Kurdish Autonomy and Social Ecology

Butterfly for Civil Disobedience Campaign

While their leader Abdullah Öcalan is kept in solitary confinement on the Imrali Island, the radical Kurdish movement progresses with its demands for human rights, cultural recognition, and a radical form of democracy. In this interview Ahmet Sezer looks at the relationship between the demands for Kurdish democratic autonomy and the ideas of social ecology.

Qijika Reş: You are an intellectual with in-depth knowledge on the Bookchin literature. From this perspective, what do you think about the recent attention to Bookchin’s ideas, and how do you situate it within the new social movements and their role in the revival of communalist tendency in the anarchist tradition?

Ahmet Sezer: I would like to start with the second part of your question, the one about the communalist tendency. But before I can answer this I must begin by saying that direct democracy is, above all, the major axis of Bookchin’s ideas. By direct democracy we mean a humanly scaled community constituted by a reasonable amount of people taking its decisions directly, face-to-face and enforcing the decisions taken without the requirement of appealing to any other authority. This process takes place in people’s assembly of the community. Still, if the issue is of interest to other, neighboring communities too, decisions will be made in such a way that each and every community would be represented in a higher confederation of popular assemblies. These community delegates who participates in the “higher” levels have no independent political decision-making authority and can be recalled by their community at any time. The joint decision negotiated in the confederation will be enforced and binding with the approval of people’s assembly of each and every community. If we substitute our notions of a humanly scaled community with the commune and confederation with “the commune of communes,” this communalist tendency have deep roots in our history—long before the political concepts of socialism, Marxism, and anarchism emerged. A comprehensive and in-depth discovery and renewal of this communalist tendency has become an urgent need for today’s radical politics. In a time when the parliamentarian regimes are in obvious crises of representation, this communalist tendency could very well be be the most powerful challenge an alternative politics could offer.

But we face even greater social problems today, and, if the social and ecological crises that stems from these social problems can only be really resolved through the establishment of an egalitarian and emancipated world where classes and hierarchies are abolished and our human potentialities fully realized—as social ecology suggests—the key to this process is direct democracy. This is indeed the essence of Bookchin’s ideas, as these ideas have been developed under the concepts of Social Ecology and communalism. Without this focus on direct democracy it is possible that the ecological problems of our planet might be “resolved” by an “ecological” dictatorship dictating its “solutions” from above. In other words, by creating a dictatorial and authoritarian society it may be possible to resolve the ecological crises “technically,” without solving its underlying social crises. Nevertheless, such a society would not be any more “ecological” than the “actually existed socialism” crested in Stalinism was in fact a “socialist” society.

Before the Second World War, libertarian socialism, libertarian Marxism, revolutionary trade unionism and social anarchism could reveal this communalist tendency to the extent that they adopted direct democracy. Bookchin called one of his essays, “Communalism: The Democratic Dimension of Anarchism.” Therefore, regardless of their ideological topos (anarchism, Marxism or another type of a political body), Bookchin was charting this democratic dimension. Later, after tracing these ideas for some time, he became convinced that communalism was not only the democratic dimension of another political project, but a distinct political ideology in itself. His essay on “The Communalist Project” (published previously in your journal) clearly expresses this ideological break.

Now, I will try to answer the first part of your question. We use the term “the new social movements” to distinguish them from both the state or class-centered movements in which the proletariat—the class predicted to make the revolution—was organized under Leninist parties or trade unions, and the national liberation movements in the Third World, guided by the Old Left ideology, struggling to establish their own state. Based on this definition, it is possible to date these new social movements back to the counter-culture and the movements for citizens’ rights that appeared in the Western World in the 1960s. In the so-called “Third World” (the geographical area we today call the Global South), these are the movements characterized by land occupations of small farmers and peasants and movement for the rights of indigenous peoples. These movements appeared in full in the mid-1990s—in the neo-liberal era after the demise of “actually existing socialism.” While movements like Via Campesina for the most part are composed of small farmers and indigenous peasants, the EZLN (the Zapatistas) is composed of Chiapas’ native people aiming at re-creating and sustaining the communal rights that are denied them by the Mexican state. The Landless Peasants Movement (MST) is, on the other hand, is composed of Brazilians occupying land in rural Brazil in cooperation with marginalized Brazilians in cities.  All those rural movements are characterized by their attempt to prevent neo-liberal assaults and ecological destruction. Apart from these movements in the “South,” the most recent movements which could well be described as the continuation of 1960s movements in the Western world today are the anti-capitalist movements started in Seattle in 1999, protesting against the giant hegemony of private companies and capitalism. This movement continues today with the “Occupy Wall Street”-movements and with the movements targeting ecological problems and struggling for Climate Justice. To this list, we also need to add feminism dating back to 1970s, broader environmental movements such as the anti-Nuclear Energy struggle, as well as the ongoing struggle for the recognition of different sexual orientations. In our globalized age, there is no need to say that all those movements are highly inter-connected.

The reason why several of Bookchin’s core ideas influenced these social movements was that he had anticipated the problems capitalism and nation-states was creating, and he constructed his theory of social ecology on a foundation of libertarian and utopian thought prior to Marxism—before all these new social movements appeared, and at a time when the Old Left dominated oppositional politics all around the world both in the West and the East.

In the 1950s and the beginning of 1960s, Bookchin stated that negative impact of environmental pollution and the massive urban expansion—far beyond its reasonable dimensions—on human health and psychology could determine the limits of capitalism. This analysis went far beyond the prediction that capitalism would ultimately collapse by a final economic crisis, which never came to be realized, and he advocated a social struggle not only against class divisions but against all kinds of hierarchy (including the one between classes) and Bookchin argued that human beings should end domination, both over one-another as well as its attempts to dominate the natural world. In the years that followed these ideas became ever more precise and concrete, particularly within the new social movements that emerged out of the framework of the later social transformations capitalism imposed.

Finally, I must to highlight the fact that Bookchin, in sharp contrast to other social theorists, did not only made a criticism against the state, capitalism and environmental exploitation, but he also established the framework for applicable libertarian social institutions as well as the economic relations that could support them. In other words, he showed how social movements, beyond protesting the existing system, could initiate and constitute a new political dispensation. Whether they are directly influenced by Bookchin or not, the social movements in question gain an authentic quality and broad social support to the extent to which they utilize such forms of organization. We may see this in the transformation of EZLN from a guerilla organization to a long-lasting rural movement after having adopted traditional non-hierarchical decision-making and decentralized government mechanisms of the native peoples of the Chiapas region. 

— Today, we talk about a paradigm-shift in Kurdish political movement. How do you evaluate the movement’s evolution from a national liberation line to a communalist line, characterized by positioning itself against state power? How can we interpret the relationship between the actualization of “democratic autonomy” project in Kurdistan as a communalist self-governance policy, the new social movements in the world, and modern political theories?

— It is not so difficult to explain why Kurdish political movement broke away from the national liberation line. The main cause is that the conjuncture necessary for national liberation movements was dissolved after the collapse of the Soviet Union. If it were not for this large-scale change in overall world politics, the Kurdish political movement could very well have become one of the many Marxist-Leninist or Maoist communist parties we witnessed over one third of the world in the 20th century aiming at seizing state power or establishing their own nation-state. The end of the Cold War coincided with the time when Kurdish guerilla movement started to gain a broader foundation and was socialized in a way, in order to become a more authentic political movement. The reason for this socialization was the massive state repression in the region, the forced evacuations of villages, and terrorization of the region—rather than any direct change in the power or ideology of the guerilla movement itself.

Having a social basis, the guerilla movement was obliged to find a solution within the existing borders of the nation-state and shifted its discourse in line from a “revolutionary” rhetoric to a reformist one based on the recognition of Kurdish identity and expansion of democratic rights. This new politics was also supported by a new rhetorical basis that highlighted how Turkish and Kurdish people fought together to win the War of Emancipation. It was pointed to the fact that the Kurdish people were granted the rights and the autonomy they now demand back in the original 1921 Constitution, but all those rights were repealed in 1924 Constitution. This discourse was in time even further radicalized and reformulated as “decreased state government on Kurdistan and making them more sensitive to democracy.” We need to acknowledge this shift of politics—although at first it may seem reformist—as a search for cultural rights, democracy or even economic justice by a broad movement that has abandoned the idea of establishing its own state and that has became intensely aware of the immense power of the state and capitalism.

How will it be possible to “decrease the state and raise sensitivity towards democracy?” By no means does the state restrict its own power, so how will it be possible to constitute and sustain—in other words institutionalize—a counter-power founded on popular government to restrict the power of the state, while the movement has given up on the idea of establishing its own state?

As we all know, the Turkish state was both against the demands based on cultural rights and ignored other demands, especially solutions to the massive influx of people who took refuge in cities after the forced evacuation of villages, and which have struggled against unemployment and infrastructural problems ever since. Despite the rhetoric of “economic development,” which all governments in the region are committed to, it has not yet been concretely realized in the region. After the local elections in 1999, we witnessed a political gap created by the local victories of HADEP (a Kurdish political party at the time) in 38 municipalities, and how such local administrative organs fill this gap. To be sure, the political organization of Kurdish movement is complex, but the municipalities, first considered only as a legal part of this overall movement, unexpectedly provided the political means to “decrease the state.” With the help of these municipalities, cities were gradually transformed (within the bounds of possibility); they were culturally animated and became relatively livable. Importantly, the municipalities provided a legal and politically legitimate counter-balance to the centralized institutions of the state. The relationship between the centralized state and municipal power operates in line with the theory of combined vessels: the power one seizes is transferred from the other. Therefore, if you institutionalize and reinforce the power of local communities, you permanently diminish the powers of the centralized state.

The political suggestions that have been advanced as “democratic autonomy” and “democratic federalism” might stem from different theoretical backgrounds, but they were practically ignited by the discovery of the authentic character of local governments. Thus, Pandora’s Box has been opened. Even in disastrous 2011 Van earthquake—an emergency issue which is supposed to be outside the domain of politics as it mostly refers to human emotions—we saw how serious conflicts between the state and the municipality was crystallized, in terms of who should eventually be responsible for the distribution of aid. Such conflicts about who shall hold the ultimate political power may not be nice, but it is certainly not groundless.

To put it briefly: First, guerilla movement opened, by force, a space necessary for the establishment of the Kurdish political movement, but later, it was the discovery of local government which opened the political grounds on which direct democracy can be constituted. Here, I would like to emphasize the fact that municipalities—with their current restrictions (in fact, municipalities are only a part of a highly complex Kurdish political network and there is a “low-intensity” war situation throughout the Kurdish region)—do not bring forth the solution of cultural and economic problems by themselves, but they provide the grounds on which such solutions can be constituted.

This evolution from a line pursuing national liberation to a communalist line is indeed striking and surprising. If we take into account the fact that this political proposals developed in the geography of the Middle East, where the democratic tradition is not that strong, and in a country with a political culture so rigidly orthodox that the leftist tradition hardly took a step beyond a dogmatic and even Stalinist Marxism, these striking and surprising developments possesses an almost surreal character. Therefore, this great opportunity for expanding libertarian politics must be seriously evaluated by each and everyone who calls themselves progressive, radical, and revolutionary. This is an incredible opportunity—we simply cannot afford to waste it.

From this day on, each and every one of us need to assume their responsibility. As an old saying puts it: “A good proposal slips down from the hands of its owner and becomes common property.” This proposal is now put forward. Even in these trying times, of reciprocal violence and all kinds of comprehensive repression, we need to ponder this proposal seriously—and see if we can affirm it, develop it, and even help actualize it.

Once this political transformation was realized, the Kurdish movement started to use a similar language to that of EZLN, MST and Via Campesina, which abstain from a classical Marxist-Leninist discourse, which severely criticize private property and capitalist production relations and which are not aiming at establishing an independent nation-state. The Kurdish political movement was inspired by those other movements, although there is not a direct encounter between the two. The reason for this lack of direct encounter is to a large extent precisely the communal focus the Kurdish political movement acquired after its self-transformation, the parallel experiences and similarities with other social movements and even its institutionalized potential of going beyond them are either not known at all, or very little known outside our geographical region. This can be contrasted with the Zapatista movement, where the communal character of EZLN is well known and widely supported—it is inspired by, and inspires, other movements all around the world. The Kurdish political movement, however, is highly introspective, and its agenda is essentially structured around its conflict with the state, and understandably so. But in that sense, we need to say that the Kurdish movement is not sufficiently politically globalized.

I cannot say that I have much knowledge about the relationship between the communalist ideals of self-management prevailing in the Kurdish political movement and modern political theories apart from Bookchin. Indeed, many modern theorists have challenged the dilemmas of state and party-based radical politics. Often they have made poignant and extremely meticulous sociological observations. Nevertheless, I think the main issue is how these communalist-oriented movements may become permanent and create new libertarian institutions to counter the institutions of the centralized state. In other words: in a time of capitalist globalization, what can become our contemporary organizational counterparts to the old factory committees, the workers and soldier councils, the libertarian associations and trade unions, and other institutions for self-management? As far as I know, apart from Murray Bookchin and his communalism, there is no other modern theory capable of answering these questions in a way that provide us with a concrete political praxis.

— The geographical area largely inhabited by Kurds has a mixed historical heritage. One the one hand its history is based on the existence of autonomous regions governed by tribal confederations, far removed from the central governments. In these villages—which have always retained their organic bonds with nature—a culture of solidarity is common, as is a strong culture of resistance. On the other hand, it is an area where the longing for a state still prevails in popular consciousness, where political actors generally make top-down decisions, where there are strong leadership cults, and where property relations solidify deep class inequalities. What would you consider to be the advantages and the disadvantages of this heritage?

— A characteristic feature of empires is that the center does not demand from the regions anything other than soldiers and taxes. Except from in extraordinary conditions, the imperial Ottoman administration left its peripheral regions to their own fate. This attitude was continued in the Republican era except from when exceptional conditions occurred—such as Kurdish rebellions. The Kurdish areas maintained their village and tribe-based political structures since its mountainous territory was located outside the regions that benefited from the governmental efforts to stimulate industrial development after 1950s. Despite all the forced migration to cities in recent decades, this rural political structure is still partly the case: the mountainous character of the region has been decisive in fostering the prevailing culture of resistance.

It is also obvious that the organic structure of this village and tribe-based society, its face-to-face relations and the general culture of solidarity prevailing in Anatolia, shielded the region from the alienating effects of our modern society. Such a supportive social structure makes it easier for you to be an active political subject interested in what goes on around you. The tribal confederations you mention used to debate and make decisions about significant issues in assemblies consisting of representatives from each family and village (in a confederation), and then the tribal leader enforced the decisions taken in these assemblies. Participation in this “confederative system,” however, was based on unanimity, and in practical matters it was very restricted. This helps explain why it was not able not sustain an egalitarian political tradition. The tribes as such also constitute feudal structures by its blood ties and different forms of hierarchies between the young and the old, between women and men, and between landlords and peasants. We know that in villages where these hierarchies were relatively weak, general assemblies functioned as the basic decision-making mechanism.

We must put forward proposals to further the positive aspects of this heritage by advancing a libertarian politics and abandon the negative features of the same heritage. The Kurdish political movement today is partly doing this, for instance, in attempts at revitalizing their popular assemblies to embody direct democracy, and through providing crucial support for the growing presence of women in their political structures. On the other hand, the hierarchical structure of the guerilla movement and the culture of political violence still cloud such efforts and limit their further development.

—  Finally, what is the potential impact of “democratic autonomy” project on the leftist imagination in Turkey, as you see it? And what is the inspiration we can gain from it?

— This project has shown the Leftists in Turkey (the majority of which continue to adopt the centralist, worker-oriented, and statist organizational ideology of the traditional Left, despite all their rhetorical adjustments) how a radical and revolutionary organization can change itself with the changing conditions. This does not necessarily have to be full break: The important thing is that new steps must be taken, and we need the courage to take these steps. If the Left we are talking about manages to leave its centralist and statist ideological blindness behind—as the rejuvenated Kurdish political movement increasingly influences them—they will discover that a new door is opened. They too can move ahead, to go beyond mere solidarity work and ultimately become a true political support for the Kurdish movement. The Left finds itself in a cul-de-sac, and this door is our exit.

What is equally important as this potential reorientation is the actual emergence of new libertarian movements, outside of the traditional Left, that appears in Turkey today—which are engaged in the struggle against ecologically destructive power plant projects and other environmental disasters, to broaden gender politics, and fight against neo-liberalism, and are involved on a whole range of other political issues. It is crucial that these new popular movements that participates in this social transformation today, become aware of their potential strength.

I would like to finish by saying that the most important factor to emancipate and democratize the social and political structures of Turkey runs directly through the solution of Kurdish problem. I insist that we cannot afford to miss this historical opportunity.


Editorial Comment

This interview was originally published in Qijika Reş, and was translated to English by Öznur Karaka. The article has been edited for publication on the New Compass website.

Qijika Reş is a Kurdish anarchist periodical (published in Kurdish and Turkish), which has presented articles by Murray Bookchin on libertarian municipalism and left-libertarian politics.