Bubble mentality

The intrigue of political experiments. With collapsing trust in global governance, zones and enclaves have come to embody utopian aspirations for the future of statehood. By Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

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Jonas Staal, Map of the Unrecognised State of Kurdistan, 2012 (from New World Summit – Brussels, 2014). Design in collaboration with Remco van Bladel. © and courtesy the artists 

Each year, the public relations firm Edelman publishes its global Trust Barometer quantifying citizens’ faith in governments, business, media and NGOs. Over the course of 2014, its particular metric for trust – a crucial indicator, the firm points out, of how smoothly global trade and free markets can function – underwent an “alarming evaporation”. 

Trust in government was at just 48 percent – lower than media, business, and non-profits. Trust overall has been falling for some years, but now, Edelman executives warned the Davos World Economic Forum last year, “The number of countries with trusted institutions has fallen to an all-time low among the informed public. Among the general population, the trust deficit is even more pronounced, with nearly two-thirds of countries falling into the distruster category.”

It’s hard to imagine that 2015’s results will show a marked improvement: between the proliferation of non-state actors such as ISIS; a looming environmental disaster of epic proportions; an unprecedented refugee and migration crisis; and the stark realisation that borders in Europe, the Middle East and beyond are not, in fact, forever; the world’s major institutions – and governments of nation states in particular – are being undermined in unprecedented ways.  

But out of this trust vacuum, more idealistic models have begun to capture the popular imagination. We can find them in the form of bubbles, enclaves and “zones”: states within states, states of exception and states of exemption. A cordoned-off political experiment, from a small-scale commune to the creation of a new type of city, has an immediate appeal in such mistrustful times. Think of them as controlled detonations.  

The most notable bubble of late is Rojava, an area of around 14,000 square kilometres west of the Tigris river in the borderlands between Syria and Turkey. The world’s 2.2 million Kurds, who live mostly in Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, have continuously sought and been denied various forms of self-determination since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. But since 2013, Rojava’s three cantons – Jazeera, Kobani and Afrin – have functioned as a self-governing statelet, despite not being formally recognised as a country by the international community or their neighbours. The cantons are run by a coalition of Kurdish, Christian and Arab representatives and defended by the People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, which is overwhelmingly represented in Western media by photogenic young women wielding guns to fight ISIS – a unit of the YPG called the Women’s Protection Army. 

Underpinning Rojava’s self-governance efforts is an acknowledgment that having a nation state of one’s own is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of politics today. This was a conclusion that Abdullah Öcalan, the much-revered leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and its political mastermind, came to while reading during his imprisonment on a Turkish island, surrounded by 1,000 guards. He studied Murray Bookchin, an American theorist who famously put forward a theory of hyperlocal, environmentally focused libertarianism, and Benedict Anderson, a Marxist political scientist whose seminal Imagined Communities argues that the nation is a construct.  

“As I understood that nations themselves were the most meaningless reality, shaped under the influence of capitalism... I understood that... to fight for nation states was to fight for capitalism, a big transformation in my political philosophy took place. I realised I had been a victim of capitalist modernity,” Öcalan said in the daily Turkish newspaper Radikal. This new way of thinking continues to set the tone for his followers. “Rojava is something beyond the nation state,” a local leader told the New York Times Magazine. ‘‘It’s a place where all people, all minorities and all genders are equally represented.”

Because of its novelty, and because there are literally no other good guys in the near vicinity, English-language media coverage of the Kurds has been overwhelmingly optimistic. “There some 2.2 million Kurds have created a quasi-state that is astonishingly safe – and strangely unknown abroad,” writes Jonathan Steele in the New York Review of Books. “No barrel bombs are dropped by Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes. No ISIS executioners enforce the wearing of the niqab. No Turkish air strikes send civilians running, as Turkish attacks on Kurdish militia bases do across the border in Iraq.” “A dream of a secular utopia in ISIS’s backyard,” gurgled a recent headline in the New York Times Magazine. David Graeber, an anarchist writer and a vocal supporter of the Kurdish cause, has called the initiative “one of few bright spots – albeit a very bright one – to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution”. 

This enthusiasm is well founded and understandable: with neighbours that include a dysfunctional Iraqi government, a murderous Syrian one, a Turkish regime that seems to grow more repressively nationalistic by the day and a goddamn caliphate in the form of ISIS, to see an enclave that values women’s rights, participatory democracy and economic equality is a liberal’s wet dream (cue image of photogenic young women with guns).

In the Western imagination, Rojava is on its way to filling the role occupied in the 1990s by Tibet: an idyllic, faraway place, populated by seemingly moderate and well-meaning people who define themselves largely in opposition to their repressive neighbours. (I, for one, won’t be shocked if Bono winds up organising a benefit concert.) Writing for Dissent magazine, the scholar Nick Danforth wryly notes, “It all reads like something out of an academic’s fantasy.”

Politics aside, our fascination with the Kurdish experiment speaks to a deeper craving we have as a society for new, non-state paradigms in the absence of functional nation states. If Tibet in the 1990s filled a certain superficial need for pseudo-spirituality, Rojava is a utopian alternative for a new kind of egalitarianism and self-government. 

We’re seeing a postnational “bubble” mentality embraced by other types of thinkers across disciplines and ideologies, too. Libertarians, particularly those in Silicon Valley, have come to fetishise the political experiment as a good in itself; some are trying to hack the sovereignty game to enable these tests. The most famous of these initiatives – for now more of a thought experiment than a political one – is seasteading, or the promotion of self-governing man-made islands in international waters. The Seasteading Institute, which describes itself as a “non-profit think tank working to provide a machinery of freedom to choose new societies on the blue frontier,” believes that “experiments are the source of all progress: to find something better, you have to try something new. But right now, there is no open space for experimenting with new societies.”

The mere possibility of such a project speaks to another way of thinking about territory, sovereignty and government. And the appetite for it, I think, is a direct response to a lack of agency, a feeling that current institutions and governments don’t exist to do good, whether it’s because they’re outdated, undemocratic or corrupt. Of course, a PR firm’s Trust Barometer is hardly a scientific metric for this sentiment – but it does tell us something about the zeitgeist both on the streets and at Davos.

What’s striking is that even those who have the money and power to ostensibly influence world leaders see no solution to the world’s problems in existing institutions. Take, for instance, one of the more bizarre proposals for solving the European refugee crisis: Egypt’s third-richest man, Naguib Sawiris, offered to buy up an island for refugees after reading about Aylan Kurdi, the small child found drowned off the coast of Turkey. “Greece or Italy sell me an island, I’ll call its independence and host the migrants and provide jobs for them building their new country,” Sawiris tweeted in September. Then, a Maldivian businessman named Muad Mohamed Zaki offered up one of his islands to become “Aylan island”. The initiative, predictably, has gone nowhere.

A professor of economics at New York University has another idea about how to carry out political experiments. Paul Romer believes that to develop in the 21st century, countries should cordon off special zones and build “charter cities” that operate under an entirely different system of rules, regulations and standards from the territory in which they are situated.  

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Left: Jonas Staal, Map of the Unrecognised State of Tamil Eelam, 2012, and right, Map of the Unrecognised State of Azawad, 2014 (both from New World Summit – Brussels, 2014). Design in collaboration with Remco van Bladel. © and courtesy the artists

Tamil Eelam and Azawad, like Rojava, are not officially recognised as states. Tamil Eelam is a proposed state in Sri Lanka that seeks to unite the long-persecuted Tamil population. Azawad is an area in northen Mali controlled and declared independent by Tuareg rebel groups comprised of indiginous Berber populations. For further discussion of the work of New World Summit see pages 152-165  

Free economic zones already successfully exploit the nooks and crannies of state sovereignty for the benefit of multinational corporations: “operating under authorities independent from the domestic laws of its host country, the zone typically provides premium utilities and a set of incentives… to entice business,” as Keller Easterling puts it in Extrastatecraft, her 2014 book about the infrastructure of rules, regulations and norms outside the direct reach of the state. Romer’s “charter” cities, then, would take the concept one step further. Beyond offering low-tax playgrounds for multinationals, they would provide, Romer says, residential housing, public space and entertainment – like a real city, but with new rules. Charter cities would essentially function as self-contained statelets complete with ports, electrical systems and infrastructure largely independent of anything that could “hold them back”, like a corrupt central government that investors and businesses do not trust. 

These particular zones would, in essence, take an à-la-carte approach to law. Romer contends that they would create gated communities for all people by importing security standards from, say, Canada, incorporation law from Singapore and direct democracy from Switzerland. Heck, they could even ship in Italian restaurateurs – why not? Romer’s favourite point of comparison for this new type of city is a start-up. But he insists that they cannot function as concessions (which are “not likely to turn out very well”); rather, they should bring about scalable change that would help the country in which they exist: “A good way to test whether a policy is a concession or a reform: is this something we’d like to have last forever and spread to the rest of the country?” 

Again, it’s a compelling idea that raises some deeper questions. What does it mean to cordon off one population from another? It seems absurd to do so within one country – but isn’t that what all countries do on a global scale? What if there was a charter city for refugees? How is that different from, say, a formalised ghetto?

Easterling argues that while such zones would exist largely outside existing jurisdictions, they actually prop up the status quo, becoming “an essential partner for the state as it attempts to navigate and profit from the very same shadow economies. In this form of extrastatecraft, far from overwhelming state power, the zone is a new partner that strengthens the state by serving as its proxy or camouflage.” 

The zones she describes are, in other words, a way of sublimating political desires without actually facing the music; of heaping responsibility onto others, often far, far away.

So perhaps distance is, in fact, of the essence when it comes to these fantasies. Our consciousness of the unlikeliness of political experiments to catch on in a big way is what allows outsiders to dream of them with no strings attached. For all the talk of revolutionary, game-changing new models, you can’t, by definition, have revolutions in a vacuum – and yet we want these bubbles to deliver just that. §