The Neighborhood Council: Primary unit of self-governance


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Building Towards a Council System

When revolutionary groups form projects like the Black Panthers’ breakfast programs, the New Orleans based Common Ground Collective, or the Greek anarchists’s revolutionary solidarity with Syrian refugees, these initiatives also form new political and social relations based on mutual aid and neighborhood self-sufficiency. Unlike State-based organizations, which turn citizens into helpless recipients of services, volunteer-run projects instead supplied the resources, tools and knowledge for people to provide for themselves, make the primary decisions about organization, and, if firmly tied to self-defense forces, eventually take over the infrastructure necessary for survival.

For example, revolutionary anarchist groups in Athens have been working with refugees from the Syrian Civil War. The refugees are routinely attacked by fascists and often denied housing, food, and health care. Anarchist groups have taken over abandoned hotels and have invited refugees to live in them. However, instead of remaining dependent and trapped in a charity-based relationship, the refugees have organized themselves, in conjunction with anarchists, according to a council-model and now have regular meetings to preside over the allocation of resources to solve their problems communally.

Above all, the Spanish Civil War provides a hallmark example of how emancipatory political principles can be introduced alongside active experimentation with new and innovative forms of self-organization. While conducting the military struggle on the front, militants in the rearguard helped form workers’ councils and rural communes, and since anarchists were at the forefront of the struggle, the council-based system was remarkably egalitarian. Workers seized factories, peasants collectivized the land, and even the revolutionary militias were organized in a participatory and non-hierarchical fashion as a result of the anarchist struggle. Indeed, the revolutionary militias were formed in a similarly horizontal manner as the collectives, which reciprocally provided them with both weapons and other provisions. The symbiotic relationship between the worker’s councils, collectivized land projects, and horizontal militias demonstrates how the political foundation facilitated cooperation between each of the three organizational structures.

The council system upholds the foundational principles of any resistance movement and sustains the decentralization of power. Importantly, these bodies are directly connected to and have sole jurisdiction over their territory, neighborhood, or town. As the council expands horizontally, its decision-making can be diversified by subdividing into local groups based on specific issues, such as tenants’ councils, youth groups, and neighborhood defense units. The implementation of this strategy should, therefore, strive for the three objectives outlined below:

The Council System in a Revolutionary Society

In Rojava, the neighborhood council is the smallest, most local, and yet most powerful unit of self-governance. The council itself is not a bureaucratic institution. Instead, it is shaped by the people who participate in it. Neighbors meet here to engage in the most immediate form of politics: debating issues, distributing resources, and making decisions. Council members reach solutions to their problems through the active participation. To further empower its members, each council is also subdivided into particular committees based on specific issues. These groups then become the primary actors on issues pertaining their lives.[7]

Since the council system allows for equal participation on the most local level of society, each participant regardless of identity, age, ethnicity, etc, is able to directly affect the conditions of their life. Working with a neighbor when one’s life depends on it, creates a fertile ground for trust and mutual concern to grow. When neighbors survive due to their mutual support and cooperation with each other, they are more likely to recognize one another on a human level and care for each other as individuals. The baseless divisions fabricated by the State and perpetuated by the myth of scarcity have no basis here. The process of being politically engaged through the council repels the conditions that result in bigotry, distrust and competition by instead fostering relationships based on understanding.

The decision-making capacity of neighbors in this council system allows people to build autonomous institutions like learning centers, health clinics, and other facilities based on local needs. An example from the autonomous Zapatista region, a precursor to and inspiration for Rojava, illustrates how this process functions. The construction of a hospital in a Zapatista community, called “Madre de los caracoles del mar de nuestros sueños,” is a good example of a project developed through the council. Its formation was based on years of conversation between health providers and the people they care for. Due to this dialogue, the resulting hospital reflected the needs of the people in the area. For example, the medicine practiced there ended up being a mixture of local healing arts and traditional western medicine. Health promoters volunteer their time and are supported by the surrounding families, allowing greater focus on people’s care instead of working for money. The hospital’s quality is affirmed by the fact that it is not only used by people in the nearby community but villagers all around the region.[8]

By imbuing each council with decision-making power, the distribution of governance becomes decentralized and people across a large territory become empowered through the relationships that are forged and the ability to genuinely determine their own living conditions. For instance, returning to the example currently unfolding in Rojava, it has been collectively mandated that no other council or regional body is allowed to override its decisions, making the local council becomes the most powerful unit. The core of these revolutionary bodies are built through the minutia of day-to-day interactions, and through the individual realization that when a person has overthrown oppression in the most intimate fashion, and now lives a self-actualized life, a return to conventional, day-to-day despotism will not occur without a fight.

Towards Our Struggle

The political paradigm we are working towards is a network of councils and communes without the State. It’s a vision of autonomy that runs through neighborhood-based councils, where decision-making rests at the local level. This political formation reverses hierarchy and centralized power by making the most local unit the most powerful, and regional bodies simply a means for coordination. We propose starting from the nexus of the small, revolutionary groups already active in many cities, towns, and rural areas. Already, such groups function as local political collectives with strong ethical backbones and a commitment to communal decision-making.

As these groups expand through the abolitionist struggle, they have the ability to introduce more people to this model of politics. The purpose, then, is to expand qualitatively and quantitatively, without recreating centralized and hierarchical social formations. To facilitate the process of liberating people from bondage, we offer the following suggestions as possible means by which revolutionary groups can help establish structurally decentralized projects that integrate uncompromising anarchist foundations through the creation of new councils and local institutions:

The success of this project is measured by more and more people within a neighborhood becoming politically engaged and active decision-makers within their communities. While the State drags on by using increasingly totalitarian methods, we build our power: building new communities of resistance in the disintegrating remains of the regime. By proliferating, these bodies can, in the short term, erode the oppressive functions of the State, and partnered with rigorous defense, dislodge them.

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