Much has already been written on the revolution in Rojava, a territory comprising three largely Kurdish cantons in Northern Syria made famous by the defence of the town Kobane against the forces of ISIS. After Syria descended into civil war in 2011, the people of Rojava, including many Kurdish leftists, took over the region and embarked on a radical project of what they termed ‘democratic autonomy’.
This project aims to create democracy without the state through the creation of overlapping councils and communes at various political scales to govern the territory, as well as working to abolish the police. Rojava is also (justly) famous for putting feminist politics at the core of the political project, with the quota systems for female participation in the various communes and councils being almost as well noted as women’s armed participation in the Rojava defence forces. But all of this rarely suffices for some sections of the left – the burning question is, of course, what about class and the economy? After all, it’s not really #fullcommunism without the seizure of the means of production…
Not much has been specifically written on the economics of Rojava, apart from a few reports from delegates to the region and interviews with various representatives. However, what we know so far is that the economic transformation of Rojava is as radical as the rest of the project.
1. The state of the economy before 2011.
The regions comprising Rojava were deliberately underdeveloped by the Assad regime and geared to supply Syria with raw materials including wheat, cotton and petroleum. The region was significant as a source of these materials, being one of the most fertile regions of Syria and the source of most of its oil.
However while there were several thousand oil wells across the region, there were few factories and no refineries or mills. Around half the land was state-owned by run by government officials as private fiefdoms. After the revolution began most of the officials and existing capitalists fled, with the resources they had controlled left be expropriated by the local governing councils.
2. The social economy.
The priority for the various levels of Rojava government is to implement what they call a ‘social economy’ – an economic system built on a series of cooperatives across all economic sectors. The initial objective is to be self-sufficient in meeting basic needs such as food and fuel. At the moment this is less an ideal and more of a necessity as Rojava effectively exists under embargo, with even the most basic of supplies very difficult to import into the region.
The immediate economic programme aims to create the infrastructure to provide the necessities of life. Bread rations are provided by the local administrations to each household, and fuel is distributed by local communes. So far two oil refineries have been constructed as well as a number of publicly-run mills and dairy processing plants. Since 2011 the new administration has taken over the land previously held by Syrian government officials and distributed much of it to self-organised farmer cooperatives.
3. Money and trade.
The eventual aim is to build the entire economy of Rojava on the basis of cooperatives or other small economic units, binding them together in a network where the use of money is either minimised or eliminated altogether. Currently produce is either sold to the various administrative bodies or at local markets where price controls are enforced on products that are considered to be ‘essentials’.
Syrian currency is still used, but while loans can be made interest cannot be charged. There are no banks at the moment, though there is a plan to create banks for holding savings, and private capital will not be banned from investing in the region as long as it adheres to the broader economic principles of the region. Many of the goods in the local markets are smuggled into the region, a trade that has yet to be collectivised…
Central to the economic programme is the development of the education sector, including an academy system which offers a range of intensive courses. Under the Assad regime, professional skills and knowledge were restricted to members of the regime. Within the academy system there is a conscious strategy of de-professionalisation to break down divisions between professionals and non-professionals and prevent the rise of a new technocratic class.
The lessons themselves strongly emphasise the sharing of experience among students in order to break down the teacher-student hierarchy, and focus on problem solving rather than rote learning. Crucially, participation is one of the principle skills acquired in the academies, opening up the various councils and communes to broader social engagement which might not happen otherwise (participation being an unevenly distributed skill in Rojava just as in the UK).
5. Trade unions and associations.
As much of the economy is either in the hands of cooperatives or private individuals, trade unions and trade associations are limited in number. There are a number of both unions and associations however, including several for farmers, engineers and agriculturalists, as well as a women’s union that is organising for the rights of care labourers, both paid and unpaid.
6. The police.
One association that won’t be forming is a police association. The plan in Rojava is to eventually abolish the police, although as the Asayis (civilian security) are accountable to the local councils and not the (non-existent) state, the term ‘police’ is not used. The Asayis’ function is to ensure the security of the population and to bring disputes to the local councils where they are more often than not settled through discussion. The eventual plan is to ensure that the majority of the population has training in self-defence and dispute settlement in order to diffuse these means and capacities to everyone.
The overall picture is one of a cooperative economy where basic needs are provided through local administrations yet where market structures still exist, albeit in limited forms. Skills and education, including those involved in self-defence, are being collectivised – with the aim being the eradication of hierarchies of knowledge and capacities for violence. The economic programme of Rojava, along with the other elements of the revolution, makes it an experiment in ‘democracy without the state’ which is worth supporting and learning from.