[P2P-F] Fwd: [NetworkedLabour] From Chiapas to Rojava: seas divide us, autonomy binds us via ROARmag

Michel Bauwens michel at p2pfoundation.net
Wed Feb 18 17:58:01 CET 2015

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From: Örsan Şenalp <orsan1234 at gmail.com>
Date: Wed, Feb 18, 2015 at 9:27 PM
Subject: [NetworkedLabour] From Chiapas to Rojava: seas divide us, autonomy
binds us via ROARmag
To: "networkedlabour at lists.contrast.org" <networkedlabour at lists.contrast.org

Despite being continents apart, the struggles of the Kurds and Zapatistas
share a similar purpose: to resist capitalism, liberate women and build

– Image: Tierra y Libertad by Matt Verges (can be ordered as a poster here).

Power to the people can only be put into practice when the power exercised
by social elites is dissolved into the people.

― Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism

Only six months ago very few people had ever heard of Kobani. But when ISIS
launched its futile attack on the town in September 2014, the little
Kurdish stronghold quickly became a major focal point in the struggle
against the religious extremists. In the months that followed, Kobani was
transformed into an international symbol of resistance, compared to both
Barcelona and Stalingrad for its role as a bulwark against fascism.

The brave resistance of the People’s and Women’s Defense Units (YPG and
YPJ) was praised by a broad spectrum of groups and individuals — from
anarchists, leftists and liberals to right-wing conservatives — who
expressed sympathy and admiration for the men and women of Kobani in their
historical battle against the forces of ISIS.

As a result, the mainstream media was soon forced to break its silence on
the plight of the Kurds of Northern Syria, who had declared their autonomy
in the summer of 2012. Numerous articles and news stories depicted the
“toughness” and determination of the Kurdish fighters, often with a dose of
romanticization. Nonetheless, the media attention was often selective and
partial. The very essence of the political project in Rojava (Western
Kurdistan) went unreported and Western journalists generally preferred to
present the resistance in Kobani as an inexplicable exception to the
supposed barbarism of the Middle East.

Unsurprisingly, the victorious flag of the YPG/YPJ brandishing the iconic
red star was not a pleasing image to the eyes of the Western powers. The
autonomous cantons of Rojava represent a homegrown solution to the
conflicts in the Middle East, focusing on gender equality, environmental
sustainability and horizontal democratic processes including all different
ethnic and social groups, while simultaneously resisting the terror from
ISIS and rejecting both liberal democracy and capitalist modernity.

Although many in the West preferred to stay silent on the issue, the
Kurdish activist and academic Dilar Dirik has rightly claimed that the
ideological foundations of the Kurdish movement for democratic autonomy are
key to understanding the spirit that has inspired the Kobani resistance.

Enough is enough!

As the battle for every street and corner of the city intensified, Kobani
managed to capture the imagination of the global left — and of
left-libertarian groups in particular — as a symbol of resistance. It was
not without reason that the Turkish Marxist-Leninist group MLKP, which
joined the YPG/YPJ on the battlefield, raised the flag of the Spanish
Republic over the ruins of the city on the day of its liberation while
calling for the formation of International Brigades, following the example
of the Spanish Revolution.

It was not necessarily the battle for Kobani itself, but the libertarian
essence of the cantons of Rojava, the implementation of direct democracy at
the grassroots, and the participation of women in the autonomous government
that gave grounds to such historical comparisons. But Rojava was not just
compared to revolutionary Catalonia. Another striking comparison — with the
struggle of the Zapatistas for autonomy in the south of Mexico — might in
fact be key to understanding the paradigm of the revolution in Kurdistan
and what it means for those who believe that another world is possible.

Ever since it first appeared on the scene in the early 1990s, the Zapatista
movement has probably been one of the most symbolic and most influential
elements of the revolutionary imagination worldwide. In the morning of
January 1, 1994, an unknown guerrilla force composed of indigenous Mayas
took over the main towns of Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. The military
operation was carried out with strategic brilliance and combined with an
innovative use of the internet it resonated around the globe, inspiring
international solidarity and the emergence of the Global Justice Movement.

The Zapatistas rebelled against neoliberalism and the social and cultural
genocide of the indigenous population of Mexico. Ya Basta!, or ‘Enough is
Enough!’, was the battle cry of the rebellion which was the “product of 500
years of oppression,” as the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle
stated. The Zapatistas rose up in arms right as global capital was
celebrating the presumed end of history, and the idea of social revolution
seemed to be a romantic anachronism that belonged to the past. The
Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) was soon forced out of the
cities after intense battles with the federal army that lasted for twelve
days. However, it turned out that the deep horizontal organization of the
indigenous communities could not be eradicated by any state terror or
military campaigns.

The masked spokesperson of the rebel army, Subcomandante Marcos, challenged
the notion of the historical vanguard and opposed to it the idea of
“revolution from below,” a form of social struggle that does not aim to
take over state power but rather seeks to abolish it. This
conceptualization of autonomy and direct democracy then became central to
many of the mass anti-capitalist movements we have seen since — from the
protests at Seattle and Genoa to the occupations of Syntagma, Puerta del
Sol and Zuccotti Park.

A shared historical trajectory

The roots of the struggle for democratic autonomy in Rojava can be found in
the history of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the organization that
has been central to the Kurdish liberation movement ever since its creation
in 1978. The PKK was established as a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group in
Northern Kurdistan (Southeastern Turkey) combining a form of Kurdish
nationalism with the struggle for social emancipation. Under the leadership
of Abdullah Öcalan it grew into a substantial guerrilla force that managed
to withstand the attacks of NATO’s second biggest army in a conflict that
claimed the lives of more than 40.000 people over the course of thirty

The Turkish state displaced hundreds of thousands and reportedly used
torture, assassination and rape against the civilian population. Yet it did
not manage to break the Kurdish resistance. Since its inception, the PKK
has expanded its influence both in Turkey and in the other parts of
Kurdistan. The leading political force in the Rojava revolution — the
Democratic Union Party (PYD) — was founded as the PKK’s sister organization
in Syria after the former had been banned in the late 1990s. Currently, the
two organizations are connected through the Kurdistan Communities’ Union
(KCK), the umbrella organization that encompasses various revolutionary and
political groups sharing the ideas of the PKK.

The ideology uniting the different civil and revolutionary groups in the
KCK is called democratic confederalism and is based on the ideas of the US
anarchist Murray Bookchin, who argued in favor of a non-hierarchical
society based on social ecology, libertarian municipalism and direct
democracy. After Öcalan was captured by the Turkish state in 1999 and
sentenced to life imprisonment, he rejected the PKK’s Marxist-Leninist
past. Instead, he turned towards Bookchin, leading to a conviction that
local and regional autonomy for Kurdish communities is in fact the most
viable solution.

Although the Zapatistas are famous for their autonomous self-governance and
rejection of the notion of a historical vanguard, the roots of the
Zapatista Army of National Liberation were similarly Marxist-Leninist in
nature. Just like the PKK, the Zapatistas’ ideas of self-governance and
revolution from below were a product of a long historical evolution.

The EZLN was founded in 1983 by a group of urban guerrillas who decided to
start a revolutionary cell among the indigenous population in Chiapas,
organize a military force and eventually take state power through guerrilla
warfare. Soon they realized that their vanguardist ideological dogma was
not applicable to the cultural realities of the local communities, and they
started learning from the indigenous peoples’ traditions of communal
governance. Thus Zapatismo was born as a fusion between Western Marxism and
the experience and knowledge of the native American population that has
been resisting the colonial Spanish state and the federal Mexican state for
five centuries.

This shared ideological trajectory of the two guerrilla organizations
demonstrates a historical turn in contemporary understandings of the
revolutionary process. The Zapatista uprising and the construction of
autonomy in Chiapas marked a break with the traditional strategy of
foquismo, inspired predominantly by the Cuban Revolution. The rejection of
vanguardism was made very clear in a letter Subcomandante Marcos wrote to
the Basque liberation movement ETA, wherein he clearly stated: “I shit on
all revolutionary vanguards on this planet.”

In Chiapas, it is not the vanguard that leads the people — it is up to the
people themselves to build the revolution from below and sustain it as
such. Now this is the logic the PKK has been shifting towards in the last
decade under the influence of Murray Bookchin, demonstrating its
transformation from a movement for the people into a movement of the people.

Cantons and Caracoles

Probably the most important similarity between the revolutions in Rojava
and Chiapas is the social and political re-organization that is taking
place in both regions on the basis of the libertarian socialist worldview
of the PKK and EZLN.

The Zapatistas’ struggle for autonomy originated from the failure of the
peace negotiations with the Mexican government after the uprising in 1994.
During the peace negotiations the rebels demanded that the government
adhere to the San Andres accords, which gave the indigenous people the
right to greater self-determination over education, justice and political
organization based on their traditions as well as communal control over
land and local resources.

These accords were never implemented by the government and in 2001
President Fox backed an edited version that was passed by Congress but that
did not meet the demands of the Zapatistas and the other groups of the
indigenous resistance. Two years later, the EZLN created five rebel zones,
or Caracoles (“snails” in English), that now serve as administrative
centers. The name Caracoles represented the particular revolutionary
temporality of the Zapatistas: “We are doing it ourselves, we learn in the
process and we advance. Slowly, but we advance.”

The Caracoles include three levels of autonomous government: the community,
the municipality and the Council of Good Government. The first two are
based on grassroots assemblies; the Councils of Good Government are elected
but with the intention to get as many people as possible to participate in
the councils over the years through a principle of rotation. The Caracoles
have their own education, healthcare and justice systems, as well as
cooperatives producing coffee, creating handicrafts and rearing cattle,
among other things.

In some way, the cantons in Rojava resemble the Caracoles. They were
proclaimed by the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) in 2014 and
function through the newly established popular assemblies and People’s
Councils. Women participate equally in decision-making processes and are
represented in all elected positions, which are always shared by a man and
a woman.

All ethnic groups are represented in the different councils and its
institutions. Healthcare and education are also guaranteed by the system of
democratic confederalism. Recently the first Rojavan university, the
Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy, opened its doors with plans to
challenge the hierarchical structure of education and to provide a
different approach to learning.

Just as is the case with the Zapatistas, the revolution in Rojava envisions
itself as a possible solution to the problems of the whole country and the
region as a whole. It is not just an expression of separatist tendencies.
As a delegation of academics from Europe and North America that visited
Rojava recently claimed, this genuinely democratic system points to a
different future for the Middle East — a future based on popular
participation, the liberation of women and a just peace between different
ethnic groups.

A women’s revolution

Gender has always been central to the Zapatista revolution. Before the
dissemination of autonomous forms of organization and the adoption of
women’s liberation as central to the struggle, the position of women was
marked by exploitation, marginalization, forced marriage, physical violence
and discrimination.

This is why Subcomandante Marcos claims that the uprising started not in
1994 but already one year before, with the adoption of the Women’s
Revolutionary Law in 1993. This law set the framework for gender equality
and justice, guaranteeing the rights to personal autonomy, emancipation and
dignity of the women in rebel territory. Today women participate at all
levels of government and run their own cooperatives and economic structures
to guarantee their economic independence.

Women still form a large part of the ranks of the Zapatista guerrilla force
and take high positions in its military command. The takeover of San
Cristobal de las Casas, the most important city the EZLN captured in the
1994 uprising, was headed by Comandante Ramona, who was also the first
Zapatista to be sent to Mexico City to represent the movement in
negotiations with the government.

The mass involvement of indigenous women in the political project of the
Zapatistas is easily compared to the participation of women in the defense
of Kobani and in the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) more generally. The
bravery and determination of Kurdish women in the war against ISIS is a
product of a long tradition of women’s participation in the armed struggle
for social liberation in Kurdistan. Women play an important role in the PKK
and gender liberation has long taken central place in the Kurdish struggle.

The Rojava revolution has strongly emphasized women’s liberation as
indispensable for the liberation of society as a whole. The theoretical
framework that puts the dismantling of patriarchy at the center of the
struggle is referred to as “jineology” (jîn meaning woman in Kurdish). The
application of this concept has resulted in an unprecedented empowerment of
women — a remarkable achievement not just in the context of the Middle East
but also in comparison to Western liberal feminism.

The women’s assemblies, cooperative structures and women’s militias are the
beating heart of the Rojava revolution, which is considered incomplete as
long as it does not destroy the patriarchal structures at the basis of
capitalist society. As Janet Biehl wrote after her recent visit to Rojava,
in the Rojava revolution women fulfill the role that the (male) proletariat
fulfilled in the revolutions of the 20th century.

The road to autonomy

The Ecology of Freedom is probably the most important among Bookchin’s
works, and the concept of social ecology developed in this book has been
actively adopted by the revolutionaries in Rojava. Bookchin was convinced
that “the very notion of the domination of nature by man stems from the
very real domination of human by human.” By connecting capitalism,
patriarchy and environmental destruction, he identified their combined
abolition as the only way forward towards a just society.

A similar holistic approach has been advocated and implemented by the
Zapatistas as well. Sustainability has been an important point of reference
in Chiapas, especially since the creation of the Caracoles in 2003. The
autonomous government has been trying to recuperate ancestral knowledge
about sustainable land use and combine it with newer agro-ecological
practices. This logic is not only a matter of improving the living
conditions in the communities and avoiding the use of agrochemicals, it
also constitutes a rejection of the idea that large-scale export-oriented
industrial agriculture is superior to the “primitive” way the indigenous
people work the land.

The similarities between the system of democratic confederalism that is
being developed in Western Kurdistan and the autonomy being constructed in
Chiapas go far beyond the few points I have stressed in this article. From
slogans such as Ya Basta! — adapted in Kurdish as êdî bes e! — to the
development of grassroots democracy, communal economic structures and the
participation of women, the similar paths of the Kurdish movement and the
Zapatistas both demonstrate a decisive break with the vanguardist notion of
Marxism-Leninism and a new approach to revolution — emerging from below and
aiming at the wholesale liberation of society and its reorganization into a
non-hierarchical direction.

Although both movements have received some bitter criticism from the more
sectarian elements on the left, the very fact that the only major and
successful experiments in revolutionary social change originate from
non-Western, marginalized and colonized groups, should be considered a slap
in the face of the white and privileged dogmatic “revolutionaries” of the
global North who have hardly been successful in challenging oppression in
their own countries but who still believe it is their judgment to decide
what revolution looks like.

In reality, the struggles in Rojava and Chiapas are powerful examples to
the world, demonstrating the vast potential of grassroots self-organization
and the importance of communal ties to counter the social atomization
wrought by capitalism. Moreover, they are forcing many on the Western left
— including some anarchists — to reconsider their colonial mindsets and
ideological dogmatism.

A world without capitalism, hierarchy, domination and environmental
destruction — or as the Zapatistas would say, a world in which many worlds
are possible — has often been depicted as “utopian” and “unrealistic.” Yet
this world is not some future mirage that comes to us from the books: it is
already being constructed by the Zapatistas and the Kurds, allowing us to
re-imagine what radical social change looks like and providing a possible
model for our own struggles back home. The red stars that shine over
Chiapas and Rojava shed light on the way to liberation. If we need to
summarize in one word what brings these two struggles together, it would
definitely be autonomy.

Petar Stanchev is finishing a degree in Latin American Studies and Human
Rights at the University of Essex. He has previously lived and studied in
Mexico and has been involved in the Zapatista solidarity movement for four
years. This article was originally published at Kurdish Question and has
been edited and republished with the author’s permission.

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