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Some notes on Abdullah Öcalan's 'Democratic Confederalism'

[This is the first political text I've written in a loooong time so please don't take it too seriously.]

In a small group of like-minded people we were suppose to have a study/reading circle on Abdullah Öcalan's 'Democratic Confederalism' but very few people read it so the circle never took off. I read it and took some notes to prepare for discussions but since the circle went sideways I decided to post my thoughts here instead.

When I read this book I basically had two questions in mind:

  • Exactly what is democratic confederalism?

  • How compatible is democratic confederalism with anarchism as I understand it?

Others have explained the principles and theory of democratic confederalism far better than I ever could so if you are new to this I recommend the Wikipedia page on the subject and the book (PDF) which is a short and easy read.

I wont try to outline democratic confederalism from first principles but rather discuss some points I found interesting, noteworthy or confusing from my perspective.

Against The Nation-State

This book offers a heavy criticism on the concept of the nation-state, related to its oppressive nature, historical religious roots and much more. The Kurdish perspective brings a hefty strength to the arguments. I'm just an outsider and I don't know much Kurdish history so my understanding will be limited by my background.

As we shall see below, this IMHO stringent criticism does not generalize well to all variants of state formations but I think this is the strongest and most interesting section of the book and resonates with me. It somehow feels a little bit more "serious" then the rest of the book.

Nation-State and Homogeneity

I disagree with this part but perhaps I'm misinterpreting what he means.

Öcalan writes:

"The nation-state in its original form aimed at the monopolization of all social processes. Diversity and plurality had to be fought, an approach that led into assimilation and genocide. It does not only exploit the ideas and the labour potential of the society and colonize the heads of the people in the name of capitalism. It also assimilates all kinds of spiritual and intellectual ideas and cultures in order to preserve its own existence. It aims at creating a single national culture, a single national identity, and a single unified religious community. Thus it also enforces a homogene- ous citizenship. The notion of citizen has been created as a result of the quest for such a homogeneity. The citizenship of moder- nity defines nothing but the transition made from private slavery to state slavery. Capitalism can not attain profit in the absence of such modern slave armies. The homogenic national society is the most artificial society to have ever been created and is the result of the “social engineering project”.

These goals are generally accomplished by the use of force or by financial incentives and have often resulted in the physical annihilation of minorities, cultures, or languages or in forced assimilation. The history of the last two centuries is full of ex- amples illustrating the violent attempts at creating a nation that corresponds to the imaginary reality of a true nation-state."

While this is certainly is true in many contemporary and historical instances I don't think you can generalize the argument so easily.

Let's take Sweden as an example, while we have an increasingly influential nationalistic movement striving towards increased homogeneity I would dare to say that we still enjoy a substantial amount of cultural liberty in the sense that you can be a practicing Muslim, or a satanist for that matter, without the state trying to stop you. I'm not saying that being a Muslim in Sweden is easy nor am I trying to trivialize the islamophobia present here but I don't believe the state pushes towards homogeneity per se even though it by definition is authoritarian.

The point being that multiculturalism and a certain amount of tolerance seems to be able to coexist within the bounds of a traditional nation-state.

I don't think Sweden is an isolated example of this but it's important to remember that Öcalan comes from a very different situation and perspective.

Positivist Science

From part B. Ideological Foundations of the Nation-State:

"The paradigm of a positivist or descriptive science forms another ideological pillar of the nation-state. It fuels nationalist ideology but also laicism which has taken the form of a new religion. On the other hand it is one of the ideological foundations of moder- nity and its dogmata have influenced the social sciences sustain- ably. Positivism can be circumscribed as a philosophical approach that is strictly confined to the appearance of things, which it equates with reality itself. Since in positivism appearance is real- ity, nothing that has no appearance can be part of reality. We know from quantum physics, astronomy, some fields of biology and even the gist of thought itself that reality occurs in worlds that are beyond observable events. The truth, in the relationship between the observed and the observer, has mystified itself to the extent that it no longer fits any physical scale or definition. Positivism denies this and thus, to an extent, resembles the idol worshipping of ancient times, where the idol constitutes the im- age of reality."

This is the weirdest and most controversial piece in the book for me personally.

I consider myself to be a somewhat skeptical materialist and naturalist but is it really true that descriptive science is a pillar of the nation-state and the ideology of nationalism? This question is not rhetorical, I truly don't know, but I don't think it's true.

Scientism is of course not desirable, not in out present world and not in a free society or in the future but I'm of the firm opinion that positivist science is the best, or at least the least worst, way to understand the natural world and thus should be a valued pillar of any society, free or not. Science should not be worshiped and it's not the only way of understanding the world but I believe it's the best tool we got. Does a "belief in science" lead to nationalism and oppression? I sure hope not. I want to live in a world where science and art thrives. Where people create wonderful things and penetrates the innermost secrets of the universe. This section of the book is really confusing to me.

Democratic Confederalism == Anarchy?

From III. Democratic Confederalism:

"This kind of rule or administration can be called a non-state political administration or a democracy without a state. Demo- cratic decision-making processes must not be confused with the processes known from public administration. States only admin- istrate while democracies govern. States are founded on power; democracies are based on collective consensus. Office in the state is determined by decree, even though it may be in part legiti- mized by elections. Democracies use direct elections. The state uses coercion as a legitimate means. Democracies rest on volun- tary participation.

Democratic confederalism is open towards other political groups and factions. It is flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopo­ listic, and consensus-oriented. Ecology and feminism are central pillars. In the frame of this kind of self-administration an alterna- tive economy will become necessary, which increases the resourc- es of the society instead of exploiting them and thus does justice to the manifold needs of the society."

This sounds like anarchism in practice with a touch of gray realism.

A bit further on we have the following, from H. Conclusion:

"Democratic confederalism can be described as a kind of self- administration in contrast to the administration by the nation- state. However, under certain circumstances peaceful coexistence is possible as long as the nation-state does not interfere with cen- tral matters of self-administration. All such interventions would call for the self-defence of the civil society.

Democratic confederalism is not at war with any nation-state but it will not stand idly by at assimilation efforts. Revolutionary overthrow or the foundation of a new state does not create sus- tainable change. In the long run, freedom and justice can only be accomplished within a democratic-confederate dynamic process. Neither total rejection nor complete recognition of the state is useful for the democratic efforts of the civil society. The over- coming of the state, particularly the nation-state, is a long-term process.

The state will be overcome when democratic confederalism has proved its problem-solving capacities with a view to social issues. This does not mean, though, that attacks by nation-states have to be accepted. Democratic confederations will sustain self-defence forces at all times. Democratic confederations will not be limited to organize themselves within a single particular territory. They will become cross-border confederations when the societies con- cerned so desire."

Furthermore, from the next section IV. Principles of Democratic Confederalism:

"1 The right of self-determination of the peoples includes the right to a state of their own. However, the foundation of a state does not increase the freedom of a people. The system of the United Nations that is based on nation-states has re- mained inefficient. Meanwhile, nation-states have become serious obstacles for any social development. Democratic confederalism is the contrasting paradigm of the oppressed people."

What can an anarchist say about this? It seems a little inconsistent, or at least confused.

  • The goals of democratic confederalism seems to be very similar to classical anarchism.

  • Self-administration instead of state-administration.

  • Anti-warmongering but self-defense is of course alright.

  • Anti-revolutionary.

  • Against forming new states.

  • Neither total rejection nor complete recognition of the state.

  • "Overthrowing" the state by reform?

  • The self-determination of the people includes the right to form a state of their own.

  • Bookchin-style focus on ecology.

Clearly some of this is at odds with anarchism interpreted in a strictly theoretical sense. It seems to me that democratic confederalism strives to be a pragmatic middle road rather than a new variant of anarchism. Democratic confederalism clearly falls under the umbrella of libertarian socialism but it's not anarchism. In fact, I don't think it's very productive to compare to classical anarchism at all. The ideology is after all tailored to fit the Kurdish situation.

Problems of the Peoples in the Middle East and Possible Ways to a Solution

Spoiler alert: The solution turns out to be DEMOCRATIC CONFEDERALISM!

I don't know enough about the complex situation in the middle east to comment on this in any meaningful way.

My personal thoughts on democratic confederalism for now

What about my two questions? Regarding my first question I think the book does a good job of giving the reader a firm understanding of the fundamentals of democratic confederalism. The ideas are presented in an easy and accessible manner. Few of the ideas were new to me so there was no surprises.

To the more interesting question; how compatible is democratic confederalism with anarchism? This is a tough one and of course the answer will be subjective.

Clearly, democratic confederalism is not anarchism, and that is perfectly fine since it makes no claim to be a form of anarchism. It stands on its own legs. I would without a doubt however categorize it as an expression of libertarian socialism.

Democratic confederalism is very much compatible with anarchist ideas and there is a lot of overlap. I would perhaps even go so far as to suggest that democratic confederalism might be an approximation of anarchism in practice so to speak.

Democratic confederalism is similar enough to anarchist ideas to make it interesting to every libertarian oriented mind. Anarchists from around the world didn't travel to fight in Rojava for no reason. Good ideas are worth taking serious even if they are not 100% in line with your particular ideological stance.

Ideologically speaking, the greatest hurdle of democratic confederalism for me is the above briefly discussed position in regards to the state. Democratic confederalism is in clear opposition to nation states but doesn't seems to have a problem with the very concept of a state. In other words, it is fine to form a "state" if it's governed around the principles of democratic confederalism.

It considers traditional states to be inferior in comparison to "governance" through federated direct democratic processes but there is no complete rejection of the state. This stance is understandable, it makes you sounds less threatening and more pragmatic. If you are intending to secure your sovereignty in the real world it might be a good idea to declare yourself a state even though you practice democratic confederalism I guess. This is understandable but rubs me the wrong way as an anarchist.

Democratic confederalism also lacks the focus of the complete liberation of the individual as typically seen in literature on classical anarchism. It's more of a "hey, this is a proposition on a better way to organize society" rather than "here is a manual to completely liberate everyone through collective means". But I'm sitting here in my safe comfortable chair in Sweden while people believing in these ideas are fighting for their lives. So take my criticism with a huge grain of salt.

But if I had a magical button I would rather live in a society organized around the principles of democratic confederalism rather than parliamentarian state-capitalism and I celebrate and support the effort in Rojava to build a free society based on these ideas and I'm not going to throw out the baby with the bathwater just because it doesn't provide a one-to-one correspondence with my particular ideology. If you want to achieve real change I think you have to be pragmatic.

In conclusion. I enjoyed reading this book. It gave me a lot to think about. It's an easy short read but packed full with ideas. I would have like to see a harsher criticism of capitalism and perhaps more thoughts on economy but it gives you a good introduction to the ideas of democratic confederalism.