We have reached a turning point in human history. The climate emergency demands that we immediately move from a fossil fuel-based economy to one that is environmentally sustainable. This will require drastic political and economic changes. Nor is the climate crisis the only one we face. The COVID-19 epidemic has already produced over 10 million cases and has not begun to run its course. The economic depression resulting from the epidemic is likely to doom millions to homelessness, hunger, and unemployment.
The coronavirus has also revealed the structural racism and sexism underlying so many societies. In India, the lockdown destroyed the dreams of economic independence of a whole generation of women who moved from the countryside to the city to get paid work; now they have been driven back to their villages, where they will face famine and be forced to marry. In the US and UK, the "essential workers" have turned out to be black and brown doctors, nurses, aides, cleaners, and food service workers, often immigrants or women, many in non-union jobs earning substandard pay. Unable to shelter in place because they have to work, their disproportionate rate of sickness and death has shone light on the racism embedded in the architecture of advanced economies.
The brutal policing that enforces this structural racism exacts a terrible cost in human lives, as Black Lives Matter demonstrations on every continent have shown.
Climate change, COVID, and the economic slide are putting overwhelming stress on a system that had already reached its breaking point. In late capitalism, global economic integration based on free market ideology has led to obscene wealth for a very few and desperate poverty and uncertainty for most. Politicians of the center, who have cheered market solutions and unrestrained economic growth, were unprepared for the cascade of crises we now face. Their main fix for the problems of late capitalism has been austerity and further shredding of the social safety net; their response to climate change has been slow and inadequate; and many have not strongly opposed the rise of right wing movements.
The decisions that shape today's world are more often made by transnational corporations than by governments or national elites. Unwilling to relinquish power, some members of these old elites began to support right-wing politicians whose appeal is based on a toxic brew of racism, religious fundamentalism, hatred of women and gays, and paranoia about cultural dilution by migrants. With the support of these elites and organizations of the religious right, a new axis of ultra-right politicians including Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Johnson, Modi, Netanyahu, Orban, Putin, and Trump has come to power.
Most of these ultra-right politicians are not very interested in governing; their main object is to hold power and steal public assets. To do so with impunity, they dismantle systems meant to ensure accountability; replace the heads of state administrative bodies with their own people; and build regimes of cronies, relatives, and party hacks that operate parallel to the state. Trump used federal prison guards to police a demonstration opposite the White House, turning them into a private police force he could use to bypass the city police. Modi wants to set up a Hindu rashtra to replace the secular state with its independent judiciary, the better to steal assets and hand them to cronies who will keep him in power. Such parallel regimes result in hollowed-out, incapable states with no political legitimacy and no ability to deal with major crises.
In order to build a base that will keep them in power while they construct parallel regimes, these right-wing leaders target minorities, migrants, women and LGBT people; invoke religion; and undermine basic democratic rights like voting, assembly, and freedom of speech. Through constant encouragement of bigotry and persecution, backed up by appeals to religion, they attack the very idea of universality in human rights. Since they lack the legitimacy that comes from giving leadership to solve real social problems, they must rule by force, fear, and deception, relying on the military, the police, support from religious fundamentalists, and a captive media to build a dam strong enough to contain popular dissent.
But the water is rising all over the world, and the dam cannot hold. In the last ten years, the dam has developed cracks in one place after another: the Arab Spring revolts, the strikes by the French gilets jaunes, the Hong Kong uprising, the ongoing revolutions in Algeria and Sudan, the country-wide demonstrations to defend the secular constitution and protect Muslim women's citizenship in India, and on and on. The enormous wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrators in the US has reached even little country towns where almost everyone is white. And these anti-racist protests have become global. At least for a moment, the dam has truly broken.
What happens when a dam breaks? Can the pieces be forced or glued back together? For how long? Will the outrushing water overwhelm cities and kill thousands? Or can the water be organized and channeled to irrigate dry land? The answer is up to us, the people of the world. We need to organize well enough to keep the water flowing at a manageable rate until we can reach the point when finally, as promised by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., justice will flow down like a river and righteousness like a mighty stream.
One of the places the dam broke was Syria, where a 2011 civil uprising against the Assad dictatorship led to civil war. As the war heated up, the Kurdish majority area in northeast Syria declared itself an autonomous region. This region's official name is the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), but it is usually called Rojava. It is one of the few bright spots on the globe. In 2014, in the battle of Kobane, its beleaguered, poorly equipped fighters became the first people in the Middle East able to hold off a concerted attack by ISIS.
How was Rojava able to defeat ISIS? One reason is that they fully integrate women’s leadership on every level, from the neighborhood commune to the top military command, and were thus able to draw on the strength of their whole society. The people of Rojava also had something to fight for: their own grassroots democracy and a system they call "democratic confederalism," based on ecology, ethnic pluralism, direct democracy, the separation of religion from politics, and the full participation of women.
Though Rojava's self-administration performs many functions usually ascribed to the state, it is an explicitly non-state system, based on direct democracy and local assemblies, with parallel structures for anything affecting women, and numerous other checks and balances. Decades in which elected political elites mainly served the rich have eroded their claims to represent all of us; as a result, the nation state has ceased to feel natural and inevitable, and increasing numbers of people are looking at alternative forms of social organization. One of the places they are looking is Rojava.
We propose a three-point plan for the international progressive movement as it works on foreign policy issues: building democratic popular assemblies and organizations, maintaining an inside-outside approach to state politics, and developing a strategic partnership with the feminist movement. With this combined approach, we believe the left can become strong enough to eventually defeat the right.
1) In a period when democracy is under attack, we must strengthen it by building alternative political structures based on direct community participation. These could begin with popular assemblies based on radical transformative politics, like those of Rojava and Chiapas. Ideally, such assemblies will grow organically out of community struggles and develop their own methods of governance and self-defense. Working together with peoples' movements and civil society organizations, popular assemblies can hold the state accountable both locally and nationally, and insist that its delegates be democratically elected and responsive to the people. In the fullness of time, linked assemblies could eventually become a counterweight, perhaps even a successor, to the nation-state. As in Rojava, assemblies should be diverse, pluralistic, secular community spaces, with a wall between religion and politics to ensure that women and LGBT people can participate as equals, and that the rights of nonbelievers and people from minority religions are protected. Popular assemblies and civil society organizations can develop their own people-to-people foreign relations. These should involve helping democratic movements prevail against autocratic regimes, and giving enough practical and political support to enable places like Rojava to become human rights sanctuaries for dissidents from other places.
In working towards a People's Foreign Policy, progressives must emphasize the need for multilateral collaboration to deal with climate change and epidemics. We should proceed on the basis of common principles of solidarity, human rights for all, and equality between peoples, regardless of their size, wealth, military strength, or region. We can agree on the need to build a sustainable world economy that will not further exhaust the earth's limited resources, and develop programs to ensure that nations and corporations do not bear equal responsibility for the climate crisis, and that those who have profited most need to repair the damage they have done.
2) In relation to the nation-state and electoral politics, we should pursue an inside-outside strategy. That means taking advantage of whatever beachheads our people can capture in local and national government while at the same time building assemblies, civil society organizations, and movements that are strong enough to keep elected representative accountable, and agile enough to move in new directions. Because states have never been run for the benefit of most of their people, we have had to fight hard to win programs like social security in the US and the National Health Service in the UK. We must hold onto the gains we have made, resist austerity programs and privatization, and fight kleptocracy. We can do this best if we have our own representatives inside government while the rest of us push from outside with tactics that include protests, lawsuits, and building our own shadow governments. One such initiative is the program of "peoples' hearings" organized by Aruna Roy in India, which assert local control over public funds by making officials account for their budgets so everyone can see if the money was spent as it was supposed to be.
Working both inside and outside the state, we can develop ambitious foreign policy initiatives. Our goals should include increased international cooperation; a shrunken military footprint on the part of all the big powers, especially the US; an end to nuclear weapons; an immediate transition from fossil fuels; an international covenant on the treatment of migrants; an end to resolving disputes by wars and invasions; increased health and medical cooperation; and programs to clean up the planet, repair environmental damages, protect biodiversity, and strengthen cooperation on climate change. The mutual aid we give our own communities should be extended to frontline fights for democracy in the Middle East and other places. We must find ways to support these liberation struggles, negotiate a just and lasting peace in longstanding civil conflicts, and apply UN Article 1325 and the Nairobi Declaration, which mandates not only the participation of women in peace negotiations but reparation for harms done.
3) The international progressive movement must build a long term strategic partnership with the world feminist movement, reflected in common programs, shared ideology, and organizational links. Feminist movements place a high value on collaboration, listening, taking responsibility for details, helping individuals resolve personal problems, and training younger members. The Kurdish freedom movement has taken advantage of these qualities by integrating autonomous feminist groups into its networks and structures. The briefest examination of history shows that the same is not true of most progressive groups and movements. Even organizations with large numbers of female members and strong women in leadership often remain patriarchal in unexamined ways. Today, progressive groups may do anti-racist training or discuss issues of sex, gender, and sexuality, but all too many are still likely to ignore sexist ideas and behavior in their midst until one of their leaders is suddenly accused of rape.
Progressives can learn from the way women have organized in the Kurdish freedom movement. The main thing is that feminist concerns are not marginalized in a Women's Commission or caucus, or segregated in a separate program or list of demands, but are integrated into all areas of work: self-defense, ideology, program and organization. Women can join mixed-gender units of the YPG (People's Protection Units), or they can join the all-female YPJ (Women's Protection Units). Feminism—they use the word a lot—is a central part of the movement's ideological training at every level, including basic training in military units. Programs for economic development, agriculture, coops, you name it, are expected to address the needs of women and to draw isolated rural women into social and political life. Organizationally, every group has to have a male and female cochair and has a membership quota of at least 40% women. Every organization, beginning with the commune—the basic community unit—has a parallel women's organization, where people bring issues concerning women; these also function as courts of appeal against decisions that may be harmful to women. By integrating feminism into all these areas of work, Rojava has achieved an extraordinary level of women's leadership and participation.
Some progressives may object to the idea of partnering with feminist organizations based on claims that the feminist movement is dominated by middle class women or that it relies on compromised NGOs. It is true that the feminist movement—like other social movements—tends to be boldest during periods of social upsurge and to retreat and become ossified during periods of reaction. But because control of women's bodies is such a central issue for religious fundamentalists, feminists have been trying to alert progressives to the danger from the right for decades. And now the women's movement is on the rise again, as shown by massive Latin American marches against violence and for abortion rights, the leadership of women in Middle Eastern uprisings, and the huge, diverse US women's resistance movement, exemplified by the work of the Rising Majority and the women’s marches. These developments indicate that a strategic partnership between feminists and the international progressive movement is achievable, if both are willing to look for ways to work together in practice.
Together we must do all we can to organize and keep the water flowing through every breach in the dam.
This paper was strengthened enormously by input from Debbie Bookchin, Ariane Brunet, and Gita Sahgal.