“ ‘The victory of capitalism is in its ability to capture the mind.’ Whereas a hundred years ago, if you were poor you would rebel; now if you are poor, you dream of winning the lottery.”

Quoting PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan at the most recent Peace in Kurdistan Campaign/Roj Women event at SOAS University, Havin Guneser of the International Initiative – Freedom for Ocalan Campaign gave a rich exploration of how one of the world’s most vibrant contemporary anti-capitalist rebellions led not only to victory in Kobane following a devastating 6-month siege by ISIS, but the development of a genuine social revolution. As Guneser explained, it was that social revolution, now embedded in the personal lives and working institutions of the people living in Rojava, that ultimately ensured that Kobane had the strength to fight off ISIS attacks.

Providing much needed context for a captivated audience, Guneser explained that the revolution taking place in Rojava did not come out of nowhere, but in reality grew out of a 40-year movement for liberation and self-determination in which the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and their imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan developed theories of revolutionary struggle and social change that have proved highly resilient and increasingly credible. Indeed, when the PKK was formed and Ocalan was forced out of Turkey into Syria, Kobane was one of the first cities in which he organised.

When the PKK emerged in 1978, the Kurdish people had already faced decades of denial and repression of various forms in all four states in which they resided; the international acceptance of this denial, even by states often at odds with each other, meant that according to the PKK, Kurdistan was an international colony.

Much like many national liberation and anti-colonial movements across the world at that time, the PKK became engaged in a fight against both colonialism and capitalism, but sought to do by addressing critical concerns that had been stumbling blocks for revolutionary movements in the past – the question of the nation state; the question of women’s freedom; and the question of violence. It was through historical study and reflexive praxis on these issues that the concepts of Democratic Autonomy and Democratic Modernity, terms coined by Ocalan and embodied by the autonomous social and political institutions emerging in Rojava and Bakur (north Kurdistan, Turkey), came into being.

You can watch Havin’s talk in full here:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwLF6SQIOvE]

The afternoon’s second speaker, anthropologist and author David Graeber, likened the PKK movement to the Zapatistas in their democratic form and organising principles. Having recently been part of a delegation to Cezire Canton, Graeber offered the audience an insight into how democratic autonomy was being implemented in Rojava. What most struck him, he said was the ‘incredibly difficult circumstances people are living in and the ambition of their vision’. Rojava is still under total embargo and the border with Turkey remains stubbornly closed, and yet despite being in desperate need of food, water and basic medical supplies, this experiment in participatory, bottom-up democracy is still thriving.

For example, Graber described one visit to an academy for the Asayish (local police forces), where he was told that their ultimate plan was to give everybody 6 weeks of police training and then abolish the police. He also spoke about Peace and Justice Committees which are responsible for local level justice work and use forms of restorative rather than punitive justice for perpetrators of crime; women’s organisations that can veto any assembly decision on the basis that it impacts women’s freedom; and the many academies, which have been set up to de-professionalise and democratise the production of knowledge. These academies exist for many areas of society and are a key part of the revolutionary process because repression often continues through the centralisation of expertise.

Below is David’s talk in full, along with the Q&A section of the event:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4PVYxa28eE&w=560&h=315]

While it is clear that Rojava will face serious obstacles for the future, the possibilities that it presents for Syria and the region are many, particularly for those traditionally most excluded by the present systems.

Thank you to Havin Guneser and David Graeber for their presentations; to Margaret Owen for chairing the event and to Memed for filming on the day.