Radical Democracy and Educational Experiments: From Rojava to Rio de Janeiro

By Josh Platzky-Miller


Coming into its own in 2012, the revolution in Rojava (northern Syria) has been ideologically guided by women’s liberation, ecological harmony and a form of anticapitalist radical democracy. It has provided fertile ground for a profoundly different education system from the statist, authoritarian models previously imposed in the region. Across the globe in Brazil, following the 2013 mass protests and uprisings, waves of students occupied their schools and universities from 2015 in the ‘primavera estudantil’. Their challenges ranged from school infrastructure investment, to the quality and content of their education, to the creation of a more caring and democratic experience within the educational environment and society at large. Although these contexts are not strictly similar to one another, they both open the space to imagine possible political and educational pathways. They can thus help us to think beyond the immediate political context of South Africa today, towards a liberatory future.


From November 2015, high schools in São Paulo were occupied by their students as a confrontational means of saving a number of schools threatened by closure from a heavy-handed, bureaucratic policy of state school restructuring. By March 2016, some schools had been occupied in Rio de Janeiro and other cities, over issues including education financing, with claims that the sector had been ‘abandoned’ by the state. Teachers and support staff had not been paid their wages, or had de facto pay cuts, and their strike action had had little impact. These issues were linked to broader processes of neoliberalisation: students blamed the state for trying to run down public education so that privatisation is easier to justify, and many problems faced by workers were related to terceirização  (outsourcing). Thus, throughout 2015 and 2016, these forms of education-centred protests had interrelated with other socio-political issues, with occupations of up to two months alongside other tactics. At the end of August 2016, there was a controversial change in federal government (labelled a ‘parliamentary coup’), followed shortly by national austerity measures, including deep and long-lasting cuts to public education. In October 2016, students at over 1,000 schools and 200 universities responded by protesting and occupying institutions across the country. The occupations were part of a struggle for a better, more meaningful, education –in contrast to existing education, which was described as ‘shallow and stupid’, or as training to produce cheap, alienated workers. Indeed, the occupations themselves were educational, affecting students’ perceptions, values and understanding of the world. Students, with some sympathetic teachers, ran classes around the formal curriculum and beyond, with topics including their rights under Brazilian law; Indigenous, African and Afrobrazilian history and movements; and feminism and gender issues. Formal classes ran alongside cultural activities and life skills training. Students have reflected on how the quality of their education during the occupations was actually better than it had been because they covered what was not usually taught, and multiple diverse perspectives were encouraged and acknowledged. Simultaneously, better relationships were formed with teachers who worked with them. Teachers were often placed in the role of students, learning about the lives of young people, and even about modes of political struggle. The forms of organisation developed during the occupations changed relationships and produced new forms of social relations, which was a crucial success of the movements.

These struggles also changed students’ self-perceptions and political consciousness, occurring at a formative time in their lives. The students were fiercely autonomous with a deep sense of ‘protagonismo ’ (of being “our own protagonists”), arising from having taken the school “for ourselves”. Students created ‘comissões ’ (commissions) for activities from administrative tasks to cooking, cleaning, teaching, organising classes and cultural activities, security and taking care of one another, and ensuring that they were safe and doing well. These approaches were particularly significant for students whose identities are regularly marginalised in Brazilian society, such as those identifying as black, women, and LGBTI+. For these students, the occupations can also be read as an assertion of their existence and their presence, in a socio-political context that often denies them their humanity or their identity.Students’ spatial organising reflected this challenge, by creating gender-neutral bathrooms, and focusing specifically on women’s security in occupied spaces.

Students also took their demands to the state, engaging with broader political processes and forcing schools and education departments to engage constructively with their demands. There was thus some acknowledgement of the need to engage with political life generally, while simultaneously practicing more radically democratic decision-making on their own terms. Nevertheless, students recognised the need to understand how political processes actually work in order to engage with the world as it is, and to prepare to challenge subsequent political developments. There were thus multiple forms of politics at play simultaneously: from political claim-making on administrators and governments, with strategic claims around the state’s ‘responsibility’; through to a self-asserted politics involving the students “seizing the means of their own education”. Through their struggles, a prefigurative politics was formed which was directed towards creating a new society – within the schools and more broadly. This generated a sense of solidarity, which challenged aspects of the status quo ranging from gendered norms to the individualism that had often previously been inculcated in students. These actions were not simply about the here-and-now, the immediate problems in schools, but extended to how the students see themselves, each other and the future of their country – and changing it through their insurgent politics.


A Map of Rojava

In Rojava (northern Syria), home to roughly 2.5 million people, radically democratic experiments are taking place that prioritise anti-statist, localised, people’s selfgovernance; ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious plurality and inclusivity; women’s liberation; and a social and ecological economy which provides for everyone’s basic needs, even in the midst of war.15  These approaches stem from ideologies that draw on a “consciousness of the fact that different forms of oppression are interrelated” with patriarchy, capitalism, and the state seen as foundational to interlocking systems of oppression, which manifests as a rejection of the oppressive histories, particularly against Kurdish minorities of the regional nation-states (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran) and the contemporary brutality of Daesh/ISIS. Largely initiated by Kurdish liberation movements, people in the autonomous territories of Rojava have begun experiments in self-defence,16 and the creation of their own terms of liberation – rather than relying on others to do it for them. Even so,political activity can be seen in terms of two complementary processes: of autonomous organising alongside institutions operating for all. This exemplifies a kind of pragmatic, hybrid politics, also visible in approaches to political institutions,in the creation of collectively-run alternatives that, over time, undermine the need for the state, which then “dissolves”. These ‘dual-power’ processes are clear in Rojava’s education sector: The Syrian state schooling system still exists, but its pedagogies of fear, compulsory patriotism, and distorted histories are being challenged from within, and from the broader democratic society. Meanwhile, people’s alternatives are being constructed through revolutionary academies, which are “oriented to meeting the basic needs of the broad population”, and provide “training for the construction of the social life, social change and transformation, and also to train people for leading social institutions”. Covering a wide range of topics, with regional localisation, academies often focus particularly on learning Kurdish language, history, and literature, which had been repressed under successive state regimes. Women’s history and experiences are interwoven with ‘general’ topics, while also being the focus of dedicated courses. Designed for the transmission of “liberatory values to people”, they teach “everything from…local languages to philosophy, history, and science. Even European philosophy…is on the curriculum. Thus content includes whatever enables people “to own ourselves, our society, and to understand the social reality”, to improve people’s lives in contextually-relevant ways. Education is not limited to particular institutions: political education has taken place in women’s military forces, and ‘all-women houses’ have been created, where women can live for as long as they like, and where they can take part in free education. Moreover, educational institutions produce their own materials and people are encouraged to teach others about what they have learnt. This manifests the principle that education is for everyone, no matter their age or position in society. Significantly, there is an emphasis on caring for the most vulnerable: even with scarce resources, the city of Kobanî reallocated resources in 2016 to build “the first school for disabled and special needs students”, led by a specialist blind teacher. These experiments draw on a non-hierarchical pedagogy in which “dialogue is central”, and where “sharing and collective behaviour are valued”. Thus, staff and students are equals whose roles change over time as they work together to develop their knowledge collectively. For example, instead of final exams and memorisation, students critique their teachers on their teaching method, encouraging them to improve in their roles as teachers. Providing a framework for these pedagogical approaches is the fact that many of the academies’ courses are run as separated training sessions in which people live, cook, play, and learn together; mixing book and classroom learning with audio-visual and discussion-based approaches. The education system and the radically democratic political system are mutuallyconstitutive. Students cover practical matters while “searching for meaning” and thinking for themselves, to “becomes the subjects of their own lives” and to “participate in Democratic Autonomy”. This emphasises knowledge that is “based on understanding, explaining and the shared experiences of life”, according to the principles of a “democratic, ecologic-economy and gender emancipatory paradigm”. Rather than being designed for status or signalling, qualifications or job prospects, the system develops knowledge based on local social dynamics fundamentally oriented towards the question, “how does society want to live?”. As a teacher in the town of Rimelan framed it, “we want to think freely now, without boundaries, and question everything…our goal is to broaden [heretofore] limited school learning and enable people to perceive themselves as conscious subjects”.

In both cases, there is a clear rejection of education being commodified or used to reinforce structures of domination. Moreover, they both move beyond a rejection, emphasising the ways in which students are their own main actors in ‘making their world real’ and charting their own fate going forward, drawing particularly on marginalised and liberatory histories. At times this involved a political rejection of some forms of representation, while strategically using representatives that were deeply accountable to localised, deliberative, direct democratic structures. Many of these practices relied on collectively creating spaces for people to be ‘at home’, understood and cared for by those around them – and thus able to chart collective ways forward that encompassed everybody, rather than a select group. Interestingly, the approaches to solidarity in each context overlapped significantly, starting with the imperative to know about what is happening, to share the story, to be inspired by their actions and, crucially, to “care about their politics”. Following this was an emphasis on building a “strong revolutionary movement in your own country”, from which various movements can “learn from and support one another”. This kind of educational process is itself a form of liberatory pedagogy that contests the model of ‘knowledge production in the global north, consumption in the global south’. Finally, the success of such movements requires challenging the “pillars of the system that caused this situation to begin with”. The political-educational struggles summarised above are not simply about the closure of schools, or language rights, or any single issue. They call for a reimagining of the relationship between education and society, of ways of engaging with the world, of relating to one another, of thinking and being – of collectively building a more human society. “Seizing the means of one’s own education” is a critical act in its own right, and lays the groundwork for subsequent endeavours. But pursuing these paths means learning and teaching together; being able to critique each other and self-critique for survival and growth; rethink the modes, forms, content, and purposes of our own education, who it serves and why it serves them and, ultimately, how it could be different. As one YPJ fighter, Amara Cudî, affirmed: to succeed, it is “vital to know what you fight for”. Let us thus continue to work out liberatory visions for the future of this part of the world.