Local parliament in Cizîre, Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) / Photograph by Jonas Staal (2015)
Léopold Lambert – Paris on May 22, 2015
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Last Tuesday, I attended a lecture of Dutch artist Jonas Staal at the Centre for Research Architecture in Goldsmiths (London). Among other things, he was introducing the last work accomplished through his brilliant project of New World Summit in which he invites representatives of black listed and/or stateless political organizations of the world to present their struggle and debate with other members of the summit. I recommend to everyone to have a close look at the four occurrences of the summit since 2012 (in Berlin, Leiden, Kochi, and Brussels), but through this article, I would like to insist on one particular aspect of Jonas’s lecture, when he described his recent trip to the self-governing canton of Cizîre in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) where a new mode of governance is currently practiced in the vacuum of power created by the Syrian civil war. This canton, situated in the Kurdish area where Syria meets both Turkey and Iraq, is to be distinguished from the two others in Rojava: Kobané and Efrîn. Jonas explained that despite a common goal aiming at the creation of the State of Kurdistan, the Rojava revolution movement, as well as the Kurdish Women’s Movement (who presented their manifesto for a Democratic Confederalism at the last New World Summit) operate independently from the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which tends to adopt a relatively dated mode of governance compared to these younger movements.
When presenting the photograph above, Jonas described the inverted hierarchy of the various parliaments operating in this mode of governance: when we are used to observe the strong decisional power of national parliaments, decreasing as the scale of governance becomes smaller (regional, departmental, cantonal, municipal, neighborhood-based, etc.), the Rojava revolution movement, Jonas says, has adopted an exact inverse principle. Neighborhood parliaments have the strongest ability to take important decisions for the territory on which it operates, when cantonal and even more so, national, parliaments’ authority operates to a lesser extent. As simple as this inversion sounds, it appears to me that such a mode of governance can radically change the way political life is practiced. In order to attempt to explain why, I propose two points that are radically engaged by this principle: territorial and body scales of governance and intensity-based citizenship.
TERRITORIAL AND BODY SCALES OF GOVERNANCE: It seems reasonable that as the scale of governance increases (and thus escapes from the immediate environment of bodies), it relation to the bodies gets increasingly lost. On the contrary, local (neighborhood-based, or even municipal) tend to engage more the immediate ‘atmospheric’ conditions of bodies living on the territory concerned by this particular governance. In this regard, we can foresee a re-invention of the medieval paradigm of governance, in which cities and other municipalities might reclaim the main embodiment of the polis, i.e. the place where politics is debated and practiced. Although such a vision places us oddly along with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the discursive principle of such a shift of governance scale, we could argue that his personal vision of the city-nation — we can remember his proud comment of the NYPD being his national army (see past article) — is doomed to reproduce the exact same desincarnated effects than national governance does — after all, the New York population is larger than many countries in the world — as well as the traditional competition (culminating in wars during the medieval era) between city-states. Instead, we might want to think of this shift of scale as an archipelago of governance (see the 2013 article “The Political Archipelago: For a New Paradigm of Territorial Sovereignty” about this exact topic) like the one described by Karl Marx about the 1871 Paris Commune and its rural allies (see past article) or, more simply, recognize like Hungarian-French architect Yona Friedman does, that governance can only justly operate if the critical threshold (“groupe critique”) of the amount of its subjects is not crossed.
INTENSITY-BASED GOVERNANCE: The particularity of the principle adopted by the Rojava parliaments (the smallest territory of governance = the strongest decisional power of the governance entity) is that there is an affordability for bodies to exit the territory on which this governance operates. To put it trivially, if one fundamentally disagrees with the decision made by their strong neighborhood parliament, they can decide to go live in the next neighborhood without having to mobilize prohibitive economic and energetic efforts. This idea appears to me as only politically risky — a risk manifested by the infamous “You either love France or you leave it” used by Nicolas Sarkozy as a slogan in his 2007 presidential campaign — if we continue to develop and attribute strong territorialized identities to the bodies living on a given territory — the question of national identity seems to currently be a desperately persisting one in France for instance. When localized identities are strong, the migrant body in search for (and practicing) an appropriate milieu is always a marginalized pariah. When such identities are no longer mobilized and developed, however, there are no longer residents nor migrants, but simply bodies that are necessarily localized somewhere (as argued numerous times on this blog) and practice the territorialized politics of the place that they occupy. The very notion of “living somewhere” still applies but no longer as a quasi-definitive essence but, rather, as a temporal intensity (even if a body never really moves). Here again, to put is in simplistic manner, when my body occupies the Parisian neighborhood from which I am currently writing these lines, I fully operate in the governance of this small territory — whether it implies the traditional system of debating+voting or other means is another question — but when my body occupies another neighborhood in London, or elsewhere, even for “a few days” — the notion of day brings us back to an unnecessary administration of time — I then engage the local governance of this other territory on which my body is situated.
CONCLUSION: Through this ‘simple’ inversion of decisional power depending on the scale of governance, the Rojava revolution movement thus triggers fundamental questions about the function of the polis. Although an intensification of the small scale embodied by the notion of place can, at first glance, appears as a tightening of identities, we can see how this is only true for individual bodies’ own identity, and no longer for impermeable collective identities since bodies can afford a navigation between small-scale territories and participate to their governance. At a time of extreme consolidation of national/ethnic/religious identities — something the people of Rojava know all too well through their resistance against the Syrian government and Daech — new modes of governance need to be invented to dissolve these attributed essences, in order to favor the uniqueness of each body’s own identity and experience.