Uprisings from Wall Street to Gezi Park: An Interview with David Barsamian

For more than a quarter of a century, journalist and author David Barsamian has been a tireless voice for social justice, broadcasting programs from India, to Syria, to the United States. Barsamian, whom Howard Zinn called “the Studs Terkel of our time,” is the founder and director of Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colo. (www.alternativeradio.org). His interviews and articles appear regularly in “The Progressive” and “Z Magazine.” He is the co-author of a number of books with Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Edward Said, Tariq Ali, Howard Zinn, and Eqbal Ahmed, including, most recently, Power Systems with Noam Chomsky.

Barsamian (R) with Mouradian.
Barsamian (R) with Mouradian. (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian)

In this interview, Barsamian talks about the root causes and particularities of the global uprisings and protests. The conversation mines the connections between capitalism, climate change, poverty, and points to the need to “save pessimism for better times.”

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Khatchig Mouradian—How do you read the massive demonstrations and social upheavals across the world in recent years?

David Barsamian—There has been a surge in resistance and oppositional politics in the last decade, as a direct result of the failures of neo-liberal economic policies, which has enriched a handful of elites and pauperized large numbers of people. So there is a general economic crisis of capitalism and we have to locate these different resistance movements in that context. Of course, the nature of the movements varied by location because of historic circumstances, ethnic makeup, religion, and other factors.

This backlash is against channeling wealth to a handful of people who are well connected to the government while the rest of the population has been left behind. The train has left the station, and in the locomotive are the rich and the plutocrats and the CEOs, while the other passenger cars are left behind. The power brokers have seceded from their own countries, in a way. They are so dedicated to accumulating wealth and capital that they are anti-national, they want to be part of the world economic elite, because capital knows no borders.

Today, with the press of a button millions of dollars can be moved across borders in a way that avoids taxation and accountability. According to one estimate, around $30 trillion have been sequestered away in different accounts and tax havens that states cannot tax. This is important, because as part of the neo-liberal agenda, social services have been reduced and what were once national properties have been sold off to private corporations. For example, every time I hear the term “public-private partnerships,” I cringe. It sounds wonderful. But what does it mean? I am the public, you take everything from me, you benefit, and I finance that! That’s the partnership! In a sense we’re looting these countries of resources, robbing them of their futures and destroying the environment. That’s the background to these uprisings.

 

K.M.—The frustration and rage have been mounting for some time.

D.B.—In the Middle East, the rage was building up over years. And finally, the spark came: A fruit vendor, [Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed] Bouazizi in Tunisia, set himself on fire because he was being harassed and humiliated by bureaucrats. That led to the protest movements in Tunisia, which led to Egypt, which led to Libya and Syria. So far the monarchies have been successful in crushing any opposition.

People are feeling an enormous amount of pressure. It’s harder and harder to provide enough food for families to live with dignity, to have decent lives. Capitalism has taken on a very rapacious and predatory strain. Marx talked about capitalism with its “werewolf hunger” for profits. Corporations have accrued tremendous economic and political power. They have been enabled by the traditional political parties who work closely with the guys in the suites at the expense of the people in the streets.  We can see that right here in the U.S., where the two parties are not very different on fundamental issues. For example, there is no disagreement on capitalism itself. In fact there is no discussion of capitalism. The word is barely mentioned. The capitalism taught in economics departments at top universities has little relation to the actual existing capitalism, which depends heavily on state protection and subsidies.

So there’s this rage worldwide, particularly in rural areas. Syria and India are good examples. In Syria, there’s been severe draught in the countryside, many people have had to abandon their farms and go to big cities like Aleppo and Damascus. Cut off from their land, the connection with families and neighbors, now they’re “unanchored and stranded”—as one Indian writer, Pankaj Mishra, calls them. So they’re trying to make their way now in cities doing odd jobs, whatever they can find. This is a huge problem in India as well, where a quarter of a million farmers have committed suicide because of insurmountable debts. They take loans at very prohibitive rates, they can’t pay them back, and they kill themselves.

During the Occupy Movement, the slogan “We are the 99 percent, they are the 1 percent,” captures reality. It’s not that far off. The reason the Occupy Movement had some traction in this country, is because people can see. You don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to see your paycheck not increasing for five to six years, food prices of going up. How are you going to pay for your children’s education? How are you going to send them to college?

 

K.M.—These movements were contagious because they reminded the oppressed of their collective power. On the other hand, the “one percent” seems to have ignored a crucial matter: that they have to keep throwing crumbs at those whom they are oppressing.

D.B.—It’s necessary for the capitalists to keep the people they’re victimizing alive. Otherwise who’s going to buy their products? You can’t kill the patient; he must be kept alive to keep on paying off his debts. This turn now in early-21st century capitalism has been very acute and historically without parallel. In the U.S., tens of millions of people have lost their homes, don’t have jobs, or have taken part-time jobs to make ends meet. In turn, Greece and Spain now have 25 percent unemployment! Capitalism is in crisis.

All of those factors are aboil, and a spark ignites the anger. Some of the anger can be coherent and focused, other types of anger can be incoherent, so there can be violence, racism, sectarianism, and ethnic rivalries. It’s important to keep the focus on trying to generate social change. Can you have a social democratic revolution non-violently? Everyone likes to point to Gandhi in India, Mandela in South Africa, or to Martin Luther King in the U.S. But states that do not allow room for non-violent resistance are privileging violence, and that’s what Mubarak and Assad did. They are privileging violence because the state has a monopoly on violence, or at least has tremendous amount of firepower. I think that non-violence and civil disobedience scare leaders. They want to be confronted with violence, because that’s where they have a distinct advantage. In Taksim Square, for example, creative and artistic ways of protest have put the state at a disadvantage.

What’s significant about the demonstrations in Turkey is that it has broken a sense of fear and intimidation that people had not to speak out against Erdogan. He is seen by many as arrogant and autocratic. People have crossed that threshold of fear; they are no longer afraid of the state. There’s a powerful moment in Michael Moore’s film “Sicko.” He is talking to a group of Americans in Paris, and they’re explaining to him what I consider to be a profound truth: In France the government is afraid of the people, and in America, the people are afraid of the government. That is also true in Turkey for historical reasons—internal repression, military dictatorships, and a faux democracy whereby so many people in the country are disenfranchised and are not full citizens.

We will see more so-called stable regimes in crisis toppling. Even within the EU, it’s not clear what’s going to happen in Greece, Spain, Portugal, or even Italy. These are revolutionary times, and if anyone tells you they know how things will evolve, don’t believe them. In a time of flux and enormous planetary instability, we are likely to see huge upheavals.

 

K.M.—Let’s talk about the Occupy Movement, what it accomplished, and why it lost steam.

D.B.—Occupy Wall Street injected into the political discourse the notion of inequality: the 1 percent versus the 99 percent, the sense that there’s something seriously skewed in the U.S. economy. No one was expecting it when it started in New York on Sept. 17, 2011. A Canadian magazine, Adbusters, suggested the idea. And soon it mushroomed: I visited Occupy encampments in Bellingham, Seattle, Tacoma, Boulder, Denver, Santa Fe, and other places. It petered out not just from within; there was state violence that razed most of these encampments, threatened arrest. By the spring of 2012, it had largely dissipated. The name was still there, but the energy seemed to have diminished. It’s not clear why that happened. Perhaps part of it is because people need to go on with their lives. You just can’t take three or four months off and not generate any kind of income if you’re supporting a family. As a tactic it was successful but it was unrealistic to expect that people would spend months living in tents.

Is Occupy going to come back? That’s difficult to say. It will take new shapes and forms. They did in the New York area after Super Storm Sandy, providing service to elderly people in apartment blocks in Brooklyn and Queens, delivering supplies to those who did not have power. So they did do important work that I don’t think was acknowledged sufficiently in the media. But we do need an opposition in this country. And it’s not going to come from the Republican Party or Democratic Party. They are hand-in-glove part of the establishment and part of the structural problems of the U.S. We need a force from outside these parties that is pushing the envelope toward more economic justice—an important concept injected into the discourse by Occupy. Immigrants or people of color are working for 40-50 hours and get paid virtually nothing. I did an interview with a woman about workers who live on tips. The hourly wage for a worker living on tips is $2.13. It hasn’t increased since 1996. These kinds of inequalities are in urgent need of redress.

 

K.M.—Are we also where we are because the mainstream media—here and elsewhere—does not address root causes?

D.B.—If your diagnosis is not correct, all the proposals you are putting forth will fail. And of course the function of the media and, to a large part, education, is to deflect attention from root causes. Let’s talk about Wall Street financier Bernie Madoff. He cheated grandmothers, he stole pension funds, he was an awful, awful man and we all feel virtuous in denouncing him. There’s the illusion of reform in this culture: We need more scrutiny and regulation on these people so that they don’t do these bad things. No one looks at the barrel that produces these apples. The rotten apples are then purged from the barrel, the barrel stays intact, and the cycle continues. People have forgotten the bank scandals of the late 80s and the Enron and other corporate disasters of the early 2000s.

 

K.M.—Talk about the impact of greed on the environment. It’s not just the people who are rebelling; the planet itself is in revolt.

D.B.—That’s literally true. The earth itself is under assault from this kind of rapacious capitalism, which is extracting all of the resources, and not renewable resources. It’s in the DNA of capitalism—it cannot limit itself, because of its drive for profit. We cannot pretend about a kinder, gentler capitalism, or a recycled, eco-capitalism. The earth is hemorrhaging. In 1992, 1,700 scientists issued a warning to humanity about global warming and the future of the planet. What has happened since then? There’s been conference after conference: Durbin, Rio, Copenhagen, Doha… All they do is get together, sip their Chardonnay, and issue wonderful declarations: We’re all green, we’re all for the environment.  Then it’s business as usual.

You have that stress now on our home. The Earth is our home, and we are not good caretakers and stewards. In cities like Cairo, Delhi, Calcutta, Dhaka, and Karachi, the level of pollution is unbelievable. We need a radical change. And we have to rethink what we understand by sovereignty, because the environmental crisis can only be addressed collectively. In the small Himalayan state of Bhutan, they’re having a human happiness index, they’re going all green, eliminating plastic, etc. But this is a tiny country with 700,000 people. It’s not going to address the larger problem. It has to be done globally.

Crucially, water is disappearing. It will be the major issue of the 21st century. Historically there were wars over silver or gold, oil in the current period. Water will be the dominant issue in the coming years. If you look at maps of West Asia, South Asia, they’re hugely water-stressed. Part of the Israeli occupation has been to take water from the Palestinians’ aquifer. That’s where the colonies have been built on the West Bank—on the water reserves of that area.

 

K.M.—You’ve been involved in activism and alternative media for a long time. What keeps you going?

D.B.—I like to quote the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, who said, “Let’s save pessimism for better times.” A lot of people today are cynical. Justifiably so. Just look at and see what’s going on. But cynicism shouldn’t lead to passivity. You have to be proactive. And that’s one of the reasons I started Alternative Radio as a kind of serum to counteract the toxicity produced by the corporate media. But I get a lot of energy from people much less privileged than I am. I was just in Manitoba and there’s a very active indigenous movement there—made up of people who don’t have the privilege or the advantages that someone like me may have, yet are organizing and doing significant work. There are examples of very uplifting resistances around the world that inspire me, and it’s much more fun swimming against the current. When you’re swimming against the current, you’re not only building up strength, fortitude, and character, but you’re meeting very interesting people. People who are providing alternatives.

My friend Arundhati Roy says “responsibility” is a boring word. But I do feel a kind of responsibility because of my Armenian family’s background, because of the advantages and opportunities I have had. I think it is good to leave leaving the world a little bit better than you found it.

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Khatchig Mouradian

Khatchig Mouradian is a lecturer in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia University, where he also heads the Armenian studies program. Mouradian’s first book, The Armenian Genocide and Resistance in Ottoman Syria during WWI, is forthcoming. Mouradian is also the author of articles on genocide, mass violence, unarmed resistance, and approaches to teaching history; the co-editor of a forthcoming book on late-Ottoman history; and the editor of the peer-reviewed journal The Armenian Review. His most recent publications include: “The Very Limit of our Endurance: Unarmed Resistance in Ottoman Syria during WWI,” in End of the Ottomans: The Genocide of 1915 and the Politics of Turkish Nationalism (London: I.B Tauris, 2019); and “Internment and Destruction: Concentration Camps during the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1916,” Internment during the First World War: A Mass Global Phenomenon (London: Routledge Studies in First World War History, 2018). Previously, Mouradian has taught courses on imperialism, mass violence, concentration camps, urban space and conflict in the Middle East, the aftermaths of war and mass violence, and human rights at Worcester State University, Clark University, Stockton University, Rutgers University, and California State University – Fresno.

13 Comments

  1. It is painfully obvious that Mr. David Barsamian is an anti-capitalist. He certainly is entitled to his opinions; but he is wrong on many of his arguments. Lumping together different conflicts that have their roots in military dictatorships, ethnic differences, religious fanaticism, electoral fraud and corruption and blame it all on capitalism is an inaccurate assessment of the problems the world faces.
    There is no ” 1% versus 99%” in the US. That is why the movement failed and dissipated. Capitalism is not perfect, but history has proven, that with all its shortcomings, it is still a better system.

    Vart Adjemian

  2. @Vart Adjemian It’s not about capitalism, it’s about consumptionism, which means that the society consumes more than it produces and one day it will have to face the reality.

  3. Occupy Wall Street was a protest, not an uprising. You can’t have uprisings in a democracy, because there are avenues to express your grievances.

    Armenians in Armenia would love to live under the consumerist/capitalist democracy instead of the system that they have there now. Thousands of them actually choose a “consumerist” democracy by permanently moving to the U.S.

    Now, if we can have an uprising in Armenia to establish a democracy, everything will be great. Including the rapid growth of Armenia.

    • {“Now, if we can have an uprising in Armenia….”}
      .
      why don’t you go to Armenia and lead the ‘uprising’ personally, buddy boy.
      Don’t advocate for bloodshed in Armenia from the safety of Glendale, CA: go and put your own neck on the line if you believe so strongly about “an uprising”; RoA NSS will give you a warm welcome, sonny.
      .
      And who is this “we”: is it the same “we” that thinks it is ‘sweet’ marrying your own first cousin ?
      Now, let me see….in which societies and cultures is it acceptable and common to marry one’s first cousin ?
      Certainly not in Armenia, nor in Artsakh, and nor in any of the Armenian diasporas anywhere in the world.
      Where ?
      Now I remember: the miniseries that our buddy boy finds ‘sweet’ is about Turkish culture, No ?

    • An uprising does not need to be a bloodshed. It can be peaceful, following the best examples of civil disobedience in history. As Diasporan Armenians, we can and we should use our knowledge to help our brethren in Armenia build the country that they deserve. If there are no democratic changes in Armenia soon, there will be bloodshed, whether you and other apologists like it or not, because the people are fed-up.

      Now, the better question is, if you defend Armenia’s government so much, why don’t you move to Armenia and be their mouthpiece there? I am sure when they have used you, they will give you the kind of welcome that your username deserves.

    • I am sure in your mythical Turkophile Universe an _uprising_ is peaceful and does not lead to bloodshed.
      (see if you can find a definition of an ‘uprising’ that is peaceful on your favourite Wiki)
      And this may be shocking news to you, but Armenia’s electorate democratically Re-Elected President Serj Sargsyan.
      And your Barevaleader democratically lost massively: 37% to 58%.
      And your favourite Heritage party of your favourite Barevaleader got only 8.5% in the democratic elections of Yerevan municipality (Republican got 55%; Prosperous got 23%).
      And I prefer to stay right here California to keep an eye on Anti-RoA, Anti-NKR Turkophile agitators posting under Armenian names and trying to cause damage to RoA and NKR from afar.
      You know, the type of posters that find it…. oh so ‘sweet’…. Turkish first cousins falling in love.

    • Un uprising can be peaceful such as the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. If Serzhik’s regime chooses to resist and turn it into a bloodshed, the blood will be on their hands. The people are not obligated to wait forever.

      For pro-regime pseudo-“patriots,” the official government date may mean something. For us, regular Armenians concerned for the people, we can see through the cooked-up numbers, buddy boy. It is not surprising that you choose to hide in California and enjoy the benefits of a democratic country, while glorifying the thugs who deny the same benefits to our people in Armenia. As I have stated many times, hypocrisy is the number one feature of the self-proclaimed “patriots.” You might want to hide deeper, though, when the people are fed-up and come after Serzhik, his family, and the families of his fellow thugs and their apologists.

    • Sorry, buddy boy: forgot about Georgia and Ukraine.
      In both cases, foreign instigated color revolutions ultimately failed.
      Both Georgia and Ukraine threw out the Western neocon installed goons and elected their own people’s choice.
      (Saakashvili goons were routinely torturing and sexually assaulting Georgian political prisoners who ran afoul of the ‘Western Educated’ gangster).
      They went the long and tortuous way to arrive where RoA got to long ago: a President freely elected by the people of RoA.
      The people’s choice, not some foreign installed foreign agent.

    • Saakashvili failed not because he started a revolution, buddy boy, but because he ruled as a dictator. It will not happen in Armenia if they adopt a properly drafted constitution modeled after that of a successful democracy, such as the U.S. And that is one way Diaspora’s help will be crucial, as Diaspora has accumulated vast knowledge as to how a successful democracy operates.

      Serzhik and his thugs are foreign agents as they respond not to the people but to the foreign powers. Once they are kicked out, the people will have their choice, and Armenia will be saved from destruction.

  4. An economic system which fails to justly distribute wealth is doomed to fail. Capitalism in its pure form has shown to produce wealth but … drives towards concentration and imbalanced circulation of prosperity. To counteract, the role of governments is the fair distribution of wealth, or in other words ensure Social Justice, which produces more wealth (than in a capitalist system) as more people have money to put in the economy. Some economies in Europe, (mainly in the northern part) where governments have succeeded in establishing more Social Justice are healthy economies. Social Justice is a model and a vision which we need to pursue for our Homeland. In the global arena, where wealth is produced but is not justly distributed, there is a need for global institutions to counteract wealth distribution injustice.
    Jirair Momjian (Paris)

  5. One word comes to mind to counteract world-wide greed and the drive for power: Compassion, a human need now stifled by greed and power.

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