Sacred Headwaters #51: TINA Pt 4 - Kurdish Rojava
Kurdish Rojava is an embattled young experiment in radical democracy that's emerged in northeast Syria. What does radical democracy look like?
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Issue #51: TINA Pt 4 – Kurdish Rojava
This is the fourth issue focused on challenging the concept of TINA: “there is no alternative.” This newsletter has spent a lot of time critiquing capitalism and liberalism. Faced with critique, proponents of this ideological hegemony often cede ground but defend their position by saying, either explicitly (like Margaret Thatcher) or implicitly, that this status quo is the best we can do. All we can “realistically” strive for are tweaks around the margins. The ecological reality of the 21st century requires that we challenge that idea, and thankfully, humans have consistently proved it wrong over the vast majority of our 200,000 years on this planet. In this series, we are reading about historical and contemporary examples of and theories of human organization that disprove the technological and teleological determinism of TINA advocates.
Issue #47: TINA Pt 1 - Building Alternative Systems – Transition Towns (Feb 28th, 2022)
Issue #48: TINA Pt 2 – Catalan Integral Collective (Mar 13th, 2022)
Kurdish Rojava, or, more officially, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, is a self-governing region that has existed outside the control of any traditional nation-state since roughly 2012, when the Syrian government withdrew from the area.
There’s a lot written under the readings in this issue so I’ll keep this introduction short. Rojava is an autonomous region of Syria that has self-organized into neighborhood, city, and regional level councils, practicing direct democracy with local councils sending delegates to the higher levels to make regional decisions. It is rooted in the movement for Kurdish freedom and draws heavily on the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan, a political prisoner held in Turkey, who was in turn inspired heavily by the late American theorist Murray Bookchin’s social ecology and libertarian municipalism. Rojava’s vision is not for an independent state, but for an autonomous region within a democratic Syria, and its proponents hope that their “democratic confederalism” can be a model for a stable, democratic, and ecologically sound future.
While the project of democratic confederalism had been brewing for some time in Kurdish communities in southeastern Turkey, the actual autonomous self-determination of Rojava only started in 2012. What they’ve been able to achieve in the time since then is almost unbelievable: there are 4000 (maybe more) neighborhood communes (the local councils that practice direct democracy), cooperatives, educational institutes, ecological restoration projects, and more.
That this has happened in a conflict zone, under constant violent threat, and embargoed by both Turkey and Iraq is inspiring, but also perhaps a sign of what it takes to build a fundamentally different society — capital interests have largely abandoned the region, freeing it to pursue its own path.
Depending on how you see it, Rojava could represent the seed of a utopian future, or it could just be a unique revolutionary project in a war-torn region. Either way, it’s a living — though admittedly young and precarious — example of a different way of organizing society that explicitly disavows hierarchy and state dominance. What’s most interesting about it to me is that it is living proof that radical democracy — or, really just real democracy — transforms the people who take part in it. It’s hard for us to imagine direct democracy in the Global North — how could anything get done? But that’s because we’ve been conditioned by centuries of being told that we live in a democracy while simultaneously being fundamentally disempowered. Rojava shows how quickly the practice of participating in direct community governance can transform people and culture.
I want to be quite clear: the history of the Middle East, of Northern Syria, and of the Kurdish people is long, complex, and deeply impacted by the imperial devastation wrought upon the region by Western powers over the course of the 20th century. The story of Kurdish Rojava more specifically is also deeply impacted by those Western powers; it exists in the middle of a proxy war, next to a hostile dictatorship, and under constant pressure from a reactionary enemy, ISIS. I am neither able to nor will I attempt to provide the full context in this newsletter, but I think this nascent autonomous region nestled among hostile forces in Northern Syria is a tremendously important example to study (and support, where possible) on its own.
Why is the world ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria? (5 minutes)
David Graeber, The Guardian, 2014
In what will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Graeber’s work, he wrote this short piece about the importance of the democratic project in Rojava in 2014. It speaks broadly to why I think Rojava is an important example and also touches on some of the more interesting ideological developments that led to its birth. Graeber outlines the ideological transformation of the PKK, the Kurdish Worker’s Party in Turkey, from a Marxist-Leninist national liberation project to a radical democratic project explicitly inspired by Murray Bookchin’s “libertarian municipalism” (as well as Bookchin’s approach to environmentalism). For Graeber, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria is an embattled model for direct democracy that could inspire a global transformation away from the capitalist nation-state. It was still early in the project when Graeber wrote this; his concern for Rojava’s future was largely based on ISIS. The militias of Rojava ended up playing a key role in defeating ISIS in the region, but today, Rojava is in the thralls of what seems to be an even more existential threat as a Turkish military invasion (that followed US withdrawal in 2019) has led the region to invite the Syrian military back in.
The Kurdish Freedom Movement, Rojava and the Left (15 minutes)
Thomas Jeffrey Miley, Middle East Research and Information Project, July 21, 2020
At a time when the future of humanity and life on the planet are facing unprecedented threats, the revolutionary experiment in Rojava stands out as a valiant attempt in the midst of a still-unfolding catastrophe to construct a radical democratic alternative to spiraling violence and tyranny.
This piece situates the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria within the broader historical context of Kurdish history and attempts to explore why the international left has engaged with the project so heavily (i.e. Graeber’s piece and many others). Miley traveled to Rojava in 2014 (coincidentally, in a delegation with Janet Biehl, Murray Bookchin’s widow). He notes one challenge in particular which is that the ideological roots of the Rojava project come from the Kurdish liberation movement, but the region itself contains a broad range of ethnicities. This has been a point of conflict — why participate in a Kurdish liberation movement if you’re not Kurdish? — but it’s also been an opportunity to elaborate the details of the movement’s ideological transformation away from ethnic nationalism and towards radical democracy. Whether Rojava has succeeded in that seems to depend on who you ask, but there have been many non-Kurdish people filling leadership roles and committed to the movement, and some degree of ethnic representation is guaranteed at an institutional level.
Miley closes by alluding to Rojava’s current crisis that I mentioned above: Trump’s withdrawal of US forces from northeast Syria in 2019 allowed the Turkish military to invade the region.
Building Democracy without the State (15 minutes)
Dilar Dirik, ROAR Magazine, 2016
This piece by Kurdish activist Dilar Dirik blends some descriptions of on the ground life in Rojava with an argument that communalism — both in the form of modern revolutionary projects like Rojava and older, anti-colonial Indigenous struggles to retain their identities and ways of life — is an act of revolution against the capitalist state. Dirik describes how the organization Tev-Dem, the Movement for a Democratic Society, facilitates the creation of local councils that decide on local issues through direct democracy and select delegates to send to higher, regional levels of governance. She also describes how groups in Rojava have put a heavy emphasis on education to aid this transformation, including creating a variety educational institutions complete with inviting foreign educators (such as Wes Enzinna who wrote about the experience for The New York Times). Of particular interest is Dirik’s emphasis on the idea that participating in “radical democracy” transforms the participants. As she puts it:
Dinner table topics have changed. Social issues literally become social, by becoming everyone’s responsibility. Every member of the community becomes a leader.
I see this as one of the core transformative potentials of direct democracy — even when pursued at a more mild level in the Global North through processes like participatory budgeting. Democracy as it’s practiced in the North is disempowering: we’re told over and over again the most important thing we can do about climate change is at the ballot box. Really? That doesn’t seem to be working very well, and this obvious lie creates and sustains a culture of disengagement and individualism. Radical democracy has the potential to reengage people in the process of shaping their collective futures. This kind of empowerment is subject to a chicken-and-egg problem, though; Dirik’s on-the-ground observations about the speed with which the people of Rojava have transformed make it clear that transformation is possible.
Accidental Anarchist - What is the Rojava Revolution? [video] (20 minutes)
Carne Ross, 2017
This is an excerpt from a documentary produced by a former British diplomat named Carne Ross. Ross’s journey to anarchism (I believe he’s the namesake of the film) began with the UK’s decision to participate in the invasion of Iraq. This is a bit of an aside, but his disillusionment from seeing his colleagues willfully lie in order to justify the war led him to resign. I’m not one to attribute actions to “moral character” — there are always more circumstances than we can know — but I struggle seeing politicians and bureaucrats supporting truly awful policies with their silence. As far as I can tell, a public resignation is virtually always the more effective option. Here in British Columbia, a former executive director of the Sierra Club is the environment minister in the same government that is arguing in court that a First Nation “abandoned their territory” and has repeatedly directed a militarized police force to remove other Indigenous people from their land so a transnational conglomerate can build a new fracked gas pipeline. At the federal level, we have an environment minister who was a former Greenpeace activist once arrested for hanging a banner that read “Canada and Bush Climate Killers” telling us that a massive new offshore oil project is important for Canada’s conservation goals. They would likely argue that they are doing what they can from the inside, but that’s a rather naive perspective on how change happens.
Anyway — Rojava. This video documents Ross’s trip to Rojava and shows a few clips of what every day life, governance, and military operations are like. He’s obviously ideologically primed to see the area as a paragon and the reality is undoubtedly more complex than a 20 minute video can communicate, but the interviews and visual component make this a much more powerful window into another way of organizing society than an analytical essay can provide. He uses the film to highlight a few specific pieces: first, that everything is governed by direct democracy; when decisions need to be made at a higher level, they are made by regional assemblies that remain responsible to the local ones. The footage of a village assembly is particularly salient: people — young, old, men, women — discuss everything from rising prices to the health impacts of oil refineries. The idea of a productive town hall meeting is insane to anyone who has tried to get involved in municipal politics in North America where “public engagement” is usually a toxic mix of racism, NIMBYism, and complaining about dog shit — but that’s the whole point here. We have systems of engagement that are designed to give the impression of democracy while actually disempowering the public. Direct democracy creates more inclusive and meaningful engagement.
The other interesting piece Ross covers is the idea of criminal justice in a society without hierarchy. He visits a “reconciliation lunch” between two families, part of the resolution of an incident where someone was accidentally shot and killed. Rather than ruining two lives by sending the perpetrator to prison, the families met, came to an agreement, and brought the village together to move forward collectively. This is quite different from the anarchist version of justice portrayed in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (one of the better modern visions of what an anarchist society could actually look like), and arguably much more appealing. It’s more in line with what Peter Kropotkin argues many pre-capitalist societies in Europe and Asia were like in Mutual Aid, and other work on Rojava notes that this framework draws heavily from regional tradition — how local communities have been managing justice for thousands of years.
This video excerpt is a bit light on analysis, but it inspires solidarity in a way that writing can’t by showing that the people of Rojava are quite real, living a wide variety of lives in urban and rural settings, all while practicing a form of self-government that we can barely even imagine. It also gives a vision into life in a conflict zone: everyone is just going about their lives the same as you and I, except that at any given time, ISIS or the Turkish army could devastate an entire city and force them to flee, or their relative might die fighting for their community’s right to self-determination.
“Thoughts on Rojava: an interview with Janet Biehl,” ROAR Magazine, 2016
Constitution of the Rojava Cantons, adopted in 2014 — not exactly a “constitution” in the traditional sense
Rojava Internationalist Commune — there’s a lot of English language media, interviews, and up-to-date news produced by this group. As well as information about visiting Rojava!
Emergency Committee for Rojava — lots of media coverage gathered on this website under “Resources” as well as up-to-date information on Turkey’s military aggression in the region and international solidarity efforts.
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“how do we overcome the governing powers in order to begin to work towards mitigating climate change and ecological collapse?” I suggest spreading these 2 video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lv4lTmiymQ, which shows how must all governments are subverted and controlled through intimidation from the man who had this job. And this 7 minute animation that I made in 2020 that explains horizontal governance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wywMhg604W8&t=10s. This refers both to the struggles in Rojava and Chiapas. If you agree, help get this into the heads of the general populace. This should be the single demand with a world strike/truckers, etc. We can coordinate it using an ecrypted app like elemental and matrix. Let me know what you think. firstname.lastname@example.org