Kurdistan, capitalism, mall, shopping centre, Iraq, Sulaymaniyah

Capitalism wants to take hold of Kurdistan

This is a translation of an interview with Azize Aslan by Ali Barış Kurt, originally published in Turkish by ANF, 21st November, 2014

In their search for an alternative, solidarity form of economy, the Kurdish freedom movement has organized a series of events, workshops, podium discussions and bigger conferences under the motto, “Let’s communalize our land, our water and our energy, let’s build a democratic, free life!” The Congress for a Democratic Society (DTK) organized Conferences on Democratic Economy in the cities Amed [Diyarbakir], Wan [Van], and Mêrdin [Mardin], in collaboration with the municipalities. Because of the urgent situation in Kobanî [Kobanê / Ayn al-Arab], the last conference in Wan took place after a delay, on the 8th and 9th of November, 2014. One of the participants of the conferences was development economist Azize Aslan. News Agency Firatnews spoke to her about the role of capitalism in Kurdistan, about communal self-organization, the position of women in the economy, and about economic autonomy.

“Kurdistan provides fertile ground for capitalism”

What does the intensification of the economic crisis mean in relation to Kurdistan?

Azize Aslan: The crisis the capitalist system is going through today is intensifying, and in this situation of crisis, Kurdistan plays an increasingly important geographical role. In periods of crisis, capitalism is looking for new territory to exploit again. Because of the global crisis of capitalism, and specifically the crisis capitalism is going through in Turkey, capitalists have now ascribed an important role to Kurdistan.

What makes Kurdistan profitable?

A.A.: After the coup d’état in 1980, the new regime used exports–that is, the opening of the national economy to global markets–to stimulate industrialization. How could Turkey hold its ground in international markets? Through its cheap work force. But now, the work force in the west of the country is not as cheap as before, and that is why new, cheap workers have to be found elsewhere in the country. Kurdistan is the region of the desperate, on the one hand because of unemployment, on the other because of all the wars. As a result, the workforce is especially cheap here. The idea of a “Sinicization of Kurdistan” is sometimes mentioned. If we look at the politics of the Turkish state and the dynamics of how capitalism spreads, it is not false to make this analogy.

In 2012, an economic stimulation plan was prepared in which Turkey was divided into six regions. The sixth region, also the most underdeveloped one, is North Kurdistan. The goal of this plan was to develop the fifteen Kurdish provinces, and regional and sectoral strategies were developed for this. The sectoral strategies seem more important to me: here you can see exactly that Kurdistan is desired as a source of cheap labour. The sectoral strategies involve the shifting of labour-intensive activities to the sixth region. The most labour-intensive industry is the textile industry. This industry is not only labour intensive, it is also informally structured, usually the beginning and the end of working hours are not controlled and overtime hours are not counted. Women constitute the majority of the workforce. Agriculture, which is also very labour-intensive, is another industry for which the sixth region has been selected.

The businesspeople will make a big profit with low investment”

What exactly does the shifting of the sectors to Kurdistan mean for the capitalists?

You see how state and capital act together in this project. The state courts the capitalists with discounts: ”if you invest in this region, 40% of your taxes will not be raised for the ten next years”. The employers get a discount on their insurances and the possibility to receive cheap credits. They only have to pay a worker 634 Lira a month, which is much lower than the national minimum wage. That means they are creating a de facto regional minimum wage. This way, capitalism and a profit-oriented mentality are trying to take over in Kurdistan. Democratic economy in this context means the coming into being of an ”economy of resistance”.

State and capitalists are telling Kurdish workers, ”Go back to your villages, we have created employment there for you now.” In reality they mean: ”We will exploit you in your home region from now on”.

The untouched Kurdish region will be looted. The Hevsel-gardens, for example, will now be handed over to the agricultural industry [These ancient fruit and vegetable fields at the foot of the Amed city walls were saved from commercialisation and were registered by UNESCO as world heritage in 2015—Ed]. State and capital exploit both workforce and nature in Kurdistan under the guise of development and employment.

Why is the “peace period” seen as important by business and capital? [The “peace period” refers to the ceasefire that was in place between the Turkish state and the PKK from 2013 until 2015—Ed]

Capital welcomes the peace negotiations, because in war times there can be no word of safety or stability, both of which are prerequesites for business. A disputed territory, or any type of territory where there is a civil war going on, is not seen as a safe space for capital. Apart from the peace period, what also plays a role right now is the fact that capitalism has had international experience in how to counter resistance from local populations.

Is that why economic autonomy is important?

What is important to understand with economic autonomy is that the community has a right to have a say in any economic matter in its region, its city or its villages. The community will decide whether any one farmer cultivates tomatoes or maize, or if she or he breeds cattle instead. What in capitalism is called the “surplus value” of goods shows that these goods were produced for the market, an entirely profit-based mechanism. Society produces not for itself, but for the market. In such a market-oriented economy, society cannot decide about anything; we cannot even decide about our own employment. We work for very low salaries, but we still keep on working. We work in informal branches, are not insured and not organized, but we still keep on working. Because we do not have control of our own activities.

On the other hand, the question comes up as to how far a region can control its own resources. In the current system, we are denied the right to have a say about resources like oil or coal, etc.

Economic autonomy is important in and of itself for all these reasons, but it is also important with a view to creating democratic autonomy later on. Economic autonomy is the most important prerequisite needed for democratic autonomy. A region which does not control its own economy cannot possibly become politically autonomous.

“Trade Unions are incapable of organizing the Kurdish workers”

The degree of organization of the working class is low in Kurdistan. Is that partly a fault of the trade unions?

The number of workers who are members of trade unions is still low in Kurdistan, compared to the rest of Turkey. Yet we gave the trade unions a space in this conference and let them become a part of the process, because they are also working for democratization. The workers who are organized in unions will later be able form their own communes or organize together. On the other hand, we also have to deal with a rigid definition of “worker” in the unions. If you want to put forward a labour agreement at a company, you have to organize the majority of workers. But in Kurdistan, there are many workers that are not registered; the informal sector is bigger than the formal one. There are many possibilities to find yourself outside of the formal sector. A strong organization inside the unions paves the way for a lot of practical problems. Unregistered workers are also not insured, neither do they have the possibility to become trade union members. That means the trade unions do not politically fight for these people either.

On top of this, repressive behaviour still predominates in trade unions. Some elements in them want to deny the existence of the Kurdish question and of the Kurdish freedom struggle. This means these unions are not capable of organizing Kurdish workers. I know an example from an oil refinery in Êlih [Batman]; there is a trade union there. At the plenary meeting, the trade union members from Düzce [in the West of Turkey] attacked the members from Êlih. They cannot all work together in the same trade union because they cannot find a common political line.

Will the model of economic autonomy also relieve unemployment?

In the end what unemployment really is, is a result of the capitalist system. It is also a well-used instrument to put pressure on employees. The slogan, “We reduce unemployment” makes no sense, because we have to realize that unemployment stems from the system itself. If we shape life in an anti-capitalist way, unemployment will disappear by itself.

If communes and cooperatives produce together and according to their needs, unemployment will disappear. Once communes and cooperatives have been set up, it will become clear that unemployment is a product of the capitalist system.

“An economy without dominant male language and mentality”

Do women have a place in the current economy?

There is a misconception about women and economy: the idea that women do not participate in economic life… Actually women participate in the entire process of production and they do that with incredible vigour. We can say that the work that women perform in their homes, in the village and on the fields, is not being seen. Take for example the work of cooking and cleaning. Women are also being employed within the capitalist system, but then as supplements. An example for this are jewellery or weaving workshops. The salaries the women receive are not seen as having to secure someone’s livelihood, but merely as an extra; while the low wages the men receive are seen as being enough to sustain an entire family.

We want all the “invisible“ work done by women to become something social, beginning in the home. Why shouldn’t there be creches for children and communal kitchens? Why should women have a washing machine in the home, why can’t there be launderettes in the village? These type of questions should be discussed. Dominant male mentality has put in place the ideas of “women’s work” and “men’s work”, and by making work more communal we can make these concepts disappear. A good illustration for how the gender roles are understood are statements like, “Women are good teachers” or, “Work during the night is not for women”. Men constantly want to decide what activities are “appropriate” for women.

People say, ”Investments must come, and the textile industry must also come to Kurdistan, so that our women can work”. But women are not being asked whether they want to work in the textile industry—and then for such low salaries. Women are being excluded from the decision-making processes surrounding production. Men decide about who is being employed and about the employees’ position in the production process. If we want to found an alternative economy, women have to be given a position of power. We think that women can organise themselves and produce by themselves, and in this way, women’s communes can come into being. We are talking about an economic way of life in which male language does not dominate with its mentality of ”performance” and ”quality”.

We know that creating communes and a communal economy is not easy. Creating communes in the countryside is not the same thing as creating them in the cities. But it is just as important to integrate women into the economy and into economic activities in cities .

What is the difference between the rural and urban areas?

In the countryside, the relations between people, and the production processes themselves, lend themselves more readily to the creation of communes. There, people can cultivate fields, make the harvest communal for consumption by everyone in the commune and then put the surplus onto the market via cooperatives. But in cities, there are no fields. In terms of the means of production, there are only factories, and there is no obvious way to go about setting up a commune. In industry, setting up communes and cooperatives creates more difficulties—but that does not make it impossible.

Why must there be separation of women and men?

Let me continue where I left off with the other example: In big cities there are also women and they also have to be integrated into the economy. The first problems already arise when companies or cooperatives are being founded. Women don’t have any property. It’s mostly men who are owners and the mechanisms for managing funds develop from there on, everything starts with property.

There is also the fact that pregnant women often get laid off, or are not employed again after having given birth. Taking care of children is a reason to be laid off.

Literacy rates are lower among women than among men, and that, too, is a reason to separate the sexes. We must create possibilities for women to express themselves, to develop themselves and to realize their potential.

Is there an “ethnic perspective“?

The economist Mustafa Sönmez recently reviewed the conference about democratic economy. He thinks the conclusive statement will be prepared from an “ethnic perspective”…

Azize Aslan: I was present at the conference all the time, but I didn’t hear once that an alternative economy was only for Kurds. We want all ethnic groups who live in the region and wish to participate in this alternative economic form, to develop it and create a new lifestyle in this way. If we look at the poverty in the region, we can see that it is not only the Kurdish ethnic group that is affected by it. Arabs are also concerned, they sometimes even live under starvation conditions. There are also many people from Syria of various religious groups present in North Kurdistan. It is difficult to integrate them into the system. We have not developed a mechanism for that yet, but we propose economic autonomy as a model, a paradigm for the whole of Turkey and the whole world.

We have defined the “democratically autonomous regions” this way: what we call North Kurdistan is not one big region, but consists of several democratic regions that are divided according to different criteria. We believe we can create self-government and autonomy in this way.

As far as local people who have migrated to the west of the country are concerned, our intention is not to say to them, “Come here, our economy is good”. The idea is that society as it is gets organized at the place where they are living.

We have invited Mustafa Sönmez to the conference, but since he lives abroad, he could not come. Approaching things with a “logic from Ankara” does not make sense, but that’s what he does, he tries to understand things here looking through “Ankara-glasses”. It is not possible to plan things without taking into account the regional specifics.

The role of the municipalities

Are the municipalities the main actors in a communal economy?

There appears to be a misunderstanding here about the terms “democratic autonomy“, “democratic economy“ and “communal economy“. These processes are not going to be carried out by the municipalities. We are speaking about a system here, in which societies themselves are the ones making decisions. The municipalities are a big part of the democratic economy, but they are not the only actors.


Municipalities are subject to Ankara, which means they work according to a system of predetermined rules. The administration in Ankara defines laws and statutes which follow a certain political line. The municipalities’ administrative and financial parameters also align with this. Ankara still imposes its will on them.

So how will the municipalities be integrated into the new economy?

We do not strive to increase our capital, or to strengthen measures that will increase it; we use the capital solely for the welfare of the people. We have to work with the following ideological restriction: we increase the capital not for the bourgeoisie, but for society as a whole. Our municipalities work towards this direction too, but the system is not quite yet working very well. The representatives of the municipalities, who want to be re-elected during the next round of votes, have to create something for those in their constituency. They commission outside companies for services like cleaning, catering or security for this. We propose that they hire cooperatives instead, because the companies mostly pay their employees minimum wage.

There are parks in every city, and the municipalities auction off who gets to open a tea house or restaurant in them. This needs to stop. We propose opening tea houses, not restaurants; places where people can eat simit [sesame rings] and which are accessible to everyone, all while keeping up the standards of these places. The extortionate prices put in places by the municipalities have to stop. These parks are opened with public funds, but the public cannot make full use of these parks right now.

Furthermore, we now observe that the new “city laws“ have had negative effects in three large cities and a few smaller towns. The infrastructures have been affected. Investments are made primarily in the cities now, and the surrounding countryside is neglected. The network of services must be extended there, too. Goods produced in the surrounding villages can reach the cities via a network of cooperatives, for example. The resources must be divided equally between cities and countryside. If we look at the budget of the municipalities, a lot of it is being spent on asphalting the roads. They could work on expanding the railway network instead. Or they could promote the use of bicycles and provide a factory for bicycle-making, which would be run by a cooperative.

The municipalities are also an important mechanism for women. We propose opening centres for women in all rural and urban areas. The budget of the municipalities should be spent with both genders in mind. We don’t think there should be a special budget for women, but the effects on women should be kept in mind when the money is spent. If the municipalities apply this and other proposals we have, they can help us set up the alternative mechanism we are trying to build.

Shopping centres morally corrupt people, they damage human relationships and they hold people back from thinking freely”

What’s the alternative for shopping centres?

I can talk about this issue by quoting David Harvey: in shopping centres there is “compressed time and space“. We do a lot of things in that restricted space of the shopping centre, but all these things are very tiring. Shopping centres, as well as supermarkets, are the strongholds of capitalism, that’s the classic definition. We have to support small groceries and corner shops instead.

In North Kurdistan, we have caravansarays and bazaars in traditional shopping arcades, with carpet and jewellery sellers. Let’s take for example the arcades in Riha [Urfa / Şanlıurfa], there is a shop run by Mr. Mehmed who has been there for forty years. My mother and grandmother shopped there. The man is well respected and his shop has a long-standing good reputation, in this way it is very much a part of the old town. Shopping centres are not like that. Maybe in shopping centres the lighting is good and so is the whole presentation, but the employees change a lot. Those who work there now get fired the next month because the working conditions are unbearable. Shopping centres morally corrupt people, they damage human relationships and they hold people back from thinking freely. When a person enters a shopping centre, they are going to feel poor. The lighting in there is so lurid and the products are flaunted with such extravagance their own clothes seem like rags compared to what they have in front of them.

Small shops need to resist the shopping centres. There are ways of doing that. People should privilege local shops that sell products from the region. Consumption can be organized via cooperatives. Thirty cooperatives can be founded, the products can be collected from these cooperatives and then sold on the market. In this way we can successfully resist.

Ali Barış Kurt, Ankara, ANF 21.11.2014