A journey into the heart of the revolution and the strategies of transition towards a social economy: the multiplication of communes and cooperatives, and experimentation with new models of social, political and economic organisation.
“When the revolution began in 2011, we knew that the conflict would develop into a war between Shiites and Sunnis. We chose a third way, the way of communal life”, Heval Halil, co-president of the Tev-Dem, tells us. “Ours is a cultural revolution that begins with development and strengthening of communities”.
We are in Qamishlo, the capital of the Cizîrê Canton, a city of 200,000 inhabitants on the border with Turkey. The Rojava region declared autonomy in 2012, and from the following year it began to experiment with forms of self-governance inspired by the principles of Democratic Confederalism, the political and social theory that represents the result of thirty years of struggle by the Kurdish Freedom Movement. Democratic Confederalism aims to overcome the nation-state through the empowerment of organised communities in a model of direct democracy, in order to build a society based on co-habitation between different cultures and religions, and based on values and practices such as ecology, feminism, social economy and people’s self-defence. It is a unique experiment in the heart of a Middle East ruined by war, brutal repression and fundamentalism. An experience that would seem unbelievable if you didn’t see it with your own eyes, especially in the context of the ferocious Syrian conflict.
This writer was recently there and can testify that what is happening there is a real revolution. In the last three years, the self-administration of the Tev-Dem, the organisation that connects the parties of Syrian Kurdistan and the social movements, has been fully involved in the reorganisation of the institutions and drafting of new laws.
The smallest organisational unit and decision-making base of the community is called the “Komin” (commune). The Komins are basically organised at the territorial level, but there are also communes for women or specific ethnic groups. In each neighbourhood, there are seven or eight Komins that elect representatives in the neighbourhood and city councils. Proposals and demands are developed in the communes, which respond collectively to the needs of the community. Proposals for laws are sent to the city councils where they are discussed, modified and finally approved.
Each of the three cantons of Rojava: Cizîrê, Kobanê and Afrîn, has had a separate administration. Until last year, a large part of these territories was controlled by Daesh (the Arabic name for ISIS, the Islamic State). The YPG, the people’s militia, and the women’s brigades, the YPJ, retook large parts of these territories through very strong violent clashes and battles. Today, only the western canton Afrîn remains separated from the canton Kobanê by a buffer zone occupied by the Turkish military, which Daesh allowed to advance without putting up any resistance. Despite territorial disunity, there will be elections next year to form the first “Confederal Government of North-East Syria – Rojava” through the system of direct democracy developed over these past three years.
But the real beating heart of the Kurdish revolution is the strategy of transition from the capitalist economic model to a new paradigm of social economy.
“We want 80% of our economy to be made up of cooperatives, but we don’t believe in a socialist model that prohibits private initiative. Our idea is that each person plays an active role in society, and the transformation has to happen step by step, with the participation of the people”, says Heval Rashid, co-president of the Department of Economy. In Kurdistan, two representatives, a man and a woman, are assigned to each public office, in a system of “co-presidency”.
Until three years ago no cooperatives existed in these areas except for some isolated and unpopular experiences linked to the Assad regime. Today, there are more than one hundred cooperatives in the Cizîrê canton, and they are multiplying at an astounding rate.
Kasrek is an agricultural cooperative, 120km from Qamishlo, in the direction of Aleppo: it came into being four months ago, and now has 5,000 consumer members that live in the cities of Til Tamer and Dirbesiye. “The autonomous administration allotted 5,000 hectares to us. We have a long-term project for the following eight years for agricultural products and cattle-breeding. Now we sell vegetables, corn and milk produced from a flock of 1,250 sheep. The workers receive 8% of the revenue, all the rest goes into improving our project, and that’s what we will continue to do until it’s finished”, says Aznad, one of the farmers who is participating in this ambitious project.
“We produce without using chemicals and sell our products to our members at a lower price than the market. The membership fee is $100. Anyone who doesn’t have that money can become a member by offering work or sharing the fee with other people. When necessary, the members help us in the fields. We are going to plant a forest and as when that project is complete, we’re going to open a farm for visitors. We are making a dream come true,” continues Aznad, visibly moved. “The agricultural cooperatives are the only ones that receive a direct subsidy from the autonomous administration. Due to the economic embargo and scarce resources, contributions are minimal, yet symbolically very important, because they give attention to the importance of self-sufficiency for food.
A lot of cooperatives are being supported by the women’s movement, Kongreya Star, which has already helped establish about 50 cooperatives, especially small ones, dealing with agriculture, stock-breeding, handicrafts, catering and food production. “Lorin” is a cooperative dedicated to the conservation of seasonal fruits and vegetables. “We began six months ago, and we produce preserves to sell in our communities and in the markets. At the beginning, our husbands did not support us, but afterwards they realised the importance of this project. The only capital that we had were our hands, and we wanted to use them to participate”, says Sozda, one of the new member-workers, “and we had the idea of assembling an agricultural cooperative to directly produce the fruits and vegetables that we need for our preserves”.
The cooperatives are started up in different ways: initiated by social movements; by the locals directly; by the communes, which have to form at least one cooperative each; or by affiliation with other cooperatives. In this latter case, Hevgirtin plays a big role–the biggest cooperative of the region, which has 26,000 members.
“The idea to set up this cooperative came up a year ago in the village Zargan, during the sugar crisis. We are under an embargo and the capitalist merchants profiteer by speculating with the prices of essential products. That’s how the idea came up, to form a cooperative to buy sugar and sell it at a lower price than the market. It was a small step to go from selling sugar to selling other products, and that’s how we began to involve various communes, so that they would buy from us. At the beginning, our cooperative worked as a wholesaler. Today, we distribute products of other cooperatives and invest 5% of what we make into creating new ones. So far, we have initiated eight other cooperatives”, explains Zafer, a member of the administration council. “Our final goal is to take control of the market out of the hands of the merchants and wholesalers, who don’t share the profits with the communities, and for that we also want to set up a bank that will finance new cooperatives.”
We can highlight two aspects of this process: the speed with which society is reorganising itself into an unexplored model, and the desire of the people to learn, exchange and change the way they do things. “We are experimenting with a new form of self-organisation and we try to learn from each mistake that we make, day by day. We don’t have answers to all of the questions. We would love to get to know more about the cooperatives of other countries, so that we can succeed in developing new ideas that can be useful to our revolutionary process,” concludes Zafer, as images of the war continue to flow on the television, with atrocious brutality and inextricable contradictions.