Decentralist vanguards: women’s autonomous power and left convergence in Rojava

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Since 2012, the Rojava Revolution in Northern Syria has attracted the attention of the global Left. Although this project has been subjected to many analyses from different political perspectives, there has not been a systematic analysis of the way it brings together anarchism and Marxism. By focusing on the question of how a revolutionary movement should be organized, we arrive at the argument that Rojava features a specific hybrid of anarchist and Marxist-Leninist revolutionary methods in the form of ‘decentralist vanguardism’. The most advanced form of this hybrid method in Rojava is represented by women. By virtue of being theorized as a revolutionary agent, having autonomous organizations, and carrying a leading role in educating the general public, women in Rojava become what we call ‘a revolutionary middle stratum’: a distinct revolutionary group with autonomous power that can push forward the revolutionary process while dispersing the authority of the vanguard movement.

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... The first is the ideological sphere, where women are seen "as a primary historical revolutionary agent that will contribute to emancipation of all" (Rasit and Kolokotronis 2020). The second is the organizational sphere, in which women's autonomous structures are considered as "the most central tenet of revolutionary struggle" (Rasit and Kolokotronis 2020). This claim refers to the huge process of women's self-defense which took place since the beginning of the revolution, not only at the military level (Tank 2017; Ferreira and Santiago 2018), but also through the construction of a women's autonomous administration (Kongra Star). ...
... Thanks to this autonomous structure, women have created their own grassroots assemblies (the communes), Mala Jin (Houses of Women), economic cooperatives, justice committees, Asayish-Jin (Women's Gard) and many other institutions, which have given them autonomous political agency, and the ability to answer women's needs and express their will, free from men's control (Pavičić-Ivelja 2017; Şimşek and Jongerden 2018). However, these organizational achievements have been made, and are still made possible, thanks to the third sphere mentioned by Rasit and Kolokotronis (2020), which is that of "recruitment", "education" or "mobilization" led by women within society: a process performed in "a vanguardist manner" but able to avoid hierarchy, monopolization, and centralization. ...
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This article explores the significance of Jineolojî, an emancipatory praxis elaborated by the Kurdish Women’s Movement, for contemporary degrowth and pluriverse politics. Considering Jineolojî as the most original dimension of the Democratic Confederalist model of government in Northern and Eastern Syria (compared to other revolutionary projects), the article contributes to recent debates around the central place of “depatriarchization” in pluriverse debates. In the first part, we highlight a renewed interest in matriarchy, which has emerged at the intersection of ecofeminist with post-development and degrowth thought, noting how this resonates with the rediscovery of Mesopotamia’s matristic culture, which has been key to Democratic Confederalism and its radical critique of capitalist modernity and the nation State. We also highlight the inherent contradictions of the matristic model and formulate the question whether, and under what conditions, it bears potential for emancipatory political ecologies. The second part briefly describes the article’s sources and method, namely militant ethnography carried out with the Kurdish Women’s Movement, both in Rojava and in the European diaspora, cross-referenced with an analysis of some key texts of Jineolojî. The third part investigates the process by which the matristic perspective is being currently performed in Rojava through Jineolojî: a pedagogy for women’s self-defense, the autonomous re-appropriation of communalist and ecological praxis, and men’s liberation from hegemonic masculinity. We conclude that Jineolojî does not configure as a model of society to be recovered from a pre-patriarchal age, but as an original tool for liberating social potential towards gender, decolonial and ecological revolutions.
... small daily administrative decisions and the supply of the population; " that the councils provide important "feedback loops and local organizers; " that they "also provide propaganda for and the dissemination of the social model the PYD is striving for; " and finally, that, [p]articularly with regard to the role of the women in Kurdish society, the councils play an important role in reforming an extremely patriarchal society" (2018, p.135). The last point, about the role of women in the council system, is one about which Allsopp and van Wilgenburg also reported many of their interviewees had mentioned, in a positive vein (see Dirik, 2018;Rasit and Kolokotronis, 2020). ...
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This essay addresses two related questions raised by the editors of the research topic for “Beyond the Frontiers of Political Science: Is Good Governance Possible in Cataclysmic Times?” In particular, it explores: 1) how we can identify new tools and perspectives from which to address the multiple and mutually reinforcing problems accumulating around climate change; and 2) what institutional alternatives to the nation-state need to be created and empowered to tackle such complex problems. It does so through an in-depth treatment of the paradigm of “social ecology” and the associated political project of “democratic confederalism.” It begins with an overview of the argument, first advanced by Murray Bookchin and subsequently adopted and adapted by the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, that building an ecological society requires an assault on hierarchy in all its forms, and the construction of alternative, direct-democratic institutions capable of transcending the system of the capitalist nation-state. It sketches the institutional architecture of popular assemblies central to this project, both emphasizing their potential to contest capitalist social-property relations and hierarchies intrinsic to the nation-state and pointing out some sources of resilience of the existing system. It hones in on the experience of the revolutionary forces in control of the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES), who have been directly inspired by Öcalan’s ideas. It highlights both the AANES’s achievements as well as the significant obstacles it has encountered in the attempt to bring into being a radically-egalitarian, ecological society. It concludes by drawing lessons from these difficulties.
... This has produced a variety of comprehensive overviews (Cemgil and Hoffmann 2016;Colsanti et al. 2018;Jain 2016;Knapp, Flach, and Ayboga 2015;Schmidinger 2018;Sunca 2021;Yegen 2016) as well as more focussed studies dealing with specific dimensions of the revolution and their wider significance for global social struggles. This includes the cooperative economy (Sullivan 2018), social ecology (Hunt 2017), (eco)feminism (Piccardi 2021;Tank 2017), anarchism (Rasit and Kolokotronis 2020), and the republican philosophical underpinnings (Cemgil 2016). While revealing important aspects of the transformation in Northern Syria, few of these have included a systematic reflection on the wider geopolitical conditions within which these political experiments take place and even fewer have done so through a critical lens (Galvan-Alvarez 2020; Küçük and Özselçuk 2016;Leezenberg 2016). ...
... On every administrative and institutional level, the decisions taken by the women's body are binding for all structures, with an additional veto right reserved for women's structures for decisions taken in the mixed bodies. Further, all institutional bodies, from collectives, communes to political parties have a co-chair system, where one seat is reserved for the man, who is elected by the mixed bodies and one seat is reserved for a woman, who is elected only by the women-only body, thus rendering equal representation an inherent feature of the political system (Kongreya Star 2018; Knapp and Flach 2016;Rasit and Kolokotronis 2020;Şimşek and Jongerden 2018). ...
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The Kurdish-led autonomous entity called Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES)-also known as Rojava-considers women's liberation an imperative condition for shaping a democratic society. The practice of autonomy in NES shares strong resemblances with Non-Territorial Autonomy (NTA) models; however, it introduces a novelty in the role of women as active agents in building a plurinational democracy. This paper examines (1) the intellectual and political origins of the political role ascribed to women in autonomous administrations and (2) how the practice of autonomy in Rojava has advanced women's rights by shedding light on both institutional implementation of women's rights, as well as the creation of (non)-territorial spaces of women's emancipation within the autonomous model. The argument made is that the conceptual framework of the Rojava model goes beyond the Kurdish question and can be considered an attempt to resolve a democratic deficit of liberal democratic nation-states through bringing together solutions that address the intertwined subordination of minorities and women. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 License
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Struggles for recognition, rooted in the desire to be acknowledged by others, are fundamental to the stability of international orders. All international orders face actors with recognition grievances, and sometimes these grievances become major sources of contention. At the same time, each international order faces struggles that are specific to its mode of legitimation because they are rooted in challenges over the constituent elements of that order. The liberal international order (LIO) is no exception to this rule. Unlike international orders that are organized through explicit social hierarchies, the LIO claims to foster egalitarian, meritocratic justice based around universal, ‘rational’ standards. Yet it is clear to many actors around the world that the LIO has historically been, and remains today, premised on ‘irrational’, unjust forms of hierarchical recognition, often organized around group identity. This opens up the LIO to charges of hypocrisy. We trace the ways in which this ‘hypocrisy charge’ is levelled by both LIO ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’, arguing that it generates an irresolvable tension within the LIO. This tension may not spell the end of the LIO, but it does point to a period of extended contention.
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In this article, we investigate labour struggles under the condition of digital capitalism. The main research question this paper addresses is: How do German unions evaluate and respond to the rapidly accelerating digitalisation of economy and work? Based on a series of interviews with union representatives in Germany, we trace recent developments in an increasingly digitised economy and outline challenges and opportunities for unions. Our findings show that the large-scale deployment of digital technologies fragments the workforce, reduces social standards, worsens working conditions, and exacerbates power imbalances to the detriment of the employed. These disadvantages are only insufficiently met with new opportunities to raise public awareness and connect with and mobilise workers by means of digital communication technologies. Our study suggests a growing significance of technological expertise for unions, a need to meet global capital with enhanced international and regional cooperation among labour organisations, and the importance of uniting established unions and grassroots workers’ movements in shared struggles to improve the situation of workers under technology-enhanced conditions of globalised exploitation and control.
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This article addresses contradictions in the 'pluriverse' of radical alternatives to maldevelopment, and proposes a an integrative framework for fostering productive convergences among its forces. It argues that the 2020s and 2030s will be pivotal decades, in which the current global conjuncture, characterized by intensifying economic turmoil, climate change, and ecological crises, will translate into increased mass discontent, global polarization, political instabilities, and social unrest across the world. However, there is no reason to believe that this intensification of crises will automatically result in the end of unproductive divisions among the global left. Thus, we argue that a higher level of proactivism, at a meta-ideological standing, which we refer to here as the ‘Commonist Project’, is both necessary and possible. The article proposes a fourfold framework of how to promote sustainable convergences and solidarities, going beyond temporary pragmatic coalitions and alliances. This proposal draws on the idea of ‘commoning transformative knowledge’, realized through creating new transversal integrative assemblages of alternative-futures-making initiatives. In the end, the argument is empirically supported by drawing on the authors’ critical reflections on their own cross-organizational experiences of fostering dialogic and praxis-based methodologies across various groups and forces pursuing post-capitalist alternatives through the People’s Sovereignty Network.
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Research on Kurdish women has burgeoned during the last decade, which is a positive sign of the growing interest regarding a highly marginalized population and region. However, most of these works contain theoretical and methodological inadequacies, fallacies and contradictory messages regarding the agency, or lack of it, of Kurdish women, along with an orientalist approach. Using feminist rhetorical criticism and discourse approaches, together with a focus on intersectionality, orientalism and postcolonial feminism, I examine some existing studies on Kurdish women and attempt to uncover the construction of and implications about Kurdish women. I also examine the degrees to which these studies promote narratives that uphold assumptions on gender and implicitly contribute to traditional ideologies of patriarchy and the stigma of being westernized. By demonstrating the significance of a plural model, which examines the lived realities of women, their negotiations and struggles, I urge a fresh approach to the discursive and contextual practice of scholarship on Kurdish women.
When the Arab Spring gave way to demonstrations in Syria in 2011, the Kurds in the country were also full of hope. While they were going into the streets, the Kurdish political parties were debating what their people should do and offering competing visions for the future. Then in July 2012, the regime unexpectedly withdrew its forces from the Kurdish regions (Rojava). Suddenly, a revolutionary situation emerged in Rojava: a mobilized population and several political parties claiming leadership and offering competing political projects for a new society. Among these parties, only the Democratic Union Party (PYD) managed to move into the power vacuum and establish its control over large areas. Its rivals were unable to stop the rapid rise of this relatively young organization and fast erosion of their own base. How did the PYD manage to become the dominant organization even though it had rarely drawn attention before the civil war? This question raises the larger problem of how a revolutionary organization becomes the dominant one among competitors. Even though multiple organizations competing in a single revolution is a recurrent phenomenon, we still lack a comprehensive framework specifically focusing on this issue. In this paper, I argue for an approach based on legitimation: for people to follow a certain organization over others, they should see it as a legitimate leader. Bringing together the insights of the political and organizational legitimacy literatures, I identify three processes of legitimation for revolutionary organizations: ideological/normative congruence, effective organizational capacity, and accumulation of prestige. Drawing upon participant observation and 30 in‐depth interviews with Kurdish individuals collected during fieldwork in Iraq, Germany, and the United States between 2016 and 2019, I demonstrate that the PYD has outperformed its contenders and managed to legitimate its leadership through these three processes.
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Anarchist practice is localist and anarchist theory has generally followed in its disregard for the structures of global politics and the ways in which these undermine the possibility of the anarchist ideals. In this paper I set out one set of reasons as to why this state of affairs has come about and go back to the origins of anarchist thought to see if we can make sense of this contemporary context. I argue that a better understanding, a founding schism between Proudhon’s revolutionary conservatism and Bakunin’s revolutionary pan-Slavism can help us think through how we might consider ‘the international’ with greater sophistication vis-à-vis anarchist praxis. What I will argue is that Bakunin’s position has stood the test of time within the anarchist movement, but that this is an unfortunate and counterproductive state of affairs.
Until recently, dominant theoretical paradigms in the comparative social sciences did not highlight states as organizational structures or as potentially autonomous actors. Indeed, the term 'state' was rarely used. Current work, however, increasingly views the state as an agent which, although influenced by the society that surrounds it, also shapes social and political processes. The contributors to this volume, which includes some of the best recent interdisciplinary scholarship on states in relation to social structures, make use of theoretically engaged comparative and historical investigations to provide improved conceptualizations of states and how they operate. Each of the book's major parts presents a related set of analytical issues about modern states, which are explored in the context of a wide range of times and places, both contemporary and historical, and in developing and advanced-industrial nations. The first part examines state strategies in newly developing countries. The second part analyzes war making and state making in early modern Europe, and discusses states in relation to the post-World War II international economy. The third part pursues new insights into how states influence political cleavages and collective action. In the final chapter, the editors bring together the questions raised by the contributors and suggest tentative conclusions that emerge from an overview of all the articles. As a programmatic work that proposes new directions for the analysis of modern states, the volume will appeal to a wide range of teachers and students of political science, political economy, sociology, history, and anthropology.
Between 1979 and 1986 Iran, Nicaragua, and the Philippines underwent dramatic political and social revolutions. This book examines the conditions and processes that gave rise to revolutions and their outcomes, through an in-depth analysis of economic and political developments in these countries. The book studies the background to revolution provided by state formation and development, economic intervention, the states' vulnerabilities, and the social consequences of their development policies. Extensive primary data is used to analyze the impact of the collective actions and ideologies of the major social groups involved - students, clergy, workers, and capitalists - and how they affected the potential for a successful revolutionary outcome. Parsa challenges prevailing theories of social revolution and develops an alternative model that incorporates variables from a wide variety of perspectives. His book provides a valuable framework within which to understand the causes of revolutions, their mechanics and development, and their outcomes.
This intervention concerns the ways in which law and violence are being reorganized in Rojava. Based on observations and interviews I conducted in the Jazira canton of Rojava, I argue that, through democratic autonomy, the Rojava revolution poses a challenge to the politics of sovereignty and biopolitics. While democratic autonomy involves the institutionalization of radical democracy, radical democracy needs to be defended against attacks of capital, state, and patriarchy. The question of how such defense can be organized without reproducing the “magic” of the state and law at an everyday level is crucial for the revolution. I address the debates and practices in Rojava developing around this question and conclude that, rather than speaking about a model in Rojava, we should speak of a movement residing in the dialectic between state-ness and society.
Analyzing the causes behind thirty six revolutions in the Third World between 1910 and the present, this text attempts to explain why so few revolutions have succeeded, while so many have failed. The book is divided into chapters that treat particular sets of revolutions including the great social revolutions of Mexico (1910), China (1949), Cuba (1959), Iran (1979)and Nicaragua (1979), the anticolonial revolutions in Algeria, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe from the 1940s to the 1970s, and the failed revolutionary attempts in El Salvador, Peru, and elsewhere.
During the years in which the women's liberation movement has been taking shape, a great emphasis has been placed on what are called leaderless, structureless groups as the main form of the movement. The source of this idea was a natural reaction against the overstructured society in which most of us found ourselves, the inevitable control this gave others over our lives, and the continual elitism of the Left and similar groups among those who were supposedly fighting this over-structuredness. The idea of structurelessness, however, has moved from a healthy counter to these tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right. The idea is as little examined as the term is much used, but it has become an intrinsic and unquestioned part of women's liberation ideology. For the early development of the movement this did not much matter. It early defined its main method as consciousness raising, and the structureless rap group was an excellent means to this end. Its looseness and informality encouraged participation in discussion and the often supportive atmosphere elicited personal insight. If nothing more concrete than personal insight ever resulted from these groups, that did not much matter, because their purpose did not really extend beyond this.
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