In what many outside of the territory are referring to as the Rojava Revolution, a major shift in political philosophy and program has taken place in Kurdistan. Yet, this shift is not limited to the region of Rojava, or what many also call Syrian Kurdistan or Western Kurdistan – a region where the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has taken an active part in this change. In “Turkish” Kurdistan – or rather Northern Kurdistan – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been the foremost leader. In Eastern Kurdistan (lying within Iranian borders) the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) has taken to the shift as well. It is an expanding movement towards what is internally being described as a “democratic, ecological, gender-liberated society” – a collection of ideas, institutions, and practices that compose the political, economic and social outlook of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism. As stated in Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan – a book written by the group called TATORT Kurdistan, which ventured from Germany into Kurdistan for their research – the paradigmatic shift to democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism has meant renouncing the establishment of “a socialist nation-state and instead” seeking the creation of “a society where people can live together without instrumentalism, patriarchy, or racism – an ‘ethical and political society’ with a base-democratic, self-managing institutional structure.” In short, “democracy without a state.”
Contrary to what many might believe, the ideological shift did not take place in the last few months or even the last year. Rather, approximately a decade ago it forthrightly appeared when Abdullah Öcalan, long-time leader of the once Marxist-Leninist PKK, issued The Declaration of Democratic Confederalism. In it, Öcalan disavowed the nation-state, deeming it an organizational entity that serves as an obstacle to self-determination instead of an expression of it. Öcalan states that “within Kurdistan democratic confederalism will establish village, towns and city assemblies and their delegates will be entrusted with the real decision-making.” For Öcalan, this means that the “democratic confederalism of Kurdistan is not a state system, but a democratic system of the people without a state.” This system of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism is composed of overlapping networks of workers’ self-managed enterprises, entities of communal self-governance, and federations and associations of groups operating according to principles of self-organization. These assemblages function according to direct participatory democracy as well as with close-to-home delegate structures that are accorded through a council system. The year 2005 marked the beginning of the construction of such councils. In urban settings, this took place on concentric levels of the neighborhood, district and city. In 2008 and 2009, these councils were reorganized so as to include the input and power of various “civil society organizations, women’s and environmental associations, political parties, and occupation groups like those of journalists and lawyers.
Before venturing any further, it is important to discuss the ideological roots of democratic confederalism.
Theoretical Roots of Democratic Confederalism
Much has been said about the influence of eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin’s on Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned since his arrest in 1999. In fact, through his lawyers, Öcalan contacted Murray Bookchin. Bookchin was too sick to enter into serious dialogue with Öcalan, but he sent his wishes that the Kurds would be able to successfully move towards a free society. Yet, Bookchin’s influence on the wider Democratic Confederalist movement can’t be overlooked.
Bookchin is not well known outside – and even inside – anarchist circles. Yet, the scale of his political involvement and writing was immense. As Janet Biehl denotes in her article “Bookchin, Öcalan, and the Dialectics of Democracy,” upon Bookchin’s death in 2006 the PKK went as far to call Bookchin “one of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century.” Bookchin upheld what he called social ecology. His view was that “the basic problems which pit society against nature emerge from within social development itself” and that placing society and nature into an oppositional binary was both descriptively erroneous and prescriptively destructive. More elaborately and succinctly put, “the domination of human by human preceded the notion of dominating nature. Indeed, human domination of other human gave rise to the very idea of dominating nature.”
With the ideas of social ecology, Bookchin sought to broaden the scope, nuance, and depth in the ways we look at systems of oppression as well as the ways in which they are intertwined with social hierarchies and often serve in reproducing them. He looked both at the roots of hierarchy and its various manifestations and institutionalizations, as well as at the conditions for its abolition and the founding of institutions based on non-hierarchical relations. Like many anarchists, Bookchin saw the State as the highest manifestation of hierarchical organization. Why the opposition to the State? In Bookchin’s own words:
“Minimally, the State is a professional system of social coercion – not merely a system of social administration as it is still naively regarded by the public and by many political theorists. The word ‘professional’ should be emphasized as much as the word ‘coercion.’ Coercion exists in nature, in personal relationships, in stateless, non-hierarchical communities. If coercion alone were used to define a State, we would despairingly have to reduce it to a natural phenomenon –which it surely is not. It is only when coercion is institutionalized into a professional, systematic, and organized form of social control – that is, when people are plucked out of their everyday lives in a community and expected not only to ‘administer’ it but to do so with the backing of a monopoly of violence – that we can speak properly of the State”
Such coercion is utilized by the State for the purposes of molding a given manifold of cultures and ethnicities into “a single identity population,” to use Joost Jongerden and Ahmet Hamdi Akkaya’s concept. More often than not, such ventures are violent, and the Turkish State has been no exception to this. Turkey does not allow the Kurdish language to be spoken or taught within state-run institutions, including public schools. Raids are frequently carried out on an array of municipalities and civil society organizations. Furthermore, treatment of Abdullah Demirbas is exemplary of Turkey’s treatment of the entire Kurdish population. He was elected in 2004 as the mayor of Sûr, a district in Amed. One of his promises was to conduct affairs in Kurdish, however, according to TATORT, “three years later the Council of State removed him for using Kurdish, Assyrian, and English in providing municipal services.” He was re-elected in March 2009 by an even wider margin, but in May of that year he was arrested again for supposed ties to the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK) as well as “for language crimes.'” For this he was sentenced to two years in prison.
While there are differences between Bookchin and the Kurdish people Bookchin has influenced, what has been most strongly imparted from the former to the latter are goals of building “dual power” and implementing a system of governance that is composed of varying forms of stateless equalitarian assembly democracy. With a strategy of building dual power one finds the goal of building “a counterpower…against the nation state.” This means building a parallel societal structure. Or rather, building a network of alternative and counter institutions that are decidedly different from, and run in contradiction and opposition to, the dominant system: in this case, the nation-state and capitalism. This notion is not original to Bookchin, as one can find its explicit articulation in the works of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, and even earlier in the writings of Pierre Joseph Proudhon. Öcalan himself embraces this outlook of building dual power with his exhortation that “‘regional associations of municipal administration’ are needed, so these local organizations and institutions would form a network” and as such a “nonstatist political administration.”
Building a Solidarity Network
As a member of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) denotes, it is “not just about autonomy – it’s about democratic autonomy.” As such, this has meant organizing institutions outside of the state that are based upon and operating in accordance to self-organization and self-management. The knitting together of a solidarity network is, in part, a macro-political production of a relationship between such institutions. These institutions are being built in numerous ways on local levels. In their article “Democratic Confederalism as a Kurdish Spring: The PKK and the Quest for Radical Democracy,” Jongerden and Akkaya quote a chair of a neighborhood council in one of the poorer areas of the city of Amed asserting, “our aim is to face the problems in our lives, in our neighborhood, and solve them by ourselves without being dependent on or in need of the state.” This best expresses the meaning of Kurdish communities seeking to establish democratic autonomy. As such, Jongerden and Akkaya define democratic autonomy as the “practices in which people produce and reproduce the necessary and desired conditions for living through direct engagement and collaboration with one another.”
With the DTK, such a network is given institutional shape and form. In 2005, the DTK was founded, with the intention of bringing together a diversity of groups. The DTK contains a gender quota, the continuation of its operations contingent on meeting the requirement of at least 40% of attendees and positions being filled by women. The organizational structure of the DTK largely consists of the General Assembly, which meets at least twice per year, and the Standing Committee. The General Assembly holds at least 1,000 delegates, 60% of which come from the grassroots level, and 40% of which are elected officials such as representatives or mayors. The General Assembly elects a Standing Committee of 101 people. There is also a Coordinating Council, which consists of 15 people, and works in the areas of ideology, social affairs, and politics. On all levels, committees are frequently organized based on these three areas. The DTK itself holds numerous committees and commissions, which range from areas of ecology, women, youth, economy, diplomacy, culture as well as many others.
The building of such a model is closely aligned to Bookchin’s conception of confederalism which he defines as “a network of administrative councils whose members are elected from popular face-to-face democratic alliances, in the various villages, towns and even neighborhoods of large cities.” Such administrative councils do not make policy, but rather are “strictly mandated, recallable, and responsible to the assemblies that choose them for the purpose of coordinating and administering the policies formulated by the assemblies themselves.” Administrative councils are just that, they administrate and do not constitute a system of representation which accords high levels of decision-making and policy-making power to representatives. Thus, as Jongerden and Akkaya remark, “Democratic Confederalism can be characterized as a bottom-up system of self-government.”
The City of Amed
Amed, one of the largest cities in North Kurdistan, by official estimates containing over 1.5 million residents, is largely influenced by the DTK. Similar to other cities in Kurdistan, Amed is composed of councils and assemblies on all levels. These include street councils, neighborhood councils, thirteen district councils, and a city council. The city council is comprised of 500 people, containing the mayor, elected officials, delegates from women’s and youth organizations, NGOs, political parties, and others.
The city council is organized along five different areas: social, political, ideological, economic, and ecological. Within these five areas committees are formed, which all hold the aforementioned 40% gender quota. The political portion of the council maintains a coordinating committee, which includes women’s councils (there are strictly women’s councils, which are self-organized, and mixed gender councils), youth councils, political parties, and others. The economic portion of the council concentrates on forming cooperatives. The social area concentrates on things such as education and health. For juridical matters, committees handle conflicts and disputes. Their goal is to engage in conflict resolution so that the disputing parties can come to a consensus. In other areas of North Kurdistan, such as Gewer, legal committees do not purely hold lawyers, but also contain feminist and political activists.
The Town of Heseke
Heseke in Rojava, Western Kurdistan, holds a similar institutional layout to Amed. Like Amed and the DTK, its governing bodies uphold a 40% gender quota. Its city council, however, is comprised of 101 people, and of five representatives each from five other organizations, including the PYD and the Revolutionary Youth. There is also a coordinating council, which is made up of 21 people. Heseke holds 16 district councils.
District councils hold anywhere from 15-30 people, who meet every two months. Anywhere from 10-30 communes comprise a given district, with 20 communes approximating to 1,000 people. This means that there is often one delegate for every 100 people in a district, which is far more direct than many other institutional structures across the world. It should be kept in mind though that what is most frequent is the convening of peoples’ assemblies, a phenomenon that also spans across Kurdistan and serves as the base for democratic autonomy (many areas in Kurdistan have weekly peoples’ assemblies).
In Heseke “communes have commissions that address all social questions, everything from the organization of defense to justice to infrastructure to youth to the economy and the construction of individual cooperatives.” The commissions for ecology are concerned with things such as sanitation and specific ecological problems. There are also “committees for women’s economy to help women develop economic independence.” This body also sends delegates to the general council of Rojava. Similar to many other areas in Kurdistan, resolutions and decisions are rather made by consensus than by simple majority vote.
Embrace of Heterogeneity
The Charter of Social Contract, a constitution formed by cantons in Rojava, begins with an embrace of pluralism:
“We the peoples of the democratic self-determination areas; Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians (Assyrian Chaldeans, Arameans), Turkmen, Armenians and Chechens, by our free will, announce this to ensure justice, freedom, democracy, and the rights of women and children in accordance with the principles of ecological balance, freedom of religions and beliefs and equality without discrimination on the basis of race, religion, creed, doctrine or gender, to achieve the political and moral fabric of a democratic society in order to function with mutual understanding and coexistence with diversity and respect for the principle of self-determination and self-defense of the peoples.”
This alone contradicts the often oversimplified depictions of the Middle East by Western media. According to the translation of Zaher Baher of the Kurdistan Anarchist Forum (KAF), the Charter goes on to state in its first page that “the areas of self-management democracy do not accept the concepts of state nationalism, military or religion or of centralized management and central rule but are open to forms compatible with the tradition of democracy and pluralism, to be open to all social groups and cultural identities and Athenian democracy and national expression through their organization.”
Yet, if one is to truly talk about an embrace of heterogeneity, it must involve the non-human just as much as it involves the human. This means going beyond the multilingualism and cultural diversity that many in Northern and Western Kurdistan have embraced – even institutionally – to looking at the ways in which the question of ecology is being tackled.
For Aysel Dogan, an ecology activist and president of the Alevi Academy for Belief and Culture in Dersim, “the best way to create and ecological system is to build cooperatives.” Other eco-minded activities include the development of seed banks, protesting the notion of nuclear power plan development, and the disallowing the entrance of mining companies. All of these are seen as a means to foster an ecologically geared social consciousness. Much of this also includes education, and as such ecological schooling is part of the explosion of academies and other learning institutions that inhabit the region. The increase in academic and cooperative development has interlocked with other emancipatory efforts as well.
A number of academies have opened across Kurdistan. This includes the founding of the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy in late August in Qamislo in the Cizîrê canton of Rojava, which operates according to “an alternative education model.” According to Rojava Report, in Cizîrê alone 670 schools with 3,000 teachers are offering Kurdish language courses to 49,000 students. Language, cultural, and historical academies oriented towards preserving and building identity aren’t limited to Rojava. They have taken off in North Kurdistan as well. As of July 2012, there are “thirteen of them, with various foci, including nine general academies, two women’s academies and two religious academies, one for Alevis and one for Islamic beliefs.”
Commenting on a number of schools run outside of the auspices of the Turkish State, a representative of the Amed General Political Academy stated that, “these schools want to work out the essence of Islam and connect to the oppositional Islamic movements, which reject rulers and an Islamic state but nonetheless are connected to Islam.”
As indicated by the Amed General Political Academy, much of the politicized Kurdish population carries an anti-capitalist, anti-State outlook. TATORT reports in the academy’s three-month course “all participants reflect on what they have learned and formulate a critique of state and ruling class.” These political academies also teach things outside of class analysis, such as histories of women and the development of patriarchy. Also, in Amed lies a center that offers courses to women, ranging from technical and practical skills to teaching the Kurdish language and literacy, as well as courses in law and women’s rights. Other centers offer health and sexuality courses. There are also seminars offered on democratic autonomy.
Empowerment of Women
In multiple ways women are empowering themselves in Kurdistan, and as a result serving as the main thrust of the movement. As already indicated above, the gender quota is institutionalized on nearly all levels of society, and throughout learning sites and academies. Another great example of the latter is the Amed Women’s Academy. According to leaders of this academy, “the liberation of women, and of gender, is as significant as the liberation of men in society.” They work on projects such as transcription of oral histories and engage in “female writing of history.” They also offer courses through a participatory discussion-based model. Many of these academies and the Free Democratic Women’s Movement (DOKH) also engage women by simply striving to empower them to step outside of their home. Some women within this movement take on a particularly radical perspective towards the state, viewing it as having a role in producing a hierarchical logic within the family unit.
Along with women’s councils, academies and centers, there are women’s cooperatives wherein the goal is to “help women create their own relations of production, where they can work and participate.” Through women’s cooperative development the altering of gender relations takes place on a number of levels: in women’s relation to the workplace (they previously have very little of such, if at all), in relation to their husbands and male relatives (breaking culturally embedded taboos and gender roles), and in relation to society as a whole (by being ever more participative in and through the program of democratic autonomy). Through these cooperatives, many women have become economically independent, have engaged in individual capacity development, and are thus breaking female internalizations of patriarchy.
Throughout Northern and Western Kurdistan there is “a system called Joint Leaders and Organizers,” meaning “the head of any office, administration, or military section must include women.” Such organizational layouts are manifest in a number of the councils and committees mentioned throughout this article.
“In addition to this, women have their own armed forces.” Thus, within People’s Protection Units (YPG), there has been the formation of Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). The YPJ, a 7,000 strong military group, have been on the frontlines against ISIS. As might be expected, the emergence of the YPJ has significantly punctured many conceptions of preordained gender roles.
Empowerment of Youth, and Workers Self-Management
With democratic autonomy, youth councils, both for those under eighteen years of age and for those over have emerged. Like the other councils, the youth councils have say and power in the carrying out of initiatives and projects such as, in the building and modifying of recreational sites and spaces. Besides this, some of the most radical perspectives, with clear articulation and vision, come from the Kurdish youth.
A Kurdish youth, remarked to TATORT: “we don’t consider ourselves nationalists. We’re socialist internationalists.” And another one stated that:
“At the moment we’re moving into a new phase of the revolution through the construction of communes, collectives and cooperatives. Popular self-organization of the economy has the goal of laying the groundwork for comprehensive change in prevailing social relations… the movement is building village, youth and women’s cooperatives… The different levels of self-management let us enter into the process of organizing more easily.”
There are varying results with the federating of cooperatives and communes. According to a member of a women’s cooperative in Baglar, anarchists in twenty-two communes in Gewer have gone as far as to abolish money as a means of exchange.
Kurds, Turkey, the United States, and the Fight Against ISIS
The largely lackluster support given by the United States government to the Kurdish line of defense against ISIS should come as no surprise, especially when considering the close ties between the United States and Turkey. Given Turkey’s extensive history of repressing the over 20 million Kurds that reside within its borders, and given that presently the Kurds are on the frontlines fighting against ISIS, the deficient response by Turkey to ISIS should not be a shock. From 2009 to July 2012, over 8,000 people were arrested for alleged membership in the Union of Kurdistan Societies, the KCK, under the Anti-Terror Law. Closing reports have asserted that as many as 10,000 people have been arrested in anti-KCK operations. The incarceration of Kurds is at such scales that one finds examples of thirty-five people pitted to a cell, with people being forced to sleep atop one another. The overcrowding of prisons has come to the point that Turkish built F-type cells, originally intended for solitary confinement, often hold four people at a given time.
Turkey’s policy to expand its hydropower base through the building of dams has doubly served as a means to destroy Kurdish culture. As Aysel Dogan, the head of the Alevi Academy for Belief and Culture, stated: “Since the holy places are endangered by the dams, the state sent [a] so-called scientist here who’s supposed to provide expert opinion. He says that there are only stones here and no indication that it is a holy place. But these stones are sacred for us.”
Yet, many involved in mainstream political currents trumpet their shock at Turkey’s and the Obama Administration’s hitherto low level response to ISIS. On 22 September, the BBC reported that Turkey closed a number of border crossings upon the crossing of tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees. This is consistent with Turkey’s existing relationship with the Kurds, and so is the United States government’s caution in carrying out a policy of bolstering Kurdish defense. Only very recently has the United States supplied arms to Kurdish forces in Kobane. Recent reports even show the Kurds gaining on ISIS. Yet, one wonders how far the Obama Administration is willing to go in supporting Kurdish forces that carry strong anti-state, anti-capitalist tendencies.
Simultaneous to all of this, Turkey allowed the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga passage to Kobane in Rojava to take part in the fight against ISIS. At first this may come across as a strong policy reversal from Turkey, but amongst the four regions of Kurdistan it has by-far held the best relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, or what is otherwise known as South Kurdistan. The KRG, led by Massoud Barzani, has historically been in violent tension with the PKK, with Turkey naturally welcoming episodes of violence between the two camps. The KRG has also indicated a level of distrust and disavowal of the activities in Rojava, particularly with the PYD, which maintains a cordial relationship with the PKK.
To any libertarian socialist the developments in Kurdistan over the last decade are strongly encouraging. Democratic confederalism positions itself as a body with transnational capacity. Many within Kurdistan, including Öcalan himself, find it as a means to bring peace and emancipation in the Middle East. Proponents of Democratic Confederalism, as indicated by their apparent openness to cultural diversity, do not simply consider this a solution for the Kurdish population, but for the multiplicity of the groups and ethnicities that constitute the wider region. Öcalan has gone as far as to assert that dual power must be built on a global scale, and that with such, a transnational body competing with the United Nations must be formed.
Not only does democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism constitute an ideological and institutional push away from the state and capitalism, but it is a system that is keen on increasingly moving away from representative political structures to those of autonomous and performative practices. Yet, if the institutions and practices that constitute democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism are to deepen inwardly and expand outwardly, then a critique of all hierarchical social frameworks must be maintained, and the concretization of an anti-hierarchical and non-hierarchical societal outlook and vision can continue to be applied and actualized.