Lessons for the UK from Rojava: political culture, ideology, democracy

This article is a transcription of a talk – given by a former CFGN staff member in Rojava –  recorded in Rojava for the Green Earth Awakening and the DSEI anti-arms trade mobilisation, which both took place in England. The aim of the talk was to highlight the role of ecology in the Rojava revolution, and share lessons that can help build the movement in the UK. It was published by Komun Academy on 17 November, 2019.

I’m sending this message from the liberated territory of the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria, more commonly known as Rojava. I came here over half a year ago to join the work of the revolution and to learn from it. I’ve been doing ecological works – some tree planting and garden design, as well as working with the women’s movement, learning Kurdish and teaching English. Before I came here, I organised with radical groups in the UK for over a decade, including ecological campaigns, feminist and queer groups, the anti-fascist movement and more recently taking a more community organising and radical democracy approach. One of the main reasons I came to Rojava was because I felt that although there is a lot of amazing organising in the UK, we’ve also come up against a brick wall in some ways, and we have a lot of questions that we’re trying to answer in terms of what kind of world we’re trying to build, and how we get there. And when I started to learn more about the revolution in Rojava, I really started to feel that this was a movement that we could learn a lot from, that has over a few decades built up something powerful enough to take on the forces of fascism, patriarchy and capitalism, and to establish a society based on ecological sustainability, gender liberation and radical democracy. So in this talk I’ll try to speak a bit about the things that – from the perspective of being here – are the most lacking in the UK radical left movement.

At the root of what we are lacking in the UK, what is stopping us from being able to develop a truly revolutionary perspective, is our inability so far to commit to a new political paradigm which lays the foundation for a different kind of society. Instead, we tend to just react against the most recent outrages that the dominant system throws at us – whether that’s fracking, Brexit or Boris Johnson.This talk is being recorded both for the DSEI anti-arms mobilisation, as well as for the Green Earth Awakening, and at first I thought it would be really impossible to record something that was suitable for two such different political spaces. But the more I thought about what I wanted to say, what learnings I’m trying to bring from being part of the revolution here, I realised that what was missing in the UK is this common foundation of a new political paradigm, and that’s something that we need to build across all the different tendencies and areas of focus within our broader movement. So although I could talk about how the Turkish state uses both F-15 fighter jets and environmentally destructive dam construction to wage war on the revolution, and I could talk about the ecological projects here –the tree nursery cooperatives, the reforestation of the region, the education systems – I don’t think that is what the environmental movement in the UK really needs to hear in order to develop. This awareness and this analysis isn’t what we’re missing in the UK –we’re missing something a lot more fundamental.

In order for the ecological movement – for all radical movements in the UK – to transition from being a movement of protest to a movement of wholesale social transformation, we need a conceptual framework that ties our actions together and gives us a clear direction to work towards. We need to move beyond being anti-fascist, anti-fracking, anti-Boris, anti-capitalist and so on, to being for something that ties together all of our fragmented movements and gives us a common horizon to work towards. One of the biggest threats we are facing as humanity is climate change, and in order to rise to the challenge of organising against a political and economic system whose ideology and philosophy fuels climate change, we need an ideology and philosophy that coherently links together climate change with other forms of oppression. The work of Abdullah Öcalan as well as the philosophy of social ecology have made this link through understanding the relationship between humans and nature as being a facet of the relationships of domination between human and human, and especially the relationship of domination of men over women – what we call patriarchy. This understanding is a basis, a foundation, of the Kurdish freedom movement’s “New Paradigm”, which was developed in response to the shortcomings and contradictions of a more traditional state-based socialist approach.

The New Paradigm is critical of the institution of the state, seeing it as a mechanism of domination, and instead bases itself on the pillars of ecological sustainability, women’s liberation and grassroots democracy. The New paradigm is more than just an ideology or a strategy, it’s a whole way of thinking, of observing, experiencing and analysing, of conceptualising truth. So here we see a bit of a mismatch between what the movement here is proposing as a counter to climate change, versus what our movements in the UK have been able to propose. In the UK, when we talk about fighting climate change, we talk about technology, we talk about legislation and carbon taxes, we talk about rejecting growth based economics and sometimes about capitalism. Slowly more segments of the movement are starting to listen to the voices of communities of colour and indigenous people and saying we need to talk about colonialism, about racism – which is a step in the right direction. In the Kurdish freedom movement, when they talk about ecology, they talk about how we understand truth, they talk about where we came from as humanity, they talk about the knowledge of mothers and grandmothers, of elders. So this isn’t really a talk about ecology in Rojava, this is about the New Paradigm of the Kurdish freedom movement and how it manifests in Rojava and in ecological approaches of the movement, because you can’t really separate it out. The political paradigm of the movement drives the work here, and the insistence that environmental sustainability is intrinsically tied to gender liberation and bottom up democracy builds a framework of analysis that is a counter-proposal to the paradigm of capitalist modernity, rather than just a rejection of it.

Because the idea of a whole political paradigm is so huge, I find it useful to break it down a little bit into a few different facets. One of the ways I’ve been looking at it is through three aspects: political culture, ideology, and the democratic system.

So first let’s look at the political principles and culture, which for me was one of the most important things to understand. Coming from the so called “west”, we tend to look at technical, structural solutions to oppression. In terms of ecology, this means trying to change laws, pass international agreements, make renewable technology more available or ban plastic bags, fossil fuels or high-polluting industries. In wider political organising, even in radical groups, more technical, superficial solutions include building political structures that are more representative, or developing economic systems which are geared towards justice. And before coming here, I would never have called these things technical and superficial, I would have thought of them as structural and getting to the root of the problem. But one thing I have learned here is that we need to go deeper, and my understanding of what “deep” means is still changing.

So to an extent I came to Rojava looking for these technical solutions –how do the councils work? How often are elections? How many people make up a neighbourhood commune? But all of this is completely meaningless without a revolutionary political culture. This political culture has its foundation in trust – in ourselves, in each other, in the ideas of the movement. It’s based on commitment and dedication, willingness to give yourself fully – and not grudgingly – to the work that is necessary. To put energy into developing and changing yourself and the people you are organising alongside, rather than rejecting someone if they do something wrong or you don’t see eye to eye. It also means giving priority to the collective over the individual, reframing your idea of freedom so that it is less based on individual autonomy and more based on collective liberation. So things like call-out culture don’t really exist here. Instead, there is a constant culture of giving criticism with love and respect, because we are committed to helping our friends improve and progress. This political culture and revolutionary values are the soul of the movement. Trying to build democratic confederalism – and environmental sustainability – without a foundation of this political culture is impossible.

The second facet is the ideology of the movement. This is as important, or at least almost as important, because it gives a framework and a destination to our political principles. It’s through ideology that we analyse the state as a relationship of domination, that we see capitalism as a temporary phase of human history which we can overcome, that in order to fight patriarchy we need to transfer power to women and other oppressed genders, and so on. I was always really repelled by ideology when I was organising in England, but I feel like I’ve really connected with the importance of ideology through my time here. Something that is taught here is that your analysis will be wrong if you are working through the wrong analytical lens. And if you fail to construct an alternative analytical lens to the dominant ones – which in the UK are liberalism, capitalism, state-mentality and so on – then you will end up working within the dominant analytical lens. And it’s ideology that makes it possible to build this analytical lens. The movement here often explains that shortcomings of Western anarchism and Western feminism in this way – these movements were incredibly powerful, and achieved some great things, but were not able to breakout of the framework of liberalism and therefore got stuck in an individualist, capitalist and state-based way of thinking.

Having some kind of ideology that ties us together allows us to hold the contradictions within our strategy and actions, which is absolutely crucial in terms of fighting climate change. We work in a reality in which it’s impossible to fully embody our ecological values in the way that we live, and getting overly fixated on this more lifestylist approach to sustainability cuts off a lot of possibilities to organise on a more collective and fundamental level. In Rojava, the ecological aspect of the revolution has faced countless challenges and is riddled with contradictions. Even though the movement is committed to sustainability, much of it runs off the profits of fossil fuel extraction, the lack of infrastructure means that people burn trash and dump waste, and the embargo means that more sustainable technology is incredibly hard to access. Sometimes decisions need to be made in which a more ecological approach comes into contradiction with a more practical shorter term approach. However, there is still a principled commitment to ecology which manifests both on a structural level – for example each municipality and region has an ecology committee – but also on the level of ethics, of principles. It seems to me that the lack of this common ideological framework in the UK has meant that we are less able to hold contradictions, so we get really wrapped up in technical debates about plastic straws, or whether to eat vegetarian, local or organic. Although these conversations can be useful, they can stop us from organising more effectively across all of society and building bridges with other radical movements; we develop approaches which can be purist and dogmatic. It means we get stuck in a loop of reactionary politics – reacting against power stations and runways,and proposed legislation, or specific politicians – letting these things completely shape our political strategy rather than working proactively to develop a new political paradigm and responding to threats from within that paradigm.

Finally, there are the structures and processes through which the movement here organises. These structures of grassroots democracy and federation build the system of democratic confederalism. This is the more technical element of how the political paradigm manifests in Rojava, and is certainly not a blueprint that can be transplanted from one country to another. In England we will need to come up with our own system of democratic governance, which is shaped by our historical, cultural, social, economic context. Here society is organised into democratic units, the smallest of which is the neighbourhood commune. These units federate into district, regional levels and so on, up to the level of the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria. As much power as possible is devolved downwards, so only decisions that have a broader impact are discussed on the wider levels. The system is still very much developing, and in fact not many people thoroughly understand how it works. But – at this point at least – it’s being held together by the political culture and values, and the strength of the movement’s commitment to finding solutions, addressing mistakes, and putting huge amounts of work into keeping everything working. And this commitment is at least partly due to the powerful ideology that drives the work and presents a powerful, compelling vision that we are all working towards together.

So of course it’s not about these three things – political principles, ideology and democratic system – separate from each other. It’s the relationship between them, the tensions and contradictions between them. You can’t have the organisational structures of the movement separate from the culture and from the ideology. For some people with an ecological background it might be useful to think of this as a permaculture approach – how we see things as a whole and give meaning to the relationships between different elements rather than breaking them down into binaries good or bad, right or wrong, true or false. At the same time as being an ecological approach – because this is how nature works, holistically, rather than through binaries– it is also what would seen here as an anti-patriarchal approach. And I want to talk a bit more about how the movement connects anti-patriarchy with ecological sustainability – as well as anti-fascism, anti-racism, pro-democracy etc – because for me this is something that we can really draw on in our organising. And I see a lot of groups in the UK working on developing this analysis and narrative – from the Wretched of the Earth collective, to the Power beyond Borders camp this summer, to the fact that there is an environmentally focused day at the DSEI mobilisation. So for me, it’s about taking that next step and not just linking struggles and making connections, but developing a political paradigm that makes it completely non-negotiable that ecological sustainability, gender liberation, radical democracy, anti-imperialism, anti-racism and anti-fascism are woven together into a movement that presents an alternative to the capitalist paradigm and is powerful enough to take on its power structures.

I’ve been talking a lot so far on a fairly abstract level, and I’d like to bring some of this to life a bit more. In order to explore what it looks like to build this kind of paradigm shift, I’d like to talk a bit about how women’s liberation ties in with ecology and the development of a new kind of society, a new kind of politics. One of the ways women’s liberation is being worked for in Rojava is through the development of something called Jineolojȋ – the science of women. Jineolojȋ is not a campaign or an ideology, it’s being developed as a science, as a methodology, to create a paradigm of analysis and truth which is holistic, rather than breaking everything down into things you can prove, things you can’t prove – things which are real and things which are not real. The reason that this is coming from the women’s movement is because patriarchy is seen as being tied to a way of thinking which is about binaries, domination, and fragmentation – to the philosophical approach of positivism. Women are seen as being able to hold up a different way of thinking which patriarchy has been trying to suppress for thousands of years, but which has been kept alive all this time through the resistance to patriarchy by women and all oppressed genders. So here again we see the counter-proposal to the patriarchal paradigm, not just a rejection of it. And we can connect it with ecology because the domination of nature by humans goes together with the domination of women by men. And so the leadership of the women of the movement is part of the ecological pillar of the revolution, as well as being part of the democratic pillar.

The revolution in Rojava is a women’s revolution. This doesn’t just mean that women fought in the armed forces, but that women are taking leadership positions on every level of the revolutionary work. This includes women of all classes, ethnicities, ages. Mothers are seen as playing a key role in the revolution, and they are often the most radical and bad-ass in terms of their dedication, their vision, and their passion. These women don’t just happen to be taking leadership position – the leadership of women is a non-negotiable in the political structures here. All institutions – whether they are community assemblies and local government, cultural institutions, educational academies or political parties – are governed through a “co-chair” or “co-president” system, in which one of the chairs or presidents needs to be a woman. In the context of political representation, this means that a political group that is trying to participate in the democratic system but does not represent women would only ever have one representative in the council, while all the other groups have two. All institutions also have a parallel autonomous women’s structure which exists on the same level of power as the general, mixed structure. This is the case from the smallest level – for example a union of teachers in a small town – to the autonomous women’s structure for the whole of Rojava – Kongreya Star.

One example of the link between ecology and women’s organising is Jinwar, a village set up by the women’s movement in Rojava. Jinwar houses around 15 women – and their children – who have come together to live collectively and ecologically. The women – who come from different backgrounds, regions, ages and ethnicities – farm several acres of crops, care for animals, run a bakery and collectively manage a shop. Some of their electricity is provided by solar panels, they use ecological farming methods, they are planting trees on their land and they study and share knowledge about natural healthcare. Jinwar brings together the three pillars of the New paradigm of the movement: democracy, ecology and women’s liberation. Other projects –such as women’s co-operatives, agricultural projects, academies and community work do this as well, in different ways. All over North-East Syria, the new paradigm is slowly, gradually, taking hold. It’s not easy – it will take lifetimes for the the paradigm to fully take root – but it speaks to something in people: our love of freedom, our connection to the natural world, our belief that things can be better.

So how do we do work towards this in the UK? We need to feel ambitious and hopeful. It’s really hard to do that while being completely immersed in the reality of life in the UK. Being in Rojava has given me a new sense of perspective, the strength to think big and have political clarity, an ability to think beyond reactionary politics, and the ambition to work towards global democratic confederalism. I would encourage all of you to consider coming to Rojava to join and learning from the revolution here. Through doing this it is possible to experience a new paradigm and open your minds to new ways of organising. It’s impossible to describe how it feels to be part of a movement which truly sees capitalism and patriarchy as just a relatively short phase of human history that can be overcome; a movement which is full of people – with all of their imperfections, and mistakes, and struggles – who are giving their lives to building this revolution, day after day.

Last month the Zapatistas announced a massive expansion of their territory in Chiapas with the words – “we learned that any dream that doesn’t encompass the world is too small a dream.” Even from all the way over here, I can see the glimmers of that dream in the UK, and I know that if we’re willing to put in the work, we can give it shape. We cannot just limit ourselves to thinking about a single issue, a single area, a single political perspective. We can and must think bigger than that.

I wish you Serkeftin – success- in this work, and look forward to joining you when I return to the UK.