Learning from Rojava: exploring democracy in the midst of the Syrian war and beyond

Ahead of two events on democratic transformations in Northern Syria on 3 and 4 November, Patrick Huff (Birkbeck, University of London) blogs on the extraordinary changes going on in the region and how they came about.

Few outside observers would expect to see democracy sprout from the wreckage of the Syrian Civil War – perhaps the most brutal ongoing conflict in the Middle East – but that is precisely what has happened. Images of Kurdish female fighters taking on the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have gained international attention. But what these women are fighting for receives far less attention.

women's assembly near Qamislo

Image: women’s assembly near Qamislo by Janet Biehl on Flickr

As Western-style parliamentarianism seems to increasingly suffer from an excess of self-serving neoliberal policy prescription, bureaucratic proceduralism, and top-down technocratic management, complex political and social transformations are taking place in the Middle East.

Notably, this includes the bottom-up project of democratic confederalism being implemented under great hardship in the Kurdish majority regions of Syria and Turkey. It challenges us to critically reflect on our own institutions while accessing the transformative potential of new democratic forms.

What happened in Rojava?

The story of the democratic transformations underway in the region is as complex as it is fascinating. The outbreak of civil war in 2011 and the subsequent retreat of the Syrian state from its western territory, called Rojava by the Kurds, offered a unique opening.

The Movement for a Democratic Society, a pluraethnic multiparty coalition, was able to assert itself, and in 2014 Rojava’s three cantons (Afrin, Jazira, and Kobanî) united under The Charter of the Social Contract. This extraordinary document provisions for democratic confederalism, national and religious pluralism, ecological care, and gender equality.

At the same time, Kurdish militias tenaciously defended Kobanî from a brutal onslaught by ISIS. Since the siege of Kobanî, Kurdish forces and their allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have taken the offensive, successfully liberating large swaths of territory from ISIS.

Öcalan’s writings

The writings of Abdullah Öcalan provide a guiding conceptual framework for the project of democratic confederalism.

Öcalan’s role in the Kurdish struggle has been likened to that Nelson Mandela’s role in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Öcalan, like Mandela, led a national liberation movement, spearheaded by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Like Mandela, Öcalan was declared a terrorist by the Turkish and United States governments. After an intense international manhunt Öcalan was captured. Again, like Mandela, he has spent over a decade, often in extreme isolation, as a political prisoner of the Turkish state.

Despite his harsh imprisonment, Öcalan has managed to produce a fascinating series of writings articulating the project of democratic confederalism. Even before his captivity Öcalan and the PKK began to question the old state-centric Kurdish nationalist revolutionary model informed by Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Social ecology

In his effort to transcend these limitations, Öcalan found inspiration in the work of Murray Bookchin, an American theorist of libertarian socialism. Calling his overarching approach Social Ecology, Bookchin argued that social and ecological crises are two-sides of the same coin and any worthwhile solution must aim to reconcile these two domains. Öcalan brilliantly synthesized Bookchin’s insights with those of a host of other thinkers such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Foucault, and Adorno to produce the theory of democratic confederalism. Kurdish supporters view Öcalan’s efforts as the best chance for sustained peace in the region.

Unfortunately, Öcalan’s situation is desperate. Since being placed in solitary confinement months ago even his communication with his team of international lawyers has been denied. Recently representatives of Kurdish civil society in Turkey began an indefinite hunger strike to press for restored communication with Öcalan.

What is ‘democratic confederalism’?

What, specifically, is democratic confederalism? How is it structured? In what ways does it move beyond Western-style parliamentarianism?

Democratic confederalism is a non-state paradigm of social organization that rejects capitalism as an irrational system wasteful of both human potential and natural world. It says society will survive and thrive without oppressive state structures.

Democratic confederalism abolishes the need for state government by decentralizing governance. In Rojava, for example, governance consists of a nested series of communes, councils, and commissions. Communes are the basic units of social organization, each consisting of 30 to 400 households. Next are People’s Councils, then District Councils, and finally the People’s Council of West Kurdistan. Relations between levels are coordinated through democratically selected boards.

Each commune develops several commissions to implement the tasks its members set. Commissions deal with economy, justice, defense, ecology and many other issues.

At every level, women’s councils and commissions exist in parallel to the general organizations. Democratic confederalism centres women’s liberation and rejects sexism and patriarchy, and by rule general commissions must have a male and female co-chair.

The material and ideological oppression of women is theorized as a primal oppression underwriting and facilitating the operations of both capitalism and the state. Thus the entire project is understood to succeed or fail to the extent that it structurally empowers women.

Questions raised by democratic confederalism

An upcoming workshop titled Emancipatory Transformations: Engaging Radical Democracy in Kurdistan aims to engage with the ideas of democratic confederalism and the many critical questions it raises.

If the aim is to create a democratic society, then what would a non-capitalist democratic economy look like?

Can a society that is currently in the throes of a total war against ISIS eventually shift to a peaceful mode or will it find new enemies?

Other observers have noted the irony of militant revolutionary feminists earnestly following the pronouncements of a male leader. Is this simply ironic or a deep contradiction?

Will the system of democratic confederalism truly allow for the flourishing of local minority groups such as Yazidis, Arab, Assyrian, Turkmen, and so on? Will the powerful states of the region accept an autonomous Kurdish majority region?

We hope our workshop will engage with these sorts of questions and many more. However, as critical social scientists, economists, historians and activists we know that ultimately these questions can only be answered in practice, in the context of the actual attempt—to use the old radical slogan—to ‘build the new society within the shell of the old’.

About the author

Patrick Huff is Associate Lecturer, Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies at Birkbeck, University of London.

He is one of the organisers of the STEPS Centre workshop, Emancipatory Transformations: Engaging Radical Democracy in Kurdistan, which takes place on 3-4 November at the University of Sussex. The workshop is part of the Transformations event series.

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