Despite appallingly difficult circumstances the Kurds in the region of Rojava are building a society that is totally different from the Middle Eastern norm. Very few people understand that this is the kind of model we must all adopt if we are to achieve a sustainable and just world.
It is a thoroughly participatory form of democracy whereby councils of ordinary citizens govern their neighbourhoods and towns. Community affairs are not driven by profit or by state authorities but by collective effort to agree on what’s best for the community. Ecological sustainability is a high priority. Perhaps most remarkable for this region has been the status and role of women.
The Kurds have survived a bitter history. Long ago the plundering British and French colonial powers set the national boundaries in the region to suit themselves and now the Kurdish people find their lands within Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Turkey in particular has been vicious in its efforts to repress them. Their earlier quest for national independence has been abandoned and now they only seek a degree of autonomy for their region.
The “defeat” of ISIS has been to a considerable extent due to Kurdish efforts, costing them 11,000 dead. In a very complex and desperate situation they recently turned to the US for protection, and soon after were betrayed, leaving them vulnerable to Turkish and Syrian hostility.
The following account does not go into the very disturbing political situation, which has a good chance of seeing them crushed. It is intended to outline the remarkable social arrangements that the people in the Rojava region have established. It is not just that these border on incredible achievements, it is that they provide one of the most impressive emerging examples of the radically different social form we must move towards. That might seem to be an implausible claim; let’s see.
Most and probably all regimes in the region are more or less notoriously authoritarian and repressive, corrupt, state-centred, chaotically fractured and internally conficted, ridden by hatreds and violent power struggles, ecological disaster sites, and above all intensely male-dominated. Rojava seems to be at the opposite end of the spectrum with respect to all these factors. It is, as Shilton says, “…the antithesis of everything around it.”
The essential and most important element is the form of government practiced, which is a thoroughly participatory grass-roots democracy. The people run their neighbourhoods and towns through small participatory councils which all people attend. These might involve as few as the households along one to three streets. They are referred to as communes and the general approach is labeled “communalism”. There are 4,000 communes in the region. These hold regular face to face gatherings to discuss and decide the issues, disputes and developments that most directly affect the every day lives and welfare of people. The general principle is to seek consensus decisions.
The same kind of arrangement applies to bigger regions and issues. Problems which involve a number of neighourhoods are dealt with by having “delegates” take the neighbourhood perspectives up to be considered by a gathering at the next level, the “confederation”. For each seven to ten villages there is a People’s Council, and there is a level above that. The delegates bring the possibilities arrived at back for consideration at the grass roots level. The important point is that things are not decided or run by any external or higher authorities. Only the citizens in the communal assemblies may make decisions on matters of policy. The role of the confederal councils is solely to administer to execute those decisions. (Biehl, 2014.)
For all levels all records, decisions and voting results must be publicly available and office holders such as chair people and delegates to conferences can be quickly replaced. Usually there are two chair people and one must be a woman.
Many of the communes are in predominantly non-Kurdish villages. High priority is to involve people from all the ethnic and religious groups in the region. “The Syrian state tried to divide the Kurds and the Arabs. We do not accept this conflict. This land is for all of us, not just for Arabs or for Kurds.”
The economy is a mixture of private and collectivised arrangements. Thus the movement is not opposed to free enterprise, but is conscious of the need firstly to ensure that it serves society, and secondly to counter its damaging effects of the conventional free enterprise economy, especially regarding the development of monopolies. For example in a poor agricultural economy access to seeds is crucial so there is concern to prevent monopoly supply of these. “Our economy should serve the needs of all the people and not just profit a few people.”
The focal economic concern is on serving “… the citizens and not the owners of capital.” The main mechanism for achieving this goal is the creation of cooperatives guided by explicit values including mutual help, mutual responsibility, democracy, equality, fairness and solidarity. There are hundreds of economic cooperatives in Rojava.”
The communes seek ways of meeting people’s needs in the cheapest and most effective way. They attend especially to the poorest, landless and unemployed, immediately by providing necessary goods and services, and in the long term by enabling them to be involved in productive roles, especially by joining cooperatives.
The many cooperatives make up a major part of the economy. These might each involve 25 to 35 people. They are mostly involved in the production, purchase and distribution of essential food items, and they account for a large proportion of food supply. However there are also cooperatives and collectivist agencies concerned with many other functions, including education, health, parent education and assistance, visits by children to cultural centres, restaurants, bakeries, chicken and other livestock farms, textile industries, electricity generation and supply, and courses in music, singing, dance and theatre, Some organize markets, some run factories. Several hundred farms are cooperatives.
A major factor enabling these developments was the turmoil around 2011 when this “revolution” occurred in conflict ridden circumstances. Land abandoned was “expropriated from the Syrian state”, mainly wheat fields, and given to cooperatives which put it into diversified cultivation including tree planting. It is estimated that approximately three quarters of all property came under community ownership and a third of production was transferred to direct management by workers’ councils.
However it is not as if there is at this point in time universal acceptance of the collectivist approach. “Capitalist mentality is strong inside our society. There is a mentality of ‘I pay you and you work for me,’ but we are fighting against this attitude.”…”…the capitalist attitude looks on everything solely as a means to profit”…” “It’s about building a new economic system.”
Considerable effort has gone into collective provision of good health care. One goal is to train two people in each commune in basic health strategies. There are neighbourhood dispensaries. The concern is to avoid as much as possible dependence on the entrepreneur or private professional and to “…strengthen democracy and the self-sufficiency of the people.”
When disputes arise the first response is to look for win-win solutions. There are reconciliation committees, made up of five women and five men, which arbitrate a variety of disputes. Only about a third of the cases brought before these bodies are referred to the regional courts at the next level; the rest are resolved at the communal level.
These ordinary citizens make group decisions on minor criminal cases and disputes including domestic violence and marriage. At the regional level, citizens are elected by the regional People’s Councils to serve on seven-member People’s Courts. Only at higher levels are people with legal training involved.
Thus the focus is not appealing to black letter law to resolve win-lose battles but on finding solutions that restore social harmony.
One of the highest priorities is ecological regeneration and sustainability, again pursued via collectivist processes. The “Make Rojava Green Again” project (now the title of a book) has spread around the world and has multiple branches in different countries. An “Academy of Rojava” has been established and conducts courses. Many projects have been organized such as urban gardens, nurseries, panting of thousands of trees, and water recycling. Honey communes were formed in four villages, and four tons of garlic were planted in one month.
The education system in Rojava is unconventional, rejecting ideas of hierarchy, power and hegemony. The ethos is about all helping each other to learn. The focus is not a competitive quest for credentials entitling access to good jobs, it is mainly about preparation for making a practical contribution, although cultural issues are important concerns.” They do not memorize; they learn to think for themselves and make decisions.” These principles are also evident at the higher or tertiary levels.
The status and role of women
This is the most remarkable aspect of the whole revolution. In a region notorious for male domination, including honour killings, it is difficult to understand how women have come to have such status and power. Positions such as chairing committees are shared equally with men, and various activities are run solely by women. Every committee must have at least 40 percent female membership and be headed by both a woman and a man. Around two-thirds of all political positions are held by women. “That might be the only society in human history of which this can be said.” (Shilton, 2019.) Some military units are all female.
The result is that there has been a dramatic improvement in the status, role and lives of Rojava’s women. “Before the revolution women had no life, especially Arab women. They had no opinions, no work, no freedom. Arab women were only supposed to give birth, raise children and tend to home duties, and that’s it. Women were nothing, they were slaves.” ”Previously “…a girl of only 14 would be given to a man to be married. But not any more. Another thing is a second marriage. A man could take four women for himself. But not anymore. Now only one woman. Before, if I had brothers … within our house I didn’t have the right to anything in my family – not property or money or land. But now, women have the right to all those things.” (Shilton, 2019.)
The underlying philosophy
It is not easy to understand how the ideology underlying and generating these developments emerged. It is commonly attributed to the writings of Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurdish leader now imprisoned in Turkey, who was inspired by Murray Bookchin’s “Social Ecology”. The foundational argument is that capitalist modernity causes environmental destruction, ecological crises and oppression and exploitation of people. The obsession with maximising profit “…has brought our planet close to the edge of the abyss, and left humanity in a whirlwind of war, hunger, and social crisis.” (Biehl, 2016.) Thus Bookchin’s “communalism” is for a society free of hierarchy and based on small scale and self-governing communities. Bookchin’s works detail the way medieval towns and those in Vermont USA have exhibited this social form. As Shilton says for thousands of years the state has tried to prevent the people at the grass roots having any power over their situation.
But it is unlikely that these ideas would have been so strongly adopted had they not connected with traditional collectivist values and practices. This factor is evident in some of the references to the tribal origins of people in the region. Shilton says the new system “…being introduced today is based on a tradition going back thousands of years.” He quotes a person saying, “Fifty years ago… I was living in a village of five or six families…. In the summer, if we needed to build a house, we didn’t pay others to do it. We formed a group and we built it. If a house burned, everyone got together and contributed until that house was okay again. If someone fell ill, everyone would help. The communal system we want to build up is exactly that.” There is concern to restore the centrality of community, which they explicitly identify as another value Western consumer-capitalist society destroys.
The most obvious and overwhelming problem is the struggle to avoid military annihilation. But it is not surprising that there are also internal difficulties. One is that not everyone is keen on the new ways. The young especially are more inclined to individualistic and entrepreneurial ways.
Another problem is to do with the relationship between the highly participatory communal system at the lowest level and those institutions and agencies, such as law courts and military commands, at the centre which are at present and may always have to be centralized and to some extent authoritarian. They are aware that the conditions of war especially push towards central command structures. It is healthy that this issue is on the agenda. Within the Anarchist movement there is increasing recognition that some kind of “Dual Power System” might be the way to go, that is building the participatory ways at the local level underneath state-centred systems. This is a version of the Anarchist principle of “Prefiguring.”
Why does Rojava matter? Because it is a model for our future
The significance of Rojava goes far beyond it being an astounding social achievement. It actually exemplifies the directions in which the rest of the world must move if it is to achieve sustainability. This might seem to be a highly implausible claim but consider the following case.
Rich countries are far beyond sustainable per capita resource demands and environmental impacts. Their present consumption rates could never be extended to all people; that would lift global rates to ten times present amounts. But making the situation far worse is the fierce universal commitment to ceaseless growth in production, consumption, trade, investment, “living standards”, wealth and GDP. If the 9.8 billion people expected by 2050 were to rise to the GDP per capita Australians would then have given 3% p.a. economic growth, total world economic output would be approaching 18 times the present amount. But the World Wildlife Fund (2018) estimates that at present we’d need 1.7 planet Earths to meet demands on productive land sustainably. That indicates that by 2050 total world use of need for productive land would have to be around 30 times the amount that is available now. There are similar multiples for other resources such as minerals, fish, timber, water, and all these stocks are dwindling all the time.
The kind of economy we have inevitably causes this problem of gross overconsumption. It is driven by profit, market forces and growth. It cannot be reformed to avoid these effects; that can only be done if this consumer-capitalist system is replaced by one driven by needs and sustainability.
All of the big global problems now threatening our existence are primarily due to this fact that we have grossly exceeded the sustainable biophysical limits of the planet. It is why mineral and biological resources are being depleted fast, why nations resort to armed conflict to secure them, why the scramble to secure them condemns poor countries to an unfair share, and especially why the excessive demands on ecosystems are destroying them. In addition the obsession with affluence and growth within a market system is generating extreme inequality and damaging social cohesion. These problems are accelerating; many now believe they will generate a massive global breakdown within two decades. (See for example, Mason 2003, Meadows et al. 1972, Randers, Kowowitz 2012, Morgan 2013, Greer 2005, Kunstler 2005, Trainer 2019.)
There is a very strong case that technical advance, recycling greater efficiency etc. cannot solve these problems. (See especially the review by Parrique, et al., 2019.) The basic claim made by The Simpler Way perspective is that these problems cannot be defused unless we undertake an enormously radical transition to local economies which are small, cooperative, highly self-sufficient, driven by needs not market forces …. and a cultural transition to willing acceptance of simper and frugal lifestyles and systems. This must involve scrapping the present taken-for-granted conception of “development” defined in terms of ever-increasing globalisation, complexity, capital-investment, technical sophistication, and monetary “wealth”. Above all it involves willing acceptance of materially simple lifestyles and systems, and it does not involve hardship or deprivation; in fact it would be a liberation to a much higher quality of life for all. The Simpler Way project is aimed at increasing the realization that only a basic social form of this kind can defuse the global situation and enable a sustainable and just world. (For the detail see TSW: Outline, and TSW: The Alternative Society.)
The crucial point is that only in settlements of this kind can the resource and ecological costs be brought right down. Localisation enables elimination of most transport, industrialization, global trade, packaging, agribusiness…and indeed work! “Wastes” can be taken to gardens by bucket, poultry can fertilise fields, pesticides and toxic chemicals can be avoided, working bees and rosters and cooperatives can eliminate the need for complex logistics and professionals and bureaucracy. For example the study by Trainer, Malik and Lenzen (2019) found that eggs can be supplied from village co-ops at less than 2% of the dollar and energy cost of the supermarket supply chain.
There are also strong connections regarding transition strategy. Because both the Rojava and Simpler Way perspectives recognize that culture, that is ideas and values, are the crucial factors determining whether the required revolution is going to succeed, then strategy has to focus on developing those ideas and values. When that has gone well, the revolution has been won; the subsequent changes in structures, power, equality, the economy and the role of the state etc. are then likely to be relatively easily achieved consequences of the revolution. This is a point of fundamental difference with Socialist transition theory. (This does not mean the capitalist class will not set problems; see TSW: Transition).
The immense relevance of Rojava should now be apparent. It is one of the most impressive examples of people building a society based on the kinds of principles and practices that must be adopted if we are to make a transition to a sustainable and just society. Summarising the main elements in this remarkable venture show how closely it aligns with the Simper Way perspective:
- The basic social unit is the small local community which decides most of the economic, legal and social issues affecting it.
- The orientation is cooperative and collectivist, focused on finding the best way for the community.
- Both the capitalist and the state-controlled way are rejected, in favour of grass roots democratic control.
- Hierarchy, domination and top-down power are rejected. The community governs itself via thoroughly participatory processes.
- The economy is geared mostly to local self-sufficiency and is not driven by profit or market forces or the individual quest for wealth; it is driven by the intention of meeting needs.
- Much production is carried out via cooperatives and much productive property is publicly owned and commons.
- Inclusiveness is a high priority; the underdog is provided for, jobs are found for the poor and unemployed.
- Emphasis is given to ecological sustainability, especially to developing sustainable local agriculture.
- The vicious trap that is the conventional “development” ideology is avoided. That doctrine asserts that growth of GDP = development, you must compete in the global market place, you need for capital and loans to build the infrastructures investors want (so they can ship out your resources). If you accept these myths you will soon end up in impossible debt, and have to wait many decades before any benefit trickles down to your poor masses. But development in Rojava focuses on using local resources to produce basic necessities for local people with almost no dependence on capital, investors or the global economy. (See TSW: Third World Development.)
- Its change strategy centres on “prefiguring”, that is building new ways within the old system.
- Thus the centrality of cultural revolution is recognized. If people come to understand and happily opt for the new ways, then they will eagerly build and run them. Little or nothing can be achieved by ruthless vanguard parties using violence to take state power if people in general don’t have the necessary vision. Participatory control of “state-level” functions will come later as the grassroots movement strengthens.
It should also be clearly evident that Rojava is confirming the basic Simpler Way claim that the required perspective for saving the planet is not Eco-socialist, it is Eco-Anarchist.
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Shilton, D., (2019), Rojava: The radical eco-anarchist experiment betrayed by the West, and bludgeoned by Turkey”, Ecologise. 27th October.
Trainer, T., (2019) TSW: Transition. https://thesimplerway.info/TRANSITION.html
Trainer, T., A. Malik and M. Lenzen, (2019), “A comparison between the monetary, resource and energy costs of the conventional industrial supply path and the “Simpler Way” path for the supply of eggs.”, Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality, 4(3), 1-7, September.
World Wildlife Fund, (2018), The Living Planet Report, 2018; Aiming Higher.
World Wildlife Fund and London Zoological Society https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/all_publications/living_planet_report_2018/
Teaser photo credit: Make Rojava Green Again website