Kobani: What’s In A Name?

Kamran MatinA guest post from Kamran Matin. Kamran is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex, where he teaches modern history of the Middle East and international theory. He is the author of Recasting Iranian Modernity: International Relations and Social Change (Routledge, 2013), and recently of ‘Redeeming the Universal: Postcolonialism and the Inner-Life of Eurocentrism’ in the European Journal of International Relations (2013). Kamran is also the incoming co-convenor of the BISA Historical Sociology Working Group, and a management committee member at Sussex’s Centre for Advanced International Theory. He is currently working on a paper on the origins of the current crisis in the Middle East, and a larger project on the international history of the Kurdish national liberation movement.


Kobani Fighters

The city of Kobani’s epic resistance against the genocidal assault of the Islamic State (IS) has entered its thirtieth day. So far the response of the western left has been generally one of solidarity. However, the left seems divided on the best way to support Kobani. Invoking anti-imperialist and anti-war principles a considerable part of the left has been shying away from demanding military and logistical support for the main defending force of the city, i.e. People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women Protection Unites (YPJ), the armed wings of Democratic Union Party (PYD), by the US led anti-IS coalition. Moreover, with some exceptions such as David Graeber, many western leftists have neglected the historical significance and transformative political potentials of the success of Kobani’s resistance.

In what follows I argue that pressuring western powers to provide arms and logistical support to YPG/YPJ is legitimate and justifiable, and that in the battle for Kobani the left has a unique opportunity to contribute to an important shift in the regional balance of power in favour of a radical democratic and egalitarian project with transformative ramifications for the entire Middle East.

Kobani, the Kurds, and the West

With regards to the discomfort of the left with the idea of western military support for YPG/YPJ the important preliminary point to be made is that the Kurds have repeatedly claimed that they do not want or need direct military intervention by either coalition forces or Turkey. They’ve repeatedly said that they only need anti-tank weapons, ammunition and the opening of a corridor for fighters, food and medicine to reach Kobani. This request has been echoed by the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who warned of a repetition of the fate of Srebrenica in Kobani if such a humanitarian corridor is not established.

In its demand for a limited tactical western military support for YPG/YPJ the left by no means loses sight of the fact that at its root Islamic State is the fascistic faeces of western imperial metabolism, a direct product of the American conquest of Iraq, the deliberate manipulation of sectarian differences, and the destruction of the social fabric of Iraqi society. But surely, none of these should obviate the recognition of the vital significance of protecting an actually existing and functioning radical left experience at the heart of the Middle East from eradication, notwithstanding its unavoidable flaws and limitations.

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Giving Back (Without Giving Up) In Neoliberal Times

A guest post from our sometime co-conspirator Wanda Vrasti. Wanda teaches social studies at the Humbolt University and international politics at the Feie Universitaet in Berlin. Her book Volunteer Tourism in the Global South just came out with Routledge. She has also written on the uses of ethnographic methods in IR (in Millennium, twice) and on questions of global governmentality (in Theory & Event and Review of International Studies). Her current interests (still) include the politics of work and leisure, social movements on the Left, and anarchism and autonomism. Images by Pablo.

UPDATE (9 Nov): Wanda is now happily a member of the Disordered collective. And thus, this is retrospectively no longer a guest post.


Last week my PhD dissertation entitled Volunteer Tourism in the Global South: How to Give Back in Neoliberal Times came out as a book with Routledge’s Interventions series. Publication usually marks the end or the completion of a research project, but in this case I feel like the puzzles that animated it are still very much alive in my mind. Rehashing some of these, at my blog hosts’ invitation (also considering that the book goes for a price I imagine not many people will be able to afford outside university libraries), is an exercise in keeping the thinking and writing that went into this book alive beyond its publication date.

In a sentence, the book is an ethnographic study of volunteer tourism projects in the Global South (Ghana and Guatemala specifically) with a particular focus on the kinds of subjects and social relations this rite of passage cultivates and the reasons why we attach so much value to them. The argument I make in the book is not very different from the common indictment against voluntourism seen in the media. The accusation is that volunteer tourism does more for the Western (in my case exclusively white middle-class) tourists who enrol in these all-inclusive tours of charity than for the impoverished communities they are claiming to serve. Volunteering programs, most of which focus on English teaching, medical assistance or minor construction projects, have neither the trained staff nor the organizational capacity to make a lasting impact upon the lives of developing populations. Often the commercial travel agencies offering these tours fail to deliver even basic assistance goods, let alone encourage grassroots community initiatives that could lead to more sustainable change. What they can offer, however, to Western customers willing to pay $500 to $2,500/month is the chance to travel to places outside the Lonely Planet circuit without being a tourist. A tourist, as we have all experienced it at some point, is a rather pitiable figure reduced to gazing at things or being gazed at, their only meaningful encounter being with the guide book. A volunteer, on the other hand, can live with a local family, get to know traditional cultures, and participate in the collective good. Not surprisingly, the formula has become a growing trend among high-school and college graduates hard pressed to find many opportunities for meaningful participation in the alienated (and austere) market societies they come from.

Sadly, the majority of volunteers I worked with in Ghana and Guatemala did not have their feelings of lack and longing satisfied on these tours. Besides having to cope with all sorts of cultural frustrations and racial tensions, the work we were doing felt boring and useless. Our tour organizers failed to provide work that was challenging and gratifying for the volunteers and socially useful for the local community. Still, most people returned home with an improved sense of self, feeling like these trying circumstances had helped them develop greater confidence and cultural awareness.

Volunteer tourism appears here as yet another form of aesthetic consumption designed to confirm the racial, economic and emotional superiority of white middle-class individuals who are able to afford it. Continue reading

Has the Left given up on Economics?

With the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression continuing to slowly unfold, one of the most surprising consequences has been a non-event: the dearth of high-quality economic theorizing in leftist groups. [1] This is in spite of the opportunity the crisis presents for alternative economies, and in spite of the economic conundrum that developed economies find themselves in: too indebted for stimulus and too weak for austerity. This differend between austerity and stimulus indexes the insufficiency of either and yet few have taken up the necessity of thinking proper alternatives.

The leftist response to the economic crisis has instead been mostly been to focus on piecemeal reactions against government policies. The student movement arose as a response to tuition fee and EMA changes; the right to protest movement arose as a response to heavy-handed police treatment; and leftist parties have suggested a mere moderation of existing government policies. The project to bring about a fully different economic system has been shirked in favour of smaller-scale protests. There is widespread critique, but little construction.

Admittedly, the left is not entirely devoid of high-level economic theorizing. Rather, the more specific problem is that those few who do such work are a relatively tiny minority and are typically marginalized within the leftist scene. The attention and effort of the leading intellects of leftism (at least in the UK) are on social issues, race issues, rights issues, and identity issues. All important, to be sure, but there is no equivalent attention paid to economic issues.

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