Construction of a Democratic, Ecological, and Gender Libertarian Communal Economy in Kurdistan
2 December 2022
Summer and Love I, Rodi Appelhagen. Image Credit: Saatchi
In this article Azize Aslan introduces the Free Life Paradigm developed by Abdullah Öcalan and put into practice by the Kurdish movement. It explains Öcalan’s account of capitalist modernity, which draws on but also decisively breaks with figures including Marx, Braudel, and Wallerstein. Focusing on the economy, Aslan outlines a vision for its alternative, democratic modernity, focusing on its relation to ecology, communality, and women’s freedom.
“Throw up all things swallowed that belong to modernity.”
(Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
Labourers, women and young people, who are exploited ever more each day, whose living spaces are continuously being seized during the accumulation of capital and who are being turned into modern slaves in overgrown cities, seek a way of living, alternative to the current system. This quest is no doubt older than capitalism itself and such endeavors have expressed themselves during particular periods throughout history through organized and conscious actions. They have manifested themselves, however, mostly as short-term social movements or even outbursts, because of the mechanisms of global capitalism, which separate, disintegrate and scatter. One of the most revolutionary quests for anti-capitalist life you can come across, between the Middle East and America today, is being realized in the region where Kurds live.
In the aftermath of the victorious Kobanê resistance, the world became aware of the Free Life Paradigm put forward by Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish people, which discussed putting into place democratic, communal and ecological values and women’s freedom in Kurdistan. The Free Life Paradigm can only become a reality through building democratic modernity which is opposed to capitalist modernity. Capitalist modernity is reproduced each day through various mechanisms and is shaped by the logic of the nation-state, industrialism and the maximization of profits. This new social system, conceptualized as democratic modernity by Öcalan, offers the construction of a moral and political society in place of a society of capitalist production – a society of ecological industry instead of an industrialist society, a democratic confederal society instead of a nation-state society. Such a society can only be formed through consciousness, organization and operational will.
This paper is based on three fundamental axes. The first axis is Öcalan’s analysis of capitalism and his critique of capitalist modernity. In this context, I will touch on points where Öcalan and Karl Marx, Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, who all influenced Öcalan’s theoretical world, converge and diverge. The second axis consists of Öcalan’s analysis of economy, his definition of economic society and some mechanisms within his theses on democratic modernity. Finally, this paper discusses fundamental questions and problem areas that have risen in discussions about communal economy, which is based on the Free Life Paradigm that rests on communality, ecology, and women’s freedom.
Demolish Capitalist Modernity!
At the beginning of Capital, Marx states that the wealth of societies in which a capitalist mode of production prevails appears as a ‘gigantic collection of commodities’, and for this reason he begins his examination with the analysis of the commodity. (1) Marx defines commodity within a framework of use and exchange value and says that it is a thing which, through its qualities, satisfies human needs. But if we leave the use value aside, we have a single feature and that is that they are the product of labor. (2) What determines the value of commodities is determined by the amount of labor put into their production. Marx says that the value of the commodities can be measured by their “value-creating essence”, i.e. the amount of labor they contain. Labor is measured by time and the labor-time scale uses common time units, like hours, days etc. (3) The labor-time here is the time of social labor required for the production of that commodity; socially necessary labor time is the labor-time necessary to obtain any use-value by the average social skill level and labor intensity under the normal production conditions of the society. (4) The source of capitalist profits will be unpaid labor-time, confiscated by the capitalist who owns the means of production.
Much like Marx, Öcalan sees commodities and commodification as the main category of civilization. He then argues that the transition from a gift to an exchange economy is a civilizational invention. This means that the value of exchange and commodification is pre-capitalist, but that it has become universal in the course of capitalist civilization. Öcalan’s point of objection to Marx is related to the labour theory of value that determines the value of the commodity: (5)
I do not interpret ‘commodity’ as Karl Marx does. In other words, I consider the claim that the value of the exchange of a commodity can be measured with the labor of the laborer as the beginning of a process which creates important obstacles. I doubt that social values (including commodities in the meantime) can be measured. Counting the product of uncountable labor as the overall value of a man’s labor is an error, an approach that opens the way to value apprehension and immorality. The case is obvious. How to measure the amount of labor that cannot be counted?
He tells us that an abstract analysis saying that the proletariat alone creates value with its effort and that the capitalists make profit out of these values is economic reductionism. The role of historical accumulation of society in value creation is ignored and, the value seized as profit cannot be explained only by the bourgeois-proletarian conflict, especially emphasizes that the role of political power is ignored at this point. (6)
The Free Life Paradigm can only become a reality through building democratic modernity which is opposed to capitalist modernity. …This new social system, conceptualized as democratic modernity by Öcalan, offers the construction of a moral and political society in place of a society of capitalist production – a society of ecological industry instead of an industrialist society, a democratic confederal society instead of a nation-state society.
Öcalan does not deny that the labor put in determines the value of the commodity but he says that in practice what is decisive is speculation. Here he makes reference to Braudel’s definition of a capitalist economy as an “economic form that rests on speculative monopolist price regulation in the field of large-scale merchants”. (7) According to Öcalan, capitalism is not a form of society; it is an organization, an extensive network that extracts surplus-value from society, draining the economy, creating unemployment, and which uses tools of powerful ideological hegemony by amalgamating with state and power. (8) This organisation, which Braudel calls an anti-market, is not only this but also completely anti-economy, according to Öcalan. Capitalism is not economy but power. (9) To be an anti-capitalist one is required first to be an anti-monopolist. (10)
In this context, the fundamental contradiction or conflict of capitalism is not the conflict between the bourgeois and the proletarian, but the conflict between the monopolist and society. Öcalan does not ignore the bourgeois-proletarian conflict at this point, but emphasizes that this conflict is a collateral, rather than fundamental one. History is not only the history of class struggles, but also the history of the struggles of society against hegemonic power and the state. (11) Defining social movements as “anti-systemic” at this point and emphasizing the anti-capitalist content of these movements, Öcalan follows Immanuel Wallerstein in stressing their important place in the history of world struggles. Likewise, Öcalan’s thought resembles Wallerstein’s conception of capitalist material civilization, which is not known by profit, markets and the unlimited capital accumulation, but rather as a global Leviathan which refutes society with industrialism. (12)
According to Öcalan, the relationship between industrialism and the nation-state is existential: (13)
No system of exploitation is impotent and stateless. The accumulation of profit and capital does not occur in capitalism unless it is allied with power and the state, the rise of power and the nation-state of the state. For the hegemonic victory of the capitalist system it is also necessary for industry to revolutionize the revolution itself and to do so ideologically as industrialism. It is evident that these facts have dominated modernity in the strict integrity of themselves and for a long time.
Öcalan sees the industrial revolution as the result of a long historical period of social accumulation, emphasising that the difference between industry and industrialism must be understood correctly. (14) Industrialism in terms of for-profit-industry is not for social needs. (15) As such, it is the foundation of profit maximization in industry and is therefore different than industry in the more general sense. Industrialism is only one historical form of industry, a capitalist one. It is not identical with economy. That said, the economic monopoly imposed on industrial production, regardless of whether it is state-owned or private, creates a unique historical form of industry. (16)
The abundance of surplus value in industrialism constitutes the basis of the nation-state-type organization. (17) The nation-state has been idealized and realized in the industrialist period, in which capital gains profits and spreads in society. In this period, the entire society is linked to nation-state mechanisms and industry monopolies. (18)
Öcalan, who stated that industrialism is a progressive and modernist mindset, thinks that the experience of real socialism was defeated because it could not overcome this mindset: (19)
The October Revolution did not fail because it was inadequate in anti-capitalism; on the contrary it was successful in its anti-capitalism. But it was defeated because it was not anti-modernist, anti-nation-state and anti-industrialist; it could not overcome the other two legs of modernity, it just left the structural period and moved for a short time.
Wallerstein does not see the Soviet Union as a socialist structure, but rather places it in a semi-environmental position inside the capitalist world-system. (20) Wallerstein relates this to the fact that the USSR relied on industrialization to the same degree and on neighbouring countries in a similar way as the US. Öcalan stressed that even a very assertive anti-capitalist like Lenin at heart had to apply capitalism in the New Economic Policy (NEP) (21) and thinks that this is related to the progressive society and revolutionary perception of Marxist thinking.
According to Marx, the history of societies follows an evolutionary process from primitive communal society to feudalism, from feudalism to capitalism and from capitalism to socialism. Socialism is a transitional society and communist society, meaning a classless society, is the space and time in which revolutions are to take place. The class which destroyed feudalism is the capitalist revolutionary class, the bourgeoisie, whereas the class which would destroy capitalism and create socialism instead would be the proletarian class that the bourgeoisie created with its own hands. Marx thus called the bourgeoisie “its own gravedigger”. (22) As a result of the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the proletariat will revolutionize the class struggle through the strengthening of their political power. Marx and Engels say that the proletariat’s struggle with the bourgeoisie will first be national, for the proletariat of each nation must, of course, first of all settle with its own bourgeoisie. (23)
Capitalism is not a form of society; it is an organization, an extensive network that extracts surplus-value from society, draining the economy, creating unemployment, and which uses tools of powerful ideological hegemony by amalgamating with state and power
In socialism, via the dictatorship of the proletariat which is described as a transitional period in which capitalist value judgements prevail for a certain period, everything in the workers’ state (in particular private property, the means of production which are a prerequisite of capitalist productive relations), will be transferred into public ownership. This phase is the phase in which the state as a society-independent superstructure is absorbed by society.
Öcalan has two objections to this basic tenet of revolutionary Marxism: the first is the definition of capitalism as a social stage through which societies must necessarily pass in order to overcome capitalist society for socialist or communist ones. Moreover, this evolutionary line foresees progression, namely industrialization, as the condition for the existence of the proletariat. According to Öcalan, social history cannot be separated along such absolute lines. In the same area, communal, feudal and capitalist society norms can be seen at the same time. Wallerstein also states that free labor, which is regarded as a fundamental property of capitalism, is not a fundamental feature of the relations of production in the global system. The forced labor of the feudal era and the wage labor of the capitalist era bring together the essence of the global capitalist system. (24) Öcalan’s second objection relates to public ownership. This form of property is the monopoly of the bureaucrat class and in this sense the experience of real socialism in Russia and China is not socialism, but state capitalism. (25)
Öcalan states that interpreting socialist society as the antidote to capitalism, as an improved, integrated, free and equitable society of all communities, is the real truth. (26) Socialism is not a society to live in after the revolution or evolution:
It is also wrong to see socialism as a society that will always be won by revolutions and wars. Undoubtedly, when circumstances arise, wars for revolutionary transformations are possible. But socialism is not just revolution; it is also democratic participation in society and a conscious and active life against capitalism. (27)
In the era of industrialism, the main social issue is the development of the self-defence of the oppressed class-people-nation against nation-state fascism in the form of war. (28) It is possible to give various names to this society, built against “capitalist gathering”. (29) What is important is an economy and social construction that is not dominated by monopolies. (30)
Let’s Build Democratic Modernity!
Democratic modernity is conceptualized as the alternative social system to be built against capitalist modernity shaped by the nation-state, industrialism and monopoly capitalism, working with maximum profitability. The society to be built under democratic modernity is a moral-political, eco-industrial and democratic-confederalist society. The economic dimension of democratic modernity is conceptualized as economic societies and constructed by ecological communities (eco-communities). (31) In capitalist modernity, the economy is controlled by monopolies. For this reason, the main thing in democratic modernity is to save the economy by freeing the monopolies and to returning them to society. In democratic modernity it is society that governs the economy, meaning the self-management of the economy by society.
According to Öcalan, an economics-based approach should not be based on commodity and profit-based economics, but rather on a transition to a value- and share-based economics. (32) In this sense, democratic modernity is against profit-oriented corporations as a mentality and structure and instead it is based on communes, which are based on the self-management and self-sufficiency of society and economic communities that prioritize the use value. With the introduction of necessity-based production in communes, one will be saved from alienation from one’s own practice and duty.
In capitalist modernity, production has lost its connection to essential needs, especially through industrialism. The greatest destruction inflicted by industrialism has been on agriculture and village communities where the community is circumstantial. For this reason, according to Öcalan, the creation of eco-communities in agriculture is one of the most fundamental economic principles of democratic modernity. (33) Öcalan refers to Murray Bookchin (34) as an example of how eco-communities should be created in cities. Economic activities, appropriate to the nature of each city and not for profit, are organized in units of optimal size, aimed at eliminating unemployment and the city population’s poverty. Population can be distributed to these units according to their structure and capabilities. (35)
Democratic modernity does not reject industrial production, of course, but the limit of industry depends on ecology and basic needs: those are two boundaries it cannot cross. The industry that will emerge in this case is eco-industry. (36) The main weapon of democratic modernity is an economy and society based on an ecological essence. (37)
Öcalan said that an economy built within the boundaries of ecology and basic necessities would lead to the overcoming of unemployment, of excess and incomplete production, of the contrast between less and more developed countries and regions, of the urban-rural divide, of the class divide and of economic crises and wars. He argues that the social ground for these issues will not remain. (38)
History is not only the history of class struggles, but also the history of the struggles of society against hegemonic power and the state
The history of civilization, which has been shaped by men, has cut women out of the economy and taken away their role in it. In the course of capitalist civilization, the reality of ‘the woman without economy’ has become the most striking and profound social contradiction. Women are overwhelmingly unemployed. Housework is the most difficult job, but it is not rewarded. Childbirth and raising children are the most difficult jobs in life, but they are regarded not only as not having value, but they are increasingly regarded as trouble. Women are both cheap labourers, unemployed, giving birth to children and nurturing thousands of troublesome hours, as well as being without pay and even criminalized. (39)
Öcalan, however, emphasized that the birth of the economy was realized with women: (40)
The economy is born as a result of the birth of the first settled agricultural families around women and the possibility of storing various food items, especially durable foods, and at least a few bans. But this accumulation is an accumulation for the family, not for trade and the market. This should be the real human economy.
In this sense, in democratic modernity the economy must be returned to its real owner. This will happen with the conscious, organizational and operational will of women.
It is the moral-political existence of society that will determine the ecological limits of the industrial and social needs that Öcalan refers to that will restore women’s role in the economy. Capitalism has struck down all societal moral values and put individuality in the centre. Yet today, like all societies under the threat of economic exploitation or even genocide, what Kurdish society needs is an economic life organized by a concept of communal economy (41) centred on sharing, equality and freedom. The basic principles will be constructed in the form of democratic, gender-libertarian and ecological communal economy, communes, co-operatives, parliament and academies.
Conclusion: Some Basic Questions about Communal Economy and its Problem Areas
Building the communal economy in Kurdistan will mean creating cracks in capitalism, as John Holloway says. (42) The vitality of autonomous areas, dominated by communal economy in spite of and opposing capitalism, depends on trying to expand and multiply these cracks. Today, with Kurdistan being one of the places where this is most possible, it is also a necessity for the Kurdish Movement. Because today the streets of Kurdistan are filled with young and poor masses, who are increasingly shouting that we cannot expect the great revolution anymore, and that now we have to create different things.
In capitalist modernity, the economy is controlled by monopolies. For this reason, the main thing in democratic modernity is to save the economy by freeing the monopolies and to returning them to society. In democratic modernity it is society that governs the economy, meaning the self-management of the economy by society.
One of the most important elements that will determine the continuity of this economy is the anti-capitalist political level of society. While in Kurdistan this level still maintains its existence, capitalist attacks are most likely to break down this solidarity mentality. Many forms of production carried out on the basis of partnership (in Kurdish: zibare, hevkarî, şirîkahî, col, şikatî, beige, berî, mongo) are disappearing with industrialist agricultural policies.
These forms of production need to be re-vitalized. The organization and distribution of public welfare for the benefit of cooperatives should be made through assemblies, based on the direct participation of the people. This will ensure a democratization of the economy and control of the society.
The planning of the economy in a society that aims to transform and destroy capitalism is a political, as well as an economical process, as it concerns both how and for what purpose social production is to be carried out and how it is to be divided, and this requires a political will. (43) If today this political will is the Kurdish Movement, tomorrow it will be Kurdish society.
1. Karl Marx, Kapital, Cilt 1, Yordam, 2010, p. 49.
2. Marx, Kapital., p. 52.
3. Marx, Kapital, p. 52.
4. Marx, Kapital, p. 53.
5. Abdullah Öcalan, I.Kitap, Uygarlık, Azadi Matbaası, 2013, p. 135.
6. Abdullah Öcalan, II. Kitap, Kapitalist Uygarlık, Azadi Matbaası, 2013, p. 56.
7. Öcalan, Kapitalist Uygarlık, p. 50.
8. Abdullah Öcalan, Ekonomi Üzerine, Sosyal Bilimler Akademisi Yayınları, 2014, 56
9. Kapitalist Uygarlık, p. 50.
10. Abdullah Öcalan, Ortadoğu’da Uygarlık Krizi ve Demokratik Uygarlık Çözümü, Hawar yayınları, Ağustos, 2011, p. 262.
11. Abdullah Öcalan, Kürdistan Devrim Manifestosu, Ararat Yayınları, Ağustos, 2012, 59
12. Kapitalist Uygarlık, p. 43.
13. Öcalan, Ortadoğu’da Uygarlık Krizi, p. 250.
14. Öcalan, Kapitalist Uygarlık, p. 107.
15. Öcalan, Kapitalist Uygarlık, 240.
16. Öcalan, Kapitalist Uygarlık, p. 242
17. Öcalan, Kapitalist Uygarlık, p. 139.
18. Öcalan, Kapitalist Uygarlık, p. 243.
19. Öcalan, Ortadoğu’da Uygarlık Krizi, p. 250.
20. Gülistan Yarkın, “Immanuel Wallerstein ve Marksizim”, Praksis, issue 17, p. 164.
21. Öcalan, Ortadoğu’da Uygarlık Krizi, p. 259.
22. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Kominist Manifesto ve Komünizmin İlkeleri, Sol yayınları, 2005, p. 129.
23. Marx and Engels, Kominist Manifesto.
24. “Immanuel Wallerstein ve Marksizim”, p. 174.
25. Abdullah Öcalan, III. Kitap, Özgürlük Sosyolojisi, Sosyal Bilimler Akademisi, 2009, p. 146.
26. Öcalan, Kürdistan Devrim Manifestosu, p. 56-57.
27. Öcalan, Kürdistan Devrim Manifestosu, p. 58.
28. Öcalan, Ortadoğu’da Uygarlık Krizi, p. 194.
29. Öcalan, Ortadoğu’da Uygarlık Krizi, p. 261.
30. Öcalan, Ortadoğu’da Uygarlık Krizi.
31. Öcalan, Ekonomi Üzerine, p. 74.
32. Öcalan, Ekonomi Üzerine, p. 6.
33. Öcalan, Özgürlük Sosyolojisi, p. 191.
34. Murray Bookchin, Kentsiz Kentleşme, Sümer Yayıncılık, 2014.
35. Öcalan, Özgürlük Sosyolojisi, p. 191.
36. Abdullah Öcalan, “Endüstriyalizm (Kapitalizm) ve Ekoloji”, Demokratik Modernite, issue 11, p. 16.
37. Öcalan, Demokratik Uygarlık Çözümü, p. 266.
38. Öcalan, Özgürlük Sosyolojisi, p. 189.
39. Öcalan, Kapitalist Uygarlık, p. 116.
40. Öcalan, Kapitalist Uygarlık, p. 49.
41. This definition is taken from the economic texts of the Kurdish movement.
42. John Holloway, Kapitalizmde Çatlaklar Yaratmak, Otonom Yayıncılık, 2010, p. 21.
43. Ümit Akçay, “Ekonomik Demokrasi Ama Nasıl? Planlama Yeniden”, Demokratik Modernite, issue 11, p. 102.