The Syrian Revolution and the Project of Autonomy

What follows is a series of variations on Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s observation that “Syria is a metaphor for a global crisis of representation.” It describes aspects of the present situation of the Syrian revolution, a process of tremendous strength and courage that has been rendered almost illegible in the West. It also looks from the present to possible futures, which are necessarily speculative, in order to pose three questions for discussion.

By Stephen Hastings-King

Note: This is a revised version of a presentation I made at Hamisch, the Syrian Cultural House in Istanbul, on October 16, 2015. I would like to thank the comrades of Hamisch for their hospitality and for the chance to make something new. Then as now, my hope is to contribute to a widening of conversations about the Syrian revolution and the ways in which the struggles of the Syrian people are interconnected with global struggles for basic human dignity.


Where I am from there is no political future. There is only repetition of the same. The present is a ubiquitous horizon. Only the details will vary.

Where I am from the future has been privatized. People worry about their children.

We need to make new significations, ways of thinking beyond the horizon of the present.


What follows is a series of variations on Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s observation that “Syria is a metaphor for a global crisis of representation.” It describes aspects of the present situation of the Syrian revolution, a process of tremendous strength and courage that has been rendered almost illegible in the West. It also looks from the present to possible futures, which are necessarily speculative, in order to pose three questions for discussion.

I take the situation of the Syrian revolution as indicative of more general problems. The problems of representing the Syrian revolution are also those of representing the Syrian people. Parallel exclusions of the people, of their lives and political agency, affect most who live under contemporary neo-liberalism.

We can arrange most neo-liberal regimes along a spectrum that connect them with Syria, one that ranges from soft to hard authoritarianism. The spectrum does not reflect an illusion of a single, absolute history, but rather the points in time at which the various regimes came to power and choices made once in power about how to exercise it. The parallel that enables the spectrum is that, across it, the state security apparatus takes itself to be the continuity of a given nation-state. The population is outside, and is either acquiescent or a problem. The distinction between hard and soft lay with the willingness to conflate dissent with political threat and to use violence to deal with it.

In a soft authoritarian regime like the US’s, state violence directed at political dissent is generally understood as a politicization of conflict.  Because the politicization of conflicts has in the past contributed to their deepening, other methods are used to manage dissent. Hard authoritarian regimes, like Syria’s, do not care about the politicization that accompanies state violence. Political dissent is collapsed into a threat to the regime: the response is to destroy rather than to contain it.

The Syrian Revolution as a Metaphor for Itself

The Assad regime’s response to a popular uprising that demanded dignity, equality under the law, and freedom from arbitrary arrest, was psychotic. Its response created extraordinary suffering and destruction. It also created a diaspora, a different ordering of the Syrian people, one stripped of the familiar geographical and social co-ordinates, of homes and networks, families and friends.

At the same time as the diaspora is scattering, it is also an aggregation that has altered the form of the Syrian people. That new form has a shared experience of the revolution, and also of the dark side of the geo-politics that inform the trans-national status quo. It has a shared experience of incoherent responses to the brutality of the Assad regime from an “international community,” the institutions of which have completely failed to uphold the values they espouse, such as human rights.

These experiences provide the diaspora with a type of double consciousness, a viewpoint that is at once inside and outside the dominant ideologies and rationalities. This double consciousness (a phrase taken from W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk) is parallel to that which Marx imputed to the revolutionary proletariat. At the same time, the lack of solidarity from the western Left clarifies the position of the revolutionary diaspora to older political frames of reference and organizations.

The situation of the diaspora has implications for the revolution itself as well. I take the characterization of the initial set of goals that unified the revolution from a poll of around 50,000 Syrians and embodied in the Syrian Freedom Charter Project. (See Rafif Jouejati’s “What do Syrians want?” in the excellent September 2015 issue of the New Internationalist.)  The basic demands for freedom, dignity and democracy are fundamental, as are those which seek to overturn patriarchy.

But I wonder about the extent to which these demands were — and remain — tied to an imagined future of Syria more or less as it was before, except without the Assad regime in place. More specifically, I wonder how much work the assumption of a future like the past except without Assad has done in shaping the goals of the revolution, and how much of that work has been cast into question by the fact of being in a diaspora.

The question follows whether the fact of the revolutionary diaspora requires these basic demands be set in a different kind of political framework in order to provide and support forward momentum. In other words, does being in the diaspora require not only immediate political goals, but also the elaboration of an explicit conception of the type(s) of socio-political arrangements that might accommodate them? Would shifting the political project that shapes the revolution to a more general level facilitate or complicate the navigation of the different claims to represent the revolution advanced by people who remained in country?

I pose these questions not only in response to the changed — and changing — geographical and political situations of the revolution but also because, if one takes networks like Hamisch as pointing to the future, the spaces for militant action in the diaspora are evolving away from being exclusively Syrian. But I have no answers. I can only provide a suggestion, and that comes at the end of this talk.

The Syrian Revolution as Global Metaphor: On Soft Authoritarian Regimes

Can the Syrian revolution become the core of an elaboration of new political possibilities for communities elsewhere? The movement of the Syrian people to break out of atomized invisibility and demand basic human dignity can be an inspiration to others who, in different contexts, confront parallel modalities that render them invisible. But significant obstacles have to this point prevented any such thing from happening.  One of these is the dominant ideological relay system: television. The other is the extent to which the Left mirrors that dominant ideological relay system in the issues it isolates and the ways in which it confronts them. These converge in the erasure of the Syrian revolution.

The US is a soft authoritarian environment. Space does not permit an extensive elaboration of its characteristics here, so I’ll make a quick sketch. In general, the US is dominated by a financial sector that has separated from the “real economy.” This separation is apparent everywhere one looks, but is concealed at the national level by the conflation of the well-being of capital with that of the economy in general. A banal but consistent indicator of this conflation is the use of stock market indices as indicators of overall economic well-being.

The “real economy” — a shorthand that indicates the social-historical contexts in which most people live — has been transformed by a series of catastrophic failures, each of which was sold on utilitarian grounds, from the de-industrialization of the 1980s through the reconfiguration of capitalist geography called “globalization.” In a manner exemplary of the past decade, these processes have been extended through patterns of hedge fund/private equity ownership, the domestic version of the “vulture capitalism” visited upon Argentina, Greece and Puerto Rico. No-one bothers with utilitarian sale pitches anymore.

Consent for the above is a consequence of years of uniformity in the categories and assumptions that frame discussions of socio-economic questions. One result of this ideological monotony is that people have internalized the logic of precariousness. They are anxious. Afraid. They seem to live in the individuated silos of imaginary bureaucracies: their fates are controlled by managers who they do not know and can never access, and whose actions are capricious.

The soft authoritarian regime of the US has created a largely depoliticized population that has retreated into the private sphere and which tries to fashion spaces of autonomy within it. The retreat into the private sphere has rendered people invisible.

Since the financial crisis of 2007-2008 in particular, the legitimacy of the neo-liberal order has been coming unraveled. National-level political life is a consumer affair in which issues are articulated in terms set by the dominant ideology. It does not provide a coherent avenue for redress. The most obvious reaction, one symmetrical with a retreat into the private sphere, has been the rise of varieties of neo-fascism. The main indication of progressive opposition, Occupy Wall Street/the Occupy movement, was short-lived and heavily surveilled. Meanwhile, the Left provides few political alternatives.  I attribute this in significant measure to the on-going consequences of the collapse of the Marxist Imaginary.

In principle, the Syrian revolution should have resonated in this context of evacuated political options, precariousness, and invisibility. But the revolution did not get through.

Political Horizons Collapsed onto the Present

People recognize that there are significant problems. They complain. But on the whole they do not organize. They do not organize not only for the reasons outlined earlier, but also because political horizons have collapsed onto the present. This collapse onto the present is enforced. Television, the primary ideological relay system in the US, is an enforcement mechanism.

Let us linger for a moment on television as an information source. On cable news, an hour of programming is less than 45 minutes long. The rest is taken up with commercials. On CNN, 54% of that 45 minutes is devoted to news. The rest is opinion or “analysis.” That leaves 24 minutes of every hour to reporting: domestic reporting; sports reporting; human interest reporting; and some international reporting. The content of international reporting moves with raison d’etat. The average news story is just over two minutes long.

TV is top-down. Advertising revenues connect it to audiences. TV is a talk medium. There is independence of interpretation in a visual medium. TV always tells you what you are looking at.

TV does not do context. It does not situate. There is no history. There is only the shifting mosaic of the present.

TV traffics in violence. TV violence is depopulated. The object world is the natural world. All violence is arbitrary. The discourse of “terrorism” corresponds to it exactly.

TV remains the dominant medium in the US. New media have not broken down the patterns learned through interactions with it. Rather, information from new media is selected and interpreted in terms derived from those interactions.

Pity, not Solidarity

When Syrian media activists began to document what the Assad regime was visiting upon the people, filming it and posting the clips online, the information was assimilated into a television space. It was taken as “disaster porn.” The revolution disappeared behind it. The revolution was replaced with an accumulation of victims. The response was pity, not solidarity.

Forcing the Syrian revolution into two-minute segments erased the revolution. TV erases political agency more generally. This erasure makes the importance to US history of direct-democratic institutions, of often violent class warfare and of radical social movements, seem very far away.

Nonetheless, the legitimacy of the neo-liberal order is unraveling. There is pervasive recognition of its damage and of the inability of the dominant political system to respond to it. These are volatile times. Future-oriented radical political perspectives are sorely needed. But they are not, by and large, coming from the Left.

Where is the Left?

So where is the Left?

People who have been through the Syrian revolution and those who work in solidarity with them are correct to see in the lack of interest from the international Left evidence of a profound moral and political failure. But I think there’s more to it.

The Left in 2015 is largely a self-referential, self-legitimating discursive environment that endlessly performs the consequences of the collapse of the Marxist Imaginary.

By the Marxist Imaginary, I refer not only to Marx’s texts and the political organizations and patterns of association that were socially instituted with and around them, but also to the Left more broadly, which came out of that tradition and which positioned itself with respect to it.

The Marxist Imaginary was the double of capitalism. It was the legitimate language of dissent. Its history is a mirror image of what it opposed and dreamed of negating.

By collapse, I mean the withdrawal of collective affective and intellectual investment. Collapse is a sociological phenomenon.

The contention that underpins much of my academic work is that the withdrawal of collective investment brought down the entire political project associated with Marxism, the sense of a possible future radically different from capitalism, radically different from what already is.

In 2015, Marxism has been reduced to its textual core. That core is the basis for a status language in particular academic and para-academic fields of cultural production. Left discourse is now largely combinatorial, a game played with a delimited set of authorized reference points from the past. An informal rule requires that the present be forced through them. Moves for position within these fields are made across displays of virtuosity in manipulating Marxist language. The game as a whole is pressurized by a generalized precariousness.

One result is an intellectual conservatism, albeit of a particular kind: an intellectual and political orthodoxy without parties. Another is the news-cycle left. This is a social media game of quick positions taken on issues that arise through the mainstream press. The interpretations advanced replicate or invert the information they receive, usually without deviating from what is selected or from its framing. This is the space of the “anti-imperialist” Left.

Across the board, the Left does not talk about Syria not only because it is not interested, but also because there’s nothing to be gained by being interested.

The Left is in the main unlikely to participate in the emergence of new political significations. This leaves an open space to be occupied.

Whence the question I posed above: Can the experience of the Syrian revolution be generalized to facilitate progressive, forward movement in such a situation? Can this generalization be done without trading away the specificity of the Syrian experience? In other words, can the Syrian revolution serve as a basis for the elaboration of new political significations? These questions can only be answered in the context of a collective project, of transnational discussions that take place with the idea of developing new significations in mind.

The Syrian Revolution and the Project of Autonomy

In classical Marxist theory, revolution was tied to a theory of history. History moved in stages: just as capitalism superseded feudalism, so socialism will supersede capitalism. Revolution was the transition from capitalism to socialism: its agent was the proletariat.

At one level, the proletariat was an intentional creation of capitalism: the system imperative for cheap deskilled labor was served by aggregating people spatially in cities. At another level, the proletariat was an unintentional creation in that the shared, collective experience of capitalist work revealed the brutal reality of its organization beneath the ideological justifications.

Proletarian experience was both inside and outside of bourgeois rationality. This structural position indicated that the working class could bring into being the “radical expansion of the existing rationality” basic to socialism. But working-class culture was a dominated culture. How was this dominated position supposed to be transcended?

To an extent, revolution filled that gap. There was a range of theories about how the experience of revolution would burn off the past and open onto new possibilities. But, in the end, history would take care of the radical expansion of rationality. Seen in retrospect and from a distance, history appeared to do that.

Throughout the 1950s in France, the group Socialisme ou Barbarie (Socialism or Barbarism) — the group my academic research has focused on — developed a historical-materialist approach to revolutionary theory. They saw possibilities of revolutionary social transformation as historically variable. They recognized the culturally dominated position of the contemporary working class. So the group argued that revolutionary theory had to understand the contemporary social situation of the working class as well as their autonomous actions, and to link them to a vision of socialism.

The center of Socialisme ou Barbarie’s revolutionary theory was a notion of direct democracy, which the group referred to as “the content of socialism” and which they derived from their analyses of collective actions. The group saw revolutionary theory as part of a dialogue and used the vehicle of the journal they published as a vehicle. The most important aspect of that dialogue was the elaboration of a sense of what working people were moving toward.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, one of the group’s key theoreticians, Cornelius Castoriadis, began to uncouple his political aspirations from the Marxist framework that had shaped it within Socialisme ou Barbarie. He broke with the stadial theory of history and with the idea that the proletariat was the exclusive agent of revolutionary social transformation, and tried to address the conceptual consequences of doing so.  But he retained the ideas about direct democracy and generalized them into the project of autonomy.

Castoriadis took direct democracy as a regulative ideal for collective self-organization, one that is symmetrical with an understanding of social being as continuous self-creation. Individual autonomy is linked to the collective.

The project of autonomy is elaborated in a philosophical register. One consequence is that the theme of revolution tends to dissolve into what one is moving toward. The explanation for this is that revolution is a political matter. Nothing in Castoriadis’ later work excludes it, but it was no longer the center of his thinking.

The experience of revolution is at the least a fundamental education. What does not burn off of one’s past is fundamentally transformed. The project of autonomy is also a process of continuous education. Education in this context is imbued with responsibility because direct democracy is a form of collective self-organization that happens without a safety net: if a collective makes a mistake, there’s no-one to save it. So all questions pertaining to information are basic, from how it is produced and made available to how it is parsed and deliberated.

The project of autonomy is also the recognition and performance of being-human as continuous (collective) self-creation. It links to possibilities of new forms of expression in all areas.

I suggest the project of autonomy as a possible framework for thinking about how to move forward from here. It is not as a program of action, but rather a point of departure for discussion. So I’m not saying that reading Castoriadis will solve all problems. I merely point to his work as an already-elaborated starting point.

The project of autonomy could facilitate the development of responses to the question I posed earlier in this talk about the political goals of the Syrian revolution and whether they might benefit from a different type of discussion that takes the diaspora as its point of departure. Perhaps these discussions might begin to elaborate collective responses to the question: What kind of society do we want? How might we begin, and how have we already begun, to institute it here, where we are?

And from a different angle, the project of autonomy could provide a generative orientation for a wider discussion rooted in the experience of the Syrian revolution and perspectives gleaned from it about the realities of the contemporary global order, its dysfunctions and selective commitment to ideas of human dignity. While the defense of the Syrian revolution against the various distortions to which it is subjected is and will likely remain necessary, it is also important to look beyond the collapsed political horizons characteristic of the present. The process of fashioning new political significations can open different spaces for thinking and acting more generally. The experiences of Syrians can be fundamental in their figuration.


Stephen Hastings-King is the author of Looking for the Proletariat: Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Problem of Worker Writing. He has also written numerous micro-fictions and has worked extensively in electro-acoustic music. He lives by a salt marsh in Ithaca, New York, where he makes constraints, works with prepared piano and writes entertainments of various kinds, and is a visiting fellow in the Department of History at Cornell University.

Author: Danny Postel

I'm a co-editor of PULSE (, Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, author of Reading 'Legitimation Crisis' in Tehran, co-editor of The Syria Dilemma and The People Reloaded, and a blogumnist for Critical Inquiry, Truthout and the Huffington Post.

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