently, or in Ghouta or in Idlib or in the south or wherever, have completely given up on trying to challenge anyone online, or are just working locally. Some still spend entire days sometimes arguing with mostly Westerners online about their own country and their own homes that they just had to leave.
Westerners are not going through fascism in the same sense that Syrians are. There is definitely that threat, especially these days, but it’s still not at the level of the Assad regime controlling everything and dropping barrel bombs, and having foreign militaries invited into your country. I don’t know how to say this, but privilege is a responsibility. Having privilege means you should do something with it. Use the access to knowledge that you have and inform yourself on what’s been happening in Syria, especially since 2011, or since 1982 with the Hama massacre as Leila mentioned, or wherever you want to start, instead of just getting stuck in these echo chambers which have been so common, unfortunately, with the Western left.
FS: I’m wondering if either of you have the energy to talk really briefly about that or touch on some of the conspiracy theories we need to challenge? You don’t have to answer if you don’t have the energy.
LS: Very briefly, the White Helmets are volunteer first responders, men and women, people who are often the first on the scene to assist victims of Assad and Russia’s aerial bombardment, taking bodies from the rubble, taking people to makeshift hospitals for treatment. I think it’s because they are first on the scene to record and witness these state crimes that they have come under vicious attack. A lot of the assault on the White Helmets does originate in Russian state media; the Russian state has carried out a massive disinformation campaign against the White Helmets. We’ve seen them being accused of being al-Qaeda operatives; we’ve seen them being accused of being behind chemical weapons massacres. There have even been reports that they are engaged in organ harvesting. All sorts of horrendous and malicious accusations have been thrown at them.
The problem is that a lot of these accusations, which are starting in Russian or Syrian state media, are then being propagated and spread by people who identify as being on the left. We’ve seen a lot of these disinformation campaigns carried out by purportedly leftist activists, and these kinds of conspiracies also find their way into the mainstream. It’s very difficult now to even mention the White Helmets. I spend quite a lot of my time traveling and giving talks about Syria, trying to build solidarity for Syria, and even when I come across people who are generally sympathetic to what I’m saying—they’re not supportive in any way of the Assad regime; they seem to want to stand in solidarity with free Syrians—they’ll come up to me at the end of the talk and say, “Well, what about these White Helmets? We’ve heard this, we’ve heard that.” So this campaign of disinformation has been very successful in polluting the public space in such a way that really makes any kind of practical solidarity with revolutionary Syrians almost impossible.
It’s so dangerous at the moment in a place like Idlib, where international aid agencies have all pulled out. We’re seeing massive targeting of residential infrastructure and survival infrastructure—hospitals, schools, water supplies. It’s the White Helmets who are there, who can provide any kind of lifeline to people who are facing that kind of assault. They are maligned and slandered, when they are really the people who we should be standing behind and supporting—they are in desperate need of funding to continue their work. It’s very difficult to constantly face these kinds of attacks.
JA: Russia’s online disinformation campaigns have been widely studied by now. The discourse that Russia appeals to, or that pro-Assad or pro-Hezbollah folks appeal to, is identical to the War on Terror narrative that was popularized by George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. The whole “You’re either with us or the enemy” mentality was literally almost quoted verbatim by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, just a few weeks ago. This discourse has been reinforced and rendered hegemonic in some circles of the broader left, especially (but not just) the Western left. Russia has an obvious interest in people believing that the White Helmets are terrorists, because under the War on Terror, terrorists are fair game. You can shoot them. It’s really that simple.
The Russian embassies on Twitter (some particular embassies, like the one in South Africa, have a particular notoriety for some reason) post disinformation against the White Helmets, and against the documentary about the White Helmets—they posted a photo of Osama bin Laden receiving the Oscar. All of these things are Islamophobic smears that have been widespread especially since the aftermath of 9/11. Russia has utilized this in the past, in Chechnya. Chechnya is particularly important to mention here because one of the Russian embassies also tweeted at one point some years ago, during the fall of Aleppo, a before-and-after picture of Grozny—eradicated by Putin and rebuilt—and the message was, “This could be Aleppo.”
If those among us who call ourselves anti-authoritarians do not understand the consequences or the connotations of this, then we’re basically saying that we do not really care about groups of people that are vulnerable in our own societies, let alone in other societies or in the wider world, including Syrians in this case. The disinformation campaigns don’t just tell you something—they also tell you what not to think. Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. It’s that sort of mentality. It stays in the back of your mind, it just festers there, and that alone is enough to reduce any momentum towards solidarity. What it does is discourage people from looking further.
That is the success of the disinformation. You pollute the media sphere. If you just google the White Helmets, on the first pages you will find a lot of horrible things being said. If you go on Twitter it’s dominated by Russian disinformation campaigns. When I say Russian disinformation I don’t just mean RT and Sputnik, but anyone who hovers around that world. That is extremely dangerous in a situation where these people are literally being murdered as we speak. They have even been targeted by al-Qaeda. Calling them al-Qaeda is not just a horrific, racist, Islamophobic smear—it actually puts their lives in danger.
FS: We haven’t really touched on the Syrian diaspora. I didn’t think about how a lot of this conspiracy theory stuff plays into the rightwing xenophobic rhetoric about people escaping the civil war there or escaping war in Libya or other parts of the world that the West often views through an orientalist and Islamophobic lens: that they are bringing this contagion of terrorism with them or whatever.
JA: Leila’s coauthor Robin Yassin-Kassab observed that before Syrians arrived on the shores of Fortress Europe and were being demonized by the far right as terrorists and demographic threats and all of these slurs, they were already being demonized and treated with hostility by large segments of the left. That scapegoating was already there—it’s not just that suddenly Syrians started appearing in Europe and there was massive reaction against them by the right. Of course there was that as well. But the stories of Syrians arriving in Europe (most are not in Europe, obviously; they are in Lebanon and Turkey and Jordan and so on) were canceled, deleted, smeared, and demonized in advance, accelerating the process of dehumanization.
Understanding what’s happening, the context of a country, especially one in “conflict” like Syria, also means supporting the refugees that come to your shores.
FS: A lot of the coverage that this show has done on war in Syria has been specifically focusing on the struggles in northern Syria, particularly as relates to the Kurdish-majority areas and the PYD and the PKK-affiliated Kurdish movement. This is partly because there’s a better infrastructure for communication and discourse in the West, but also a lot of anarchists and leftists have been for a long time in very active solidarity with PKK-related struggles.
Leila, as someone who’s covered the war in Syria and the revolution before that, could you talk a little bit about how the PYD has related to that?
LS: That struggle has certainly gained much more solidarity in the West, and you touched on the reasons for that: the Kurdish diaspora in Europe and the US has been there for a long time and has been able to build solidarity networks that take a long time to build, and Syrians living in other parts of the country had not had that. They didn’t have so much connection with the West. It’s very difficult, obviously. Even prior to the revolution it was difficult for Syrians to travel, to get visas, to be outside. So there wasn’t that much exchange built up for people to know what was happening in other areas.
Some of it also comes down to a Western orientalism that often likes to focus on minority groups as being the most persecuted, combined with Islamophobic racism towards Sunni majorities in Syria and elsewhere. This does tend to have a disproportionate impact on the way minority groups are able to attract solidarity.
That said, there are lots of very inspiring things happening within the Kurdish movement in northern Syria which are directly attractive to anti-authoritarians and anarchists in the West, and I see why there’s an appeal. But there have also been plenty of very inspiring things happening in other parts of Syria. One of the untold stories of the Syrian revolution is how in the absence of the state, when the state collapsed or was pushed out of the majority of the country, people came together and began to build alternative structures for self-organization within those areas.
For example, when the state withdrew and pulled out services, people realized that they needed to build forums to keep their communities functioning. The model that they looked to was developed by a Syrian anarchist called Omar Aziz, who advocated for the establishment of local councils, grassroots forums in which people could come together to discuss the needs in their community and self-organize to keep services functioning, such as electricity supply, hospitals, water supply systems, education systems. That model spread throughout Syria, leading to the establishment of hundreds of local councils throughout the country.
These experiences of self-organization and autonomous politics that happened as a direct result of the Syrian revolution should have been something that people outside were looking at and learning from, and that was a missed opportunity. Possibly some of that was on us, on our inability to communicate effectively what was happening. But also we had a lot of other priorities. It should have been people on the outside looking at what was happening inside Syria and seeing how they could find access to better information.
FS: To close, where do you think the people’s more democratic movements in these two venues are going? Are there any things to keep an eye on? Any direct ways, other than countering disinformation, that folks in the listening audience can support people who are struggling for autonomy and to uplift their dignity in Syria and Lebanon?
LS: I would love to talk about all the opportunities for political solidarity, to build the free Syria that we all want to see. But Syrians are facing a war of extermination right now. The situation on the ground is so absolutely desperate in places like Idlib that any immediate call has to be a purely humanitarian call, to try to pressure a ceasefire, to stop the assault by Russia and the regime on residential communities, to stop this humanitarian crisis from spiraling absolutely out of control, which it is doing at the moment.
I would encourage people to look at some of the Syrian-led organizations which are providing support to these internally displaced people on the ground. The Molham Volunteering Team is a wonderful organization doing wonderful work. Violet Organization, Kids Paradise—the immediate needs for survival take precedence over any other call I think of right now.
And then I’ll reiterate what we’ve been saying about being more informed—there are still many Syrians working to try to hold this regime accountable, to try to keep going with their desire to live in a free country. I encourage people to find out who they are and to see which ways they can stand in solidarity with them.
JA: As for Lebanon, what’s been happening in the past almost four months is often described as a rebirth. There is a lot of very new momentum. Some of the media outlets that I mentioned before were literally launched in the past few weeks. A few of them are the offspring of the 2015 movement, but others are really much newer than that. There are websites that only have half a dozen articles and they are just building on that.
That’s the exciting part. We’re having an emergence. There is an emergence of a civic-society mentality—though that has a lot of limitations. Sometimes it’s limited by a liberal paradigm. But it creates a space. It’s a moment to push for ideas that are more progressive. That’s what folks like me are trying to do. I am just a writer. Other people are doing much more direct work on the ground. There are soup kitchens that have popped up in places like Beirut and Tripoli. There are independent unions being formed because the current unions are either co-opted or useless. There are independent media workers—while there are good people working within mainstream outlets, they tend to be limited by those outlets’ priorities.
At the same time, in the same way as in Syria, there has been an outburst of creativity. Arts and music genres that hadn’t been explored before are now being explored, like metal and rap and hip-hop. Lebanon is freer than Syria as a society, there are fewer restrictions. There is a lot of self-censorship, but not as much of the overt censorship that there is in Syria. You can pretty much say whatever you want, within some limits sometimes, and that has allowed us a little bit more breathing space compared with what Syrians have had, to create some of this infrastructure that is now booming. Currents like environmentalism, feminism, queer rights, and so on are also finding momentum in the ongoing revolutionary upheavals.
The only limitation so far is refugee rights, and migrant domestic worker rights. The revolution hasn’t really addressed these issues as much as it should. But hopefully the more we continue and the more progressives and others manage to steer the revolution in a certain direction rather than in a nationalist direction, that might be possible in the near future. I personally think it’s going to be extremely difficult, but there is hope in that matter.
LS: One other area that I’d like to draw attention to is the prisoners’ struggle. The prisoner issue is something that everybody should be supporting. There are thousands of Syrians in prison, and we know the horror stories of how widely practiced torture is within regime detention. Those are our people. Those are the peaceful pro-democracy activists who were struggling against this regime. They are the people who are inside prison who we should be supporting.
There are some fantastic organizations that people can get behind. Families for Freedom is a women-led movement set up by Syrian women: the mothers, wives, sisters of political prisoners. It is a movement that was inspired by Argentina’s Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, and by a similar women-led movement looking for the disappeared in Lebanon. They’re doing as much work as they can trying to keep the issue of prisoners on the international agenda, calling for the release of not only those detained in regime prisons but also those detained in prisons by Islamist groups.
That’s something that everybody should be getting behind and finding out about and seeing how they can support, because it’s never on the agenda even though for every Syrian, it’s one of the most important issues because we all have family members or friends who have disappeared in regime detention.
We spoke a lot about how exhausted and traumatized Syrian activists are right now because of the strength of the counterrevolution and what they’ve gone through over the past few years. But one thing that has given us so much hope and strength and inspiration is seeing the protests happening in Lebanon. Also in Iraq, where people have been out on the streets and going through extremely challenging circumstances—this is also very inspirational in the way they are using anti-sectarian slogans. Also what’s happening in Iran with the protest movement there. All these movement have given us a lot of hope and courage.
Syria has been used to silence people across the region as a kind of bogeyman: if you raise your voice and demand freedom, this is what’s going to happen to you. You’re going to end up like Syria. The revolutions and uprisings that happened in 2010-11 have been crushed, they’re over. But they haven’t been crushed. This is part of a long term process. Although each country has its own specific situation, there are a lot of similarities: the authoritarian regimes, the corruption, the bad socioeconomic situation. And people are not being silenced. Something changed in 2011, and despite the massive repression these protest movements have faced, something has changed within people. That’s going to have a massive impact on the future. There’s going to be a lot of change happening in the region, and we’re only at the start of that process.
FS: Thank you so much for having this conversation, I really appreciate it.
This is a podcast special featuring the voices of three warriors who were on the barricade on the road to Unist’ot’en Camp at the Gitdimten Access Point. Eve Saint (Wet’suwet’en land defender), Anne Spice (Tlinket land defender) & Shilo Hill (from Onandaga nation, Haudenosaunee, Six Nations) were there to defend unceded Wet’suwet’en land from the Canadian state’s violent imposition of the Coastal Gas Link pipeline. They talk about what brought them to the Gitdumden Access near so-called Houston, BC, the buildup to the impending raid by RCMP troops, indigenous sovereignty, land and water defense, the long road to decolonization and the importance of outside support and solidarity from indigenous and First Nations peoples and their allies and accomplices.
This morning (Feb 6, 2020) at about 5am Pacific, the RCMP began their raids and arrests in an attempt to impose the injunction and clear the land and water defenders from the Wet’suwet’en lands. Media have been detained and released and at the time of this publication, 6 land defenders have been arrested and refuse to sign and conditions imposed by the Canadian state and so are still in state detention.
Members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation are asking for people to take solidarity action in support of their autonomy. Solidarity actions have looked a lot of different ways in the last few months across Turtle Island, so-called USA & Canada. Take a moment and listen to your heart, find your friends and do what you think needs to be done to get the ball rolling.