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Lessons from Rojava: How a Nonconformist Imaginary Can Save Europe

Giovanni Penna is an MSc in Migration Studies student at the University of Oxford. His research covers topics ranging from grassroots activism, community-based research and the criminalisation of migrant solidarity. His work has featured in the Annual Conference of the American Association of Geographers in Washington DC. In this essay written in memory of David Graeber (1961-2020), he discusses the nonconformist potentialities of libertarian municipalism and the opportunities opened up by Rojava's democratic confederalism for progressive politics in an increasingly multicultural Europe.

Libertarian municipalism is one of Murray Bookchin’s main contributions to academic knowledge.

Joseph Tyrrell, Biebrza National Park, Poland, 2017.

It envisions the creation of a new form of politics, “unflinchingly public, […] electoral on a municipal basis, confederal in its vision and revolutionary in its character”. Overall, libertarian municipalism calls for a restructuring of the way in which people enact their political lives, centred around collective well-being and egalitarian values. I will argue that this reconfiguration of political participation from below has the potential to democratise Europe, redistribute power and respond to the challenges posed to the EU by growing multiculturalism and immigration. To illustrate these opportunities, I will draw from David Graeber’s reading of the revolution in Rojava (Western Kurdistan) as a successful experiment in anti-authoritarian democracy, to argue that the Kurdish lesson can open up new visions for a multicultural Europe. Employing Chiara Milan’s ‘beyond Europe’ frame, I imagine a system capable of overcoming exclusionary populism.[1]

Libertarian municipalism calls for a restructuring of the way in which people enact their political lives, centred around collective well-being and egalitarian values.

Today, at the beginning of the 2020s, the issues brought to the fore by the anti-corporate globalisation movement twenty years ago are still central. Its critiques of free-market globalisation as responsible for environmental degradation and social inequalities[2] are increasingly relevant, as the climate crisis worsens and the feeling of a lost sense of belonging and community grows. Nativist and populist claims to ‘take back control’ from immigrants and centralised EU bureaucracy have received great popular support not just in Brexit Britain, but more broadly across Europe.[3] Mainstream alternatives to such reactionary forms of politics tend to perform poorly in the general elections, but they also, and this is even more serious, seem unable to come up with new political imaginaries that can draw enthusiasm and participation, especially among younger voters.

Responding to these tensions, libertarian municipalism could redistribute power at a local scale, counter the surge of identitarian populism and rebuild communities. This entails the restoration of municipal assemblies and neighbourhood meetings as local forms of government, managed by rotatable delegates and linked to one another through confederal networks [4]. This interest in the local dimension of political action is due to the fact that libertarian municipalism views the world through a socio-ecological lens, thus rejecting any divide between ‘society’ and ‘nature’, but rather seeing them as one. For instance, the current environmental crisis cannot be understood without looking at the rampant exploitation of natural resources that late capitalism demands. Similarly, social problems, deprivation and individualism cannot be fully addressed if we ignore the physical environment where they develop. The alienation caused by living in a ‘concrete jungle’ is a major example of this, as urbanisation spreads across the globe.


Rojava’s democratic confederalism could be the example for what a more progressive, inclusive and egalitarian Europe could look like in the future. Currently under attack from Turkey, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (Rojava) represents one of the most innovative political experiments in decades. Established in 2012 by the PYD (the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, tied to the PKK), it covers almost a third of Syria and its heterogenous population is made up of Arabs, Kurds, Syriac Christians, Assyrian Christians, Armenian Christians, Yazidis, Turkmens and Chechens [5]. The libertarian municipalist core of Rojava’s democratic confederalism is directly inspired by Murray Bookchin’s writings. Bookchin’s theories reshaped imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan’s ideas and were circulated and discussed in the Kurdish movement.[6]

Rojava’s democratic confederalism could be the example for what a more progressive, inclusive and egalitarian Europe could look like in the future.

The Rojava confederalist project emerged after the start of the Syrian Civil War (2011), when the PYD led popular uprisings against the Assad dictatorship. The PYD’s militias, the People’s Protection Militias (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), later successfully resisted attacks from ISIS, which they notoriously defeated at Kobanî in 2015. After beating authoritarian and fundamentalist forces, Rojava communities drafted the Social Contract Charter, which states that political decisions are to be made locally by neighbourhood committees, usually composed of between 15 and 30 individuals each. Of these, 40% need to be women. Committees debate issues concerning social problems, like gender-based violence, as well as the economy, energy, and food supplies. Since this communitarian system develops around anti-authoritarian principles, people’s houses are represented politically at all scales, from districts and cities to cantons, and delegates are usually paid in kind.[7]

Through this experiment in decentralised participatory democracy, Rojava’s strikingly multicultural and multi-ethnic society maintains an effective balance. Ethnic and religious minorities are protected by the Social Contract Charter. With regards to refugees, their great number represents a considerable challenge for the cantons and a change in the demographic structure of the region, as a large proportion of them are non-Kurdish people internally displaced from other parts of Syria because of the ongoing civil war. However, the confederal economic system tries to incorporate refugees in the workforce and employ them in cooperatives.[8] Furthermore, refugees’ rights are defended by article 37 of the Charter, stating that “Everyone has the right to seek political asylum. Persons may only be deported following a decision of a competent, impartial and properly constituted judicial body, where all due process rights have been afforded”.[9] In addition, there is a remarkable attempt to integrate refugees in Rojava’s women’s liberation struggle. For instance, Women’s Houses (entirely female institutions that work to protect women’s rights) have been established in some refugee camps.[10]

Even though its future is uncertain and threatened by foreign intervention, Rojava’s experiment opens up new possibilities for a future multicultural Europe. The current political and social conditions in Europe are suitable for a new wave of radical political imagination. The coronavirus pandemic has triggered the second ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ recession in over just a few years, shortly after the global financial crisis of 2009. Simultaneously, the Black Lives Matter protests in the US have reinvigorated ethnic minorities, undocumented and migrant groups’ struggle to be integrated in European societies. Calls for social justice and to reclaim a future that looks bleak have fuelled social movements across the continent over the past few years (e.g. anti-austerity protests, Fridays for Future). Moreover, experimental forms of politics have already been emerging largely at the municipal scale. Citizens’ grassroots groups have been organising throughout to provide support to migrants and refugees that have been let down by state authority.[11] In addition, many municipal administrations, such as Ada Colau’s one in Barcelona, come from grassroots platforms that promote progressive localism, solidarity and citizens’ involvement in the decision-making process.[12] Further moves towards horizontal politics, looking at Rojava as an example of how radically societies can evolve and experiment with their political life, can help create a truly inclusive Europe. This progressive political scenario I envision is embedded in the ‘beyond Europe’ frame. This frame centres the local as the main dimension of politics, transcends state authority and draws from the popular tradition of mutual aid practices, which have existed for centuries across the continent.[13] Rooted in a network of democratic localisms and animated by an inclusive sense of belonging to the territory, a ‘Europe beyond Europe’ would finally be able to emancipate itself from the spectre of racist populism and heal the rift within the land.

The current political and social conditions in Europe are suitable for a new wave of radical political imagination.

In conclusion, I have illustrated the opportunities that libertarian municipalism as an alternative way of organising political life can provide for Europe’s future. Discussing the Rojava revolution’s trajectory towards democratic confederalism, I have argued that Europe should use it as an example to re-imagine its future. Highlighting the growth of local political movements, grassroots activism and solidarity initiatives, I have shown that these spaces for progressive local politics do not belong to the mere sphere of utopian thinking, but rather already exist throughout European countries. Thus, by employing the ‘beyond Europe’ frame, new imaginaries can be foregrounded, in order to work collectively towards a more democratic and inclusive future.

[1] Chiara Milan, “Beyond Europe: alternative visions of Europe amongst young activists in self-managed spaces in Italy,” European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology 7, no.3 (2020): 242-264.

[2] Frederick H. Buttel and Kenneth A. Gould, “Global social movement(s) at the crossroads: some observations on the trajectory of the anti-corporate globalization movement,” Journal of world-systems research 10, no.1 (2004): 37-66.

[3] Albena Azmanova and Azar Dakwar. “The inverted postnational constellation: identitarian populism in context,” European Law Journal 25, no. 5 (2019): 494-501.

[4] Murray Bookchin, “The meaning of confederalism,” Green Perspectives, November 20, 1989. http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/anarchist_archives/bookchin/gp/perspectives20.html (Accessed: 10/10/2020)

[5] David Graeber, “Foreword,” in Revolution in Rojava: democratic autonomy and women's liberation in Syrian Kurdistan. Michael Knapp, Anja Flach and Ercan Ayboga (London: Pluto Press, 2016);

“Beyond the frontlines: the building of the democratic system in North and East Syria,” RIC – Rojava Information Center, December 19, 2019. https://rojavainformationcenter.com/storage/2019/12/Beyond-the-frontlines-The-building-of-the-democratic-system-in-North-and-East-Syria-Report-Rojava-Information-Center-December-2019- V4.pdf (Accessed: 10/10/2020);

Saed, “Rojava,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, 26, no.1 (2015):1-15.

[6] Michael Knapp, Anja Flach and Ercan Ayboga. Revolution in Rojava: democratic autonomy and women's liberation in Syrian Kurdistan. (London: Pluto Press, 2016).

[7] Saed, “Rojava,” 1-15.

[8] Knapp, et al., Revolution in Rojava.

[9] Knapp, et al., Revolution in Rojava, 131.

[10] RIC, “Beyond the frontlines”.

[11] Donatella Della Porta, Solidarity Mobilizations in the ‘Refugee Crisis’: Contentious Moves. (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), Ebook.

[12] Oscar García Agustín, “New Municipalism as Space for Solidarity,” A Journal of Politics and Culture 74 (2020): 54-67.

[13] Milan, “Beyond Europe,” 242-264.