In a part of the world where you least expect it, a region that has been witness to some of the worst cases of deliberate barbarity and inhumanity that have been seen since the Second World War, a new ethnically inclusive, ecological, feminist social experiment has been putting down roots and is already beginning to flourish. It is an experiment which could quite easily be snuffed out by the regional players in its vicinity - Turkey especially – but it is nonetheless growing and has even become a centre for trade and commerce in the region according to recent reports.
It is not my intention here to say very much about what is taking place in the Kurdish Cantons of Rojava itself. It will be sufficient to mention that it is an extremely hopeful experiment in the art of living together in which decisions are made by people on the ground in their own assemblies, rather than by politicians or states. What is going on there has been variously described as Democratic Confederalism, Stateless Democracy or more simply Anarchy – but the kind of Anarchy which is characterised more by the absence of states than the absence of order. This kind of anarchy has been tried before – most notably in Spain during the Civil War and also Ukraine during the Russian Revolution - but for many external historical reasons did not survive long enough to bear permanent fruit. One, of course, may well doubt that the experiment in Rojava will bear permanent fruit as well, but, at the time of writing, this is far from certain or clear. And even if Rojava were to survive the murderous attentions of the Islamic State backed by Turkey, could it survive what the world calls “development” – in short acquiring a richer and more diversified economy. That I think is the real question facing it. Indeed, that is also an important philosophical question in its own right connected to how states first appeared on our planet. Did they emerge as Marxists tend to believe because the accumulation of wealth and a surplus brought into existence the question of who was to lay claim to that surplus, or did they emerge as some anarchists have suggested from conquest and subjugation of some groups or collectivities over others. These are questions concerning the pre-history of states which have not been empirically proved one way or the other. If the experiment in Rojava survives all the military attempts to destroy it, and continues to flourish, it may well provide the answer to some of these questions.
These questions are philosophical because they raise issues about the nature of states which are transcendental more than empirical. Empirical questions are relatively easy to answer because they come down to facts in the end. Transcendental questions are both more difficult and uncertain, because they involve the interpretation of facts. Facts about the pre-historical origin of states must be very thin on the ground and because of that, interpretations are bound to be conjectural. But since we never proceed on the basis of facts alone anyway, conjecture will always be integral to the method of how we interpret them – which means, of course, we can never be certain. However, some scholarly work seems to have been done in the fields of both anthropology and archaeology, and though none of it has arrived at definite conclusions they do allow for some kind of starting point.
One school of thought suggests that states were a natural outcome of the development of civilisation itself, which in turns was the product of agriculture and the emergence of cities. In other words, as soon as people started to live, work and trade together in groups larger than kinship-groups, with their systems of chieftainships, states emerged as a matter of course to regulate their affairs. This view is contradicted by a few notable exceptions such as the Harappan and Mohenjo-daro cultures of the Indus Valley, whose political organisation appears to have been that of complex systems of chieftainships rather than states as such. This school of thought also suggests some kind of social compact was involved with the emergence of states whereby each individual gave up his or her freedom voluntarily for the sake of security and that this trade-off was forced on people due to their society having reached a certain stage of development. Let’s call this the Naturalistic School of Thought, since it presupposes that all this happened naturally as a matter of course. It is, of course, no less conjectural than other theories, but it has the advantage of being what our rulers would like us to believe. After all, it is the implicit assumption behind just about every TV documentary that you can watch on the subject.
The second school of thought espoused by Engels one might call the Economic Base School of Thought since it presupposes that the state emerged only when society had achieved a certain economic level of development, one which allowed surpluses to emerge, access to which would have been fiercely contested. One thing seems to be missing in this analysis and that is how class inequality could emerge and spread if one class did not already have the coercive means to impose its will on another. Surely, without those coercive means being already in place, the exploited class would just have revolted and restored the status quo ante – namely equality. It is a theory which does tend to put the cart before the horse because it begs the question of how it could happen without coercion in the first place.
The third school of thought – which I shall call the Military Conquest School of Thought was originally put forward by Franz Oppenheimer in his book, The State, and has been elaborated and given a ‘Kurgan dimension’ by Larry Gambone much more recently. Both Oppenheimer and Gambone spoke of nomadic herding societies which, although stateless, nevertheless were highly militarised and also hierarchical. They had slaves and regarded women as chattel. However, although they were stratified, they did not organise along state-lines because they were too nomadic and mobile. Therefore, they remained chieftainships. What was eventually to precipitate the emergence of states was their conquest of more sedentary and less war-like agricultural peoples in outlying areas due, according to Gambone anyway, to climate change, which forced their migration. Because of their already militarised life-style, the nomadic herding societies were easily able to conquer the agriculturalists and impose their will on them and in the process become a warrior-aristocracy able to ‘live off the fat of the land’ as it were. According to this view, a state is nothing but a group of people able to monopolise the means of violence in order to subdue the populace of a given circumscribed territory. All else - exploitation, class-inequality, class-rule and so on - emerged once the monopoly of the means of violence had been secured and proto-states had emerged. From this point of view, Cameron is wrong to say that the Islamic State is not a state, because it is as much a state as the one he’s in charge of.
All these theories, in my opinion, tend to be a little abstract and perhaps we do need a more complete account of how states could have emerged. Abdullah Ocalan, who presently languishes in solitary confinement in a Turkish prison has, in his Prison Writings – The Roots Of Civilisation, given such an account in connection with the emergence of the State in the Fertile Crescent in terms of a trinity in which the ideology (religion) supplemented the state and the economy of early Sumerian society. He deals with a period that was more historical than pre-historical, but he does so making implicit connections between them. As I have already said, he sees it in terms of a trinity in which, ideology, force and economics are all closely intertwined to the extent of having fully penetrated each other, “generating a historically unique synergy that makes me think of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Ocalan believes that the power and influence of religion was critical in the formation of early states and that it was every bit as important as naked force and economic exploitation. When the state emerged, it was seen as a function of the whole cosmic order, which made priesthoods just as important as warrior-aristocracies. The male emphasis also should be noted. Power was wrested from female deities within the emerging pantheon and placed in the hands of male gods. Babylonian mythology seems to bear this out, with Tiamat being displaced by Marduk in a great cosmic battle between them in which patriarchy was obviously triumphant. Ocalan has clearly added his own refinements to the ideas outline above, and made them much more complete.
Ideology, then, according to Ocalan is every bit as important as military dominance and economic exploitation in the formation of states. Earlier on, ideology would have had a theological complexion, nowadays it takes a much more diverse form – e.g. of the world according to the mass media – now being thankfully undermined with the emergence of the internet – the ‘scientific world-view’, ‘democracy’ - where an abstract Demos is served by a parliamentary priesthood – ‘market forces, the technocratic cult of ‘the expert’, consumerism, ‘austerity’ (but not for the rich!) and, of course, religion in all its various guises. In that sense, Ocalan has done us a great service by pointing up the importance of ideology.
For me, however, there is one thing wrong with Ocalan’s schema. It is triadic – that is to say dialectical. History is viewed in terms of interconnected ‘moments’, though not, of course, in a temporal, linear sense. Although he rightly takes issue with both Hegelian Idealism and Marxist Dialectical Materialism, like them, his historical schema presupposes an identity between the real and the rational. If the real wasn’t rational and vice versa in the Hegelian sense, or if the rational didn’t reflect the real (material reality) in the Marxian sense, there is still a sense in which the rational is being used to represent the real. Deleuze rightly criticised the dialectical pathway to veridical truth, by saying it was based on a “metaphysics of identity” (between thought and ‘reality’). Dialectical oppositions are founded on this. Thought may advance by positing opposing viewpoints, but it still cannot escape being thought. In other words ‘reality’ still does what it will and goes where it will irrespective of thought. Instead of allowing itself to be imprisoned in all these ‘unions of opposites’ whose value depends on the precisely articulated definitions of a ‘thesis’ which produces an ‘antithesis’ and then a ‘synthesis’, (all of which definitionally depend on each other), it would be much better to adopt simple alternative viewpoints whereby each point of view is allowed its autonomy and not forced through a dialectical meat-grinder.
What I am trying to do here is issue a warning. Beware of dialectics whereby one thing appears to beget another in an almost pre-ordained manner according to how it is thought. Hegel believed he had history sussed, as did Marx, but history was to prove a bit more elusive. The relationship between thought and reality is not determined by thought or argument. Indeed, all too often, reality takes thought by surprise. One can’t do without thought, of course, but one should still be very careful not to be caught in its deadly coils. What is required is a much more open-ended approach – namely, critical thought without the straight-jacket of dialectics. It is, after all, the revealing word that matters, not the revealed. What is happening in Rojava is in my opinion a miracle and a beacon of hope for the rest of the world caught up as it is in the stale impasse of the various ‘alternatives’ which are currently ‘on the table’. It is creative; it is exploring totally new pathways, but it also faces huge challenges – not least from Turkey and the Islamic State. (One should not forget that what they are engaged in is also anathema to the neo-liberal order of contemporary capitalism and therefore ultimately the US and the EU). Hopes are riding on it, and not just the hopes of people directly involved in Rojava.