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Edition #10
Other Rooms, Other Voices
Linda Luciani
Edited by Miriam Zeghlache

Radical Democracy: An antidote to the crisis of Western democracies?
Exploring the Kurdish Democratic Confederalism

The reason why I became a contributor to this journal is to spread the word about Degrowth (see my first and third articles). The degrowth project challenges the hegemony of economic growth and calls for a democratic downscaling of production and consumption in industrialised countries as a means to achieve social and ecological well-being for all1. While Degrowth has mainly high-GDP countries as policy targets, it is often criticised for its white, academic, and still man-dominated majority of literature contributors. With its intention to overcome hierarchies and colonial dynamics, Degrowth has been recently removed from the centre and placed among a global tapestry of epistemological alternatives and modes of living. The common thread connecting all the alternatives contained in the book “The Pluriverse”1 is a shared recognition of the right of democratic autonomy, a philosophy of solidarity, and a relationship with nature based on sufficiency and reciprocity. While this ontology is far away from being mainstream in Western neoliberal societies, elsewhere in the world there are societies organised around these principles.

In this article, I will try to explore one of these alternatives. I will delve into the history of resistance of the Kurdish Freedom Movement (KFM) and its journey towards decentralised autonomies and egalitarian societies as a seed for reflection on different democratic arrangements amidst the current crisis of Western democracies.

A Short History of Kurdistan and the KFM

Kurdistan is a region located at the intersection of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, The Kurds share a common language, Kurdish, which has several dialects, and a rich cultural heritage and traditions. Following World War I, the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) left the Kurds divided among the aforementioned four states whose governmental forces have always been violently targeted and repressed2. 

The history of resistance that has led to the current (semi-)autonomous regions within those countries sees the figure of Abdullah Öcalan (born in Turkey, in 1949) as pivotal. In 1978 Öcalan founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)  and the year after was forced to flee to Syria. In the 80s the PKK expanded into an armed guerilla movement, the Kurdish Freedom Movement (KFM), against governmental forces in both Iraq and Syria to create an independent Kurdish state. While in exile in Syria and later in 1999 in a Turkish high-security-closed prison, Öcalan wrote extensively on the history and philosophy revolutionising Kurdish politics, contributing to designing the project of democratic confederalism as a non-state system. Nowadays, despite decades of mobilisation by the international community, Öcalan is still in Turkish detention3. 

Radical (economic) democracy

The project of the Kurdish Democratic Confederalism is based on three pillars: radical (economic) democracy, ecology, and women’s liberation. Radical democracy means that decision-making processes at every scale and on every aspect of economic life should be democratically organised through institutional venues such as communes and councils at different scales and themes - neighborhood, town, city, etc. as well as venues such as energy and water councils4. Democracy is closely related to self-determination over decision-making regarding what to produce and share, how to manage resources, and how distribution should be participatory and egalitarian. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria in Rojava and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG, Iraq) are organised around these principles. Private property is subordinated to social property which should ensure that the former is unnecessary for meeting needs. Markets for goods exist while they still pertain to a social dimension by forgoing intermediaries and are oriented towards meeting mutual needs and not wealth accumulation. Complete deindustrialization meant a mechanised process and concentrated units were recognized as not possible while technology and capacity were still within the domain of democratic deliberation5.

Ecology

Ecology as a pillar stems from the critique of capitalist modernity and the disconnection from nature, cultural identities, and traditions of solidarity. Capitalist modernity induces isolation and alienation from other (non-)humans through the separation of production and consumption. It uplifts the needs of the individual over those of collectivity. Instead, re-embedding the economy within nature and solidarity, ensuring access to the means of social reproduction - food, housing, transportation, care, and leisure - to all is at the core of the socio-economy itself. In practice, this calls for an economy of sufficiency that prioritises collective needs over profits and that is to a greater extent localised as a result of the repoliticisation and appropriation of the princesses of production and consumption6. 

Women’s liberation

In the Kurdish project, women play a pivotal role in both social and political spheres. Jineolojî is a radical critique of the scientific methods of capitalist modernity, regenerating women’s historical contributions to liberation and "democratic modernity." Jineolojî practices include 40% quotas and women co-chair in roles in governance, a pedagogical system promoting women's emancipation, recovering reproductive practices, communalising life and care work, and deconstructing toxic masculinities. The Democratic Economy Conference Declaration (2014) reflects jineolojî, advocating for the socialisation of women’s unpaid domestic labour among other progressive policies7.

In Rojava, the Kurdish-led administration champions gender equality with women's councils. About 23 women’s cooperatives in agriculture and food production are connected by a direct market distribution network. Women’s participation extends to every aspect including military defense with the prominent example of the Women's Protection Units (YPJ), which have been instrumental in fighting against ISIS and defending their communities8.

Regional Autonomy versus Nation-State

In the early 2000s, influenced by global anticolonial movements and Öcalan's encounter with thinkers like Bookchin over social ecology and radical municipalism, Kurdish political ideology shifted from seeking a nation-state to a confederalism of local autonomies9. During the 2015 peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government, democratic elections for mayors were granted, allowing partial autonomy within the Turkish nation-state despite enduring attempts to impose Philo-turkish candidates through repressive violence10. Still, even in a scenario of electoral non-inference, this model of regional autonomy, as opposed to a Kurdish state with fixed borders, opens debates about capitalist dependencies and the relationship between regional autonomy and centralised state control over trade and defense. Questions around the autonomy-vs-state relationship, legislative competence, and dependency open for a provoking debate when thinking of similar radical democratic institutions transposed to a European context within a parallel process of European integration.

 

How far is Europe from radical democracy?

The ongoing genocide in Palestine and the complicity of Western governments, along with their repression of peaceful solidarity efforts by millions of Europeans on the streets, have shaken the belief in the word “democracy” in Europe. The pervasive depoliticisation of capitalist society often leads workers to embarrassment or pressure to conform at workplaces, while others remain silent to secure their income. Economic democracy is rarely a priority in current Western politics. 

The rise in loneliness and depression stems from competitive paradigms alienating social and economic relationships. Income inequalities are at historical highs while far-right political parties galvanise people’s sense of instability and precarity through xenophobic and racist populism. While direct democracy (fx. at work and neighborhood) can be challenging - it demands time, and devotion and often turns confrontational - it might serve as an antidote to multiple illnesses of capital modernity. Rehabilitating the commons, especially within the area of production, and embedding direct decision-making would slow down our routines, and rebuild a sense of community and solidarity while repoliticising the use of collective resources. If workers in a factory of armaments had the systematic practice in their lives of discussing and deciding upon what and where those should be used while having their needs covered and delinked from income-generating activities, maybe we would not assist in the current slaughter of children in Gaza. The response to the current crisis of Western democracy might just be…more (radical) democracy!

References

References:
1. Kothari, A., Salleh, A., Escobar, A., Demaria, F., & Acosta, A. (Eds.). (2019). Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary. AUF. Creative Commons. 149

2. Wikipedia. (2023, June 10). Kurdistan. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurdistan

3. Wikipedia. (2023, June 10). Abdullah Öcalan. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdullah_%C3%96calan

4. Kothari, A., Salleh, A., Escobar, A., Demaria, F., & Acosta, A. (Eds.). (2019). Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary. AUF. Creative Commons. 151-152

5. 6. 7. 8. Fetched from slides material by Professor Bengi Abkulut, Concordia University.

9. 10, Wikipedia. (2023, June 10). Abdullah Öcalan. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdullah_%C3%96calan

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