Economic Self-Governance in Democratic Autonomy: The Example of Bakur (Turkish Kurdistan)

Report by Azize Aslan. Translation from an article in Turkish first published by Birikim in May 2016

The “Apoist”1 thread of the Kurdish Movement, which today involves many actors and organizations in military and political capacities, has gravitated away from the idea of founding a state. With the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and his following imprisonment in İmralı, followed by a so-called paradigm shift with the theses he developed during imprisonment, the Kurdish Movement began to defend a model of organization named Democratic Confederalism and Democratic Autonomy for the four parts of Kurdistan2.

The movement considers Democratic Autonomy as an active process consisting of bottom up, and therefore social, “construction” of self-governance mechanisms around an understanding of radical democracy. Within the two years of relatively little conflict between the 2013 Newroz Declaration and the intensification of conflict in July 2015, the question of how to implement Democratic Autonomy has been discussed on various Kurdish platforms and decisions have been taken for concrete implementation. Throughout this process the de facto situation in Rojava facilitated the expansion of Democratic Autonomy as a unified experience involving three cantons, particularly in Cîzîre (Kantona Cizîrê‎ / Cezîre / Jazira Canton). For this reason, closely examining and evaluating the ideologico-political project and the experiences making up the Kurds’ will for self-governance and their claims for autonomy seems to be vital for discussions about the peace and resolution process as well as our collective future.

This article aims to analyse the economic dimension of Democratic Autonomy, whose creation is projected to take place alongside politics, self-defence, diplomacy, culture, ecology and collective emancipation, and relates to the reader the arguments and experiences within the economic field.

Democratic, Ecological, Female Emancipationist Communal Economy

The approach to the economy of the Kurdish Movement, named ‘economic society’ in Abdullah Öcalan’s writings, ‘communal economy’ by the PKK, ‘democratic economy’ by the DTK [Democratic Society Congress, Turkish: Demokratik Toplum Kongresi], and ‘social economy’ by the Rojava Center for the Improvement and Strengthening of the Economy, is built on the three pillars of democracy, ecology and female emancipation. These principles set out the limitations of the communal economy in democratic autonomy. The communal, or social, economy, shall be built by the councils, communes and cooperatives.

The communal economy is a democratic economy; it is emphasized that all individuals in society need to have a say on the processes of production, consumption and distribution since the subject of decision-making of the communal economy is society itself. In the councils that will be organized at neighbourhood, village, district, city and regional levels – as well as by certain organizations for women, the youth, etc – every individual will be integrated into the decision making process and contribute to the discussions on what is produced and/or how to distribute the products in a process of democratic planning. This way resources will be managed collectively. In this way society will self-administer all economic activities and this will allow the democratic functioning of the communal economy.

The communal economy is a female-emancipationist economy; the capitalist system has marginalized women from economic decision-making processes, and rendered female labour invisible. For Öcalan this situation is a precondition of a capitalist system and which makes women the ‘queen of commodities’; he says that ‘In order to reap profits from the economic activity of women in terms of basic needs and use value, these activities have had to be confiscated from women’. Accordingly, ‘the reality of the woman rendered without economy’ is the most striking and entrenched social contradiction. For this reason it is argued that the reorganization of the economy has to be organized with the minds and hands of women. The movement claims that an economy that is spearheaded by women will prioritize basic needs and use-values, and therefore will not directly seek profits and therefore will also be ecological. Women would create spaces of equal representation and self-organization3 in the communal economy – along with the other fields of democratic autonomy – through the assertion of their rights in the economy through conscious and organized practice. They will create their own economic spaces, communes and cooperatives.

The communal economy is an ecological economy; based on their observations of the history of Mesopotamia, the Kurdish Movement contends that the greatest destruction brought about by industrialization is upon the agricultural and village communities that are the precondition of social existence. For this reason, the formation of eco-societies, or communes, is one of the major economic bulwarks of democratic autonomy. With reference to Murray Bookchin4, Öcalan remarks that eco-societies should also be created in cities. In every city, economic activities are to be organized by units based on the nature of that city, towards non-profit motives and the alleviation of urban unemployment and poverty. The population can be distributed among these units – along lines of social composition and skills.5 Industrial production is thus not rejected but the limits of industry are laid out by the ecology and basic needs. Industrial production cannot cross these boundaries. The industry that emerges from this arrangement is the eco-industry6. Democratic autonomy takes as its basis the ecological economy and community.

This communal economy is portrayed as a third-way alternative to economic liberalism and centralized planning.7 The communal economy is localized as a shared, solidarity-based and collectivized economy, and is seen as the economy closest to the traits held by the societies of Kurdistan. In the communal economy, social necessities and use-values are prioritized in place of individual needs. The movement aims to socialise production in the communal economy through the communes and cooperatives, eliminate the wage-relation through collective labour, and create solidarity-based markets to improve the self-governance of the economy. In summary, an economic order in favour of nature, women and social justice.

Economic self-governance in Bakur (Turkish Kurdistan, Bakurê Kurdistanê‎)

There are two limitations in evaluating the practical application of democratic autonomy and economic self-governance, thus far explained in theoretical terms. Firstly, the activities have not reached a sufficient level of maturation, and secondly, I find it unethical to make detailed judgements on what has been happening. Therefore, this section is intended to be an inventory of the activities that have been carried out so far.

The DTK initiated a series of conferences (Democratic Economy Conference, Turkish: Demokratik Ekonomi Konferansı) following a number of economic workshops and a realisation that serious debate needed to be carried out on the subject in 2014. There were five preliminaries and three workshops before the conference. These conferences happened in Van during 8-9 November 2014 under the slogans: “Let us communize our land, water and energy” and “Let us build a democratic and free life”. 8,9 In this conference the Van region was chosen as a pilot area. Two important reasons for this was that the nomadic community known as Koçer had a notable presence in the area, and that the population was closely tied to agriculture and stock-breeding.

The Van economy commission began its work by planting thousands of fruit trees, and made efforts to expand urban gardens within 300,000 m² of metropolitan municipal boundaries. Honey communes were formed in four villages, and four tons of garlic were planted last October. All of these projects were led through cooperation between the DTK, municipal actors at the metropolitan and district levels, and the KJA (Association of Free Women, Kurdish: Kowara Jinen Azad). Landless and/or unemployed villagers of the area participated in the production process and shared the products or revenues rendered. 

agricultural cooperative

Agricultural co-operative

In central Van, women convened in the Gardening Women’s Cooperative (Turkish: Bostancı Kadınlar Kooperatifi, BİKAD-Koop) and made jam from the strawberries they had grown in their fields. Today they produce various jams, along with pickles, tomato paste, canned tomatoes and other bottled goods. Another women’s commune that was formed under the same cooperative generates revenues by making vermicelli, bread, cakes, and ravioli in a pastry workshop.

BIKADCooperative

Bikad Co-operative

Also in Van, a cooperative market named Medya Consumer Cooperative was opened. However, it is difficult to say whether this co-operative has been successful at achieving its goal of bringing small village producers’ products to the consumers in the city.

The Bağlar Women’s Co-operative has been active for many years in the Bağlar Municipality of Diyarbakır (Amed), and has grown with the cooperation of the economic commission of the KJA and the municipality, renaming itself the Amed Co-operative and carrying out production in a textile studio with women who have been the victims of violence – 17 of them at the time of writing. The studio knits regional garments as well as casual clothes with the aid of a designer. In the short term, the women plan to open a store and sell the products they label as “Eko-jin”, and integrate this store with their existing co-operative while opening the studio up for more women.

EKO-JIN

EKO-JIN Store

This co-operative, which brings another woman every time there is an increase of 1000 lira in its revenues, appears promising. I had the chance to closely observe this co-operative, and a good practice which I saw was that none of the women shied away from criticizing one another in their weekly meetings. They believe that by doing so they can avoid grudges and blunt competitive tendencies, and I think they are successful at this. When I asked what was the meaning of the name ‘Eko-jin’, they stressed that it should not be understood as a brand name – eleven women’s cooperatives and communes had made a joint decision on this name. The women say that all of the products of the cooperatives and communes are sold under this name, and thus they can show their presence through the market. Their primary goal is to increase the number of communes and cooperatives so they reach a level where they can trade products between one another. A market where Eko-jin products are sold has recently opened. The women said that they discussed every detail – from the shop windows to the hangers – at length and that they will bring the products to consumers without a mediation. Preparing for the Women’s Economic Conference on the 8th March, the women believed that they can organize the areas of economic self-governance with their will, anger, and joy, and as they proceed to organize, that they can defeat a capitalism that is shaped by a patriarchal mindset. Most importantly they actively struggle for this.

An important project which is planned to be carried out for a communal economy in Diyarbakır (Amed) is the agricultural commune. The agricultural commission is composed of five people, who nevertheless have said that they are still at the beginning stages of their work, but have also added that they have passed the hardest hurdle of persuading people. Particularly due to the re-emergence of warlike conditions, the villagers are pessimistic about production. The commission carried out preliminary fieldwork in the district of Kocaköy (Karaz), and investigated the productive past of Kocaköy – in other words looking at the nature of the products that were grown there previously using in-depth interviews. They found out that agricultural production overall has decreased, and a few products (such as wheat and barley) have become predominant. The seeds that have been kept in chests were collected, and the commission says that they will increase production with the help of the municipality. However, the commission expressed its desire for participatory planning, and while they have observed inequalities in land ownership, the peasants who would like to communalise their land will join the commune. Following the communalisation of unequally sized land, the problem of how revenues will be distributed remains an important issue to be discussed.

The Kurdish Movement often stresses that the communal economic approach is not an ethnicity-based, or Kurdish economy, but that it is a social economy that recognizes social plurality, and states that the Mersin (Mersin ili) women’s commune is a case in point. The commune was created by nine women at the initiative of the KJA and started with no money. When I asked the Turkish and Kurdish women about what unites them, they said that they were all women working in greenhouses. They met the female farmers in Mersin and asked for their surplus products, and one of them donated a greenhouse of mint. Another woman donated the peppers that remained on her field after the harvest and they made their first revenues by drying the mint and pickling the peppers. The women, who have produced tomato paste with the donations of tomatoes, say that they have expanded their range of production since last summer and they constantly discussed what to produce next. They believe that the farmers helped them due to a feeling of female solidarity. They have lately begun making bags out of felt. Although they say their only tools are their needles and hopes, the women claim that they are now even receiving orders from abroad and that with this spring the commune will grow along with their hopes for working women. The Mersin women’s commune also sells its products under the name Eko-jin (Mersin).

EkoJinProducts

Eko-Jin products

Production of jams and sauces

Jams and sauces produced by women’s co-operatives

An additional initiative in the economic field is the KED Research Cooperative. The cooperative, which plans to begin its activities in the coming weeks with a board meeting, is a first in many ways. ‘KED’ means labour in Kurdish. While the organizational model of KED is still a topic of debate, the aim of this cooperative is to collect socio-economic data in Kurdistan, assemble inventories and become a place for academic collaboration. The constitution of the research committee requires its members to be university graduates, yet the representative from KED that I spoke to states that their most important principle is to break the hierarchy of age and knowledge that can be observed in the academic community. KED has also been discussed within the framework of an academy or institute. It is an ambitious cooperative but is not yet active.

In addition, from Batman (Batman ili, Parêzgeha Batmanê‎,) to Mardin (Mêrdîn, Mārdīn), Urfa (Riha, Şanlıurfa) to Siirt (SêrtSiʿred) as well as in many other regions, there are similar projects being carried out. It is hard to write about these, let alone keep track of them, because they are not controlled centrally; they are not governed. The municipality, DTK and KJA have organized various meetings to give briefings at the local level, and initiative has been left to the local actors. In many places, economic commissions created by local councils are active, and therefore the project is very expansive. It is not clear whether this will become an alternative to capitalism; there are countless internal and external factors that determine this. However, it is clear that a more humane and communitarian economy will arise.

In place of a conclusion…

The debates around the communal economy can make substantial theoretical contributions to the debates on alternative economies which are against capitalism. The practical side of it has also been expanding and maturing. Nonetheless, there are important theoretical weaknesses to the communal economy. The founding dynamic of the economy spatially prioritizes agriculture and rural communities and can not yet provide solutions to urban problems. In other words, the mechanisms that will bridge the urban-rural, or the producer-consumer divide, have not been elaborated. Also, the status of private property in land is not seen as a situation that needs to be changed, therefore the unequal ownership structure and its impact on processes of production and distribution are not accounted for. In addition, the movement faces a theoretical obstacle of defining the revolutionary agent as society itself, thereby accepting society as a homogeneous being and thus removing class stratification.

The last two years of experimentation – as well as previous episodes that the Kurdish Movement has been through – shows that the most important outcome is that alternative production processes can be created as well as markets for flourishing communes and cooperatives. Owing to the prices and regulations set by the monopolistic companies in free market conditions, cooperatives often do not have a chance to compete within them. The products of communes and cooperatives are often produced at a higher cost than market prices. This is due to a number of reasons, such as the absence of mass production, an inability to negotiate prices for raw materials, and a lack of reliance on the exploitation of labour. Therefore, the products obtained through collective processes are always sold through solidarity market networks. However, it is difficult for an expansive communal economy to rely on these solidarity networks. In addition to their un-competitiveness in the market, there are a series of issues regarding the un-mediated and trouble-free transportation of the produce from the villages to the consumers in the towns. Therefore the market problem is one of the most difficult problems to solve. How to go about creating an alternative market? How will the producer meet with the consumer? How these networks will be organized are among the questions that can be addressed by simultaneous experimentation and theoretical debate. Another dimension of the alternative market from the women’s perspective is how to feminize the trade networks and information that are currently monopolized by men. Women’s production is appropriated by the men that control the trade process, and this way women are unable to assert their agency in the patriarchal capitalist system and thus are rendered invisible within it.

However, in the context of war and embargo, discussions regarding the construction of a communal economy – and what is needed to ensure its durability in the face of global capitalism and financialization – have been superficial and a constant emphasis on localism has been made. Capitalism can become localized as it globalizes and can determine all relations at the local level. Seeing that this is the case, it seems necessary for the communes and cooperatives to make links with communities that produce with similar philosophies and methods to create a mutually reinforcing network. However, the people in Bakur (Turkish Kurdistan) who struggle to create a new life are unaware of such networks, and have neither the capacity nor the energy to establish connections. In this sense they need serious support. That is to say, the communes need all means of solidarity, and this is not just their need, but it is the need of all those that believe in the possibility of another world. Let us hope that solidarity flourishes…

1 The participants of the Kurdish movement name themselves Apoist, and their philosophy as a “Leadership / Apoist” philosophy. Apoist is the self-description of those that follow the ideological line of Abdullah Öcalan.

2 The geography of Kurdistan was partitioned between four nation-states – Iran (Rojhilat), Iraq (Başûr), Syria (Rojava) and Turkey (Bakûr) – whose boundaries became clear after World War One.

3 Self-organization refers to the mode of organization in which women are the sole decision-makers and executives.

4 Murray Bookchin, Kentsiz Kentleşme, Sümer Yayıncılık, 2014. [Murray Bookchin, Urbanization Without Cities: The Rise and Decline of Citizenship, Montreal, 1996.]

5 Öcalan, A. Özgürlük Sosyolojisi

6 Öcalan, A. “Endüstriyalizm (Kapitalizm) ve Ekoloji”, Demokratik Modernite, sayı 11, s. 16

7 Ahmed Yusuf, “Rojava Deneyimi Bağlamında Sosyal Ekonomiyi Düşünmek: Temeller ve İlkeler” İsyandan İnşaya Kürdistan Özgürlük Hareketi içinde. J. Jongerden, A.H. Akkaya ve B. Şimşek (hazırlayan), Metis, 2015.

8 The First Economic Conference was organized in Rojava with the same slogans in 16-17 October 2015.

9 Demokratik Ekonomi Konferansı’nın sonuç metni ve kararları açıklandı: http://siyasihaber2.org/demokratik-ekonomi-konferansinin-sonuc-metni-ve-kararlari-aciklandi (Erişim 08.02.2016) See the English translation here – Democratic Economy Conference in Wan