One of the many characteristics of the economic orthodoxy is a tendentious relationship with the sphere it considers ‘non-economic’. The dominant strategies seem to be either to attempt to tame them with the amoral brutality of rational choice, or to ignore them (no matter how glaring their importance). It’s an ironic position- a far cry from the spirit of Adam Smith, their purported godfather, who sought to understand capitalism only because it was a revolutionary, newly emergent social order. The events of the last four years in Rojava may well be the first sapling of something truly new. If not, it is not for lack of ambition, effort or bravery on the part of Kurdish Syrians. And yet, we economists (along with too much of the media) have all but ignored it, and at our peril.
Despite the fact that Sinam Muhamed, the co-president of the People’s Council for Western Kurdistan, who spoke Monday at the CUNY Graduate Center spent the bulk of her speaking time explaining the political situation in Rojava, she was careful not to exclude economics. Most notably, she proclaimed that Rojava aimed to implement an “economic system based on morality.” This is a striking statement in a field in which luminaries such as Paul Krugman proclaim the amorality of economics with some degree of pride. By way of concrete example, Muhamed mentions that agriculture in Rojava- destroyed by the Al-Nusra Front, long before the current conflict with ISIS began- has recently seen a resurgence through the use of agricultural cooperatives. These cooperatives have rapidly become the dominant form of agricultural production in Rojava, and the cooperative model is spreading past the agricultural sector. Muhamed noted the present role of private enterprise in Rojava as well, but added that laws are in place to prevent “profit in the face of suffering,” the immorality of which she seems to take as given and unquestioned.
Muhamed warns us not to ignore the context of conflict and reconstruction in which Rojava is situated, and not to project dreams of a utopian social order onto the resistance there. Nonetheless, the relative success of Rojava cannot be ignored. 200,000 refugees from the rest of Syria have arrived in Rojava over the past four years. 197,000 have been housed. The reconstruction of Kobanê is well under way, and Muhamed aims for it to be an “ideal city,” and a “living symbol of resistance.” David Harvey, also speaking at the event, noted that on a recent trip to southern Chile, the local Mapuche liberation movement spoke in glowing terms of the developments in Rojava. A successful resistance movement in the face of inhumanity is one thing, but, lest we forget, the social experiment in Rojava began long before ISIS coalesced as a force. It is not merely a case of there being no capitalists in foxholes. Similarly, the relative success of areas of Syria under Kurdish control, as well as the emerging global contagion of the Rojava model imply that, although it is indeed a resistance movement, it is also far more than that. It represents a truly emergent social order that any social theorist would be loath to ignore.
Nonetheless, we cannot pay attention only because the situation is academically interesting. The fight against ISIS is as Muhamed notes “a fight for humanity against barbarity, a fight that is beyond ethnicity, gender or ideology.” If we are to regain a semblance of morality in our field, I see no better place to begin.