The poetics of stateless democracy: A Review of To Dare Imagining: Rojava Revolution (NY: Autonomedia, 2016. 160 pp. ISBN: 9781570273124)
The proxy tragedy within and far around the Syrian civil war is as confusing as a shell game in a hall of mirrors – even for experts on the Middle East. Somehow, though, from within this quagmire, the Autonomous Cantons of Rojava have emerged along the Syrian/Turkish border. The people of this region have miraculously begun to enact programs of multi-ethnic feminist self-governance which the international left has been able only to dream about. It is beyond strange to me that this emerging experiment has gained so little attention in the West.
Even the ostensibly heavy-weight public intellectuals – Zizek, Badiou, Ali – have been relatively silent (at least insofar as this reviewer has been able to discern). That being said, it is difficult to overstate exactly how essential of a document To Dare Imagining: Rojava Revolution is. This collection of interviews, journalism, and essays, edited by Dilar Dirik, David Levi Strauss, Michael Taussig, and Peter Lamborn Wilson (who have each also contributed essays to the book) is, so far, the most complete document in English regarding what is without doubt the most important revolutionary movement of our time.
The facts of what is happening in Rojava , the sheer weight of what is at stake in northern Syria, takes on qualities of the mytho-poetic to those of us sitting comfortably reading about this in a far-away land. It cannot be stressed enough, however, that the Rojavan Revolution is really happening as we speak and that its brave people are dying to enact this dream which so many people throughout the world have in their hearts. They have implemented a mode of self-determination for around 4.6 million people that most of us on the left have only been able to theorize about – all while they fight a two front defensive war against the NATO-backed Erdogan government in Turkey and Daesh (ISIS), itself tacitly, if not directly, backed by Erdogan’s neo-Fascist government in Turkey – but more on this later). This situation has become even more dire since the July 15 attempted coup in Turkey, which has simultaneously strengthened the positions of both the Erdogan government and Daesh.
To Dare Imagining was edited with some urgency in order to put the most recent information about the cantons into the public discourse. Even so, this collection is a thoughtfully composed and essential primer on the situation in Rojava . Within its pages, you won’t find the careful, couched language of so many academic leftists, vying for positioning or ideological purity. What you will find in this book are the confident and erudite voices of the women and men currently fighting for a new vision of feminism, ecology, and pluralistic stateless democracy. Before going too much further, it’s worth quoting the preamble to the charter of the cantons which was drafted in January of 2014:
We the people of the Democratic Autonomous regions of Afrin, Jazira, and Kobane, a confederation of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arameans, Turkmen, Armenians, and Chechens, freely and solemnly declare and establish this Charter, which has been drafted according to the principals of Democratic Autonomy.
In pursuit of freedom, justice, dignity, and democracy and led by principles of equality and environmental sustainability, the Charter proclaims a new social contract, based upon mutual and peaceful coexistence and understanding between all strands of society. It protects fundamental human rights and liberties and reaffirms the peoples’ right to self-determination. Under the Charter, we, the people of the Autonomous Regions, unite in the spirit of reconciliation, pluralism, and democratic participation so that all may express themselves freely in public life. In building a society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism, and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs, the charter recognizes Syria’s territorial integrity and aspires to maintain domestic and international peace.
In establishing the Charter, we declare a political system and civil administration founded upon a social contract that reconciles the rich mosaic of Syria through a transitional phase from dictatorship, civil war, and destruction to a new democratic society where civic life and social justice are preserved.
The establishment of the autonomous Cantons in Rojava (northern Syria) – fiercely anti-authoritarian and feminist in their modes of horizontal organization and self-defense – stand shoulder to shoulder with their historical predecessors: the Paris Commune, the Spanish Revolution, Kronstadt, and the Zapatistas as moments wherein the left has managed to open up, if even momentarily, through historical ruptures which begin to dismantle the deep roots of authoritarianism and hierarchical power that reach all the way down to the bedrock of human civilization.
While past collective expressions of anarcho-communalism, libertarian communism, and stateless democracy have had, to varying degrees, strong feminist elements, the Rojavan revolution is unique among these in that feminism is absolutely at the forefront of its praxis and theory. Even though little information has so far been available about the Rojavan revolution, most reading this will at least be familiar with the images of the all-female self-defense forces who have been striking fear into the hearts of Daesh and successfully beating back the incursions of the caliphate in ways that even the US and Russian militaries have been hard pressed to do.
The Rojavan Self-defense forces are split into two columns – the YPJ (or, Womens’ Protection Units) and the YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units) which are comprised of mixed-gender brigades. The two wings fight in tandem comprising a structure which has been not only tactically effective but which also implements rank and file checks and balances designed to prevent counter-revolution: The structures of the armed wings of the Rojavan revolution mirror those of the municipal councils. For example, all governing councils must be, at minimum, composed of 40% of either gender. The chairs of the councils are one man and one woman. Additionally, each governing body has a parallel council composed entirely of women which has veto power over its counterpart. Further, any area of collective decision-making which primarily affects women (i.e. decisions on polygamy and divorce, female circumcision, property rights, equality of men and women in public and private spheres, and so on) is carried out by democratically elected councils composed entirely of women which hold veto power over the general assemblies. It bears emphasis that governance at every level is composed of directly elected representatives who are subordinate to rotating neighborhood and village councils.
For the Kurds in Rojava , the abolition of capitalism must be preceded by the dismantling of the state; in order to dismantle the state, one must first abolish patriarchy. With this move, the Rojavans have been able to elegantly and immediately resolve and put into practice something that continues to be a major roadblock for western communist/ left thinkers. Those within the Communization current, for example, would do well to closely examine the example being carried out in the Rojavan Cantons. This is not to say that the abolition of patriarchy in Rojava has somehow magically been carried out overnight. It is, of course, a long-term project, which must overcome countless hurdles (to put it lightly) in order to be successful. The important point, however, is that the Rojavans have, concurrently, with their revolutionary moment, put into place feminist-communist measures (to use the terminology of communization theorists) which begin the process of moving beyond the psychic and material conditions created by 6,000 years of oppression.
These are the rough nuts and bolts of it (or the bones and sinew, to distance ourselves from mechanical metaphors). Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), in The Modern Crisis puts it succinctly: “There seems to be a strong tendency to collect ideas rather than to derive them, to disassemble and reassemble them as though we were dealing with an automobile engine rather than aspects of a process.” Bookchin’s ideas (as unexpected as it might seem to many western academics of the left) have been absolutely integral to the Rojavan revolution. To most left thinkers, Bookchin represents a vestigial corner of hybrid Marxist thought, rarely discussed with any seriousness. Recently however, his theories of communalism and municipal libertarianism have found new life in the Rojavan project, which has expanded and put into practice these ideas in what it calls Democratic Confederalism. In the Rojavan version, Bookchin’s emphasis on dismantling hierarchy has been refined into an emphasis on destroying patriarchy. These “aspects of the process” – the breath of the revolution – can be glimpsed from the voices of the people who constitute it.
Much of the power of To Dare Imagining comes from its excellent job of letting the revolution speak for itself (while voices of those “outside” the revolution are present in the book, they are for the most part refreshingly in open and active communication with it). Interviews with Saleh Muslim Mohamed (co-president of the PYD), Heval Aryan & Heval Rengin (YPJ fighters), and Istanbul-based journalist Evren Kocabicak, among others, give a rich portrait of the fabric of the revolution. I was particularly struck by a moment in the interview with Everen Kocabaicak, when she is asked about the historical documentation of the experiences of the female fighters of the YPJ:
Generally, there is a historical consciousness being developed through the transformation of the resistance and efforts of women into continuous gains, the guerrilla women have diaries. The keeping of these diaries creates multiple effects and results. While the emotional intensity of guerrilla lives finds the expression through the voices of the writers of these diaries, a quite vast and rich historical interpretation is also brought about through the collection of individual feelings and interpretations of each friend. Also everyone acquires a talent in expressing one’s own feelings and life in literary language. These diaries also bring along with them the existence of women in history as subjects. As whatever is being lived and the one living them are being written down in unison, it is possible to state that women are writing the history of their own liberation.
That all pretty much speaks for itself – I can only say that I hope in the not too distant future there is an effort to collect, publish, and translate the diaries of the YPJ fighters.
What we see currently in the Cantons is, in large part, a transformation that has taken place within certain elements of the Kurdish resistance – in particular, the leader of the PKK Abdullah Öcalan, who has spent nearly the past 20 years in solitary confinement on the Turkish prison island of Imrali. While in confinement, Ocalan made a sharp conversion; from what was, frankly, a rather tired form of centralist nationalism (many have gone so far as to characterize the earlier politics of the PKK as Stalinist), to a staunchly feminist anti-authoritarianism rooted in an unwavering commitment to direct democracy and municipal autonomy. Öcalan has managed to smuggle several volumes of prison writings out of his living tomb. The writings cover a wide range of topics from (as discussed above) feminism and its relation to stateless democracy, the writings of Murray Bookchin, social ecology, myth, and the simultaneous roots of authoritarian civilization and patriarchy in ancient Mesopotamia, amongst a litany of other topics. To Dare Imagining contains two excerpts from Öcalan’s Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution which serve as a concise primer for Rojavan theories of feminism, history, and revolution.
Peter Lamborn Wilson’s essay Abdullah Öcalan, delves into the imprisoned leader’s writings about ancient Mesopotamia in his typical sweeping devil-may-care style, always somewhat of a double-edged sword – on the one hand, sometimes a bit new-age-y (at least for my tastes), but on the other, Lamborn is able to pull off rhetorical/ philosophical gems like few writers that I’ve come across (I should mention here, as an aside, that Wilson/Hakim Bey’s writings were absolutely crucial in the development of my own political and artistic imagination). Wilson’s reading of Ocalan’s exegesis on Sumerian myth is for the most part spot-on, but he projects his own low-key anti-civ paradigm onto the situation in Rojava . While admittedly Öcalan’s hermeneutics on history and myth do valorize neolithic society and point to the likelihood that human organization flourished without patriarchy, the PKK leader does not advocate an abandonment of civilization but rather a reinvention of it. Far from attempting to develop a “neo-luddite, late-neolithic society” as Wilson hopes, the Rojavans are currently quite focused on developing independent infrastructure; biogas, sustainable building materials, advanced agricultural projects, medicine, telecommunications. The various sub Reddits on Rojava—which actually offer some of the most up-to-date news about the situation there—are full of calls for people with training or experience in chemistry, botany/agriculture, engineering, computer science (especially open source), and so on. As Öcalan puts it, “We must neither be enveloped in European Civilization nor reject it categorically. We have to contribute to the development of humanity as a whole.”
In Öcalan’s hermeneutics of ancient Sumeria and Babylon, which I think is fair to say is one of the bedrock texts of the Rojavan Revolution, we can see a similar use of poetic/narrative truth as a tool to frame the idea (and indeed fact of) revolution in terms which implicate the deepest strata of human civilization. To Öcalan , the story of the masculine Sumerian gods, led by Marduk (the war god) against the Goddess tells us about the historical moment wherein patriarchy first takes hold. It is from this “original act of colonization” and subjugation of woman that all other oppressive apparatuses grow.
It is undoubtedly worth having a deep discussion of the significance – and indeed the poetics – of a revolutionary movement which sets as its goal the remedying of a 6000 year-old mistake emerging from the very region wherein this “original sin” of patriarchal authoritarianism first transpired. However, Wilson’s characterization of this revolution as somehow in line with the likes of Derrick Jensen or John Zerzan is a bit off base. The autonomous zone of Rojava seeks to be anything but temporary.
Michael Taussig also touches on this notion of revolutionary simultaneity in his remarkable impressionistic account of his time spent in Kobane and in Turkey entitled Kobane: The Mastery of Non-Mastery: “Then there was the video of a woman dancing in the ruins of Kobane. As the film stopped, lo and behold, that same woman emerged from the darkness to dance in the audience right there in Istanbul. Kobane is everywhere! And we are dancing. Right?”
Istanbul-based professor of Anthropology (and, indeed one of the leading and most outspoken voices on Rojava ) Nazan Ustundag’s essay, New Wars and Autonomous Self-defense in Kurdistan, gives us a nuanced and penetrating analysis of the current proxy war surrounding the Syrian civil war (which, importantly, Ustundag characterizes as a sort of crypto-world war). She argues that in order to conceptualize this confusing matrix of multiple allegiances and nemeses and the various clashes of soft and hard power, we must develop our concepts of “New Wars.” She divides these new wars into two types: the biopolitical – characterized by neo-liberal, often state, actors who wage war in the name of stability, peace and security and the necropolitical variety. Significantly, Ustundag argues, Rojava is caught between these two forms of New War – Turkey embodying the biopolitical and ISIS embodying the necropolitical. The Erdogan regime and ISIS, despite (and often due to) their violent antagonisms towards each other actually work to bolster one another. They are two sides of a coin. A pattern has emerged in which in the aftermath of terror attacks in Turkey, Erdogan’s government immediately moves to further consolidate power. This usually takes the form of violence against or incarceration of Kurds, leftists, or any other entities which the AKP might deem a threat to its grip on power.
Interestingly, while ISIS has been behind many of the recent terror attacks in Turkey, there have been several well-documented instances of ISIS and Turkey working in concert in their mutual war against the Kurds – from IS fighters being able to cross back and forth across the heavily guarded Turkish-Syrian border with little interference, to reports of radio communication between Daesh militants and Turkish commanders, to Erdogan’s own son being at the head of a ring buying oil stolen and smuggled by the Caliphate.
The recent coup attempt in Turkey has added a new dimension to this situation. The circumstances surrounding it are quite bizarre. It was perhaps a day in duration, and many of the soldiers involved were apparently under the impression that they were merely conducting exercises. Not only did Erdogan escape a supposed assassination attempt by the would-be putschists, after his escape two fighter jets had a missile lock on his private plane but they miraculously ran out of fuel, allowing for his escape. Further, in recent Middle Eastern history, it is extremely rare for a coup attempt to be as unorganized, half-hearted, and unsuccessful as was this most recent one. Erdogan has wasted no time in using the tragedy to further consolidate his own grip on power. In addition to “suspected Gulanists,” thousands of academics and other opposition figures on the left have been rounded up in the purges.
Ustundag concludes her piece by elucidating some of the modes of self-defense which are being pioneered throughout Kurdistan and particularly in Rojava . For people caught between these two forms of new global war, “The concept of self-defense as used by the Kurds has different genealogies. First, it refers to the defense of Kurds against state violence and the role that armed guerrillas and militias will play in its organization. Second, self-defense is a question of how oppressed people will protect their life-worlds against centralization, ecological destruction, patriarchal relations, and capitalism. Finally, it also addresses how societies will produce and reproduce themselves peacefully in the face of new hybrid wars fought by global powers, states, genocidal organizations and multi-nationals using violent and non-violent means. Self-defense as opposed to the notion of security involves democratizing the means of production, reproduction, and violence.”
Most recently, as of August 10th, the Syrian Democratic Forces (a US-backed alliance of which the Rojavans are the main component) has liberated the central Daesh stronghold of Manjib. In the immediate wake of the victory, the Rojavans began facilitating meetings which outline the framework of self-determination for the citizens there. One question which bears more examination than there is room for in this article is the issue of the recent strategic alliance between US and Rojava. One must wonder whether this is a poison chalice for the Rojavans or simply a necessary tactical compromise in the name of self-defense/ preservation. Certainly, the answer is complex. The Rojavans , however, seem to be under no illusions regarding the pragmatic nature of this tenuous alliance and have no intentions of compromising their revolutionary project in exchange for US support.
As we gain a greater understanding of what self-defense looks like in the Rojavans example – simultaneously battling external bio and necro political aggression and laying the foundations for defense against counter-revolution, we can hopefully reflect upon our own particular socio-political circumstances and figure out how to move forward in solidarity with Rojava. It would, however, be disingenuous to pretend like I haven’t projected my own hopes and desires onto the RojavaRevolution – it is, I think, a pretty understandable and sometimes helpful impulse, though one that we all must be conscious of – and do our best to temper (as in forging steel) our own hopes and dreams of what constitutes revolution with the reality of what is transpiring in this true example. That being said, the Rojavans revolution is explicitly internationalist and seeks to be in communication and work in concert with the left throughout the world. The question, for those of us inspired by the Rojavans Revolution, in addition to the obvious “how can we help ensure its survival?” (for which I’ve included some of the organizations listed at the end of To Dare Imagining) becomes how best to act in solidarity in our own lives and communities? How might this revolution spore out and fruit elsewhere in the world?
Obviously, the specific conditions which have led to the Rojavans situation are unique and it would be somewhat absurd to think of anything similar taking root elsewhere in the world right now. Here in the US, for example, our current primary struggle is against police and judicial brutality towards people of color. The scope and specificity of this violence makes any effort to generalize this struggle and link it with a broader, mass anti-authoritarian movement something still on a far horizon. We must work to mitigate this horrific symptom of the capitalist totality before organizing to destroy its roots. Every police murder of a black person ought to result in a national mobilization (something we are indeed beginning to see). We may yet, however see efforts to liberate zones from police presence which will necessitate new modes of neighborhood autonomy. In Rojava, the goal is to give every citizen two weeks of police training – which emphasizes non-violent conflict resolution and feminist praxis – with the end goal being the complete elimination of a specialized police force. Further, their constitution guarantees dignity and fair treatment for all prisoners.
The modes of transmission that the revolutionary spirit can take are indeed oftentimes quite uncanny and inexplicable. I’m reminded of an essay I came across years ago by the Wu Ming group called We are all February of 1917. In it, the authors describe how, during World War I, the Italian working class (largely illiterate and with almost no access to accurate information due to wartime censorship and a general lack of reliable propagation of news), was able to immediately grasp that the February revolution in Russia meant that the Russians would exit the war. Italian leftists went on strike, wrote letters of encouragement and solidarity, rioted, and engaged in mutinies in the trenches. This was two months before the Bolsheviks actually made the decision to withdraw from WWI! The essay describes the transmission of revolutionary sentiment in terms of resonances rather than chains of direct causality. When attempting to describe and talk about revolution, it is often more useful to speak in terms of poetic truth than in terms of scientific, empirical fact. What is most useful in the broadcast of these resonances – not dissimilar to the creation of improvised music, is the overall impression, the amalgamated mass of people in the distance on the beach—their (read: our) beach, lounging on uprooted paving stones, laughing with one another, musing about the writings of Ursula LeGuinn, or about gossip from the neighborhood council, or the sunset; the green flash that envelopes the horizon the instant we roll out of the sun’s view. This is something which To Dare Imagining does so well, one of the things that makes this such an essential document – that is, it gives us all these different angles and refractions of the situation in Rojava in a way that directly invokes the imagination.
For further information and/or to help out:
Help Kobane website: http://helpkobane.com
In the UK, Rojava Solidarity working group: https://www.facebook.com/rojavasolidarity
In New York, Rojava Solidarity NYC: https://www.facebook.com/rojavasolidaritycollective