Discover more from Inhabit: Territories
On the Autonomy of Radical Democratic Communities
An interview with historian Nikolaus Brauns
Interview by Kevin Rittberger
This interview with historian Nikolaus Brauns was first published in the weeks before two devastating earthquakes struck the region of Kurdistan, which straddles northern Syria and southern Turkey. These disasters which killed and displaced thousands of people were only compounded by the Turkish government’s blocking the delivery of aid and instrumentalizing the earthquake for its own political purposes. Donations for earthquake relief can be sent to the Kurdish Red Crescent.
Photos by Lynsey Addario and Jo Magpie.
What does “autonomy” mean? What does it stand for, are there aspects of its meaning that tend to bother you?
Autonomy is often understood in the sense of complete self-determination and independence. But clearly it is not really possible for individuals to live ‘autonomously’ in this sense, since people are social beings. Humans are shaped by society and dependent on others for survival. I translate autonomy as ‘self-legislation,’ i.e. as the possibility and the right of communities to give themselves rules and laws by which they want to live.
In ancient Greek, “autonomy” is a composite of auto and nomos, where “auto” means "self" or "own" and nomos refers to "agreement" or "law.” Self-legislation or self-agreement, as I like to translate autonomy, is free from domination. I too think that by definition it cannot be tied to the individual, but needs the group or community to govern itself. Democracy, after all, actually carries that very promise. Is there a need for autonomy within democracy?
Democracy is not an absence of rule. Even in the ideal case of a radical democracy (as opposed to bourgeois parliamentarism), it signifies the rule of the majority over a minority. This is precisely why efforts toward autonomy are needed within democracy to protect particularly oppressed communities and, in general, those communities with particular needs that are not in opposition to the interests of the majority—but also are not represented by the majority. Radical democracy could also be expanded by allowing such groups to join together autonomously, to regulate matters that affect them alone, and to bring their demands and needs collectively into the democratic decision-making process.
Can you tell us something about the emergence of autonomous self-government in northern Syria?
The Rojava revolution, which gave rise to the democratic self-government of northern and eastern Syria that has now existed for ten years, took place against the background of the civil war in Syria. In 2011 the Kurds, who live mainly in the areas where Syria borders Turkey and Iraq, did not side with the Arab-chauvinist Assad government. For decades the Assad government has denied them basic rights, abducted, tortured, and murdered thousands of their activists, and exploited their grain and oil-rich regions through internal colonialism. The Kurds supported the opposition groups, but these were also dominated by Arab nationalists and to a large extent by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood also based its operations out of and remained under the influence of Turkey, which denied the Kurds recognition and the right to self-determination. Under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a force based on the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, underground committees were set up to provide for and defend the population. When the Syrian civil war threatened to spread to Rojava, the PYD took advantage of the weakness of the Baath regime in the summer of 2012. The regime had withdrawn most of its forces to other parts of the country, and so the PYD mobilized the population to take power and develop a council-system form of self-government.
In the big cities of Qamishli and Hasaka, the old administration of the Ba'ath Party was still intact and there was still the Syrian military there, and in some districts the residents still support the government in Damascus to this day. The self-government has never attempted to drive the Ba'athists out of these cities militarily, as this would have driven a wedge between Kurds and Arabs. Instead, the self-government tried to work more effectively and better than the state bureaucracy. The state courts, for example, were not closed, but a new jurisdiction was established that was more oriented towards the idea of reconciliation than punishment. Or public services like garbage collection, road repairs, or health care could be managed much more effectively by the council system, which went down to street level, than by the state bureaucracy, in which applications got stuck and funds disappeared. The practical example convinced many people.
How does the council system work? And what do those who are participating in it think about it?
The smallest unit of self-government is the commune, which brings together the residents of a neighborhood, street, or village and takes care of day-to-day affairs. From waste disposal to health care—especially important during the pandemic—to settling disputes or supporting women who are exposed to violence in their families. Then there are council structures at district and city level, at the canton1 level and so on.
For all council bodies, women must comprise at least 40% of the participants—with the exception of those councils that are exclusively for women, of course. Each council has two chairpersons, a man and a woman. In addition to the directly elected council delegates, various groups also send representatives to the councils, such as women's and youth associations, trade unions, ethnic and religious communities, and so forth.
According to participants, the Northeast Syrian self-government is not a “state.” But perhaps we should rather say that it is something other than a “nation-state.” Because if there are administrative structures, councils, an army and—last but not least—prisons, then, as I understand it, we are definitely dealing with a state. But in this case, it is a form of self-government built around councils or a municipality that not only represents the majority of the population, but also involves them as far as possible in active participation. Academies have been created at many levels which also serve an important function, because they are intended to provide the education necessary for extending democratic participation. This is not about propaganda from above, but about those active in the council movement sharing in a process of collective self-education.
The economy in north-east Syria remains capitalist. Agriculture is predominant. But the autonomous administration strives to push back private capitalism by setting up cooperatives—agricultural cooperatives, production cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, and also women's cooperatives, which are intended to enable women to earn their own income independent of husbands or fathers. However, this development is still in its infancy. The social contract—a kind of constitution—guarantees the protection of private property, but forbids the private appropriation of mineral resources. The sometimes contradictory economic ideas in this social contract could best be described as anti-neoliberal and comparatively egalitarian.
Can you tell us about the people you met in this self-governing region? How does this form of autonomy affect people in concrete terms?
The revolution suddenly turned an unbelievable number of people, who previously had not and could not take part in social life at all, into social actors. I am thinking of men of retirement age who have volunteered to join the Asayiş2—a police militia operating under the councils—to keep their neighborhoods safe in the face of jihadist attacks. I am reminded of a religious Arab woman in Qamishli who told me that in her previous life—by which she meant before the revolution—she was at home all day doing housework and was bored. Now she suddenly has no time for housework and no longer watches TV because she has to go to committee meetings, house calls in the neighborhood, and other social activities every day, as she told me with a laugh. For this woman, who had been tied up in conservative family structures all her life, the revolution was also a very personal awakening, a liberation from patriarchal chains. I'm also thinking here of the children of a Kurdish family in Derik, with whom I once stayed. They said that their teachers used to hit them, but now they can't do it anymore because they are comrades. The new social relationships after the revolution were already evident there.
I think of the young women I spoke to in a position of the YPJ, the Women's Defense Units. For these women, many just 18 or 20 years old, it was clear that even after the military victory over the jihadists, they did not want to go back to their old lives. These women could no longer imagine being dependent on a husband, locked at home and responsible for the household and children. They wanted to continue their education and remain active in society, not necessarily in the armed forces, of course.
But of course there are also people in Rojava who have no desire to get involved in society and to get involved in self-government and who simply want to lead a quiet and good life. Not everyone there is a revolutionary.
Personally, I am more familiar with the autonomous efforts of indigenous peoples such as the Mapuche in Chile, which have been very strongly associated with protests against neoliberalism since 2012. But their slogans like "Raizes & Tierra" (Roots & Earth) or "Sangre & Tierra" (Blood & Soil) have associations for Germans that make translating these struggles very problematic. In Germany today, there are settler movements that express themselves in a decidedly völkisch, racist, anti-Semitic manner—and refer to themselves as “autonomous.” What do you think should be emphasized when movements for autonomy are formed in such a reactionary and exclusive way?
In order to understand the character of movements for autonomy, we should not only get caught up in words or appearances, but we must also look at the economy.
In a rural society, the question of land naturally plays the central role. And when one's own heritage and culture is then emphasized, it is directed against colonizing efforts—against multinational corporations, the advance of neoliberalism, the displacement of subsistence farming by industrially operated agriculture and the expropriation of indebted small farmers. As I understand it, the Mapuche slogan "Sangre & Tierra" means something like "The land must belong to those who have always cultivated it." That is something completely different from the nationalist “blood-and-soil” ideology of the Nazis, who used it to justify genocide and their war of conquest and annihilation in Eastern Europe.
Certainly, even within the framework of legitimate attempts at autonomy formed as resistance to colonialism or neoliberalism, there are also reactionary elements which are fed, for example, from the feudal and patriarchal social structures of the societies. Where religion merges with aspirations for autonomy, this can indeed strengthen an autonomous movement as a whole, but its reactionary sides are also promoted—for example in the form of a conservative image of women and families. In Rojava and in the Kurdish freedom movement, we can see how attempts are being made, on the one hand, to involve conservative religious groups in the struggle for autonomy and, on the other, to counteract the reactionary developments associated with this by building up the women's movement, women's councils, and women's militias. In the Kurdish parts of Turkey, there is a prayer room in every office of the left-wing HDP, which is an umbrella party bringing together the Kurdish movement with Turkish socialists and feminists. This is a concession to the religious character of the population. But in every HDP office we also find a dedicated women's room where the women can gather autonomously.
Finally—and this is also why I refer to the analysis of the economy—we experience again and again privileged and rich regions striving for autonomy, which do not want to share their wealth in natural resources with poorer parts of the country. Of course, this is nothing progressive. And the völkisch settlers in Germany mentioned are—even if they are sometimes organized in a grassroots-democratic way—a thoroughly reactionary project based on the racist exclusion of all people perceived as foreign by blood. I prefer to praise the Basque independence movement's offer that anyone can participate, no matter where they come from or what their roots are, as long as they feel Basque and learn the Basque language.
Could you envision a larger federation of such self-governing regions for the future?
Especially today, with the current level of development of productive power and the associated opportunities for communication and networking, it seems to me much easier to create a large federation of self-governing regions in which only a few tasks would be delegated to a central or higher-level coordinating body for matters such as foreign policy, monetary policy, or the provision of central infrastructure such as railways. In addition, there would have to be a financial equalization fund at the central level to redistribute wealth between rich and poor regions. Democratic self-government must not end at the factory buildings and company headquarters. Democracy must also extend to the central area of the economy.
Here in Europe, too, I can well imagine a democratic federation as a counter-model to the EU, which may appear as a federal association, but in which more and more powers are being handed over to a distant Brussels bureaucracy, while the power of multinational corporations is simultaneously being steadily strengthened. In response to this, the aim should not be to call for a return to the nation-state or for a Europe of regions divided along ethnic or linguistic borders, as propagated by traditionalist regional parties. Rather, I imagine a union of council republics, which in turn are associations of municipal communes. For me, the decisive factor in such a federal association is the democratic content of its respective members. And that has to start on the ground, at the lowest level. Wherever people live, work, and study, they have to form councils in order to regulate their direct affairs themselves in a grassroots-democratic manner. From there delegates should then be elected to higher councils at, say, the city level and so on. But I wouldn't give a fixed scheme in detail, because different regions have their own democratic traditions from which they can draw.
If a state as a council or municipal-communal state is built from the bottom up, and involves a larger part of the population in active administration, design, and, last but not least, defense, then it is certainly stronger and more stable than authoritarian regimes that only rely on violence, fear, and a detached state bureaucracy.
The climate crisis has made the need to act on a global level evident. How can the autonomous action of such non-exclusive communities be synchronized with the global need for action?
It is clear that, on a global level, if we have any chance of getting the climate crisis under control, it will only be through fundamental system change. However, self-organized communities in particular can better implement the necessary local requirements through a different type of production and agriculture, which is not oriented towards profit but towards the needs of the local people. Autonomy should also include a certain form of food autonomy—as far as that is possible in our global world. That means greater reliance on locally grown produce rather than importing food thousands of miles away. Basically, I think the question of ecology should be as important for autonomously organized communities and self-governing regions as the question of democratic self-organization.
A small territorial administrative district.
While often referred to as “police,” the Asayiş differ to such an extent that they are also seen as potential models for police abolition. The Asayiş are organized forms of community self-defense, composed of elected members of the local commune and authorized only to enforce rules made by the commune and to engage in community defense against attacks from the Islamic State. These have been distinguished from what US readers know as “police” in a few essential ways: 1) they are directly elected by the commune; 2) they are recallable by the commune; 3) they are temporary, rotating positions—not careers; 4) they enforce laws made by the commune council itself, in which everyone is capable of participating in a direct democratic process; 5) their training begins with feminist revolutionary education; 6) women have their own armed Asayiş division for dealing with violence against women. For more, see Hawzhin Azeez, “Police Abolition and Other Revolutionary Lessons From Rojava.” – Eds.