Occupied London #5, “Disorder of the Day”

Voices of Resistance from Occupied London #5: Disorder of the day

Fall 2013


Illustrations kindly provided by the legendary Leandros from Greece and the incredible Painsugar Designworks from Indonesia.

This journal exists because of Dawn, Andy, Gal, Alessio, Painsugar, Anna, Leandros, John, Dimitris, Hara, Ali, Tucker, Magpie, Jacken, Antonis, Smokey, Elena, Idris, Jaya, Matt, Ross and Krümel.

At the editors’ seat:

Antonis, Jaya and Dimitris.

At the designer’s seat:


The crew can be reached at: editorial@occupiedlondon.org

Check out the other issues at occupiedlondon.org

And our blog at blog.occupiedlondon.org


Revolt and Crisis in Greece – full book

Click here for a paper copy

Revolt and Crisis in Greece: Between a Present Yet to Pass and a Future Still to Come is a collective attempt to grapple with these questions. A collaboration between anarchist publishing collectives Occupied London and AK Press, this timely new volume traces Greece’s long moment of transition from the revolt of 2008 to the economic crisis that followed. In its twenty chapters, authors from around the world—including those on the ground in Greece—analyse how December became possible, exploring its legacies and the position of the social antagonist movement in face of the economic crisis and the arrival of the International Monetary Fund.

In the essays collected here, over two dozen writers offer historical analysis of the factors that gave birth to December and the potentialities it has opened up in face of the capitalist crisis. Yet the book also highlights the dilemmas the antagonist movement has been faced with since: the book is an open question and a call to the global antagonist movement, and its allies around the world, to radically rethink and redefine our tactics in a rapidly changing landscape where crises and potentialities are engaged in a fierce battle with an uncertain outcome.

Contributors include Vaso Makrygianni, Haris Tsavdaroglou, Christos Filippidis, Christos Giovanopoulos, TPTG, Metropolitan Sirens, Yannis Kallianos, Hara Kouki, Kirilov, Some of Us, Soula M., Christos Lynteris, Yiannis Kaplanis, David Graeber, Christos Boukalas, Alex Trocchi, Antonis Vradis, Dimitris Dalakoglou and the Occupied London Collective. Art and design by Leandros, Klara Jaya Brekke and Tim Simons. Edited by Antonis Vradis and Dimitris Dalakoglou of Occupied London.

456 hours // notes from the end of an endless road.

A moment can last a long time. Here, I want to spell out the moment of our travel across North America during the month of April in the year of 2011. A moment that stretched over nineteen days or, otherwise, over quite precisely 456 hours.

What lay behind travlling along small stretches of one ocean and another was the urge to start building links of affinity and solidarity, to make a first step in shattering the mediation of spectacle that has wrapped around and kept our struggles apart. This, I think, did happen.

But another strange thing also happened. It was as if the dam holding back the unsaid and the unseen was lying just behind the airport’s arrivals security desk: from the split second after we passed through, a deluge of images and stories started to well up. The next few pages contain a hurried attempt to put some of these images and stories together, and so to keep them close. But they also contain an attempt to understand our American experience through the lens of our own experiences in struggles and in places far, far away.

An attempt to read our differences and similarities as traced in this vast space. Space, as John Berger would have it, not so much as an emptiness but as an exchange.

I hope these pages are the sound-check to our exchange.

Antonis in Exarcheia, Athens in the month of May, in the year of 2011.

Read OL journal issues online

You can read all past OL journal issues below. Click on any of the images for full screen mode.

Download #4 pdf

Occupied London #4 “Between a present yet to go and a future yet to come” February 2009

Download #3 pdf

Occupied London #3 “Urgencies of everyday life: Between here and the outside” May 2008

Download #2 pdf

Occupied London #2 “Urban struggles and revolts across the world” October 2007

Download #1 pdf

Occupied London #1 March 2007

Occupied London#5: full contents online &distribution points around the world

All articles of OL#5, “Disorder of the Day”, are now available below. Here is a list of where you can find paper copies in Greece, Germany, the UK, the US and Canada. If you want to distribute in other countries, get in touch!

in Greece


Other cities

in Germany

in the UK


in North America

  • Our friends at Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness will be printing and distributing their own copies of the journal across the US and Canada. Stay tuned for news from them!

#5 editorial: disorder of the day


This is the last issue of Occupied London, a journal that started in the political freeze-frame that was London in the mid 00s. In December 2008, at the continent’s other end, the frames started moving again; as they sped up, new movements, revolts, ripples of transformation appeared. We changed our shape to respond to this unfolding condition. For a few years, we focused on regular blog  updates from the streets in Greece; then, taking a few steps back and a deep breath, we put a book together, trying to understand the state of the antagonist movement in Greece with our comrades.

And now? The frames have reached a dazzling speed; the consensus of democracy’s good ol’ times has broken and sheds its glass all over the continent, and beyond: the old world is in crisis, and along with it is its previously imposed global consensus on what counts as “progress”, “democracy” or “development”. Are these the creaks and sighs of a new global order settling, are they the early days of global economic fascism, or, could they be the cracks and moaning of its collapse?

The change in everything that we live through is dramatic – and the only way to respond to this new landscape is by changing the format through which we act, communicate, the way we do and spread our politics. If there is a lesson that we should have learned by now in this prolonged moment of crisis, is that political action that isn’t versatile is doomed to be paralyzed in a radical milieu that becomes rapidly outpaced, superseded by the anger of peoples the world over. What has it ever meant to be underground or radical? Whatever the answer, it had already mattered less and less so in, say, struggles over gender, race, or sexuality – now, with revolts becoming the (dis)order of the day, old identifications become obsolete in street politics, too.

And so, this issue is an end and a beginning. It is the end of Occupied London as it existed so far: as irregular journal issues and as a single blog. From now on, we want to be able to respond faster and more acutely to what is playing out around us. Over the coming months, we will be working on both an expanded version of our “From the Greek Streets” blog and on a web platform that will allow for in-depth analysis of our time of global revolt. And then, on much more… We will not reveal much more about the full future format of Occupied London; suffice to say, we will continue updating the blog while we work on the shape of things to come.

Around four years since our last print issue, we have decided to end this phase of the Occupied London project with one final tribute to our journal format. This, our last issue, features reflections from many recent sites of mass revolts from the past few years: it is reminiscent and eagerly awaiting the times to come…

Crisis, city and democracy: Notes on the uprising in Turkey

The June revolt in Turkey was marked by the heterogeneity of its participants, united in their common contempt for the country’s authoritarian prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The uprising spread like wildfire across the country and brought together many different sectors of society who felt sidelined, belittled and trampled upon by his autocratic rule. Although lost in its international reverberations, the initial struggle that gave birth to the uprising was much more than saving a park and definitely much more than trees. It arose from an economic model emphasizing development that acted as a response to a financial crisis knocking at the door. Through its evolution the rebellion created a rebel geography that captivated the imagination of those who were part of it.

Unlike the recent riots and wild demonstrations in European countries, the uprising in Turkey was not sparked by extreme austerity measures. Having been through heavy neoliberal austerity programs of structural adjustment at the end of the 20th century Turkey could be seen as a post-austerity nation. Neither was it similar to the popular revolts of the Arab Spring which removed multi-decade dictatorships from power resulting in electoral systems. Instead, and similar to its place on the world map, the uprising in Turkey contained elements from both while also offering its own flavor to these new currents of popular resistance.


On crisis

Although the uprising is not immediately linked to austerity, it is still deeply related to the financial crisis of 2008. Initially the crisis did hit Turkey but the strategy of the government was to contain it by massive privatization of land for real estate projects and urban renewal, and through this, to redefine Istanbul as an AKP-constructed modern metropolis. The massive increase in large-scale construction projects was tied to an equally large increase in foreign debt. Capital influx was also bolstered since Turkey became a much more lucrative market for speculators after the FED slashed its interest rate following the 2008 collapse. This situation has resulted in Turkey currently having about $340 billion in external debt (43% of its national income, 2/3 held by the private industry). This liquid capital strengthened the Turkish Lira against the dollar, while financing Erdogan’s multiple urban renewal and development projects.

Privatization and debt is ingrained into the Turkish economy and have been its hallmarks since the 80s and 90s when the country was one of the primary targets of IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies. But today is distinct both from that period and from current IMF-imposed austerity regimes, such as in Greece. What we are experiencing in Turkey today are debt incurring measures to keep the crisis at bay and implemented as an economic growth strategy. The country has attracted foreign capital due to its balanced national budget, which wards off any fear of extreme inflation. This budget is balanced in roughly the following way: as opposed to implementing austerity, the country’s national expenses are being kept mostly constant but with a shifting emphasis towards infrastructural spending for development projects that benefit the bourgeoisie, especially those in construction and its related sectors. National revenue is produced via privatization (the enclosure of land for the aforementioned development projects), indirect regressive taxes (which also have a conservative character such as increased sales tax for alcohol) and foreign debt. This debt is paid off (notably that held by the private sector) by borrowing even more money (readily available thanks to the growth rate) leading to the large sums owed today, a significant portion of which is earmarked to be paid off by the spring of 2014. Debt is incurred in order to keep the budget afloat and provides a corollary for enclosure (privatization) rather than the state being forced to privatize in order to receive or renegotiate loans (debt) as it was during the period marked by the IMF.

What distinguishes the current neoliberal regime of the AKP from its predecessors is its emphasis on the city and the transformation of Istanbul into a full-fledged metropolis through the privatization of public land. One of the primary strategies for urban transformation has come through giving exceptional powers for land enclosure in 2003 to the Turkish Housing Development Administration (TOKI), which is tied to the office of the prime minister. The revamped TOKI took the lead in privatizing public space for the purposes of gentrifying neighborhoods such as Sulukule or Tarlabaşı, which had been seen as proletarian eyesores with marginalized identities such as Kurds, transsexuals and Roma people occupying some of the prime real-estate zones of Istanbul.  TOKI is now being subsumed under the Orwellian Ministry of the Environment and the City, lead by the former TOKI head, and has taken over many of the powers once possessed by local municipalities.

This land grab and resulting (rent/ unearned) income comes both in the form of massive development projects such as a third bridge across the strait of Bosphorus, an ecologically devastating preposterous new canal through Istanbul connecting the Black sea to the Marmara Sea as well as a tunnel below the strait. These are in addition to the privatization of historic ports such as the Haliçport and Galataport projects and train stations such as Haydarpaşa, with the intention of converting them into high-end condominiums (“residences”), malls or other centers of commerce.  Certain central zones in Istanbul now have four separate such malls one beside the other and dotted amongst skyscrapers, all built within the past few years. The enclosure and privatization of public space is accompanied with militarization to quell any dissent as evidenced today by the police state surrounding the Kadıköy ferry terminal in Beşiktaş, slated for privatization in the service of an adjacent luxury hotel. Upon completion, these gated monuments to capitalism are policed by private security guards.

The unrest across Turkey led to sharp drops in the Istanbul Stock Exchange as the financial forecasts became grim. Remarkably, Erdoğan snubbed his nose at these developments as he continued to blame the “interest lobby” (a populist move with anti-semitic undertones in order to cultivate his base since interest is seen as a sin for Islam) and “foreign powers” for the tumult in the streets. His cabinet outright dismissed European Union calls for less police violence. Picking fights with the liberal secular bourgeoisie (what we can assume he means by “interest lobby”) or debt-holding European nations does not bode well for the future of the Turkish economy. On the heels of the economic volatility precipitated by the popular uprising came the end of low to zero interest rates (quantitative easing) by the FED. These two factors in concert will no doubt lead to foreign capital flight and the lucrative Turkish economy has already started to exhibit a downward trend.


On the city

Any shrewd politician would have been able to manage this revolt without fanning the flames the way Erdoğan did. His obsession over transforming Taksim Square is a sign of anxiety and arrogance due to political weakness and points to his almost feral desire to leave a neo-otoman stamp on the city. The hyper-gentrification and commercialization of Istiklal, a pedestrian avenue that emerges from Taksim Square and is the backbone of the neighborhood of Beyoğlu, and the religious conservative attacks on the street life of bars and cafes in that area are part and parcel of the AKP’s desire to transform the city into a modern, if conservative Islamic Disneyland. Despite this assault, throughout the years Beyoğlu, and the youthful political culture it is home to has resisted the AKP’s vision for the future.

Many of the city’s protest marches emerge from one end of Istiklal and end at the other, unless they are met with a police attack somewhere in between. A multitude of leftist, feminist, queer, minority, countercultural groups and radical magazines have their offices in the same area. The Saturday Mothers, a group of mostly Kurdish mothers of disappeared or murdered political activists, have been holding a vigil on Istiklal every Saturday since 1995 demanding that those responsible for their children’s lives are brought to justice. Taksim Square is also the hotly contested site of May Day celebrations. These are only some of the numerous influences that have shaped the culture of the neighborhood that became ground zero in the June uprising.

Despite the vibrancy of clubs, bars and cafes in the area there is also an accompanying barrenness that comes from it being an extreme commercial district and shopping zone with a slew of the world’s brands having outlets on Istiklal Avenue. Perhaps anticipating the possible eruption of social discontent, the metropolitan municipality of Istanbul (also belonging to the AKP) repaved the whole of Istiklal Avenue about five years ago. Once a street lined with paving stones, Istiklal now has large concrete slabs that have reliefs to give the appearance of cobblestones, a similar esthetic with none of the utility.

The psychogeography shifts on the streets that branch off Istiklal, with a multiplicity of independent bars, cafes, bookstores, restaurants and other small businesses. And there are still some cobblestones. These side streets are one of the primary hangout spots for the youth of Istanbul. The fact that many of those confronting the police were in a zone where they had already spent a considerable amount of time and were familiar with was a great advantage. The terrain of the urban revolt was on the side of those resisting.

Many of the street fights would follow a similar pattern. People who amassed on Istiklal Avenue would advance up to the police lines holding the entrance to Taksim Square until faced with an overwhelming amount of tear-gas and water cannons; instead of scattering, the crowd would retreat calmly and build large barricades on the avenue. When the police advanced through the barricades, people would take the parallel side streets and then emerge on Istiklal once again, either further down or behind the police lines. This would continue in the same way until the early morning hours. Not only did many of the street fighters already know the geography quite well but also there was a large amount of sympathy, if not straight up camaraderie, from the owners and workers of the various establishments around Istiklal. As if fish swimming in the sea, people would dip into any given bar or restaurant and hide until the police had moved by or the tear-gas cleared only to reemerge and converge once again on Istiklal to face the police. It should be noted, however, that after the days of heavy conflict some of this supportive sentiment from businesses has waned, especially with the police encouraging those of them who support the AKP and promising to turn a blind eye to attacks on protestors with knives and sticks.

The battles which were won in the streets were much more victories of will and perseverance than of violence. A perseverance that was grounded in the will to resist the enclosure of commons and take back space. The taking of the square on the 1st of June was not achieved by pushing the police back with a barrage of rocks, it was a result of the determination of the massive amount of people who spontaneously emerged to shock everyone: This was a shock not only for the police, but also those resisting; suddenly, they found each other like never before. Unlike appointments given for street conflicts, such as May Day, where each side prepares their forces and the odds of winning are extremely low, spontaneous eruptions such as the 31st of May and the 1st of June are when people are the strongest. After two days of non-stop fighting, the police had to retreat from the square and Gezi Park, leaving it to the thousands who moved in and started to construct elaborate barricades up and down all the streets leading to the zone.

Despite being the epicenter, Taksim was by no means the only place where revolt was breaking out in Istanbul, let alone in the rest of Turkey, where there were demonstrations in every major city. Especially in the capital Ankara, fighting persisted long after things had taken a lull in Istanbul. In Istanbul itself, for almost three weeks whole districts were in open revolt against the police and the AKP. In some more well-off neighborhoods such as Beyoğlu, Beşiktaş, Cihangir, Şişli, Kadıköy, but also in poorer neighborhoods with a radical left presence, such as Sarıgazi, Kurtuluş, Gazi, Okmeydanı and Maltepe, the amount of solidarity was unprecedented. People would leave their apartment doors open late into the night so that those still fighting on the street could run away from the police and lock it behind them. Furniture and large appliances were thrown from windows to reinforce barricades as were water reservoirs from rooftops. Windowsills were lined with lemons, milk and water against the tear-gas. In main streets, where fighting would go on for hours, elderly people would bring food for those fighting. When the police would finally clear a street, residents would come out to their windows and start yelling and swearing at them to get out of the neighborhood. This would be met with another barrage of tear gas canisters, sometimes directly into the houses, for the sheer purpose of silencing the neighborhood.

It is difficult to describe the muscle memory that developed in those three weeks which were interspersed with anticipation of police operations and heavy fighting that would last for days. Leaving your house without the obligatory helmet, goggles and gas mask was more of a faux pas than leaving your cell phone or wallet behind. The taunting of the police in chants imbued with melodies and spirit reminiscent of soccer stadiums gave the crowds a collective form of life that felt invincible. When tear-gas fell, the first reaction was never to panic or run away, but to cheer its arrival. The resistance learned early on that extinguishing the canisters as opposed to throwing them back was much more effective and large jugs of water were brought from homes and stationed permanently in neighborhoods waiting for the inevitable to arrive. Building barricades and advancing them towards police lines was done without thought and it became second nature to pass bricks hand-to-hand in human chains dozens of people long to construct them. Maybe the Istanbul Revolt did lack a coherence that would allow it to become a veritable insurrection, but it was definitely an insurgency as pertaining to the development of tactics by whole sections and swaths of the city as its partisans.


On democracy

During the revolt the signs and banners of people would often call Erdoğan a “dictator” and emphasize that they were fighting for “democracy.” Clearly Erdoğan is not a dictator in the sense of Mubarak, Ben Ali or the PRI of Mexico and has been elected fair and square by democratic elections with a near 50% of the vote. There are certain characteristics of the electoral system, most notably a 10% election threshold, that some in the Gezi Resistance hope to reform. But beyond that, when the protestors ask for democracy they are not actually asking for more opportunities to vote but for certain “rights” or freedoms such as the freedom of expression, assembly, a free press and freedom to conduct their personal lives without infringement from the state. The fact that a democratically elected government has become so authoritarian and has trampled upon “democratic” rights presents an opportunity to critique the democratic system.

The tension between the two interpretations of democracy, as an electoral system vs. as inalienable rights, have become even more acute due to the particular Turkish context of an elected neo-Islamist government attempting to transform a society with a secular legacy. Erdoğan has further exasperated the situation by threatening to unleash his voter base by saying that he is “having trouble keeping the 50% at home.” On the 16th of June, in Istanbul, Erdoğan organized the second of a series of “Respect the National Will” rallies that would occur during the following weeks. Having ordered the eviction of Gezi Park he came to Istanbul as a triumphant conqueror and spoke to a massive crowd of hundreds of thousands. He talked of democracy, how they had indeed democratized Turkey and that if people wanted to oust him the only legitimate way was the ballot box.

There is no overlooking of the fact that the prime minister is able to mobilize huge crowds for his rallies. The AKP enjoys an incredibly subservient media, a well-oiled political machine which amongst other public services controls transportation (routinely offering free transport for its rallies while canceling services for rival events) and is incredibly well organized within a patriarchal and nepotistic party structure. It is possible that the resistance might not win a headcount in the squares, but this is why the experience of the commune created in Gezi Park and the street battles which surrounded it are a testament against the limitations of the bourgeois democratic system, despite some of the participants’ insistence that it is a fight for democracy. Looking at content and experience rather than quantity and votes gives us a clue for a way out of the democratic stranglehold. Mutual aid, solidarity and direct action, all of which have been the hallmarks of the Gezi Resistance are in fact the antithesis to the democratic system run by elections and regulated by representatives. In fact, the Gezi Resistance was profoundly anti-democratic in the sense that it barricaded itself against the guardians of bourgeois democratic relations, the police. In another sense it was incredibly more democratic as people who were not agents of the state could come and go freely as they pleased, in stark contrast to the closure and militarization of the park by the democratically elected AKP for weeks after the police seized it on June 15. The two conceptions of democracy, as elections and as rights, are posed for a profound severance.

The fickleness of Erdoğan’s democracy has truly come to light, especially concerning the peace process with the PKK, put into motion since March. Maybe due to closing ranks in the aftermath of Gezi, or out of reprisal since important Kurdish  figures  including PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan himself expressed support for the uprising, but most likely because of already existing insincerity towards the process, Erdoğan is not holding his side of the bargain with the PKK. This is despite a great number of Kurdish guerrillas already having left the battlefield by crossing out of Turkish borders. Erdoğan has recently reneged on constitutional reforms to include the Kurdish identity and language and there are ongoing construction projects for dozens of new military police outposts in Northern Kurdistan (within the borders of Turkey). Even more atrociously, on June 28, soldiers opened fire on a demonstration in Lice to protest the construction of one of these outposts killing one and critically injuring many others. Northern Kurdistan has had to endure such violence for decades but this particular attack might have been a turning point for the Kurdish struggle for freedom and autonomy. Having endured police violence in the preceding weeks those who were part of the Gezi Resistance, who are mostly concentrated in the western and non-kurdish zones of the country, immediately staged huge solidarity demonstrations against this attack in the Kurdish territory. Before the Gezi experience it would have been unimaginable for such expressions of solidarity to spontaneously erupt from a non-Kurdish segment of society. As opposed to a vacuous democratic peace process, people had enacted revolutionary solidarity.

Those who have been evicted from Gezi Park are attempting to recreate its spirit in popular assemblies that have mushroomed around Istanbul and in other cities. The proliferation of these public forums has lead some to claim this is an experience in direct democracy. Regardless of what one might call them, they are a refreshing form of political being for those who have lost hope in a democratic system. It is still unclear what shape these forums might take, but at their onset and during the largest participation they’ve had, they would forego any sort of decision making structure that would pretend to speak and act on behalf of the whole assembly.

Apart from some exceptions, by and large the crowds did not seem to opt for a crippling consensus system, neither for a majority vote negating the agency of minority opinions. Instead, proposals would be made from the stage and if there seemed to be enough interest, action would be taken. Sometimes this would be in the form of a spontaneous march and sometimes in the form of a working group.


The horizon

Financial crisis pushes democratic governments (in terms of elections) to become undemocratic (in terms of rights) and in Turkey this has been felt more acutely due to the conservative nature of the government managing the crisis.   The twist and innovation of the rebellion was that it did not emerge against the classic austerity response to crisis, but against development and enclosure based on a prosperous, albeit temporary, period instead. This twist was also observed in the visceral rage that marked Erdoğan’s speeches, as he couldn’t seem to comprehend the ingratitude of the people he rules, especially while one neighboring country is in the grips of a civil war and the other in a deep economic crisis. Prosperity and massive construction projects have not created a subservient population and when the delayed crisis eventually hits Turkey, those affected might have more in mind than to return to the good old days of liquid capital.

Many activists had been fighting the different manifestations of Erdogan’s neoliberal city and this has been a struggle continuing for almost a decade. Neither they nor anyone else predicted the contagious revolt that would spark from a battle against developing a park, what had seemed to be just another losing fight amongst many. Those defending the city commons converged with almost the whole spectrum of social movements and were fueled by a visceral hatred of the police and a patriarchal prime minister. It became clear that revolts happen for psychic reasons as well as for material ones. Forecasters of social revolts (i.e. orthodox marxists) should learn this and many other lessons from June 2013 in Turkey. In fact, forecasting is both impossible and counter-productive: it is best to be prepared for social explosions rather than to attempt to predict them. Those of us who are part of anti-authoritarian and anti-state currents must always be ready to push revolts, like that of Istanbul, to their farthest limits and beyond. In moments like these, which promise to be more frequent around the globe, whoever is most organized is able to transmit their ideas and tactics in the most effective manner and become more potent within the rebellion.

A further lesson concerns the ideal form of the revolutionary worker. Those who see the worker as the primary revolutionary agent must begin (as if they have not had sufficient reasons to do so already) to shift their gaze away from labor unions. Even the most leftist labor confederations in Turkey, such as DISK and KESK, were impotent in propelling the movement into the realm of the economy. Although this is mostly no fault of their own and has more to do with the historical decimation of organized labor by the state in Turkey, it was also clear that beyond the classical factory or industrial worker, the formally unorganized, precarious, white-collar and diploma holding proletariat on the brink of unemployment now have the potential to take many initiatives in social revolts. Even the traditional blue collar proletariat might hold more revolutionary potential outside their workplaces, where they find themselves under the dominion of their unions. A crucial turning point for similar rebellions will come through the arrival of the antagonism from the squares and parks into the arena of commerce and work where this unorganized proletariat either already works at or at least is kept docile with the promise of working at.

Turkey is not the only country where democracy, which is supposed to produce social peace and prosperity has had its alarm bells ringing.  An even more dramatic example is Egypt where only a year after the democratic election of Morsi the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square came back in order to continue where they had left off. So much for the pundits who were quick to label the Egyptian January 25th movement as one purely against the dictatorship of Mubarak. Although the real movement of the people has once again been stalled by the Egyptian military one can predict that this will not be the end of the spirit of Tahrir. Looking from Istanbul and considering that both the military drafted constitution of Egypt and the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood are modeled upon Turkish examples, it appears that there is a growing number of people who desire to do away with both.

The rebel geographies of the world are becoming less and less content with the poor choice between a democracy or a dictatorship and social explosions challenging the roots of the liberal democratic paradigm are sure to continue. In the meantime the anti-capitalist and anti-state revolutionaries of the world must not be idle. Getting organized and staying active so that our valuable muscle memory does not atrophy is crucial. Updating our age-old praxis to consider these emerging new contexts and coming up with a fresh and appealing formulation of a post-capitalist world based on contemporary social, ecological and economic realities is also just as important. Ultimately what will make us the most effective within these revolts is to produce in action the new sets of social relations that will expand our sequestered horizons.


Repressive Memories: terror, insurgency, and the drug war


In 2010 and 2011, grenades exploded at city hall buildings in Reynosa, Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Victoria, four cities in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas.

Organized crime  was  blamed for the explosions, particularly members of the Zetas or of the Gulf Cartel. I visited the region in early 2011, at a loss for what could be driving criminal groups to fight against local governments that are, for all intents and purposes, under their control.

It wasn’t until I met Francisco Chavira Martínez in early 2011 that things began to become clear. The first time we met, he suggested we eat together at the back of a Reynosa restaurant that caters to well-heeled locals. Waiters dressed like penguins bowed in and out, while other tables were occupied mostly by older men. Chavira spoke loudly, unafraid. He was the only person out of over a dozen I interviewed in the city who agreed to let me use his real name.

Local governments “use car thieves to steal the cars of anyone who opposes them; house thieves who will rob your house to frighten you; narcotraffickers, who they use as a way to create fear in the people, so that you don’t participate, so that you don’t raise your voice or go against the government; they even send their own to throw grenades at city halls,” Chavira explained.1

Maybe he noticed the quizzical look on my face. I didn’t yet grasp how terror works, and the purposes it serves. “Why?” he asked himself, pausing for a moment. “So that the people are scared and don’t go to City Hall to make demands; they won’t go and demand that public accounts be transparent, or [ask] what the money is being spent on.” Months after our interview, Chavira, a candidate for the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), was arrested on trumped-up charges and held in jail until after the elections, in what he referred to as a “legalised kidnapping” by the state.

The second time I met with Chavira was two years later, in early 2013. We ran into each other in front of the US embassy in Mexico City at a demonstration organized by families and friends of people who are working without papers in the US. I took him to a nearby café where we did a short interview. While we walked he marveled at how wonderful it felt to be able to walk down the street without fear, something no longer possible in his hometown.

Chavira’s comments to me that afternoon need some introduction.

The official line on the drug war, which is parroted by governments and the media, claims that the war in Mexico is between bad guys (drug traffickers) and good guys (police and the army, assisted by the US, Canada, and EU countries). According to this version of events the “bad guys” are organized into the following hierarchy: at the top are the Capos, or drug lords, then come their Generals or security chiefs, who look after the boss and his regions, then the jefes de plaza, local bosses in charge of a particular border or drug distribution area.

I call this frame (which is the dominant frame) the cartel wars discourse. Cartel wars discourse includes a few salient features: an almost exclusive reliance on state/government sources for information, a guilty-until-proven-innocent/victims-were-involved-in-drug-trade bias, and a foundational belief that cops involved in criminal activity are the exception, not the rule, and that more policing improves security.2

It’s been a little more than two years since I started reporting on and researching different facets of the transformation taking place in Mexico, which I consider to be a kind of counter-revolution and a deepening of the North American Free Trade Agreement through intense militarization. Once one begins to consider the wide ranging social and economic consequences of the “war on drugs,” official versions of what is taking place stop making sense, almost completely. They do more to obscure the real dynamics of the war than they reveal. It is what I learn from people like Chavira that teach me what’s really going on in Mexico-at-War.

Tucked away on the back balcony of a bookstore-café in Mexico City’s nightclub district (right across from the US Embassy), post-jail Chavira was a lot like he was before he was put away. He said he actually managed to enjoy his eight months inside, working with prisoners to better their living situations, and organizing so that children imprisoned with their parents could be afforded the semblance of a normal childhood. I asked Chavira if he could explain how the narco-war interacts with the state in Mexico. “In my point of view, I think the true criminal, the true capo in Mexico is the president of the republic, the governors are the same in each of their state, and the jefes de plaza are the mayors,” Chavira told me. “They all got where they are with financing from illicit sources. They protect each other; they are the same thing.”

We talked a little longer, about everything—about migration, about the dead (he speculates that the official number of dead because of the drug war since 2006, which is now around 60-70,000, represents a fraction of the victims), and about our own lives. Just like the time before, I left the conversation with even more questions about the war, but also with the conviction that seeking space to develop other understandings and narratives of the war in Mexico is an urgent and important task.

Terror and the Hemisphere Plan

What is happening today with regards to the drug war in Mexico has important precedent elsewhere in the hemisphere, namely, in Colombia. There is a legitimate focus on how events in Colombia preceded what is taking place in the “drug war” in Mexico. Key to the importance of Colombia from 2000 onwards in understanding Mexico today is Plan Colombia and the multi-billion-dollar investment the US government made in the war on drugs there. Plan Colombia officially ended in 2006; the next year, the Mérida Initiative, or Plan Mexico, started. In 2008, the US introduced the Central America Regional Security Initiative (Plan Central America), and in 2010, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (Plan Caribbean).Central to all of these initiatives is the militarization of local, state, and federal police, and an increased domestic deployment of police and army (supposedly) against drug producers, traffickers, and sellers.

History teaches us that the amount of drugs being trafficked to the United States did not decrease significantly because of Plan Colombia. I argued in my 2012 essay “Drug War Capitalism” that the application of the Plan Colombia model in Mexico and elsewhere has more to do with improving the conditions for foreign direct investment and encouraging the expansion of capitalism than it does with stemming the flow of drugs.3

But when it comes to the application of repression and terror in Mexico, the tactics employed by the state repressive apparatus go far beyond the Colombia experience, and are nourished by generations of US and other imperial warfare around the world.4 In this context, I believe the experiences of US-backed counterinsurgency war in Central America, and in Guatemala in particular, are of great importance in understanding events in Mexico and the region today. Though rarely considered as linked to events in Mexico today, these conflicts must be considered part of the repressive memory that has been activated in order to carry out the ongoing “war on drugs” in Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere.

As Laleh Khalili argues in her work on Palestine and counterinsurgency, “officials and foot soldiers, technologies of control, and resources travel not only between colonies and metropoles but also between different colonies of the same colonial power and between different colonial metropoles, whereby bureaucrats and military elites actively study and borrow each other’s techniques and advise one another on effective ruling practices.”5

There are certain lines of continuity among the wars (including genocide) in Central America in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s that are clearly traceable to Mexico today. For example, grenades used by the Zetas in attacks in Mexico have been traced back to the 1980s, when they were sold by the US to the military of El Salvador.6 Another thread connecting the 36-year war in Guatemala to today is the Kaibiles, the country’s elite special forces, whose members were responsible for horrific massacres then, and who today are active both as an elite government force and as members of criminal groups.7
In addition to these concrete examples, many of the practices of terror used by armies such as Guatemala’s have resurfaced in Mexico and Central America at the hands of criminal groups. In today’s war, the “war on drugs,” violence deployed against civilians—especially migrants and the poor—comes from official, uniformed troops, as well as from irregular forces including “drug cartels” or paramilitary groups.

The New Oxford American Dictionary’s primary definition of terror is “extreme fear: the use of such fear to intimidate people, esp. for political reasons; terrorism.” Mass killings and the public display of bodies is one example of a terror technique, practiced over centuries, by government and irregular forces, often in tandem with the imposition of political and economic regimes. Terror plays a specific role in ensuring control over the population.

“In all its forms, terror was designed to shatter the human spirit. Whether in London at the birth of capitalism or in Haiti today, terror infects the collective imagination, generating an assortment of demons and monsters.”8 Whether it is bodies hung up on public display or cut into pieces and dumped one on top of another on a highway, or explosions and massacres leaving dozens of civilians dead and injured, Mexico has seen an unprecedented array of bone-chilling episodes since former President Felipe Calderon launched the drug war in December of 2006.9

Disappearance is another technique used against civilians and activists in Mexico, where at least 26,000 people (as of March 2013, this figure is consistently revised upwards) have been disappeared since 2006.10 It is also routinely practiced in Central America (the use of disappearances against political activists is said to have been invented in Guatemala), Colombia, and elsewhere. Disappearance is a selective terror tactic perfected by Central American armies, who kidnap and torture their victims before summarily executing them and burying the bodies in clandestine graves.

The horrific actions carried out against civilians by criminal groups in the context of the drug war are regularly featured on TV, shared on social media, and printed in newspapers. Few media reports explain and contextualize the use of terror; instead, they portray it as random, wanton, out-of-control violence. The police and army are often presented as the only institutions capable of responding to such acts, which are soon forgotten, and whose perpetrators are often absolved through impunity, which is created by the state repressive apparatus and institutionalized by the state. The reproduction of these media narratives on screens, iPhones, and tabloids across the region terrorizes the entire society.

Part of this transformation is the transformation of life ways and socialization as part of a general shift towards a more repressive society. Mobility—understood as peoples’ ability to move freely on their own will—is restricted by increasing border surveillance and police and military checkpoints, as well as by the fear generated through mass murders of bus passengers, shootouts on major roadways, and disappearances that occur while the victim is traveling. Reduced mobility is one of the first impacts that terror has on the affected population. Meanwhile, forced migration and involuntary displacement increase as the transition to a more repressive society claims victims and threatens survivors.

As described by Guatemalan writers Gomis, Romillo, and Rodríguez in the early 1980s, “With domination through terror, in addition to the physical elimination of those who oppose the interests of the regime, there is also the pursuit of ‘the control of a social universe made possible through the intimidation induced by acts of destruction… (and with) acts of terror there is an overall impact on the social universe, —at a social and generalized level—, of a whole series of psychosociological pressures which impose an obstacle to possible political action.”11

The notions of opposition and political action described in the quotation above need not call to mind guerrilla organizations or even a highly organized public. The end goal of terror can be as simple as preventing residents from requesting even the most basic level of openness from state institutions, as described by Chavira at the beginning of this article.


Who are the Insurgents?

Insurgent, in noun form, is  defined  by the New Oxford American Dictionary as follows: “a rebel or revolutionary.” In 2010, Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State, compared the situation in Mexico to an insurgency. “It’s looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago,” she told delegates at a Council on Foreign Relations event. Drug cartels “are showing more and more indices of insurgencies,” she said.12  In 2009, the head of the US military stated that he backed the use of counter insurgency in Mexico.13

Reading information from the US government and the status quo media, one finds a careful reiteration that the war in Mexico is non-political. “The Mexican gangs are motivated by profit, and have no visible ideological agenda. Their only political goal is weaker law enforcement,” reads a 2011 report by the Soros-funded research group Insight Crime.14 As I outlined in “Drug War Capitalism,” crime/drug trafficking groups (and particularly Los Zetas) play a role closer to that of paramilitary groups than of an insurgent group.

“The Zetas are a paramilitary force,” Dr. William Robinson, author of A Theory of Global Capitalism, told me when I interviewed him in 2011. “Basically it’s the creation of paramilitarism alongside formal militarization, which is a Colombian model.”15

Paramilitarization took place in two waves in Colombia, the first as state-created and elite-supported groups formed in the 1960s and ’70s, and later as elite-created, state-supported groups through the 1980s and ’90s.16 The second wave of paramilitarization in Colombia took place as the cocaine industry began to reap previously unforeseen profits for local drug runners, with the drug runners representing a new elite group whose irregular forces were backed by the state. The latter wave is when the parallel militarization-paramilitarization process mentioned by Robinson took place. Those impacted by these processes are, of course, poor people in urban and rural areas across Colombia, where there are over four million internally displaced people. According to a paper published in World Development, “Paramilitary groups not only bear the bulk of the responsibility, they are also more effective in instigating displacement.”17

One example of how Zetas are more like a paramilitary group than an insurgent group is evidenced by events like the murder of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in the summer of 2010. This kind of act  directly  serves the US foreign policy goal of discouraging migration from Central America. Massacres and mass kidnappings and extortion are always political acts linked to the establishment of control over or elimination of a given community and, by extension, its territory.

If we understand the role of groups like Los Zetas as being closer to a paramilitary group than an insurgent group, and we are told that the US is backing a counterinsurgent strategy in Mexico, we must then ask ourselves: Who are the insurgents in this war?  At this juncture, it is particularly useful to reflect upon recent history in Guatemala.

Through the 36-year conflict there, 200,000 people were killed, mostly by the state, and another 50,000 disappeared. The war in Guatemala had three basic phases. The first, from 1960 to 1980, consisted of selective and clandestine strategies, mostly against leftists and political opponents. The second, a transitional phase practiced over a single year, 1981, included selective and clandestine as well as massive and open acts of state terror. From 1982 on, the country lived through the generalization of terror and psychological operations designed to control the entire population, especially Mayan communities, some of which were politically organized. The victims of the conflict were principally men but also women and children; many of the dead were executed merely for belonging to a social or ethnic group, not because they held any particular ideology. While there were guerrilla movements in Guatemala at this time, entire rural and Indigenous populations were essentially considered insurgent groups in the war.

In Guatemala, “the development of terror and the politics of terror have their origin in the incapacity of the state to confront social conflict through consensual methods; its objective was to inhibit any attempt at opposition emerging from civil society as a whole or from specific groups within it.”18 This sentiment is echoed in a forthcoming essay by Kristian Williams, who writes that “from the perspective of counterinsurgency, resistance is not simply a matter of the population (or portions of it) refusing to cooperate with the state’s agenda; resistance comes as a consequence of the state failing to meet the needs of the population.”19

Today in Mexico, insurgents could be considered members of social worlds outside of the dictates of the hegemonic, transnational marketplace. Communal landowners and street vendors (people in the informal economy) could thus be labeled insurgents along with migrants and Indigenous peoples. Already, these groups find common cause as those who fill mass graves, and as those upon whom the brunt of terror tactics are deployed.

One of the crucial differences between today’s wars and those of Central America in the 1980s is that the perpetrators of many (but not all) of the most gruesome massacres and acts in the drug war are so called “drug cartels.” This demonstrates how in addition to the experiences in Central America through armed conflicts there, repressive techniques employed in the war in Colombia through the 1990s and 2000s are influencing the war-making process in Mexico. In taking a broader view of the drug war in Mexico and looking at who the victims of violence are, it is essential to consider how state forces in Guatemala were using the specific language of insurgency when in fact the entire population was being targeted. This was taking place with open, and later tacit, US support. It follows that such language and barbarity may be transposed onto the drug war in Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere today, and that we should not lose sight of the region’s history, often ignored in the context of the drug war.

How we understand the so-called non-political insurgency in Mexico and the state response to it helps inform our understanding of the entire drug war project, as well as possible future repressive strategies in other parts of the world. Take, for example, a recent US State Department push to promote the ideological framework for bringing the drug war to West Africa, claiming that “Transnational organized crime, including drug trafficking, is a major threat to security and governance throughout West Africa.”20 Seeding these ideas in Africa and elsewhere opens new possibilities for US agencies to justify the need to intervene, as they have in Mexico.

One of the most glaring misconceptions about the war in Mexico, and the drug war more generally, is that it is somehow post-political or non-political. It is foolish to only ascribe “political” status to a war when there is a national liberation movement or a guerrilla struggle.  The war in Mexico is political: it is a counter-revolution, 100 years late. It is decimating communities and destroying some of the few gains from the Mexican Revolution that remained after the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994.

For people like Francisco Chavira, speaking out against the political class and their entanglement with criminal groups will continue to be a dangerous activity. For hundreds of thousands of others who have lost loved ones, there will be no end to the suffering generated by this war, which is about so much more than drugs. In Mexico, according to Robinson, authorities are struggling to manage the contradictions generated by massive inequalities and by global capitalism. The savagery, panic, and terror of the drug war embody the 21st-century state response to these conditions.



1 Paley, Dawn. “Off the Map in Mexico.” May 4, 2011. The Nation. Retrieved December 12, 2012 from: http://www.thenation.com/article/160436/map-mexico

2 Paley, Dawn. “Insight Crime & the Mexicanization of Cartel War Discourse.” March 11, 2013. Retrieved March 14, 2013 from: http://dawnpaley.tumblr.com/post/45119662682/insight-crime-the-mexicanization-of-cartel-war

3 Paley, Dawn. “Drug War Capitalism.” July/August, 2012. Solidarity. Retrieved February 12, 2013 from: http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/3652

4 “State Repressive Apparatus” after Jasmin Hristov, Blood and Capital: The Paramilitarization of Colombia. Between the Lines, 2009: Toronto.

5 Khalili, L. “The Location of Palestine in Global Counterinsurgencies.” Int. J. Middle East Stud. 42 (2010), 413–414.

6 Consulate Monterrey. “Mexico: Tracking Narco-grenades.” March 3, 2009. Retrieved December 20, 2012 from: http://cablegatesearch.net/cable.php?id=09MONTERREY100#para-3961-4

7 “It was a former Kaibil (member of Guatemala’s elite Special Forces) who was accused of directing the single most violent act in Guatemala yet linked to drug trafficking. Hugo Gómez Vásquez was accused of supervising the massacre in Finca Los Cocos, Péten in May 2011, where 27 farmworkers were killed, allegedly as part of a land dispute between Otto Salguero, a local landowner, and the Zetas.” See: Paley, Dawn. “Strategies of a New Cold War.” Towards Freedom. Retrieved February 14, 2013 from: http://www.towardfreedom.com/home/americas/3073-strategies-of-a-new-cold-war-us-marines-and-the-drug-war-in-guatemala

8 Linebaugh, P., Rediker, M. The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Beacon Press, Boston, 2000. Pp. 53.

9 The LA Times provides a good summary of some of the most gruesome events of Calderón’s six years in office. Hernández, D. “Calderon’s war on drug cartels: A legacy of blood and tragedy.” December 1, 2012. LA Times. Retrieved December 20, 2012 from: http://www.latimes.com/news/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-mexico-calderon-cartels-20121130,0,1538375,full.story

10 Editors. “Mexico’s disappeared.” March 5, 2013. LA Times. Retrieved March 14, 2013 from: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/mar/05/opinion/la-ed-disappeared-mexico-human-rights-watch-20130305

11 Gomis, R. Romillo, M., Rodríguez, I. “Reflexiones sobre la political del terror: El caso de Guatemala.” Cuadernos de Nuestra América. Vol 1. 1983. La Habana. Cited in: Equipo de Antropologia Forense de Guatemala. Las Masacres en Rabinal: Estudio Historico Antropológico sde las massacres de Plan de Sanchez, Chichipate y Rio Negro, 1997. 2nd Edition. 1997. Guatemala. P. 154.

12 BBC News. “Clinton says Mexico drug crime like an insurgency.” September 9, 2010. Retrieved February 14, 2012 from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-11234058

13 Morgan, David. “US military chief backs counter-insurgency for Mexico.” March 6, 2009. Retrieved February 14, 2013 fromL http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/03/07/idUSN06397194

14 Corcoran, P. “Counterinsurgency is not the Answer for Mexico.” September 26, 2011. Retrieved February 14, 2013 from: http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/counterinsurgency-is-not-the-answer-for-mexico

15 Paley, Dawn. “Drug War Capitalism.” July/August, 2012. Solidarity. Retrieved February 12, 2013 from: http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/3652

16 Hristov, J. Blood and Capital: The Paramilitarization of Colombia. Between the Lines, 2009: Toronto.

17 Ibánez, A., Vélez, C. “Civil Conflict and Forced Migration: The Micro Determinants and Welfare Losses of Displacement in Colombia.” World Development, Vol. 36, No. 4, 2008. pp. 661.

18 Equipo de Antropologia Forense de Guatemala. Las Masacres en Rabinal: Estudio Historico Antropológico sde las massacres de Plan de Sanchez, Chichipate y Rio Negro, 1997. 2nd Edition. 1997. Guatemala. P. 335.

19 Williams, K. “Introduction: Insurgency, Counterinsurgency,
and Whatever Comes Next.” In Williams, K., Munger, W., Messersmith-Glavin, L. Eds. Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency. p. 12. AK Press. Forthcoming, 2013.

20 Office of the Spokesperson. “The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement and the Woodrow Wilson Center Host a Panel Discussion on “Combating Narcotics Trafficking in West Africa.” October 25, 2012. Retrieved March 15, 2013 from: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2012/10/199730.htm