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Jonas Staal on stateless democracy among the Kurds


Image: Jonas Staal, from the series Anatomy of a Revolution—Rojava, 2014. Classroom for ideological education of the People’s Defense Units (YPG).

The March issue of e-flux journal includes the third and final installment of Jonas Staal’s series of “Stateless Democracy” articles. Previous installments have focused on marginalized ethnic groups in Mali, Mexico, and the Middle East who have, by choice or by necessity, practiced democratic self-government outside the structures of the traditional nation-state. The third installment, entitled “To Make a World, Part III: Stateless Democracy,” concentrates on the Kurds of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. In particular, Staal examines the “Rojava Revolution” that has been taking place in Syrian Kurdistan over the past few years:

The Rojava Revolution runs parallel to what became known as the Arab Spring of 2012, although its roots in recent Syrian history go back to the 1960s, when Syrian Kurds were massively stripped of their citizenship. An even more recent precedent for the Rojava Revolution was the Qamishli uprising in 2004, during which the ruling regime of Bashar al-Assad killed dozens of Kurds who displayed their flags and other signs of national and cultural identity. So when the Arab Spring hit Syria in 2012, they were ready …

Most stunning is that rather than forming a “reformist” attitude towards the nation-state and its politics of cultural unification and centralist administration, the Rojava Revolution rejects the model of the nation-state all together. The model of “democratic confederalism” and its aim of establishing “democratic autonomy”—two concepts central to the Rojava Revolution—strive to practice democracy without the construct of the nation-state …

When I attend the people’s council of Qamishli, candidates are presenting themselves to obtain the position of new co-chair. Each of the city’s neighborhood councils and cooperatives have brought their candidates forward. A long strip of yellow-red-green cloth serves as backdrop upon which is written: “Everything for a Free Life and the Foundation of a Democratic Society.” In the front, the candidates enter and leave the stage, next to two tables with the elected selection committee keeping track of procedure. To the right of the stage is a photo of Öcalan on a modest, draped pedestal. But most importantly—as I realize while observing the packed space—the people’s council is a theater. It is a theater of the stateless, where the Rojava Revolution is condensed down to its ultimate performance: the practice of self-governance, of self-determination, performing life without approval. In the face of our global crises in politics, the economy, and ecology, Rojava’s stateless democracy proposes a political horizon that concerns us all.

Read the full article on the e-flux journal website.