Graffiti at #NuitDebout in Paris. Photo: Les Amis de Némésis

Building power and reviving the commune in our time

  • April 13, 2016

Anarchism & Autonomy

Stratis Bournazos interviews ROAR’s editor on the plans for the print journal, recent developments in Greece and the future of the movements in Europe.

The following interview was taken by Stratis Bournazos and originally published in Greek in Enthemata. It has since been reproduced on various other websites. Thanks to Stratis for allowing us to publish the English version here.

Why, after all these years in which ROAR appeared only online, did you now decide to also start publishing a thematic quarterly print magazine?

Online publishing has many advantages, but it’s also very ephemeral: as our designer once put it to us, “the newsfeed is where things go to die.”

After five years of running a digital magazine, we felt we were getting sucked into the 24/7 news and social media cycle and we felt a need to create a bit more distance between ourselves and the “social media economy” — with space to reflect more deeply and more theoretically on the challenges facing our movements and the possible ways forward. I like to think that this evolution mirrors a broader development within the movements towards a desire for more enduring forms of organization.

That said, the print magazine is first of all an experiment. We have no idea whether it will be successful, or how long we will be able to maintain it. We’ve been doing this work on a voluntary basis so far and it’s becoming harder and harder to balance ROAR with personal responsibilities and the need to make a living. It’s quite possible that we’ll have to wind down the print version after one or two years, but in that case we will at least have produced a beautiful collection of issues, and we can always go back to publishing online.

For now, though, the idea is to create something more lasting, an actual magazine that people can hold in their hands and keep on their bookshelves; something with staying power that you can still pick up several years from now without the content having become too dated.

The choice to focus on specific themes is a result of the same motivations: we wanted to take the opportunity to explore a number of important theoretical questions — like the movements’ relation to power, the political form of the commune and the future of work — in greater depth.

The title of your first issue is ‘Revive la Commune!’ What do you mean when you refer to “the Commune in the 21st century”? And why do think this is an important subject to focus on in your first issue?

The Paris Commune of 1871 was a formative experience for the international workers’ movement. By dramatically expanding the horizons of the possible, it thoroughly inspired the radical thought of the 19th century left.

Yet as the American scholar Kristin Ross points out in the issue, the Commune is today chiefly remembered for the street fighting and the brutal way in which it was crushed. In light of the 145th anniversary of the uprising on March 18, we wanted to do a special issue looking at how the political imaginary of the Commune actually survived “its own working existence”, as Marx put it, and is today being revived in a new cycle of struggles.

This exercise gains renewed relevance in our time because of the structural crisis of financial capitalism and the nation state, and the simultaneous demise of 20th century state socialism, first in its authoritarian and now in its social-democratic form. In this context, a new space is opening up — “from below and to the left”, as the Zapatistas say — for a critical engagement with alternative organizational forms that lie beyond both the market and the state.

In the 19th century, revolutionary theorists from Marx to Kropotkin saw in the Commune the political form of a future classless society. One of the issue’s main arguments is that the time has come to revive this communal imaginary and begin organizing a coherent and sustained political project structured around democratic and confederated forms of communal organization.

So we asked a small group of very interesting scholars and activists to write about a number of contemporary struggles that more or less picked up where the Communards of 1871 left off: from the self-governing cantons of Rojava to the communal councils in Venezuela, from the popular insurrection in Gwangju, South Korea to the Oaxaca Commune in Mexico, and from the shantytowns of Durban, South Africa to the City Hall of Barcelona.

We wanted to show that, amidst all the tumult of the 21st century, the commune is staging a comeback.

And the title of your inaugural Issue #0 was ‘Building Power’. What do you mean with this concept? And is there any relation between the focus of the two issues?

In Issue #0 — which is freely available online — we tried to provide a panoramic overview of a number of contemporary struggles that have greatly inspired us, with a particular theoretical focus on how today’s movements relate to the question of power.

Here our main goal was to critically engage with the two dominant wings of the left: the radical parties and candidates whose political project is principally concerned with “taking power”, and the grassroots movements that have a lot of creative potential but that frequently display a strong aversion towards the very notion of power and often prefer not to engage with the question at all.

We believe there is actually a lot of fertile ground between and beyond these two positions, and the proposal of our inaugural issue was basically that, in the wake of its recent defeats, the international left will have to radically reinvent itself and — in creative new ways — rebuild its social power from below.

We agree with David Harvey and the late Murray Bookchin when they argue that this will probably require some kind of productive dialogue between the two great revolutionary traditions: Marxism and anarchism. And both of these traditions, as I already noted in the first question, had the commune as their ultimate horizon, so I guess that’s where the relation between Issue #0 and Issue #1 comes in: in the attempt to “rediscover” and expand the common ground between these revolutionary traditions.

The question of “building power” gained particular relevance for us in the wake of the Greek experience of last summer, when it became painfully obvious not just to the Greeks but to the whole world that there is much more to “gaining power” than just making pretty promises and winning parliamentary elections.

If the left is to become an organized social force that can contest and ultimately overcome the immense power of capital, it will have to begin at the base — in the neighborhoods and workplaces — by building up democratic organs of popular power to counteract the fragmentation of the working class under neoliberalism and to reduce society’s dependence on the reproduction of finance capital. As I have argued elsewhere, we are seeing tentative moves in this direction in contemporary struggles, but we need to go much further.

What about your future plans, both for the magazine and for the (new) website?

Right now we are busy preparing a very exciting second print issue on the future of work. It may become the first in a sort of mini-trilogy on the main conceptual pillars of political economy: labor, capital and the state. What happens after that is still an open question. Our subscriber base has grown quite rapidly in the first months after our relaunch in December, but we still have a long way to go if we want to be able to financially sustain the print publication.

So that would be the main priority right now: to put out a couple of strong issues on relevant themes and hopefully get some more people to subscribe. Meanwhile, we will continue to engage with current affairs and ongoing struggles on our website, as we have been doing for the past five years.

Last year you spent many months in Athens and you have a very good knowledge of the situation in Greece. I would like to ask you for a comment on Syriza and the government. How do you evaluate their politics and the current situation?

Obviously the situation is very disconcerting, but it should be said that the signs were already on the wall a long time ago. Ever since Syriza ditched its commitment to a unilateral suspension of payments and a forced restructuring of the debt after the narrowly lost elections of 2012, its electoral program effectively hinged on an irreconcilable contradiction between ending austerity and repaying the debt/staying in the Eurozone.

Sooner or later this contradiction was bound to arrive at some kind of rupture: either a rupture with continued debt servicing and membership of the monetary union, or a rupture with the basic principles of social democracy, on which Syriza campaigned in the lead-up to the elections.

Already in February 2015, by the time of the first interim agreement (and actually long before that), it had become clear that Syriza would have to choose between Scylla and Charybdis — it was obvious that the Eurogroup was going to suffocate Greece to set an example to the rest of Europe, which left the Syriza-led government with only bad choices, the outcome of which would have been extremely painful either way.

The choice the Greek government faced in the first half of 2015 was essentially between taking a very hard hit in the short term, with unknown social and economic consequences and a decent chance (but no real guarantee) of a sustained recovery in the medium term, or keeping on suffering indefinitely under a form of European debt tutelage reminiscent of the 19th century.

The most damaging aspect of the whole situation was that Tsipras and his inner circle tried to keep up appearances for so long and pretend that there was somehow a way to avoid this ultimate fork in the road; that they could simultaneously save Greece from austerity and keep it solvent inside the euro.

By holding on to this contradictory position till the very end, finally ditching the overriding social commitment on which they won the elections in favor of a shortsighted desire to cling to power, Tsipras and his inner circle effectively imposed the ultimate law of neoliberalism onto Greek society: insofar as the Prime Minister keeps arguing that he had no other choice, he confirms the Thatcherite dictum that “there is no alternative.” And with that, in one fell swoop, he destroys all grounds for political opposition.

For me, and for many of my Greek friends, the greatest tragedy is how this process led to a demobilization of the movements — through a combination of anticipation, cooptation and resignation — leaving society without an effective counterpower to the leftist-sanctioned imposition of the Troika’s neoliberal austerity regime and the EU’s horrendous refugee deal with Turkey.

Of course the grassroots movements, the workers’ and farmers’ mobilizations and the solidarity structures all remain, and it is possible (even likely) that the opposition will eventually bounce back with a vengeance. But for now it looks like the defeat of last summer has sucked a lot of energy out of the struggle — and the obvious question now is how to regain that energy.

As always, the real hope in 2015 emerged from below: from the incredible mobilizations around the referendum and the so-called refugee crisis. There, in that amazing outpouring of defiance and solidarity, we saw a kernel of the social force that will ultimately tear Syriza asunder, just as it tore down PASOK and New Democracy before it. That’s where collective power resides, and that’s what the democratic opposition will have to build on.

What do you think about the (shameful) deal between the EU and Turkey, and the beginning of the deportations from Greek islands last week?

Europe’s approach to refugees has always been profoundly shameful and inhumane, but it has taken an absolutely monstrous turn since last summer — and the Turkey deal really epitomizes this monstrosity in many ways.

In the first place, the deal is absolutely monstrous with regard to the refugees themselves. Whatever European officials may say, international experts on the issue overwhelmingly agree that the EU-Turkey deal overturns the most basic human right to asylum — simply to appease xenophobic forces at home. Liberal NGOs like Doctors Without Borders are furious and rightly refuse to help the EU implement it. The human suffering induced by this deal will be immeasurable. It’s really sickening and quite frightening.

Secondly, the deal is absolutely monstrous with regard to Greece, as it once again shifts the burden of adjustment of this “crisis” onto the country least responsible for creating it and least capable of dealing with it.

The deal simultaneously turns the Greek islands into outer fortifications of Fortress Europe — with French riot police descending on Lesbos to carry out the deportations, for instance — and turns Greece as a whole into a giant concentration camp for refugees and irregular migrants; there is really no other way to put it. In this light, it’s truly amazing to see the response of ordinary Greeks, who have been on the frontlines of two devastating crises and who are among the only ones showing any humanity at all.

Thirdly, the deal is absolutely shameful with regard to Turkey, as it basically outsources European border control to an aspiring despot, the Turkish President Erdogan, whose border guards are known to have shot Syrian refugees, whose policemen and soldiers are engaged in a brutal war on the Kurds, and whose coastguards are known to have tried to drown people making the crossing to Greece.

When I was on Lesbos last summer we witnessed the Turkish coastguard harassing a boat full of Syrian refugees, pointing a gun at them and at some point trying to sink their dinghy by firing a harpoon at it. When a woman raised her child to show that there was a baby on board, they made cutthroat signs. These are the people the EU now relies on to act as its external border police. It’s barbaric — but most of all, it signals the despair of the European elite. They are losing control, and they know it. This deal reflects that.

What do you believe to be the main issues, tasks or questions facing the European movements at this time?

In my view, the main challenge facing the European movements in the next couple of years will be to let go of any romantic attachment to the thoroughly anti-democratic institutions of the European Union and to find productive new ways to transform their immense creative and emancipatory potential into more enduring forms of organization, so that society can begin to constitute itself — from the bottom up — as a genuine counterpower to the rule of money and a democratic bulwark against Europe’s slide into barbarism.

This is what we mean when we speak of building power and reviving the communal imaginary in our times — and this is where I hope the movements will be headed in the years and decades to come. It’s either that, or more of the reactionary barbarism that we are seeing all around us today.

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