By Dominic Rottman
Political philosopher Hannah Arendt in her work On Revolution describes the two major modern revolutions, the French revolution and American revolution, as exhibiting qualities of a free and authentic politics: many individuals freely working together with each other towards a common end. As is often the case in revolution, this end was designed to be the creation of a political space, where individuals could continue to act freely in concert with each other, united for a common purpose.
Yet Arendt concludes that neither revolution succeeded in creating this space, and thus while the revolutions involved free and voluntary cooperation among individuals, the ensuing societies relied on laws, enforcement, and coercion same as any other. The idea of political space absolutely free from outside coercion quickly gave way to a more traditional social contract, where the people ceded freedoms to the state in exchange for security and enforced cooperation among individuals. This theoretical discussion is becoming very relevant in the Kurdish-controlled regions of northern Syria, otherwise known as Rojava, where radical political developments have led many to acclaim it as a true example of an anarchic society with a completely free political sphere, and an excellent example of an alternative to the nation-state. And while Arendt’s conception of politics is not absolute nor universally agreed upon, it provides an understanding of politics that describes, and in fact requires, the autonomy of individuals in a political sphere, which Rojava purportedly has.
The support of anarchists internationally for what is happening in Rojava is worth noting because it suggests that the political community developing in Rojava is not only radically democratic, but in fact anarchic—some anarchists are even travelling to the region to fight or aid in its development.
With this in mind, it would be useful to take a look at the features of the current Rojava society, and look at it through the lens of prominent political theories to determine if this is truly an anarchic society.
The political developments that have occurred and are continuing to occur in Rojava are certainly no absolute failures of autonomy, democratic practice, and even an Arendtian conception of politics at large where not only some, but each and every individual voluntarily cooperates with each other. Indeed, in certain respects Rojava might have one of the most free and democratic political spheres in the world, and certainly one of the most innovative. But it while it may be one of the most radical political projects currently in operation, it is not as radical as it might appear.
An anarchic society is, of course, stateless; that is the very first thing anarchy implies. To that end, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have renounced their desire for an independent Kurdish state in favor of a system of “democratic confederalism,” the brainchild of American communalist and former anarchist Murray Bookchin and founder of the PKK Abdullah Ocalan, who coined the term.
Words are cheap, however. It is one thing for a group—an armed group, at that—to claim their aim as a stateless society, and another thing for a stateless society in Rojava to actually exist. Max Weber, the father of modern sociology, wrote that a state can be defined by the means exclusive to it, which is a monopoly on the use of force in a particular area.
The Rojavan charter of the social contract (https://peaceinkurdistancampaign.com/charter-of-the-social-contract/) claims that the YPG is to be the sole military force of Rojava’s 3 cantons while acting “in accordance with the recognized inherent right to self-defense.” Strictly speaking, militaries are not necessarily indicative of a monopoly on force, although nearly all modern states have them. But with regard to the YPG, it is hard to say definitively that they are not monopolized agents of a state, given that the charter also places command of the YPG in an executive council known as the “Body of defense.”
Yet a military being the identifying trait of a monopoly on force is tricky because if the YPG weren’t contesting another, external violent force in their operating regions—they are, after all, in armed conflict with ISIS and the Turkish government—there would be no need for their existence in the first place. Furthermore, it would appear that anybody who wished to volunteer, even Americans can fight alongside the YPG.
A police force is a more clear-cut example of a monopoly on force. Or at least, it would be, but while the charter charges a force known as the “Asayish” for policing civil society, it is supposedly the aim for every Rojavan citizen—using the term loosely—to receive Asayish training in order for it to be rendered redundant and therefore dissolved. In short, the police force of the Rojava seems to be designed as a temporary measure, designed to exist only until people are adequately trained and equipped to police themselves. Theoretically, then, with this in mind, the Weberian definition of a state would not hold.
All told, determining whether there is an anarchist society in Rojava using Weber’s definition of a state as one that monopolizes legitimate use of force proves inconclusive. But even if it were abundantly clear that there was no proper monopoly on force in Rojava, an anarchic society is not only stateless, it is also free of rulers or a ruling body and hierarchy. It raises the question, then, if this is the case in Rojava’s system of democratic confederalism. The answer is not simple, straightforward, or even complete. Firstly, it would be foolish to look at the ideas of Bookchin and Ocalan—while they can and should be critiqued on their own merit—for answers to how the political community of Rojava operates. Rather, in order to appraise or critique the Rojavan system, it must be looked at directly.
Unfortunately, what is accessible in this regard is precious little, and what is available is fragmented, ambiguous, and sometimes contradictory. The chart above, however, does make the water a little less murky with regard to the “bottom-up” style of democratic confederalism. It would appear that issues are brought “higher” only on a need to know basis. For example, on the communal level, councils/committees could easily iron out issues such as paving a street, or beginning a community garden. However, projects that require coordination between communes, infrastructure, for example, would have to go to neighborhood/district level councils made up of delegates that participate at the lower levels as well. Yet a bottom up system does not avoid the contradictions of representative democracy and anarchy; under the latter, each and every individual’s autonomy must be respected, which is not the case in the former. One individual cannot physically, fully, and authentically represent more than one individual or their will. Even the most similar of people have their wills at some point differ, and while a delegate can present a sort of composite, general, and eclectic will of a commune, one person cannot authentically act as one hundred.
The Charter of the Social Contract Furthermore outlines Rojava-wide Legislative and Executive councils that sound disturbingly similar to a parliament. The Legislative Assembly is elected by direct ballot, who then elect a Canton Governor (The English translation of the charter reads “canton governor” despite the position being one across all of Rojava, and not one per each of the 3 cantons as the title might suggest) by simple majority. The majority party or bloc in the Legislative assembly forms an executive council, which, once formed and approved, issues what is essentially a government program for the legislative term. Remember, this system is supposed to not act like a nation-state.
It makes sense, therefore, why the British Anarchist Federation and others have criticized Rojava for these parliamentary procedures, and why anarchists all over are divided on their support for what is developing. A parliament and representative democracy do not square with an anarchist society.
To be sure Rojava seems to be falling short of true anarchism, as an anarchist society would have to by definition give individuals maximum autonomy, but that does not preclude the return of Arendt’s sphere of an authentic politics, of a truly free anarchist society, in the near future. It may even be the case that such a space may come into being before a state can actually dissolve, as opposed to the other way around. Rojava, for its part, is still in a wildly unstable region, and its residents have a great many battles to win and a great many years to develop yet before judgement can be fully passed on how free and autonomous they actually are. But for today, there is no anarchy in Rojava, though its residents would do well to ensure a sphere of political autonomy whatever direction the community goes.
Image credit for featured image: https://crimethinc.com/2015/02/04/feature-turkish-anarchists-on-the-fight-for-kobane
Image credit for chart: https://cooperativeeconomy.info/an-anarchist-perspective-on-rojavas-coops-and-communes/