Stuck in the Middle with You: Between Jodi Dean, Hardt & Negri, and Abdullah Öcalan on Organization and Transition
The following is a presentation I gave at the 23rd International Conference on Alternative Futures and Popular Protest at Manchester Metropolitan University, held between March 26th and 28th of 2018. This presentation was part of a panel discussion that included Rodrigo Nunes and Mark Bergfeld and regarding Hardt and Negri’s latest work, Assembly.
My many thanks to the organizers of the Alternative Futures and Popular Protest conference for all the seen and unseen labor it took to make this event happen. Not only have you generated a space and infrastructure I’m very excited to participate in, but you’ve given me the ability to bill my university so I can finally check out Manchester – a place that had a mythical standing for the suburban hellhole of mediocracy I grew up in. My many thanks. And Mark, thanks a lot for organizing this roundtable and allowing me to participate – I feel out of my league, but what’s the worst that can happen, let’s give this a shot.
So, as we’ve all noted, since the Financial Crisis of 2007/2008, we’ve witnessed a new cycle of segmented struggles open across the world. As Lenin reminded us in 1917, “every abrupt turn in history… presents such a wealth of content, unfolds such unexpected and specific combinations of forms of struggles and alignment of forces of the contestants, that to the lay mind there is much that must appear miraculous” (Zizek, 2012, p.16). And word, yeah, there was a lot going down that some of us thought that just like that, everything was gonna change. But that initial cycle, defined by the translation of the movement of squares across political spaces and timelines, met the compositional reality of the relations of force specific to each country at that conjuncture. And that initial sequence had mixed results. It was hardly the revolutionary spring we thought it’d be. However, the technical and social crisis of neoliberalism has given birth to the current interregnum in which we find ourselves, and despite its more morbid features, there are inspiring signals and developments as it becomes clear that the global left is at a moment of visible recomposition. Due to this, the question of organizational form and transition is back on the table – especially given the shotty results of the initial sequence.
Within this moment, Hardt’s and Negri’s text, Assembly, intervenes once more in a long series of debates that have emerged within the radical left since the crisis (of course keeping in mind the abstracted nature of these debates). Within the context of the global north, the organizational and strategic proposals Hardt and Negri put forward continue to stand in a soft opposition against those articulated by Jodi Dean and the current I’m making them represent. On the one hand, we have a post-autonomous, post-alter-globalization current attempting to sketch out a response conjuncturally attuned to the moment and compositionally aware of interventions between now and 1917. On the other, we have Dean, who argues in her works The Communist Horizon and Crowds and Party, for a return to the old party form, as it provides “organization, continuity of spaces, structures of accountability, and vehicles of solidarity” (Dean, 2012, p.239). And yet, Hardt and Negri (2017) agree in Assembly that both organization and institutions are critically needed. But rather than recreate the sovereign vanguard party of yesteryear that stands alienated and above the masses, they urge their readers to create a New Prince that is composed of an orchestra of forces that together set on a path that synthesizes prefigurative politics, antagonistic reforms, and the development of a new hegemony. This New Prince then would be the articulation of an ecology of forces that at once calls a communal society into being as it destroys the old world in a strategic struggle.
This seems far more likely especially given the historical trajectory of political composition and the lasting infrastructures (if not largely rhetorical) organizations have developed since the minoritarian intervention since the post-68 political landscape. That is, I doubt Dean’s party, the party in the more abstract sense, is going to be able to make itself the next Bolshevik Party, because at the concrete level, the plurality of existing organizations will not want to be subsumed into a single organizational form and deny that multiplicity of concerns and questions in favor a single vehicle. What’s more the single vehicle seems incongruent to the more technical and social level of composition, defined by its networked (plural, multi-urbed, and communicative) character. As Hardt and Negri have said time and time again, this is why the networked form of resistance is up to par for the current conjuncture.
Sounds good, but the question I had in reading Assembly is who in turn composes this New Prince? As we’ve seen, this New Prince has yet to emerge. If it does not come out on its own, how does it come about?
My presentation would like to delve into these fundamental problems posed by Dean, Hardt and Negri, and propose a synthesis through the realization of political projects developed in Bakur (historically Kurdish lands in Turkey) and Rojava (historically Kurdish lands in Syria). The construction of Democratic Autonomy and Democratic Confederalism within the states of Turkey and Syria follow the “calls” that Hardt and Negri put forth in Assembly. Organizationally, in both Bakur and Rojava, a plurality of forces have come together to co-define a common political project that seeks to develop open and equal access to wealth together with democratic decision-making procedures. Coming together has meant creating innovative organizational structures capable of amassing a plurality of voices through historically unique, pluralist organs. The development of a nodal web-work of constituent counter-power is put at the center of this project and catalyzes a revolutionary process of transition that combines prefigurative politics, antagonistic reforms, and the development of a new hegemony. No doubt, Abdullah Öcalan has theorized an original form of strategy and organization. However, what is ignored is the very elephant in the room, especially by anarchist comrades: the role of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in initiating and facilitating this process. In examining the organizational and transitional development of Democratic Autonomy and Democratic Confederalism as well as the role of the PKK in it, I propose that while Hardt’s and Negri’s proposals are not only already in praxis in Rojava and Bakur, the necessity of a new kind of party is still necessary in initiating this process.
Again, let’s go over Hardt’s and Negri’s proposals.
Firstly, they propose the development of a new prince. They (2017) define this prince as “a chemical precipitate that already exists in suspension, dispersed throughout society, and under the right conditions, it will coalesce in solid form” (p.228). It is “something like a musical composition: the plural ontology of the multitude does not merge into one but instead the singularities (that is, the different social forces that continue to express their differences) discover harmonies and dissonances, common rhythms and syncopations. They compose a Prince.” (2017, p.228). This orchestra of forces is composed of multiple actors that initiate a revolutionary process in order to develop a new form of social production and reproduction, something beyond capitalism. This new prince “cannot simply take its place on the throne. Our task instead is to transform the structures of rule, uproot them entirely, and in their stead cultivate new forms of social organization” (Hardt & Negri, 2017, p. 274).
For this organizational form to reach such an objective, Hardt and Negri argue for a certain political realism. This means “treating power as a set of social relationships and basing the potential of political action on the intelligence and capacities of the existing social forces, which resist and create, composing and conflicting with each other” (Hardt & Negri, 2017, p. 233). “The subjective aspect of political realism is the capacity for political decision-making, strategic thinking, and constituent initiative” (Hardt & Negri, 2017, p.234)
The strategy of this organizational form and politically real stance must be able to produce a strategy based on the development of a dual power that breaks away from neoliberal governance through the development of practices of counter-power that create institutions of being and producing together (Hardt & Negri, 2017). As they remark, “Lenin, for instance, imagined a system of governance organized around counterpowers – soviets against the state and workers against capital – that would set in motion a real transformation of both the state and capital. A dualism of power or, better, a plurality of powers, would initiate a process of liberation of the working masses from subjection and misery” (Hardt & Negri, p. 254). The development of a counter-power that begins to subsume the operational control and production of society under a constituent logic such that it forms in turn to a dual-power is key to this strategy.
To accomplish this transition, Hardt and Negri (2017) call for a three-pronged strategy based on the deployment and combination of prefigurative politics, antagonistic reforms, and taking power. As they (2017) recognize, prefigurative politics are effective means at opening broader social debates about democracy and equality and demonstrating a desire for a different social order” (p.274). But at the same time they often result in moralism and internal policing given the difficulty to maintain prefigurative practices and structures without broader transformations. Alone they are incapable of transforming the broader social order. Prefigurative politics would mean the development of prefigurative organs of self-rule that can take over the operational means of everyday life. As they (2017) say, “We must invent new institutions ‘within and against’ the developments of biopolitics and biopower” (p. 235). Simultaneous to this, Hardt and Negri call for antagonist reformism which “sets its sights on fundamental social change” such that the goal would be “to affirm the autonomy of the movements, their strategic power, and, thus, to enlist them in the construction of counterpowers” (p. 276). Indeed, they further argue, “the only effective reform results from the institution of counterpowers that can threaten the ruling powers and force them to transform” (p.256). This two-pronged assault is combined with a third prong aimed specifically at taking power for the purposes of abolishing it. “In contrast,” Hardt and Negri continue, “to reformist project, the existing institutions are not the field of action, but rather the object of a ‘destituent,’ destructive enterprise. Overthrowing the existing the institutions and creating new ones is the primary challenge” (Hardt & Negri, 2017, p. 277) When isolated, each of these prongs fail. Together, they chart a possible strategy for transition.
When reading these proposals, I was struck at the similarity to the Kurdish freedom movement in Kurdish Turkey and Syria. That is, there we see the development of Hardt and Negri’s New Prince through what I, Antje Dieterich, and Victor Hertzfeld have observed to be an organizational “fighting” form and a similar three-pronged strategy (to read more about the fighting form, see Daniel Gutiérrez’s, Antje Dieterich’s, and Victor Hertzfeld’s “Fighting Form: Beyond the Party in Kurdistan”).
In both Bakur (the portion of Kurdistan within Turkish borders) and Rojava (the portion of Kurdistan in Syria), a revolutionary process has been underway according to the proposal of Abdullah Öcalan and interventions from the Kurdish women’s movement. He calls for a struggle whose aim “will not be the overthrowing or the founding of a new state” but rather the transformation of society as such (Öcalan, 2011, p.59). That is, Ôcalan proposes a militant reform movement through “the establishment of well-organized social units in all areas of society. These units will enable a third political means of overcoming the classic structures of state and society besides the aforementioned democratic struggle and armed resistance. While the aim of this third tier will neither be to oppose or support the notions of the classical state and society, its theory and praxis will aim at building a new kind of society within the given framework of international power balance” (Öcalan, 2011, p.59).
It is this third means – beyond the parliamentary and military arms – that is to be organized to ‘conquer democracy’ through the development of a counter-democracy within the shell of the old. Parliamentary (as well as militaristic) fronts exist to defend and enable the gains made by this third field. It is in this way that a revolutionary transition comes about. As General Camil Bayik of the PKK says, “the revolutionary process is no longer determined by a takeover of power or state which hitherto had been an indispensable mark of a successful revolution. Rather, revolution is a process taking place in the society as such. Politics is shaped by the assertiveness of the society itself. Political groups organize themselves in all social arenas and develop into an alternative power. The state is not to be overturned violently but subjected to a continuous transformational process with the society acting as watching. This concept assumes democratic politics and democratic awareness on the part of society” (Bayik in Öcalan, 2011, p. xvii).
In practice, this has meant the articulation of a nodal network of organs and bodies (what I, Antje Dieterich, and Victor Herzfeldt observe to be an orchestra of forces that in turn form a complex), both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary, productive and reproductive, that co-author a common horizon beyond capitalism and the state. Within Turkey, the Kurdish liberation movement set about to articulate this network at the beginning of the millenium through the establishment of prefigurative communal structures throughout Bakur. As Janet Biehl (2013 & 2016) observes, the organizational structure that orchestrated the development of these structures was the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) that was founded in 2005 as a means to unite “parties, civil society organizations, religious communities, and womens and youth organizations” such that it functioned as an umbrella structures that brings together actors from local councils, parties, and unions, operating like a parliament to deal with self-administration. While the DTK was criminalized in 2011, process of democratic autonomization continued.
In this process, the DTK (which we can think of as the New Prince) set out to establish grassroots structures that sought to replace the Turkish state apparatus (like Soviets). Depending on grassroots support, structures such as street, neighborhood, and city councils were created throughout cities and villages of Bakur, alongside a proliferation of committees buttressed by civil society organizations; these have established a number of civil and economic organs including legal committees, cultural committees, economic cooperatives, women’s cooperatives, social centres, and academies. However, rather than operate in isolation to one another, these are all articulated together into a common complex, a common network.
Simultaneous to this process of prefiguration and destituition, a parliamentary front was established. Between 2000 and now, a number of parliamentary parties were formed and reformed (due to criminalization), such that the People’s Democratic Party (the HDP) is the most recent and successful iteration. The HDP brings together “labor and rights-based civil society organizations, such as women’s, LGBTQ, and environmental movements; trade unions; representatives of various minorities; and more socialist parties” (Darici and Djagalov, 2015). A key point here however is to understand, in line with Rodrigo’s observations about electoral parties in Spain in his Viewpoint article, that the electoral party is just a nodal fortification within the network, and not some kind of linear process the begins with movements and ends with parties.
Of course, we know now the current standing of the project, as Erdogan and the AKP continue to launch a counter-offensive not only in Bakur but Rojava (and other areas liberated by the Kurdish freedom movement in Syria) as well. Much of this is due to the compositional realities particular to Turkey and Syria, so it’s not that the proposal itself is bad. What we see now is an experiment being tested by the actually existing relations of force at particular conjuncture.
Sound similar? It should. This orchestra of forces, this nodal network, comprised of an agglomeration of actors fighting on multiple fronts for antagonistic reforms and creating prefigurative organs that takeover the operational (re)production of everyday life towards the ends of abolishing constituted relations in favor of a constituent democracy is quite like Hardt and Negri’s proposal.
But there’s one key ingredient and that’s the PKK – that is, a party. Now the PKK isn’t the same kind of party it was in its early days which was an entirely vertical body. Today, the PKK is what Akkaya and Jongerden (2013) call a “party-complex” that is, “a formation of parties and organizations comprising several parties (including the PKK as a party), a co-party which seperately organizes women, sister parties in Iraq (PCDK), Iran (PJAK) and Syria (PYD), and guerrilla forces related to these parties” while the PKK also established “institutions through which integration and coordination of political practices [take] place” (p.165-166).
The question is how do we conceptualize the relation of this party-complex – itself composed of multiple organs – with those of the DTK in Bakur or the Tev-Dem in Rojava? For this I think the work of José Antonio Gutiérrez Danton can help. In his text entitled, “About the Problems Posed by the Concrete Class Struggle and Popular Organisation” (2014), Gutiérrez Danton identifies three theoretical and general levels of organizations. The most specific level of organization, according to him, is that of the revolutionary organization which is composed of different popular subjects who share a political program and whose unity is based on the required levels of ideological and tactical unit. This specific level, the level of the revolutionary party, is the party-complex of the PKK with all its organs. Agents from this level organization organize at the most broad level (what Gutiérrez Danton calls the social level), for example, fighting for women’s rights, and at the intermediate level (the network level) – the level at which they try to weave together lasting articulations of a common complex that operates as a staging ground, a new prince.
In their practice, the PKKs relationship to other actors is one of influence and trying to ‘tweak’ the relations of force. I mean this, actually, in a way very similar to Rodrigo Nunes’s observations of Brian Massumi’s “Navigating Movements,’ in which a transformative process “possesses much greater mass and momentum than any individual agents, but these agents are its constituent parts, thus having some, if only partial, control over it” (Nunes, 2014, p.174). To tweak “is a matter of steering or nudging a process in a subjectively determined direction” despite the fact that we can “neither control nor predict it fully” (Nunes, 2014, p.177). It is the party then that tweaks it. But rather than try to take command of the process from outside and above, it operates from inside and ultimately alongside. This does not entail, in observance with Nunes, a frictionless interaction and absolute horizontally, but a distributed leadership paradigm in which initiatives of individuals or relatively small groups, can trigger positive feedback loops that increase their impact exponentially” (Nunes,2014, p.175). The more organized the actors within the network, the more they are able to tweak the direction of the network and develop deeper and broader infrastructures that facilitate the development of the Prince and the revolutionary transition.
Hence, it is the party, with its disciplined revolutionaries and militants, its continuity of knowledges, strategies, and practices, its infrastructures that made such a prince possible. To this extent, Jodi Dean’s call for a body capable of sustaining such is indeed necessary, but I differ on the necessity of the party, the singular party, the party above. So taking the example of the Kurdish liberation movement, we see the development of Hardt and Negri’s New Prince (or Öcalan’s third means), but what is key is that without such a party to function as a catalyst (whose primary objective is not to command, but to tweak, to weave together uneasy and sometimes tense articulations of solidarity) such a process cannot initiate. Without this coordinated army of organizers, of agents that catalyze the process, this chemical mixture would have not ignited in the way that it has.
Janet Biehl, “The DTK’s Updated Democratic Autonomy Proposal,” at biehlonbookchin.com, February 20, 2016. http://www.biehlonbookchin.com/dtks-autonomy-proposal.
Haydar Darici and Rossen Djagalov, “The Kurdish Self-Governance Movement in Turkey’s South East: an Interview with Haydar Darici,” Left East, December 22, 2015. http://www.criticatac.ro/lefteast/kurdish-self-governance/.
Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon, London: Verso, 2012.
Daniel Gutiérrez, Antje Dieterich, and Victor Hertzfeld, “Fighting Form: Beyond the Party in Kurdistan,” Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action, Issue 19, Summer 2017.
José Antonio Gutiérrez Danton,“About the Problems Posed by the Concrete Class Struggle and Popular Organisation” in Conjuncture Magazine,July, 31, 2014.
Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Assembly, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
V.I. Lenin, “Letters from Afar, March 7-26, 1917, First Letter, March 26 (April 8) 1917”, in Slavoj Žižek, ed., Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917, Verso, New York, 2011.
Rodrigo Nunes, “Notes Towards a Rethinking of the Militant” in Communism in the 21st Century edited by Shannon Brincat, vol. 3, p.163-188, Santa Barbara, 2014.
Rodrigo Nunes, “Spain from networks to Parties … and Back,” Viewpoint Magazine, June 1, 2015.
Abdullah Öcalan, Prison Writings: The PKK and the Kurdish Question in the 21st Century, Transmedia Publishing, London, 2011, p.59.
TATORT Kurdistan. “Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan: The Council Movement, Gender Liberation, and Ecology – in Practice,” in A Reconnaissance into Southeastern Turkey, Janet Biehl, trans. (Porsgrunn, Norway: New Compass Press, 2013).