Kurdistan, Rojava, Syria, Cizire, co-operatives, cooperatives, co-operative, cooperative, co-op, co-ops, solidarity, solidarity economy, workers co-op, workers co-operative, workers cooperative, cooperative economy, Democratic Modernity

Democratic Modernity vs Capitalist Modernity: Rojava’s Alternative Model

This article, by Berfin Kurban, first appeared on Kurdish Question, 9th November, 2016

Today, in the 21st century, we live in a world where exploitation, oppression and basic human rights violations are at an increase and are being legitimized. As a result of capitalism, within political, economic and social life all kinds of inequality and injustices are never ending. One can argue that the capitalist-imperialist system with the problems of nationalism, racism, militarism, statism and sexism has put society in a state of chaos. This hegemonic system feeds on and creates wars, destroys nature, causes disasters and poverty and keeps us under a constant threat of such instabilities. Capitalism, which is the global economic and social order, has fatal contradictions between reality and reason, and consequences by threatening human welfare and causing ecological catastrophes, thus, one can argue that capitalism has reached its limits of sustainability. The end of the cold war gave a rise to the embracement of neoliberal social democracy; which evidently has many contradictory dispositions. But, it has also driven those on the left, and others who desired socialist principles in to a state of pessimism. Most people today have been pacified with the illusion and belief that no alternative to capitalism is possible. Yet, in recent history from Latin America to the Middle East, there have been social movements that have restored the faith that was once lost but now reborn with a new form of spirit such as those of the Zapatistas in Chiapas and the Kurds in Rojava (Northern Syria) and Bakur (Southeastern Turkey) among others.

There is an alternative to capitalism, that of democratic confederalism; which is being presently constructed in northern Syria (Rojava) despite a lack of global recognition. The Kurdish Liberation movement is currently undertaking a revolutionary experiment, establishing a confederal system in northern Syria, where four million Kurdish people live. This essay would set out to discover the theoretical and practical aspects of this revolution with a focus on the economic model being tested in Rojava to see whether it can be an alternative to the neoliberalism of capitalist modernity. The first section would engage in a discussion of the current ills of capitalism and the global problem of inequality, and the second section will look at how the Kurdish Liberation movement lead by Abdullah Ocalan, inspired by the ideas and theories set forth in the first section, have transformed their independence movement to one that endeavors to create an alternative, more democratic and libertarian system, based on the principles of democratic autonomy, gender equality, ecological industrialism and social economy.

Historical background to the development of capitalism and nation-statism

Capitalist modernity came about with the enlightenment and revolution in knowledge; with the development of calculus, physics and chemistry. Such that tradition was being questioned and rejected, which resulted in a move from agrarianism to urbanization enabling capitalist industrialization. As Michel Foucault (1926-1984) argued the French and American revolutions that embraced liberalism and republicanism, did not actually liberate the citizens from oppressive authoritarianism but replaced it with another form of power that of capitalism. The development of nation-states bringing along its constituents such as representative democracy, bureaucracy, public education, secularization and never ending forms of surveillance did not develop naturally and were all political decisions to assist capitalist modernity. The classical social scientists with a manifestation of Aristotelian thought, mostly assume that modernization’s inherent goal was teleology with the western (European) experience being central. By which this all has economic, social, cultural and political factors. Yet modernization theory is a widely disputed area from Walt Rostow’s (1916-2003) stages of modernization, to the dependency critique by Andre Gunder Frank (1929-2005) and the Capitalist World System theory developed by Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-…) among others too.

Capitalist globalization is a process in which the entire globe is integrated socially, politically and economically within several historic, economic, sociocultural and political dimensions. In basic terms capitalism can be defined as a system of production for profit in private hands; the bourgeois elite, or the ‘state’ as in the case of China. Today, capitalism appears to be going through a crisis. There is a worldwide economic crisis, ecology and energy and capitalists do not engage in mechanisms to solve these problems, and cannot solve these crises because as Einstein once said “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”. This system is not sustainable and has created perilous social problems, which it is forcing a denial of its ontological roots. Such that, the depression that the financial age of the capitalist system finds itself in clearly illustrates today that it cannot uphold the lies it has historically used to sustain its existence. So how has capitalism come into being?

In mid 19th century, Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) wrote The Communist Manifesto and gave a significant account of the European experience of capitalist modernity. At this historic time, the industrial revolution was taking place and was altering the material and human landscape by which there was technological (scientific) advancement, institutional changes and increased trade with the emergence of world market. Yet, for Marx this modern industrial society was characterized by class conflict that of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but as the productive forces of capitalism ceased to be compatible with this exploitative relationship it would eventually lead to a proletariat revolution. Marx argued that the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeois elite has been the force behind the historical development.

Karl Marx’s contribution to social theory was not merely utopic predictions for the future but was most importantly his analyses of the workings and contradictions of capitalism. Whereby this legacy has continued as seen with ‘world-systems’ theory of sociologist and historical social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein. From the 1970’s on Wallerstein developed the paradigm of world systems analysis; which is a macro-scale approach to world history and social change in a multidisciplinary way. Wallerstein argues that the modern nation-state subsists on an economic, political and legal framework that he calls the ‘world system’, and in this world economic system some countries benefit from it while others are exploited (2011:15). Wallerstein emphasizes that the capitalist world system commenced in the 16th century in parts of Europe and the Americas, and with the endless accumulation of capital in the following centuries it spread to the entire globe (2004:23-24). So the modern nation-states can be understood to be embedded in the world system of capitalism.  But as Wallerstein argues, the economic relationships did not just randomly develop, and the modern nation-state was created parallel to capitalism to serve and protect the interests of the capitalist elite. Moreover, the European capitalists had to create strong European states with political and military power to enforce their hegemony. Wallerstein highlights that the capitalist world-economy relies on the creation of surplus through the constant increase in productivity, by which it extracts surplus for the bourgeois elite through profit. Power is a crucial notion here to understand the inequalities that are propagated through the capitalist world-system. Such that, the world-system is centred on a twofold division of labor, and different classes have a disparity in access to resources within the nation-states, as well as various nation-states have differential access to goods and services on the world market. Wallerstein splits the capitalist world-economy into three main categories which are: core, semi-peripheral and peripheral (2004:28). In which the core states are dominant ones that have the political, economic and military power to enforce unequal rates of exchange and exploit the peripheral states, the less developed for their labor, raw materials and agriculture as well as ecological and other forms of exterminations. These terms that Wallerstein asserts can help to explain the complicated economic power relations between countries. As Wallerstein suggests this capitalist world-system is not endless and eventually with a global economic crisis this system inevitably would collapse and result in revolutionary change.

Nation-states are not real entities and it is a modern social construction, whereby Benedict Anderson (1936-2015) coined the important paradigm of imagined communities. Anderson analyses nationalism and he claims that a nation is an “an imagined political community” because no one can meet or know every member of that community, “yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion,” and irrespective of inequalities and exploitation “the nation is always conceived as a deep horizontal comradeship” (1991:6-7). Nations unlike nation states are not tangible because they are not always in a given geographical location and can go beyond boundaries as exemplified with the European Union or the African Union. By looking at the historical origins of national consciousness and the emergence of modern nations from the eighteenth century up till the twentieth century, Anderson argues that the nation or nationalism is not really a political ideology like Marxism or fascism, but it is a social construction created in the eighteenth century parallel to western political developments to enable it to become a model so that it can be attached to any government with various ideological dispositions even that of socialist regimes. The national consciousness was stimulated through things such as modern conception of time, print-capitalism and other political events like the French and American revolutions. Anderson makes a significant argument that even revolutionary (e.g. Marxist) regimes poses a threat of engaging in war in the name of ‘nations’ given to the briefly aforementioned analyses. Nationalism is a powerful notion that helps to maintain the status quo, and distract the focus on social problems such as economic exploitation, yet Anderson did not provide a solution, nevertheless he helped to inspire Abdullah Ocalan and his paradigm of Democratic Confederalism to reject the nation-state.

Neoliberal globalization has not worked for the poor or the environment but it has instead caused catastrophes and its contradictions needs to be addressed argues economic anthropologist Keith Hart and his co-authors whom have written a citizens guide to building a human economy. Methodologically inspired by the twentieth century ethnographic revolution in social and cultural anthropology ‘The Human Economy Programme’ initiated by Keith Hart et al. aims “…to reconnect the study of the economy to the real world; to make its findings more accessible to the public; and to place economic analysis within a framework that em­braces humanity as a whole, the world we live in” (2010:2). By reclaiming the project of economics from the economists, and emphasizing the unity of the self and society this new human universal seeks an alternative. Although they do not provide one, they propose four key principles that economics must embrace to be humanistic. The first is that economics “is made and remade by people; economics should be of practical use to us all in our daily lives.”  Hart says “this means that it should address a great variety of particular situations in all their institutional complexity” and “it must be based on a more holistic conception of everyone’s needs and interests. Lastly, he asserts that. “It has to address humanity as a whole and the world society we are making” (2010:5). Hart et al. provide interesting directions for engaging with economics in an emancipatory and multi-disciplinary way cutting across geography and he asserts “economy is always plural and people’s experience of it across time and space has more in common than the use of contrastive terms like ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ would suggest” (2010:3).  Thus, the aim is to promote economic democracy “by helping people to organize and improve their own lives. Our findings must therefore ultimately be presented to the public in a spirit of pragmatism, and made understandable for readers’ own practical use” (2010:3-4). So one can wonder how the grassroots Rojava experiment would help to radicalize ‘The Human Economy’ project set forth by Hart for economic democracy.

Moving on from Hart and embracing the idea that our alternatives must originate from our realities, self-determination becomes an important preliminary point for economic, social and political freedoms and development. The revolutionary Kurdish forces in Rojava have illustrated that an alternative is possible by developing their own system against capitalist modernity by establishing a democratic society, aiming for an eco-industry and the system of democratic confederalism, by calling this system democratic modernity.

Democratic Confederalism as an alternative to Capitalism

History and Ideology of the Kurdish Freedom Movement

Kurdistan was split up into four nation-states (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey) thorough the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 by drawing artificial boundaries in the region. Each nation-state was cautious about any potential fragmentation of the new state and attempted to unify the nation-state through nationalism. This meant the denial of existence of many ethnic groups (Kurds, Albanians, Lazs, Azerbaijanis, Zazas, Chechens, Circassians, Arabs, Bosniaks, Tatars, Armenians, Greeks, Yazidis) that lived specifically in Turkey. This nationalist sentiment instilled through the ‘nationalization projects’ tried to assimilate ethnic groups to Turkify, Arabize or Persianize. Abdullah Ocalan (who is the main strategist) with a group of young people founded the Kurdistan workers party (PKK) in 1978 in Northern Kurdistan (Turkey) and began armed struggle in 1984, with the aim of establishing an independent socialist (Marxist-Leninist) state, through the establishment of a unified Kurdistan, evolved into a movement rejecting the nation-state to seeking democratic confederalism. The PKK went through several transformations as a result of intense analysis of national liberation and other alternative movements as well as looking into the practices of real socialism and feminism beside an evaluation of their own theoretical practice. Although before Ocalan’s abduction in 1999 (outcome of a NATO operation), the PKK went through a series of ideological reforms, it was during the writing of his prison defence that he coined the term democratic confederalism and proposed it as a solution to solve the Kurdish problem. Ocalan and the Kurdish movement made a shift from seeking an independent state because “the foundation of a state does not increase the freedom of a people” and “nation-states have become serious obstacles for any social development” (2011:1).

Ocalan, proposed democratic confederalism as an alternative to the nation-state system. He developed this model inspired by anarcho libertarian socialist Murray Bookcin’s (1921-2006) municipalist ideas, as well as the aforesaid theories of Wallerstein and Anderson among many others. Ocalan defines the project of democratic confederalism as “a non-state political administration or a democracy without a state” (2011:21), whereby it is “flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopolistic, and consensus-oriented” whereby “ecology and feminism are central pillars” (2011:21) of this project. Furthermore, in this self-administrative system “an alternative economy will become necessary, which increases the resources of the society instead of exploiting them and thus does justice to the manifold needs of the society” (2011:21).

By uncovering the truth about historical society and critiquing capitalist modernity Ocalan argues that in “living memory people have always formed loose groups of clans, tribes or other communities with federal qualities”(2011:23) whereby this enabled a preservation of internal autonomy. However, echoing the Foucauldian theory of bio-power, Ocalan argues that capitalist modernity has imposed the centralisation of the state, by which “the nation-state as a modern substitute of monarchy left a weakened and defenceless society behind” and  “power constitutes itself in the central state and becomes one of the fundamental administrative paradigms of modernity” (2011:24). Thus, the Kurdish movement proposes ‘democratic modernity’ as a solution because it is “the roof of an ethics-based political society” (2011: 25). The fundamental principles of democratic modernity consist of a moral and political society, ecological industry and the paradigm of democratic confederalism.

Democratic confederalism as the fundamental political practice of modernity can be a significant model not only to the Kurds, but also to the Middle East and other regions that are ethnically diverse and multi-cultural. As it provides a solution to oppressive features of the nation-statism caused by the monolithic and homogeneous implementations. So in the democratic nation all ethnicities, religions and other groups will have a voice and can participate with their own ethnic identities under a democratic federal structure.

The Implementation of Democratic Confederalism in Rojava

The democratic Union Party (PYD) an affiliate of the PKK in Rojava first established in 2003 began to put the ideas of democratic confederalism into practice before the Syrian uprising started in 2011, however with much difficulties as the Ba’ath regime tried to stop and suppress any change being made to the existing capitalist and statist order. The PYD managed to but became successful after 2012, once Assad’s forces retracted from the area to focus more on the resistance being put up in the rest of the country. The Kurds in Syria had chosen a third way, that of peace, not joining the regime or the rebel forces in the civil war that was unfolding.  The people, with the leadership of PYD and the protection of the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) and Womens’ Protection Units (YPJ) took control of most of Rojava, organizing large-scale assemblies.

In the time between 2012 and 2014 the people of Rojava, guided by the political groups, were highly active in discussing the strategies for putting into practice the democratic confederal system Ocalan had proposed. In 2013 Rojava was split into three autonomous cantons that of Cizire, Kobane and Afrin. The people organized within councils and communes within the cities and villages of each canton. People from all ethnic background in the region were encouraged to attend the meetings to discuss the issues they had. For the first time in history the people of the region were being consulted about their issues and the system they wanted to live in. After this long and rigorous consultation in 2014 the social contract of Rojava was established for the three cantons of Cizire, Kobane and Afrin with over fifty political parties/organization agreeing on it.

The Charter starts with the declaration that says “In pursuit of freedom, justice, dignity and democracy and led by principles of equality and environmental sustainability, the Charter proclaims a new social contract, based upon mutual and peaceful coexistence and understanding between all strands of society” (Peace in Kurdistan, 2014). This social contract establishes an outstanding manifestation of the principles of democratic modernity, by encouraging the participation of everyone, because each and every person in society can relate to it.

Again in the introduction of the charter the most defining aspect of the system being created is outlined in very simple words, saying: “Under the Charter, we, the people of the Autonomous Regions, unite in the spirit of reconciliation, pluralism and democratic participation so that all may express themselves freely in public life. In building a society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs, the Charter recognizes Syria’s territorial integrity and aspires to maintain domestic and international peace” (Peace in Kurdistan, 2014). The charter makes a declaration of a new political and civil system founded upon a social contract with the people to establish a freer and more democratic society that equally represents the will of all groups in the region, with social justice and equality established. One significant aspect of it is the emphasis given to gender equality, besides equal rights for ethnicities with the right to education in mother tongue.

The basic structure of the democratic confederal system, has four levels of governance and decision making: 1)Legislative Assembly, 2)Executive Councils, 3)High Commission of Elections, 4)Supreme Constitutional Courts, 5)Municipal/Provincial Councils. At the base level of the Rojava council consists of The Commune. Whereby each commune consists of 30-400 households (city or village) and meets once a fortnight and elects a board that meets each week (any member can attend these meetings whenever they want). In all positions and throughout all areas there is an implementation of a co-chair system where male and female share power to enable consensus. The next level is the neighbourhood/village councils, going up to district peoples council and lastly the peoples council of west Kurdistan (MGRK). A significant aspect of the council system is that on each level there are autonomous women’s councils formed by Kongira Star women’s union to empower women on all walks of life.

Following on from these development, in March 2016 ‘Democratic Federation of Rojava – Northern Syria’ was established by Rojava’s three cantons led by the PYD “to achieve a democratic and federal Syria, rather than a centralized administration, by taking into account the historical, geographic, cultural, demographic and economic characteristics when establishing democratic federations.” With “Self-administrative regions” within the DFRNS would organize themselves “based on councils, academies, communes and cooperatives” (Rojavanorthernsyria.noblogs.org, 2016). What makes all this more remarkable, is that this alternative system, which challenges the world order and gets no political and material support from any nation-state, is taking place while Kurds are at the same time resisting assaults from ISIS and engaging a war perpetuated by the Islamic State with the support of the Turkish State that does not want an autonomous Kurdish government established next to it.

The organizational network, embedded in Rojavan society, is run by Tev-Dem (the Movement for a Democratic Society), which is run by men and women, and the autonomous women organization of Kongira Star (established in 2012, the star referring to the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar). Both organizations include all ethnicities and religions, and is an exercise in direct grassroots democracy (Gupta, 2016). People have established communes ranging in size from 7 to 300 families, academies, tribunals and cooperatives and health administrations, as well women’s defence units. The committees for these are elected in local assemblies, and all organizational structures have a co-presidential system with one man and one woman being elected.

The economic model of Rojava

The democratic confederal system in Rojava is still under development, the speed has been slowed by the constant attacks they have to deal with and the embargo imposed by the Turkish state. Yet many great steps have been taken towards establishing an alternative economic system  that provides an alternative to the dualism of capitalism and communism. In an interview conducted by a journalist with Professor Dr. Ahmet Yosuf, whom was made President of the Committee On Economy and Trade of the Afrin Autonomous Canton, Dr Yosuf outlines the long-term objectives and the steps taken to achieve those. He says that to start with the canton, like the other cantons, will start with cooperatives, “small units of production” (ANF, 2014). The development of the system, as explained starts off with an economy initially based on agriculture. Furthermore this system which will include the cooperation of all people in the area, will benefit everybody and will pose as an alternative economic model for the people of the region (ANF, 2014).

These ambitions are being made into reality. At the end of 2015 and 2016 Economic Committees have been set up to facilitate the establishment of and support the running of the economy, with some of them being women-only cooperatives, to tilt the balance of the order to encourage more women to take part in running the economy. The people are running small units of production. The co-operatives range in size from small co-ops with less than 10 people to medium sized co-operatives of 60 people or larger ones with 100-150 people (Gupta, 2016). Some of the cooperatives set up include those for agriculture (for e.g. wheat cultivation, the growing of vegetables and salad materials, for production of milk and makes yoghurt and animal husbandry), clothes shops, restaurants and bakeries (Gupta, 2016). The few oil refineries in Rojava are also operated by a co-operative. The people working in these co-operatives are the owners/shareholders. The organizational structure is lead by a ‘coordinating committee’, preferred as a name to ‘management committee’ because it sounds less hierarchical (Gupta, 2016). The people collectively decide on the rules, the operation, the hiring of people and the finance. At the high level all the economic activity is jointly run through the organization of Tev-Dem and Kongira Star. All the economic initiatives are run with ecological principles in mind, using natural resources and minimizing waste and consumption. This system is still at its early stages and the canton administrations have plans to build a more sustainable water supply and energy system as soon as they can financially do so.

The capitalist world order is still shaking with the detrimental impact of financial crisis that started in 2008 and the wars that have put the Middle East into turmoil with hundreds of thousands of lives lost and millions of refugees created. In the midst of all this, the Kurdish people in Rojava (Northern Syria) have stated a revolution that challenges the capitalist, patriarchal and statist system that has created high level of inequality and greater class divisions. With the theoretical framework of Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish liberation movement, the Kurds of Rojava are building step by step the model of Democratic Confederalism. This system is based on grassroots democracy and organizes people to establish democratic communal structures with the leadership of political groups. The system is being trailed in village, towns and cities with assemblies formed in all. The system that “promotes an ecological model of society” also supports women’s liberation.  The economic system being developed is one that benefits all people and poses as a model for the whole region. It is therefore of paramount importance for all groups that defend equal rights for all and a socialist more libertarian system to show support for the revolution currently taking place in Rojava, because it is a beacon of hope for a more peaceful and equal world.


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