The Communalist Alternative to Capitalist Modernity
February 3-5, 2012, a a conference was organized in Hamburg, Germany. The theme was “Challenging Capitalist Modernity: Alternative concepts and the Kurdish Question.” The following text was delivered as a speech to the conference.
I am honored to be here and to contribute to the discussions about alternative quests to capitalist modernity and to discuss the liberation struggle referred to as the “Kurdish question.” Other speakers have addressed the current global situation—and the problems regarding capitalism, patriarchy, and the state—and I have been asked to present communalism as one possible quest for political emancipation. In this presentation I will therefore make a case for communalism, and sketch some of its basic features.
What is Communalism?
First, what is communalism? As a vague political idea of decentralized government, structured around self-managed village communities or cities, it is probably as old as organized human community itself. It is at least as old as the urban revolution that first emerged in Anatolia and Mesopotamia, and with the subsequent rise of the early “city-states.” This tradition of urban democracy reached its historical zenith in Antiquity—particularly in the Athenian democratic experience—although this tradition has always been marred with grave historical shortcomings. As a decentralist tendency, communalist traditions have been a consistent political undercurrent throughout human history—sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker—well into the modern period. Many historians now find communalism to be a useful term to describe a variety of systems of local government that have persisted throughout the ages. Still, while this broad, general sense may be suitable to describe a variety of historical phenomena, it is not what we are talking about today, when we discuss communalism as a viable political alternative for our time.
In a more modern form, communalism found its expression in the revolutionary tradition. Ever since the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment stirred popular imagination to challenge the divine right of monarchs and feudal lords, and common people questioned their place in the “great chain of Being,” democracy reemerged, often in very radical forms. A municipal focus certainly colored the directly-democratic aspects present in the initial stages of every democratic and socialist revolution. This movement reached an early high-point in the sectional assemblies of the Great French Revolution, but it was during the Paris Commune of 1871 that communalism was first self-consciously expressed as a political tendency. As a possible political and administrative structure for the French territories, the Parisian radicals posed a direct challenge to the hegemony of the nation-state. At the time, the outcome of this conflict was uncertain. Yet, as we all know, out of this historical duel the nation-state came out as the victorious political model. Today, the world is carved up into nation-states, which—even in our increasingly globalized world—remains the basic political and administrative framework. There is, however, nothing that precludes other social and political options from reemerging as viable political alternatives.
Still, in recent decades, communalism has acquired an even more distinct and independent radical ideology, above all through the works of the late social theorist Murray Bookchin. As a pioneering ecological philosopher, Bookchin sought political alternatives to capitalism and the nation-state, as he saw them to be essentially anti-ecological and anti-social forms of social organization. From his perspective of social ecology, a communalist social order seemed to be a more humane and ecological—indeed, a more rational and ethical—form of social organization. To put it another way, social ecology seeks to bring out the civil and the communal in civilization—to develop its civilizing features through free cities. So let us have a closer look at what its basic ideas are. What do we aim for?
Some Basic Ideas
As a political alternative, communalism highlights the need to create a new political structure, based on municipal democracy. This ambition can, for our purposes, be reduced to a five-step approach.
First, communalists aim at empowering existing municipalities—formally and legally; we seek to pull political power down to the local scale. All the power that the nation-states have today, they have at the expense of more popular and democratic forms of government. We think the municipality is a basic human institution, and it should regain political power. This may seem self-evident: after all, communalism refers to a system of government based on municipalities or communes. Still, I would argue that it is not only a distant ideal, but also an essential part of communalist strategies to change society. We want to reclaim power to the people, and we think this can be expressed best by reclaiming community power, and to reclaim a human scale to our political life.
Second, communalists seek to democratize existing municipalities by sharing the power among their citizens. It is not enough to strengthen the municipalities; they also have to be fundamentally restructured. This can be done gradually and through a series of intermittent steps, and base itself on a variety of committees, councils, and assemblies. Here regional traditions will certainly play a role in shaping the political expressions of democracy. Still, as communalists, we suggest that open citizens’ assemblies should become the basic decisions-making units in the municipalities. By assemblies, I must add, we do not mean occasional or arbitrary public meetings: we mean permanent and legal institutions for deliberation and decision-making; their presence in community life should be as central as city halls are today. The idea is not only to make all officials and all forms of public administration open to scrutiny and recall, and hence making democracy more transparent and responsible, but to empower the community as a whole—to empower the community as a political collective of citizens.
Third, communalists recognize that it is necessary to unite municipalities in regional networks and wider confederations, and will work to gradually replace nation-states with municipal confederations. No municipality can ever stand by itself, politically, culturally or economically—nor would we want this. Cultural and economic exchange mutually enriches all parties of a confederation. Still, as communalists insist, we should make municipal democracies the basic decision-making structure and ensure that the “higher” levels of confederation have mainly coordinative and administrative functions.
Fourth, communalists seek to unite progressive social movements at the local and regional level. Not only do we seek to strengthen civil society, which is a worthy goal in itself, but our calls for municipal democracy is a way of finding a common focal point for all citizen’s initiatives and movements. This is not because we expect to see always a harmonious consensus, but—on the contrary—because we believe in disagreement and deliberation. Society develops through debate and conflict. In fact, we think the citizens’ assemblies would be important institutions for bringing attention to issues of class inequality, oppression, gender hierarchies, and the like; and for bringing attention to which cultural traits we would like to develop, and those we want to abolish. The municipal assemblies would certainly be an arena for class struggle.
To be sure, we cannot expect people to come together and participate on equal footing as long as our communities are divided internally—between wealthy and poor, between women and men, young and old, producers and consumers, as well as by a series of other economic, national, ethnical or cultural barriers. In order to make citizenship become a concept that means more than a formal recognition of equal rights, we must find ways to help compensate for the disadvantages that individuals and groups experience in contemporary society and in the foreseeable future—exclusion, marginalization, and outright discrimination—and we must intensify education for public involvement. Also, and there is nothing controversial about this, we insist on secular political structures. Although we encourage cultural autonomy, freedom of belief, and regional diversity, we—as communalists—fight against religious influences on politics and government.
Fifth, we recognize the material preconditions for freedom. As I hope to have made clear: Communalism envisions a classless society, based on collective political control over the socially important means of production. All the preceding points will remain moot if we are unable to create an economical system that ensures material security and well-being for all citizens. Our economic system must provide these guarantees, and develop economies and technologies in balance with the natural world. Our solutions to collective political control suggest a municipalization of the economy, and also have a confederal allocation of resources to ensure balance between regions.
I have now sketched some of communalism’s basic ideas. I hope it is clear that these ideas are not just lofty principles. As it is, they do provide an alternative political framework. Furthermore, these ideals are part of our strategical approach. We insist that a municipal focus, direct democracy, confederation, social liberation, and municipal control of the economy are all integral aspects of our strategy for reclaiming popular power. By themselves, each of these principles are incomplete and inadequate: Taken together, they are very powerful.
Facing our Challenges
But let us now see whether communalism can provide answers to the political challenges we are facing today. To answer this I first need to first lay some of the major challenges on the table. These are challenges that face any radical attempt to change society fundamentally, and create a just and free society. As we are gathered here to look for alternative quests to capitalist modernity, the most pressing challenge of all may be to find ways of replacing capitalism—both as an economic system, as a societal model, and also—and this is very important—as a culture and an “ethics.” We believe the solutions to the crisis of our times are collectivist, and we suggest that municipalization of the economy can help actualize the synthesis of democracy and socialism that we need.
Another—equally important—challenge is to find ways of political and administrative organization that are capable of replacing the modern nation-state. Not only is the nation-state integrally tied to the capitalist system, but its centralization, bureaucratization, and cultural homogenization undermines our struggle for a true form of democracy. Here it is important to note that communalists do not suggest that the municipality shall replace the nation-state, but confederation will. Confederalism—a democratic confederalism, to be sure—is our alternative to the nation-state.
Another challenge is to find ways of uniting the progressive social movements. Of particular importance is the need to combine the insights from progressive feminist and ecological movements together with new urban movements and citizens’ initiatives, as well as trade unions and local cooperatives and collectives. Here we all have much to learn from each other, and we need to find ways of cooperating and strengthening our efforts. Events like this conference point to the importance of getting together and sharing ideas and experiences. We believe that communalist ideas of an assembly-based democracy will contribute to making this progressive exchange of ideas possible on a more permanent basis, and with more direct political consequences.
Still, communalism is not just a tactical way of uniting these radical movements. Our call for a municipal democracy is an attempt to bring reason and ethics to the forefront of public discussions. What would a good society be like? What is a good way to bring up our children; what should our schools be like? How should we care for our old and the infirm? How should we use technology and industry? How should we produce our food? In public assemblies these questions can be asked and answered in a non-capitalist context.
But how does this relate to the Kurdish question? Obviously, if they are put into practice, they will certainly give Kurds a form of cultural autonomy and political expression. Still, I will admit that these ideas about municipal democracy—beautiful as they are—may seem extremely naive in the face of the persecution that the Kurdish movement faces. How do we do local politics when our leaders are persecuted, arrested or even killed just for being politically active? This is not unique to Kurdistan, but the massive repression this movement faces is largely ignored by the Western media.
First of all, in the face of massive repression, I must insist that there are no substitutes for collective action, movement discipline and real leadership. Communalist politics may not be possible in all places at all times, and circumstances demand different strategies for implementing these ideas.
Still, there is another way communalism is relevant, and can strengthen the Kurdish movement. Not only is this politics relevant for political organization in the Kurdish territories, but this approach will also be important in Turkey and in the countries like Germany, and in cities like Hamburg. Important steps would be taken if Kurdish exile groups not just as lobby groups and solidarity networks, but working even more extensively with local land regional political groups in Germany and elsewhere to change the political geography also of these countries. This could be a way of undermining the Western powers, to make them more responsive to the needs and desires of common people. Too often, Western leaders have betrayed their own ideals of democracy and human rights to achieve their narrow aims for economic growth and geopolitical control. By turning toward social ecology and democratic confederalism we would be undermining not only the hegemony of the Turkish state, but of all nation-states. Today, as modern nation-states are so extremely powerful militarily and intrinsically wedded to the capitalist system, it is necessary more than ever to challenge their legitimacy, and hollow them out, by building up local and regional political structures.
The Relevance of Communalism
During the nineteen eighties and nineties, critics of communalist democracy would argue that Murray Bookchin’s ideas were only relevant in his own political context. Bookchin lived in the relatively decentralized and sparsely populated state of Vermont, which had long traditions of town meeting democracy. His political approach, they argued, was uniquely suited for the democratic traditions of Vermont and could not be made relevant elsewhere.
I always found this objection very strange. For me it was obvious how the ideas of communalism could be implemented in my own historical and cultural context. In fact, these ideas seemed highly relevant for the Scandinavian situation. Not only do our communities retain a distinct human scale, but culturally and historically the Scandinavian countries have much in common that transcends the national borders between Norway, Sweden and Denmark and in the Northern areas also with Samis and Finns. Also, in Scandinavia, our municipal institutions are relatively strong, both politically and economically. Scandinavian social ecologists started discussing how to improve existing democratic institutions and build upon domestic traditions, highlighting how it was indeed possible to change our societies programmatically. Then, our critics started admitting that it may also be possible in Scandinavia, as it had a well-developed social infrastructure, a legacy of tolerance, and distinct municipal traditions. Yet it was not seen to be possible elsewhere. Still, I think participatory democracy does have universal validity—just like human rights—and the practice suggested by communalism can achieve a variety of creative forms.
These ideals are something to strive for, yet it is important that we do not lose track of the real struggles that must be fought. Our visions of the free municipality—the municipality as the prime locus for actualizing human freedom as collective decision-making processes—must not overshadow the fact that we have to engage in a tremendous variety of municipalities and regions—as they exist today—and a diversity of cultural and political contexts. Has a balance been attained between theoretical approaches and practical experiences? The simple answer is no. Still, how are we to judge the experience of Marxism or anarchism? Have they been successful? Do they have a clear balance between theory and practice? Despite a long track record, all radical attempts to counter capitalism must so far be considered historical failures. Capitalism is still here and socialist experiments have so far been unable to create a classless and free society. Still, precisely because communalism seeks to strengthen a civil society and municipal institutions, we are building on strong traditions that are already in existence all over the world. Many regions—in the West, in the East, in the South and in the North—already have more or less well-functioning municipalities, a strong sense of community, and a whole variety of vital civil organizations. We want to give these already existing tendencies a more self-conscious democratic form.
I would also like to mention that there are no models of communalism existing. Our notions of communalism, of democracy or participatory government, and of federalism or confederation is historically limited. It has had a continuous historical presence, but not in any form we would like to imitate. There is no chance we can return to earlier, simpler life-ways—we have to seek a higher synthesis of bringing out the potential inherent in the ideas of democracy and confederation. A more sophisticated notion of democracy is needed, and the work initiated by the Kurdish movement is very inspirational for activists trying to implement direct democracy here in the industrialized West.
The Kurdish situation and the solutions offered by Kurdish leaders today are very important. Confederal ideas can have a tremendous impact not only for Kurdistan—and the existing nation-states of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq—but for the Middle East as a whole. Conflicts which today are allowed to split people along violent ethnic, religious and national demarcation lines can—potentially—serve to unite them in new confederal structures that allows for cultural autonomy and direct democracy.
Another Democracy is Possible!
Our struggle is a difficult one. I can sometimes think that communalism or left-libertarian politics in general has lost its historical opportunities. Democracy, today, has come to mean statecraft, freedom means individual consumption, and federalism often refers to supra-state structures that are far removed from popular control. I imagine this is similar to the feelings Kurdish activists often can have; perhaps the historical opportunities for forging a national community were lost, as the borders were lined up during the last few centuries, and other national identities came out as victorious and attained regional hegemony and international recognition. One can sometimes despair at how entrenched capitalism and current nation-states are.
Still, all over the world the ideals of democracy and humanism are growing—if not in practice, then certainly as ideals to guide us and inspire us. There seem to be a paradox here, that is, in order to ensure that everyone—Kurds and everyone else—will have the right to cultural self-determination and political expression, we must recognize that this right rests on some basic universal principles—democracy and social freedom, as well as human rights and the rule of law.
The world’s attention must come to a peaceful and democratic solution to the Kurdish question: Here, the proposals put forward by Abdullah Öcalan and the PKK are legitimate and generous. Furthermore, the Kurdish movement, if it continues the quests for creative alternatives to capitalist modernity, may serve as inspiration for radicals all over the world. It will speak to the masses of disempowered people today, in Kurdistan as well as in Germany, in Turkey as well as in Norway.
History is always changing and the future is unwritten. We all have a possibility and a duty to change it for the better. Another democracy is possible. I wish all of you present here the strength and the courage to continue the struggle for a free, democratic Kurdistan and a free, democratic world.
You can listen to the speech here: http://soundcloud.com/freiheitxxi/the-communalist-alternative-to
This speech was presented to the conference “Challenging Capitalist Modernity: Alternative concepts and the Kurdish Question,” Hamburg, Germany, February 3-5, 2012. See also: http://www.networkaq.net/