Towards Counter-Hegemony: The Cooperative Option in Supporting and Rebuilding Rojava

By Alexander Kolokotronis. Originally published on July 16 2016 in Grassroots Economic Organizing

Amidst the onslaught of the Daesh (otherwise known as ISIS or ISIL) and the wide media coverage of refugees pouring into Europe, a major event remains tremendously under-reported. This under-reporting has occurred among both corporate media and Western Left outlets. This turn of events – which is underway in a region of Syria – is most often referred to as the Rojava Revolution. Within, and because of this silence, there is very little discourse on how the Left can offer mass-solidarity and support. Furthermore, the need for solidarity and support is only bolstered by the fact that the revolution has unevenly extended into Turkey. Also, with the ousting of the Daesh from parts of Northern Syria, many in Rojava have turned their eyes towards reconstruction. Yet, as Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine has shown, reconstruction and redevelopment efforts, in any part of the world, can easily take on a neoliberal character.

While the broader international Left is significantly fragmented, providing effective mass solidarity and support is – even in theory – difficult. Yet, there is an option. This option is what I will call “the Cooperative Option.” As such, this article constitutes a response to Kurdish anarchist Zaher Baher’s piece. Before discussing the Cooperative Option, it is important to briefly describe what exactly is taking place in Rojava (Western Kurdistan), especially given the aforementioned lack of coverage.

Brief Overview of the Rojava Revolution

As I’ve written about in past articles [i] [ii], the Rojava Revolution has given rise to a matrix of institutions operating according to participatory democracy and economic self-management. This polity is being constructed in a section of Northern Syria (often referred to as Western Kurdistan, or Rojava – the West.).

While imprisoned, Abdullah Öcalan and various Kurdish organizations have become increasingly influenced by late eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin as well as academics such as Immanuel Wallerstein and Michel Foucault. Turning away from its Marxist-Leninist roots, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) has also turned more towards pre-existing local communal practices. As a result, the Rojava Revolution – and the wider burgeoning struggle – has taken on an explicit feminist, anti-capitalist, and anti-state character.

Many in the region see their model as an alternative to the nation-state system. With its ideological roots in Öcalan’s thought, this model is referred to as Democratic Confederalism and Democratic Autonomy. Specifically, Democratic Autonomy refers to localities and municipalities functioning according to direct participatory democracy. Democratic Confederalism refers to the liquid delegate structure that allows for coordination between localities and municipalities. In other words, the Rojava governance structure is largely based on institutions of assembly democracy and council democracy. Assemblies, councils and committees are found at the neighborhood, district and municipal level with a confederation of the three cantons of Rojava.  In this way, Rojava’s system is also often referred to as “Democratic Self-Administration” (DSA).

Economically, the Rojava Revolution has ostensibly been just as equal to the task of democratization. This economic system consists of various types of cooperatives, ranging from workers’ self-management to different types of multi-stakeholder enterprises. A number of these cooperatives have been formed by women, many of which have never previously worked outside of the household.[iii]

Besides economically, women have struggled in other ways against patriarchy. This can be seen both politically and militarily. Militarily, women have formed their own armed units under the umbrella of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). Beyond the YPJ, the broader military structure of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) has been democratized with military units electing their officers.[iv] Based on a visit to Rojava, David Graeber has even reported that a scheme of conflict workshops and trainings are in place, with the long-term aim being “to give everyone in the country six weeks of police training, so that ultimately, they could eliminate police.” In this way, the radical democratic – and even anarchistic – nature of the Rojava Revolution is best shown by the goal of perpetually decentralizing and democratizing the means of coercion to the point of preventing any potential monopoly of it.

Women have also been empowered through increased access to education and increased organizing around gender-focused issues. Most notably, though, gender parity has been codified into the governance structure of Rojava assemblies and councils. For instance, most councils and assemblies must meet a gender parity quota. On councils this translates into 40% of positions being filled by women, and in assemblies this translates into a requirement of 40% of attendees being women. Also, there are also women’s councils and assemblies, which have veto power over general councils and assemblies. It should also be noted that there is a major emphasis on cultural and ethnic pluralism in Rojava’s institutions and even in its constitution.[v]

With the Rojava social formation based on economic self-management and political self-governance by way of assemblies and liquid councils, it can be said that the revolution’s character dovetails with the wider libertarian socialist tradition.

The Revolution Spills Over into Turkey

This libertarian socialist orientation can even be found in the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which won over 13 percent of the overall vote on the June 7 Turkish general election. In a speech by HDP co-chair Selahattin Demitras, it was stated “We believe that the best government is the least government. We aim to make the state smaller and create a system where democracy and citizens’ rights prevail.”[vi] Demitras followed this with a call for radical democracy, vowing that the HDP “will establish assemblies of women, youth, the disabled, belief groups, cultural and ethnic groups, farmers, workers and laborers.”

Tensions rose in Turkey with the HDP passing the minimum threshold of 10% for seating in Turkish parliament. Achieving 13% of the vote granted the HDP 80 out of 550 seats in the Turkish parliament.  This victory effectively denied Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) of any chance of unilaterally altering the constitution into a presidentialist system, thereby placing more power in Erdogan himself.

Beyond an ethnic rupture in parliament, the HDP’s electoral victory also represented a rupture in representation of gender and sexuality. Thirty-one of the eighty HDP members of parliament (MP) were to be women with even one parliamentarian slated to be the first openly gay MP in Turkish history. The electoral of the HDP further ruptured the Turkish political landscape in that it “openly recognizes the Armenian genocide, fights for the rights of LGBT individuals, promotes the use of minority languages and has a political program stressing the need for decentralization, horizontal democracy and local autonomy.”[vii]

Tensions in Turkey stemming, in part, from a revolution right over its border and left wing electoral victories came to a boiling point in Suruç (Pirsûs‎), which is a town in Turkey that borders Kobanî (Kantona Kobaniyê / Kobanî Canton / Kobane ) in Rojava.[viii] What occurred on July 20, 2015 has come to be called the Suruç Massacre. In the Suruç Massacre 33 persons were killed and 104 were injured. Most of the victims were part of a 300-person Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF) contingent. This contingent was en route to assist in reconstruction efforts in Kobanî.

The result was retaliation by the PKK, which consisted of assassinating two Turkish police officers. Together with announcing a campaign against Daesh, the Turkish government immediately arrested hundreds of Kurdish activists and far-left militants, which continue to this day. Since then, instead of striking at Daesh, the Turkish government has largely bombed PKK sites in both Turkey and Iraq, and has even struck at Rojava.

All of this has been further compounded by the Ankara Massacre, which took place on October 10, 2015. In the bombings, over 100 people died and 400 injured in a large demonstration featuring an assortment of left-wing groups. Some have questioned the role of the Turkish government in the attack, whether in terms of lax security for demonstrators or direct involvement. Comments by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have only heightened such suspicions with his statement that “we have a list of suicide bombers. But we aren’t allowed to arrest them before they take action.”[ix] Davutoğlu’s assertion appears absurd to many Kurds and those on the Turkish Left who have seen their comrades arrested and imprisoned simply for their ethnic identity or ideological tendencies.

The grassroots response has been a wave of declarations of municipal self-government by various towns across Turkey. Much of this has been made possible by the role of women and youth. Still, the Turkish government has responded with violent repression.

Supporting and Rebuilding Rojava: The Cooperative Option

Like any war-ravaged region, Rojava needs support and investment. The question to which I will now turn to is how – in broad terms – this can be done without neoliberal insertion and co-optation. When speaking of (re)construction and development one often thinks of multi-national corporations sweeping in and inserting themselves — often state-support. This neoliberal mobilization proves conducive to implanting and strengthening the capitalist mode of production and its accompanying social hierarchies.

In a piece published on June 3 [x], Zaher Baher, a Kurdish anarchist, also warns against such a turn of events. Baher identifies three possible paths — I have titled each of these paths — in reconstructing Kobanî:

(1) the Neoliberal Path: corporations and hegemonic capitalist financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund inserting themselves in redeveloping Kobanî so as to further insert themselves in the wider autonomous region of Rojava.

(2) the Solidarity Path: enlisting the “international support and solidarity of the leftists, communists, trade unionists, socialists, anarchists and libertarians.” Baher sees this as “the only way that Kobanî can be rebuilt solidly and avoid the influence of the big corporations.”

(3) the Hands-Off Humanitarian Path: provide resources to Rojava, but let those in Rojava have full power over how such are utilized.

Baher’s endorsement of the second option is certainly one that many on the left would agree with. Yet, it is unfortunately vague. International brigades coming to the assistance of those in Rojava is and has been a means of assistance, however, such are likely not up to the task of reconstructing an entire region nor are they suitable for forming long term material transnational connections and partnerships. Self-directed development will require more than pooled donations from a loose collection of small left-wing groups.

There is a fourth option, one which can combine with or integrate the Solidarity Path: the International Cooperative Path, or the Cooperative Option. While some form of external investment is likely needed in the region, and with talk of an “open economy”[xi], opening up Rojava to the auspices and dictates of global capitalism would defeat the revolution. The alternative is engagement with and by the international cooperative movement. Potentially, cooperatives constitute a source of material power for left-wing movements. Rather than being a line of defense against capital, cooperatives can serve as a weapon against it.

I have touched upon the degree to which workers’ self-management is taking root in Rojava. This includes everything from textile workshops to oil production. In A Small Key Can Open A Large Door there are even reports of Rojava orienting its economy away from private property and towards usufruct property rights. Baher also notes that up to 40 percent of enterprise is self-managed in key North Kurdistan regions, though this number has likely changed in recent months.

As an article in Pasewan illustrates, economic self-management is an essential element of the Rojava Revolution.[xii] These consist of agricultural cooperatives, greenhouse cooperatives, industrial cooperatives, livestock-owner cooperatives, and village communes. According to Pasewan, the small and medium sized cooperatives include: a “public market cooperative with 240 members, an electrical cables cooperative, a roasting seeds and pistachios cooperative, a generators cooperative, a mineral water bottles cooperative with 992 members, an oils cooperative with 1250 member, a fuel stations cooperative with 100 members, and a real estate construction co-operative with 124 members.”

The Pasewan article also details the organizational structure of the Rojava cooperatives. Various mechanisms are built into the design of the cooperatives to prevent potential concentration of power. This includes allowing for limited board and management representation from each family, as well as a mandated rotation in leadership through term limits.

The international cooperative movement may have much to offer to Rojava. According to a International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) April 2015 paper [xiii], the largest three-hundred cooperatives have a combined annual revenue of $2.2 trillion. The paper notes that this is equivalent to the GDP of Brazil. Thus, it would be off-base to assert the international cooperative movement has nil to offer to Rojava.

Why should Rojava be of interest and on the agenda for the international cooperative movement? For one, Rojava is increasingly being constituted by economic enterprises run on the basis of self-management. For the international cooperative movement, the Rojava Revolution is an opportunity to further root and mature a system of workers’ self-management, let alone other forms of economic self-management.

If system-change is truly underway in Rojava, it would be a mistake for the international cooperative movement to simply ignore the possibility of creating a sustainable cooperative-based economy. After-all, the goal for many in the cooperative movement, such as myself, is to promulgate a shift in what constitutes the dominant mode of production. That is to say, many seek to promulgate a shift from an economy dominated by the capitalist mode of production to that of a self-managed socialist mode of production.

Fostering and opening up alternative supply chains (i.e., creating transnational economic networks between nominally post-capitalists institutions) could be vital to jump-starting system-change on a global level. With Rojava containing what may be a near-fully self-managed economy (or at least the very immediate potential for such), Rojava can serve as a pivotal node in the struggle to end global capitalism.

At minimum, for those in the cooperative movement not so vigilantly anti-capitalist, Rojava is a site in which the cooperative model is being scaled out and scaled up. With a self-managed economy Rojava is not merely a site to provide aid to, but one in which cooperatives around the world can enter into mutually enhancing economic relations with. This could engender precedence for creating global anti-capitalist and post-capitalist circuits of economic power through building cooperative power. Furthermore, the building of cooperative power can be tied into the sustenance and expansion of a genuine revolution, whether this occurs in gradual or more rapid forms.

Not only does Rojava contain a population ranging from two to three million people. Its cooperative economy is co-imbricated with a political system of self-governance at various scales. Participatory democratic institutions are seen everywhere from the level of the neighborhood to that of the entire region. Also, to reiterate, Rojava’s democratic character can be found in other quarters: this ranges from the democratic configuration of the Peoples’ Protection Units to the all-women assemblies pervading the entire landscape, which are also present at various levels of governance. There is also frequent mention of horizontal pedagogical forms being used in the classroom, including at the university level.

Solidarity is being shown at the international level. One example of this is Rojava Solidarity NYC, a New York City-based anarchist organization. One of Rojava Solidarity NYC’s initiatives has been to consistently send literature of all types to the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy, a university located in the Cizîrê canton in Rojava. If small collectives can show solidarity and provide material aid, there is no reason the international cooperative movement should not, especially considering the reasons outlined above.

Furthermore, the international cooperative movement can provide logistical support — when needed — with creating individual cooperatives, local federations of cooperatives, and cooperatives of cooperatives. The international cooperative movement may as well learn from Rojava. This could begin with demystifying the development of cooperatives in the region.

There is also reason for those on the far-left — those both within and outside of the cooperative movement — to push for connecting the international cooperative movement to Rojava and the wider struggle in the region. One is the preservation and hopeful expansion of the revolution. Another is to possibly further radicalize the international cooperative movement itself. This does not necessarily mean radicalizing individuals. It means pushing for and building the capacity of the international cooperative movement in becoming an anti-capitalist actor — an actor for full-fledged liberation. By making firm connections to those in Rojava, the international cooperative movement can become a counter-hegemonic force more vigilantly pushing for social formations that transcend capitalism.

The third reason is to open up serious but an obviously increasingly relevant discourse on creating and sustaining alternative institutions based on self-governance and self-management. This means not only looking at the plethora of — sometimes utopic — texts and studies available on such issues. It also means returning to and drawing on lessons from other attempts at materially articulating systems of participatory governance and workers’ self-management. This means looking at 1936 Catalonia, as well as the nearly four decade 20th century system of workers’ self-management in Yugoslavia.

While Rojava, like any other place, possesses its own unique context, this does not forbid study of, and utilization of lessons, from the Spanish Revolution and the Yugoslav system, especially since both attempts at something post-capitalist were defeated by external actors with additional internal shortcoming. One may draw lessons or at least more firmly ask questions on internal system configuration, as well as on dealings between individual regions — such as Rojava — and global capitalist institutions and power structures. Furthermore, serious and widespread discourse can be opened up on not simply creating individual self-managed institutions, but one creating and designing full systems constituted by such. In other words, there is an opportunity to open up discussion about macroeconomic democratization, and not simply microeconomic. With the Rojava Revolution moving forward, analysis and studies on post-capitalists systems are needed more than ever. Thus, lessons drawn from the Spanish Revolution and the Yugoslav system — as well as other texts and writings on such issues at a system level — are relevant to matters at hand.

None of this is to say that the infrastructure is in place for the international cooperative movement to immediately enter into strong relations with Rojava. Yet, considering the nominal financial resources and years of experience at the disposal of the international cooperative movement, the connection between the broader movement and Rojava is a prospect worth exploring. Even if the infrastructure does not currently exist to connect with Rojava, the cumulative resources of simply the top cooperatives are enormous and thus could be utilized to create such infrastructure. Much support is needed in the way of reversing Turkey’s embargo of Rojava, and there’s a deep need to open up the border so that some semblance of international commerce can commence. The international cooperative movement has the power to bring significant light to this issue. Opening up the border would within itself be a large victory.

A growing amount of people in the cooperative movement recognize the need to support Rojava.  In mid-November 2015, numerous cooperativists staged an action at the International Cooperative Alliance’s (ICA) 2015 Global Conference and General Assembly in Antalya, Turkey. As the ICA Delegates’ Statement of Solidarity with Grassroots Cooperatives of Turkey & Syria notes “As a group of cooperators from the worker, financial, software, food, and youth sectors, we together turned our backs on the Turkish Minister of Customs and Trade, Hayati Yazici (standing in as the official Representative for President Erdoğan) during the Opening Plenary of the ICA Conference. We held up four signs demonstrating our support for grassroots Turkish and Kurdish cooperatives: ‘Solidarity with Co-ops of Rojava’; ‘Cooperation with the Kurdish People’; ‘Cooperation not Repression’ and ‘Cooperation not Coercion’.”[xiv]

International Cooperative Alliance delegates stage action in support of cooperatives in Turkey and Syria.
International Cooperative Alliance delegates stage action in support of cooperatives in Turkey and Syria.

If the international cooperative movement is to live up to its values of concern for community, cooperation among cooperatives, autonomy and independence, and education, training and information, then there’s a lot more the international cooperative movement can and should do to provide serious support and backing to one of the largest experiments ever in radical democratic and socialist economy.

Alexander Kolokotronis is the Student Coordinator of NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives, founder of Student Organization for Democratic Alternatives, and formerly a Worker Cooperative Development Assistant at Make the Road New York. He has published on topics ranging from worker cooperatives, participatory budgeting, and the Rojava Revolution for publications such as New Politics, Truthout, Counterpunch, the Kurdish Question, and Grassroots Economic Organizing. In the fall he will begin a PhD program in political science at Yale University.

[i] For a comprehensive overview of the Rojava Revolution, see Alexander Kolokotronis, “The No State Solution: Institutionalizing Libertarian Socialism in Kurdistan”, New Politics online, Nov. 2, 2014.

[ii] For deeper engagement with workers’ self-management in the Rojava oil industry, see Alexander Kolokotronis, “Revolution Defended in Rojava – For Now”, New Politics online, Feb. 8, 2015.

[iii] TATORT Kurdistan, Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan, Porsgrunn, New Compass Press, 2013

[iv] David Graeber and Pinar Öğünç, “No. This is a Genuine Revolution”, ZCommunications, Dec. 26, 2014.

[v] See, “Charter of the Social Contract in Rojava”, or also translated as “The Constitution of the Rojava Cantons”

[vi] Selahattin Demirtaş, “A Shared Victory”, Jacobin Magazine, Jun. 13, 2015.

[vii] Joris Leverink, “The HDP’s victory is a barrier against autocracy in Turkey”, Roar Magazine, Jun. 8, 2015.

[viii] Alexander Kolokotronis, “The Suruç Massacre and the Reigniting of an Old Struggle”, New Politics online, Aug. 22, 2015.

[ix] Laurel Raymond, “Turkish Government Accused Of Turning A Blind Eye To ISIS After Deadly Terrorist Attack”, Think Progress, Oct. 16, 2015.

[x] Zaher Baher, “We should not let Kobane and the rest of Rojava to be defeated by the big corporations and the international financial institutions,” Libcom, Jun. 5, 2015.

[xi] Janet Biehl, Rojava’s Threefold Economy, Kurdish Question, Feb. 26, 2015.


[xiii] “Financing for Development”, International Cooperative Alliance, Apr. 10, 2015.


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