Once an assembly and council democracy is in place, in which power flows from the bottom up through confederal councils, the possibility lurks that the councils can become vehicles for top-down rule. How can people in a democracy keep that from happening? This question was on my mind in Rojava last October, so when Zanyar Omrani asked me about it, I explained my ideas and others’ in “Thoughts on Rojava” In ROAR Magazine.
Would you like to know more about how Murray Bookchin, the American communalist theorist, influenced Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK? You can read my account here. This article is based on a speech I gave at the “Challenging Capitalist Modernity” conference in Hamburg in 2012—you can watch the video here.
My other writings on Kurdistan:
“Hasankeyf: A Story of Resistance,” about the fight against the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River, New Compass, August 7, 2011.
“Kurdish Communalism,” an interview with Ercan Ayboga, New Compass, October 9, 2011.
“Report from the Mesopotamian Social Forum,” New Compass, October 5, 2011.
“Is Obama’s Best Ally Against Isis a Force Associated with Bookchin’s Communalism?” New Compass, September 12, 2014.
Starting in 2012 a communalist social system has been in the process of transforming Rojava (West Kurdistan, or Syrian Kurdistan). This firsthand account of the institutions of that transformation was written in the early summer of 2014 and thus before the current war. The world’s powerful countries should be supporting this courageous people and their high-minded social and political transformation, rather than allowing one of its cities, Kobanê, to be overrun by ISIS barbarism. Viva Rojava!
The Goal Is a Democratic Solution for the Entire Middle East
by Michael Knapp
Rojava delegation of Campaign TATORT Kurdistan
In the past 33 years, the Kurdish freedom struggle, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, have not only reacted to social changes but shaped them and proposed further steps in the direction of a liberated society. Significantly, the PKK conceives the Kurdish question as an issue not of nation or ethnicity but of the liberation of society, of both sexes, and of all people. Öcalan’s book Sociology of Freedom is a kind of a road map for the liberation of Rojava and the entire Middle East, highlighting in detail steps toward freedom.
During our journeys through Rojava, we met many people who had close relationships to Öcalan and to others who have decisively participated in the PKK’s history. This ongoing contact has engendered a transformation in the region’s otherwise feudalistic social terrain. The women especially emphasized this connection—they have known about Kurdish women’s liberation ideology for more than twenty years and have been trying to implement it. Thanks to all the close interconnections within the Kurdish freedom movement, many people [from Rojava] joined the PKK and fought for it in North Kurdistan. So it is a mistake to see the PKK as strictly a North Kurdish phenomenon; this movement also belonged and belongs to tens of thousands of activists from Rojava.
Öcalan’s 1999 arrest, followed by the Assad regime’s intensified repression, gave rise to a period of reorganization in Rojava. After the regime’s 2004 massacre of Kurds in the city of Qamişlo and the subsequent uprising, this reorganization began to gain momentum, to the point of creating armed self-defense units. The leftist Party of Democratic Unity (PYD) had already been founded and quickly became a strong regional political force. Meanwhile new paradigms emerged from the Kurdish freedom movement and especially from Öcalan, inspired by the work of the libertarian theorist Murray Bookchin, whose model of democratic confederalism and democratic autonomy became a touchstone for the reorientation. Öcalan developed a critique of the history of actually existing socialist states and of national liberation movements, including the PKK itself. As an alternative to conceptions of revolution that strive for an armed uprising and seizure of power, he outlined a plan for a “democratic, ecological, gender-liberated society.” He introduced the concept of an “ethical and political society” that would be self-managed and would situate itself outside the lifeless, homogenous consumer society of capitalism.
Even before the rebellions in Syria began, the Kurds of Rojava had already created the first councils and committees and thereby began to institute a radical democratic organization of most of the region’s population. Starting on June 19, 2012, the cities of Kobanê, Afrîn, Dêrik, and many other places were one by one freed from regime control; the strength of the reorganization then revealed itself. Military bases were reconfigured, and the vastly outnumbered regime troops were offered the option of withdrawal. Only in Dêrik did the situation lead to a struggle, with a few casualties. But even here, as people in Dêrik told us, the new self-organization prevented violent attacks and acts of destruction and revenge.
Self-defense and the “Third Way”
As we considered this phase and the politics of the Kurdish movement in Rojava, we also observed the implementation of another paradigm of Democratic Confederalism: self-defense and the primacy of nonviolent solutions. The Kurdish movement and especially the PYD were organized before the Syrian revolution began resisting the Assad regime. At that time they saw it as a matter of democratic transformation; a militarization of the conflict was to be avoided. But with the outbreak of war, Islamization, and the heteronomy of the Syrian revolt, the Kurdish movement in Rojava decided to go a third way: it would side neither with the regime nor with the opposition. It would defend itself, but it would not wage war. The movement has remained this politics up to the present [July 2014]. Thus in Qamişlo, in the quarters that were inhabited by regime supporters, regime military units were still tolerated. The same was true for the airport. The goal was and is always to reach a political, democratic solution for all of Syria.
The Commune as the Center of Society
“The creation of an operational level where all kinds of social and political groups, religious communities, or intellectual tendencies can express themselves directly in all local decision-making processes can also be called participative democracy.”
— Abdullah Öcalan, Democratic Confederalism (London, 2011), p. 26.
Democratic Confederalism has as its goal the autonomy of society: in other words, instead of the state governing society, a politicized society manages itself. As against capitalist modernity, it proposes democratic modernity. In Rojava, to make this system possible, the center of the social system became the commune. The commune, the self-management of the streets, would emerge as the hub of the society.
Decision making in the communes requires that quotas be met—that is, in order to make a decision, here and in all councils in Rojava, at least 40 percent of those who participate in the discussions must be women. In the communes, current issues of administration, energy, and food supply, as well as social problems like patriarchal violence, family conflicts, and much else, are discussed and if possible resolved. The 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—such as bakeries, clothing production, and agricultural projects. The ecology commissions concern themselves with urban sanitation as well as specifically ecological problems. At the forefront is the imperative to strengthen the social position of women: committees for women’s economy help women develop economic independence.
The commune, as the mala gel (people’s house), lends support in all questions; it is simultaneously an institution of support and a kind of court. Central to its processes is the ideal of agreement and compensation; for general offenses, the causes of an infraction are investigated and overcome, and the victim is protected. For patriarchal violence and all attacks that affect women, the mala jinan (women’s house) is in charge; it is attached to the women’s council, a parallel structure to the commune’s mixed-gender council.
As we ourselves could see, meanwhile, people of the most diverse identities take part in the communes, especially Arabs and Assyrians. The mala jinan likewise works to solve social problems and responsible for implementing the goals of women’s liberation. As much as possible, the councils prefer to vote by consensus. The communes send their representatives to their respective district councils and city councils, and the structure continues into the general council of Rojava.
Democratic Autonomy and the Nation-state
“Peaceful coexistence between the nation-state and democratic confederalism is possible, as long as the nation-state doesn’t interfere with central matters of self-administration. All such interventions would call for the self-defense of the civil society.”
–Abdullah Öcalan, Democratic Confederalism, p. 32.
Democratic Confederalism is a form of self-management and thus stands in contrast to the model of the state. It is an attempt at permanent social revolution, as is reflected in every facet of the social structure. Overcoming the nation-state is seen as a long-term goal. The state will be overcome when Democratic Confederalism in practice assumes all structures into its self-organization and self-management. In that society neither statist nor territorial boundaries will play a role.
Indeed, by virtue of the self-management of society, Democratic Confderalism renders the state and the nation-state redundant. In this social model the commune, the council, and the society are integrated, with the commune is the political center. In outward form the region of Rojava has chosen to follow the Swiss cantonal model, structuring itself in terms of the cantons’ far-reaching regional autonomy. Ideally the canton arises from the cooperation of the autonomous political councils. While the nation-state is based on social homogenization through the construction of identity and its reflexively coercive implementation, Democratic Confederalism is based on social diversity. Over the course of world history, the nation-state has been compromised by bloodshed.
In this region, typically only the Arabizing politics of Syria and the Turkicizing politics of Turkey were discussed. But Syria is home to Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Sunni Kurds, Assyrian Christians, Chaldeans, Yezidi Kurds, Armenians, Aramaeans, Chechens, Turkmens, and many other cultural, religious or ethnic groups. All these social groups should achieve representation through the council system with its corresponding quotas.
The commune, as the structure of self-management that directly binds to the neighborhood, must therefore be the center of political self-management. In order to raise the level of social organization, it provides educational forums for members of the commune, on topics like democratic self-determination and rights, women’s liberation, the history of Syria, the history of Kurdistan, the Kurdish language, and many other social issues.
On our journey in the region, we saw that the success in implementation varies from region to region. In many areas Arab councils and especially the Assyrians work very closely together with the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM). Central positions are allocated to three or four co-chairpersons, who correspond to the social groups of the region.
The Highest Council, or Parliamentary Democracy?
While in many areas the Kurdish population already has decades of experience with the Kurdish movement’s concepts of women’s liberation and social freedom, here too there are of course also divergences. Some wish to organize in classical parties rather than in councils.
This problem has been solved in Rojava through a dual structure. On one hand a parliament is chosen, to which free elections under international supervision are to take place as soon as possible. This parliament forms a parallel structure to the councils; it forms a transitional government, in which all political and social groups are represented, while the council system forms a kind of parallel parliament. The structuring and rules of this collaboration are at the moment under discussion.
Closing the Gap
Mamosta Abdulselam, of TEV-DEM in Heseke, has explained the system of communes in Heseke. “There was a gap between the councils and the people—that’s why we developed the commune system,” says Mamosta Abdul. “There are 16 district councils here. On each council there are 15 to 30 people. About 50 houses form a commune. The communes are numerous—in each district there are about 10-30 communes with 15-30 persons each. The Mifte district in Heseke has 29 communes, while the neighboring district has 11 communes. Each district forms about 20 communes per 1,000 people. The 16 district councils are formed form the communes. One hundred and one people sit on Heseke’s city council. In addition the PYD has five representatives, as do five other parties. Families of the Fallen have five, Yekitiya Star has five, the Revolutionary Youth have five, and the Liberals have five. The district councils normally meet every two months. Twenty-one people are elected as the coordination. The leadership meetings take place once a month and as needed in special cases. Always at least 40 percent of the representatives are women and at least 40 percent are men. Decisions are made according to consensus principle. Care is taken that one person doesn’t dominate the proceedings. The co-chairs are elected. Members of the commune nominate them and then elect them.”
At the beginning of our stay in Rojava, Sirin Ibraham Ömer, a 45-year-old woman from the district of Hileli in Qamişlo, reported to us on women’s work in her commune.
“We are 60 active women in our commune. Once a week we do educational work—we read books together and then discuss them. Twice a month we visit other women and explain the tasks of the revolution. Many are much influenced by the logic of the state—they don’t see themselves as people who can manage their own affairs. They have many children, and there are many arguments at home. The children are outside on the street and play instead of going to school. We’re concerned about that. If a family has no income, we have a committee for that, to provide the basic foodstuffs.
The peace committee talks with the families. If there is violence in a family, the woman can get help from the Asayiş. In Hileli meanwhile it’s socially disapproved for a man to hit his wife—that’s all but come to a stop. In other districts it’s still present in places. Here it was usual for the television to be on 24 hours in an apartment, with Turkish broadcasts in Arabic language—that was a big problem. But when the energy suddenly went off, so did the TVs, and people’s minds were cleared to do something else.
Many women are married off very young, even as children, so that there will be no extramarital pregnancies. Now they see that education is good for them, that they can have a better life.
Once a week we go out and collect a little money—it’s a symbolic way to help. We distribute the weekly newspaper (Rohahi) —it’s very cheap, so everyone can read it. It appears in Arabic and Kurdish. When we all get together now, our topics are not gossip and chitchat as before, but political developments and the women’s organization. We know it all here in the district.
In many districts there are also so-called women’s houses. They aren’t women’s safe houses like in Germany, but houses where women can get together and educate one another and talk about heir problems. They frequently offer classes in computers, language, and sewing.
The most important work of the women’s houses is however to provide assistance against social sexism. “The women come to us, when they have a problem. Not only the Kurdish women but also the Arab women,” says a representative of the women’s houses, Serê Kaniyê.
We witnessed such an inquiry. Two older Arab women arrived and asked the women at the women’s house for help. “Through the commune system we know every family,” says Serê Kaniyê, “we know every family’s economic situation, and we know who hits his wife and his children. We go directly there and speak with those affected, until it gets to a solution.” She agrees on a date with the two women, to find a solution for their problem.
The commune is a place not only of self-organization but also of social conflict resolution. It concerns itself with social problems in the districts, support of poorer members of the commune, and the just distribution of fuel, bread, and foodstuffs. Meetings of the commune handle not only conflicts, the usual neighborhood fights, but also violence against children, and resolution is attempted. In Dêrik we attended a meeting of representatives of a commune: they were discussing the case of a family that had tied up a child. This behavior was now monitored and controlled. If the misbehavior continues, the children will be taken to a protected place.
Translated by Janet Biehl. The original article appeared in the July-August 2014 issue of the German-language periodical Kurdistan Report. See http://www.kurdistan-report.de/index.php/archiv/2014/174/154-ziel-ist-eine-demokratische-loesung-fuer-den-gesamten-mittleren-osten
In the United States in 1965, the environmental crisis was still inchoate. Rachel Carson’s eloquent Silent Spring had raised the alarm about pesticides and herbicides. Smog and soot were choking the cities, and toxic chemicals were polluting the waterways. Congress had passed a few weak pieces of clean air and water legislation, but they were not making much difference. The first Earth Day was five years away.
But in 1965 the prescient author Murray Bookchin was already writing about not only these issues but climate change (or rather, what would later be called climate change, or the greenhouse effect, or global warming—none of those terms were yet in use). “Air pollution is a threat not only to public health but also tho the stability of our weather,” he wrote that year:
Man’s increased burning of coal and oil is annually adding 600 million tons of carbon dioxide to the air, or about .03 percent of the total atmospheric mass. During the past one hundred years, he has contribute 260 billion tons, or 13 percent more of the gas to the earth’s atmosphere.
Bookchin wasn’t a climate scientist—he was an aspiring science journalist. His source was a brief article in a scientific journal: J. M. Stagg, “Atmospheric Contamination and Climatic Stability,” New Scientist 23 , pp. 627-28. But he inferred the consequences:
This blanket of carbon dioxide tends to raise the atmosphere’s temperature by intercepting heat waves going from the earth into outer space.
Rising temperatures would lead to climate disruption:
Meteorologists believe that he immediate effect of increased heat leads to violent air circulation and increasingly destructive storms.
Then Bookchin took a daring speculative leap:
Theoretically, after several centuries of fossil-fuel combustion, the increased heat of the atmosphere could even melt the polar ice caps of the earth and lead to the inundation of the continents with sea water.
The book was called Crisis in Our Cities, published by Prentice-Hall. In chapter 11, he named the problem and warned that ignoring it would be dangerous:
Remote as such a deluge may seem today, it is symbolic of the long-range catastrophic effects of our irrational civilization on the balance of nature, indeed of the profound problems we are leaving for future generations to solve.
Bookchin specific predictions were remarkably accurate, as it’s almost superfluous to point out. Rising atmospheric temperatures: check. Violent air circulation: check. Increasingly destructive storms: check. Melting of the polar ice caps: check, except for the time frame. Inundation of the continents with sea water: coming.
Actually, I’ve done Bookchin a disservice, reducing his prescience by a year: he’d actually written almost the same words about global warming in 1964, in an essay called “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought.” The essay circulated around the counterculture for ten or fifteen years and was anthologized in a lot of books (including Bookchin’s own Post-Scarcity Anarchism, published in 1971), but its message was ignored by most.
Nor did Crisis in Our Cities didn’t attract much attention—the world was still barely getting a basic grasp of air and water pollution, after all. Bill McKibben published his epochal The End of Nature in 1989 would climate change become a matter of general awareness.
Bookchin correctly diagnosed the cause of the looming problem: the burning of fossil fuels—indeed, “we could not hope to sustain our fossil-fuel technology indefinitely even if there were ample reserves of coal and oil for millennia to come.” So our agenda, he said (still in that 1965 book), must be to wean ourselves from fossil fuel use in favor of alternative sources of energy. What would those sources be?
He ruled out nuclear power: because of the problems of radiation and hazardous waste, it would be replacing one source of dirty energy with another.
Instead, he proposed shifting clean, renewable energy sources. Solar energy, for one.
Every day, the sun provides heat energy to each acre of the earth’s middle latitudes in amounts that would be released by the combustion of nearly three tons of coal. If we could fully utilize the solar energy the annually reaches the continental United States, we would acquire the power locked in 1,900 billion tons of bituminous coal!
And unlike fuels from coal and petroleum, energy derived from the sun would be “clean and inexhaustible.”
Wind power would be another source. “For thousands of years, farmers use the wind as a source of energy for milling grains, pumping water from the depths of the earth, and draining marshes.” Today, he wrote, we are learning how “to harness the winds for producing electric power at costs that are competitive with fossil fuels.”
And finally he proposed using energy from thermal tidal dams, in which “sea water will be trapped behind the dam as the tide rises and will then be rereleased as needed into generating turbines. The tides, in effect, will create huge reservoirs of water behind the retaining wall and electricity will be generated in much the same fashion as in a conventional hydroelectric power plant.”
From these disparate sources, with solar, wind, and tidal energy, Bookchin suggested piecing together a system “in which the energy load is distributed as broadly as possible.” The type of energy produced and consumed in a locale would be based on its specific attributes: in sunny areas, solar energy; “in regions with a great deal of atmospheric turbulence, we are likely to take greater advantage of wind turbines than in calmer areas.” And along the seacoasts, communities would “rely heavily on the energy potential of the sea—not only the power provided by tides but also by waves and differences in ocean temperatures.”
Perhaps renewable energy couldn’t power an entire industrial civilization, he acknowledged, but we must nonetheless reserve the use of fossil fuels to cases where they were absolutely unavoidable—“always taking care to limit their use as much as possible.”
If we had listened to Bookchin back in 1965, we would likely not be facing a possible four-degree-Celsius temperature rise by the end of the twenty-first century. Still, it’s not too late to undertake the shift that he recommended all those years ago.