How My Father’s Ideas Helped the Kurds Create a New Democracy
by Debbie Bookchin / June 15, 2018
“One mild spring day in Vermont in April 2004, my father, the historian and philosopher Murray Bookchin, was chatting with me, as we did almost daily. We’d talk about everything and everyone—friends, family, and thinkers from Karl Marx and Karl Polanyi (whom he admired) to then-president George W. Bush (whom he did not) and George Smiley, the fictional John Le Carré character whom he identified with and was fond of. He paused, and out of the blue disclosed what seemed an odd piece of news: “Apparently,” he said, “the Kurds have been reading my work and are trying to implement my ideas.” He said it so casually and off-handedly that it was as if he didn’t quite believe it himself.
My father, eighty-three years old at the time, had spent six decades writing hundreds of articles and twenty-four books articulating an anticapitalist vision of an ecological, democratic, egalitarian society that would eliminate the domination of human by human, and bring humanity into harmony with the natural world, a body of ideas he called “social ecology.” Although his work was well-known within anarchist and libertarian left circles, his was hardly a household name. Unexpectedly, that week, he had received a letter from an intermediary writing on behalf of the jailed Kurdish activist Abdullah Öcalan, head of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As its co-founder, sole theoretician, and undisputed leader, Öcalan had a larger-than-life reputation—but nothing about his ideology seemed in any way to resemble my father’s.
Founded in 1978 as a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist organization, the PKK had for thirty years been waging an insurgent war on behalf of the roughly 15 million Kurds living in Turkey who have suffered a long history of violence. For decades, Turkey has prohibited Kurds from speaking their own language, wearing customary dress, using Kurdish names, teaching the Kurdish language in schools, or even playing Kurdish music. Kurds have routinely been arrested and tortured for any expression of their cultural identity or opposition to Turkey’s one-flag, one-people, one-nation ideology, which originated in the early twentieth century, found full expression in Kemalism, and has endured under the authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist party.
Like other national liberation movements of the 1970s, the PKK was originally founded to win an independent Kurdish state. It sought to unite the Kurds, whose homeland of five millennia, a swath of land known as Kurdistan, had been arbitrarily parceled out between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria in the aftermath of World War I. In the decades that followed, it has often seemed as if these four countries were competing for the distinction of which could inflict more suffering on its Kurdish population. The spasmodic, pogrom-like violence to which these “new” nation states have subjected Kurds has included chemical gassings, bombings, forced relocations, ecological devastation, and the razing of entire villages. In the decades since 1984, when the PKK initiated an armed struggle, some 40,000 people have been killed, most of whom have been Kurds. For all those years of struggle, Öcalan has been the PKK’s ideological and organizational leader.
“The Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan at a PKK training camp in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, 1991”
In 1999, Öcalan was captured in Kenya after he had been forced out of Syria, where he’d lived for twenty years. Transported to the remote Turkish island of Imrali, in the inland Sea of Marmara, Öcalan was tried and convicted on treason charges. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment because Turkey was then trying to enter the European Union, which opposes capital punishment. Since then, Öcalan has been confined to a prison cell on Imrali, watched over by hundreds of guards, with few, if any, other prisoners on the island. Despite his isolation—he has not been seen since April 2016, and has been denied access to his attorneys since 2011—Öcalan remains the guiding light of the Kurdish liberation movement in Turkey and Syria, and for its many supporters in the Kurdish diaspora.
When Öcalan’s intermediary, a German translator named Reimar Heider, wrote to my father in 2004, Heider told him that the Kurdish leader had been reading Turkish translations of my father’s books in prison and considered himself a “good student” of my father’s. Indeed, Heider went on:
He has rebuilt his political strategy around the vision of a “democratic-ecological-society” and developed a model to build up a civil society in Kurdistan and the Middle East… He has recommended Bookchin’s books to every mayor in all Kurdish cities and wanted everybody to read them.
It turned out that following his arrest, Öcalan was given access to hundreds of books, including Turkish translations of numerous historical and philosophical texts from the West. He was granted these books as he tried to devise a legal strategy for his own defense during his treason trial and subsequent appeals: he aimed to explain his actions as a revolutionary by examining the Turkish-Kurdish conflict over the twentieth century within a comprehensive analysis of the development of the nation-state, beginning in ancient Mesopotamia. Öcalan began writing what would become a multi-volume history, in which he sought to propose a democratic solution to the “Kurdish Question” that would not only free the Kurdish people but also establish a harmonious relationship between Turks and Kurds and, indeed, among all peoples of the Middle East.
During the course of this work, Öcalan was influenced by a number of thinkers, including Ferdinand Braudel, Immanuel Wallerstein, Maria Mies, and Michel Foucault. In addition, Öcalan had listened to, and nurtured, the voices of a generation of Kurdish women led by Sakine Cansiz, a PKK co-founder and a legendary figure who survived years of unspeakable torture in Turkish prisons in the 1980s and was encouraged by Öcalan to write her memoirs. (Cansiz was assassinated by a Turkish agent in Paris in 2013, along with two other Kurdish female activists.) Cansiz influenced hundreds of Kurdish women in prison and PKK training camps, including the recently arrested co-mayor of the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, Gültan Kişanak, who had also been tortured in prison in the 1980s. Impressed by the sacrifice and independence of women like these, Öcalan had already begun, in the 1990s, to initiate a dramatic transition in the PKK from a militant, patriarchal organization bent on seizing state power along Marxist-Leninist lines to an organization that emphasized feminist values and sought a form of socialism very different from that associated with the former Soviet Union. Yet many of the defining features of the political philosophy that Öcalan began to espouse in the 2000s are firmly rooted on my father’s idea of social ecology and its political practice: “libertarian municipalism” or “Communalism.”
My father saw ecological problems as inherently social problems—of hierarchy and domination—that had to be solved in order to address the environmental crisis. “Perhaps the most compelling real fact that radicals in our era have not adequately faced,” he wrote, “is the fact that capitalism today has become a society, not only an economy.” Social change, he insisted, would have to address capitalism’s plundering of the human spirit and the environment by dismantling hierarchical human relationships and decentralizing society so that grassroots democratic forms of organization can flourish. This social theory of Bookchin’s, absorbed and amplified by Öcalan under the name “democratic confederalism,” is now guiding millions of Kurds in their quest to build a non-hierarchical society and local council-based democracy.
As the Syrian civil war enters its eighth year, most Westerners are familiar with images of the Kalashnikov-toting men and women of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known respectively as the YPG, which is mostly male, and the YPJ, the all-female units. These militias have fought and died by the thousands across the battlefields of Syria as the leading units of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the multi-ethnic force supported by the United States in the campaign against ISIS. Less often acknowledged is what they are fighting for: the chance to achieve not only political self-determination but also a new form of direct democracy in which every member of the community has an equal say in the popular assemblies that address the issues of their neighborhoods and towns—that is, democracy without a central state.
Because of repression in Turkey, these ideas have come to their fullest fruition in the historically Kurdish northeast of Syria. In 2012, the Syrian government troops of President Bashar al-Assad withdrew from this region to concentrate on fighting insurgents elsewhere. The Syrian Kurds had been watching their brethren implement some of Öcalan’s ideas in largely Kurdish towns and cities like Diyarbakir, across the border in southeastern Turkey; and they had been preparing for their chance. They began to put the same ideas into practice in three “cantons” in Syria, Cizre, Kobani, and Afrin, which are home to an estimated 4.6 million people, including 2 million Syrian Kurds, as well as smaller populations of Arabs, Turkmen, Syriacs, and other ethnic minorities. In these cantons, multi-ethnic neighborhood assemblies hold sway, and the prevailing ethos emphasizes an equal division of power between women and men, a non-hierarchical, non-sectarian, and distinctly ecological outlook, and a cooperative economy built on anticapitalist principles. The people of these cantons have made these reforms in the face of great challenges, which include a doubling of the population in the form of war refugees from other parts of Syria, and embargoes on food and supplies from Turkey to the north and Iraqi Kurdistan to the East, where the Kurdish tribal leader Masoud Barzani has for more than a decade overseen a capitalist statelet that depends on Turkey for trade.
In 2014, the three cantons established their autonomy as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, which became commonly known as Rojava, the Kurdish word for “West” (Syria being the most western portion of greater Kurdistan). Though still known informally as Rojava, the Kurds officially dropped the name in 2016, in recognition of the multi-ethnic nature of the region and of their commitment to freedom for all, not just the Kurdish people. The Democratic Federation (or DFNS) is founded on a document called the “Charter of the Social Contract,” whose Preamble declares the aspiration to build “a society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs.” It also “recognizes Syria’s territorial integrity and aspires to maintain domestic and international peace”—a formal renunciation by Syrian Kurds of the idea of a separate state for their people. Instead, they envisage a federated system of self-determining municipalities.
In the ninety-six articles that follow, the Contract guarantees all ethnic communities the right to teach and be taught in their own languages, abolishes the death penalty and ratifies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and similar conventions. It requires public institutions to work toward the complete elimination of gender discrimination, and requires by law that women make up at least 40 percent of every electoral body and that they, and ethnic minorities, serve as co-chairs at all levels of government administration. The Social Contract also promotes a philosophy of ecological stewardship that guides all decisions about town-planning, economics, and agriculture, and runs all industries, where possible, according to collective principles. The document even guarantees political rights to teenagers.
Among the many challenges the Democratic Federation faces is that its experiment is in a war zone. The town of Kobani and surrounding area were heavily damaged by US airstrikes against ISIS before the YPG and YPJ defeated the jihadist militia there after a six-month battle in 2014. The US and its allies supply military aid to the SDF but no humanitarian aid, and the reconstruction of Kobani, and many other parts of the Federation devastated by war, has been very slow. While the utopian aspects of Rojava have attracted a couple of hundred international civil volunteers who are working on environmental waste issues and planting 50,000 saplings in an effort to “make Rojava green again,” the region suffers from a water shortage inflicted by Turkey, which has built enormous dams that have deliberately slowed the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to a trickle, as well as flooded historic settlements on the Turkish side of the border.
Against the backdrop of an entire society mobilized for the war effort, there have been contested complaints of child soldiers, uprooted Arab villagers, and other human rights violations in the Kurdish-controlled areas. Internally, there is the challenge of resisting the ideological rigidity that often befalls movements with a charismatic spokesperson when elites claim the leader’s mantle at the expense of dissenting views. Perhaps most crucially, it remains to be seen whether Turkey, which has stated its desire to obliterate the Rojava project, will be brought to heel or given the green light by some combination of the three world powers—Russia, Iran, and the US—vying to exert control over Syria. The Social Contract’s intention, however, is clear—to build a grassroots-based, democratic, decentralized society of the kind my father and Abdullah Öcalan both envisioned.
Born in the Bronx in 1921, Murray Bookchin’s earliest influence was his grandmother Zeitel, a Russian revolutionary who emigrated to the US in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution. As my father later described the struggles of his grandmother and her comrades to me:
Under these red flags, dreaming of human emancipation, they had the ideal of a classless society, free of exploitation, and that was their myth, vision, and their hope. Also living in this pre-industrial world where families were basically extended families, with mutual sense of trust, you had an intense community life marked by mutual aid, marked by a strong cultural sensibility, marked by a radical cultural vision.
The Bookchins had struggles of their own. My father’s mother had been abandoned by her husband when Murray was a young boy; after his grandmother’s death, when he was nine, they were often impoverished. Around the same time, in 1930, he became a member of the Young Pioneers of America, a Communist youth organization. At thirteen, he was “co-opted” into the Young Communist League. Even the youngest party members “were treated like we were adults,” he recalled. They were expected to have read The Communist Manifesto and many other texts; they were sent into the streets to sell the party paper; they supported labor union efforts. The Great Depression intensified my father’s “class consciousness” and his commitment to social change—more than once, he and his mother were evicted from apartments in the Bronx. As a young radical, he honed his oratory skills in the debating crucible of Crotona Park. My father later recalled that time in the 1930s as “a deeply tumultuous period”:
It’s very difficult to give you any idea of the extent to which almost every day one felt something new, [that] something politically exciting and in a sense dangerous was happening. For example, we had continuous street corner meetings and I would go from one street corner meeting with my friends to another. And finally I began to actually speak from what you’d call soap boxes today. In the meantime I tried to earn my livelihood selling newspapers and carrying ice cream on my back in Crotona Park in a huge kind of insulated box—being chased by the police, incidentally, because it was illegal in those days to sell ice cream—that was the privilege mainly of little stands and concessions that the park department gave to people. So even from the age of thirteen and fourteen, as a worker, I began to earn my own bread and cheese.
Though rigorously schooled in the finer points of Marxist theory by the Communist Party, he was never bound by orthodoxies; leaving the Communist Party after the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, he took a turn first as a Trotskyist, and then became an anarchist—which is what he remained for nearly four decades between the 1960s and 1990s. Eventually, he cast aside that term, also, arguing that anarchism too easily devolved into a politics that focused on the personal exercise of freedom at the expense of the hard work it takes to build political institutions capable of achieving lasting social change.
My father never attended college, and as an autodidact, he perhaps never felt confined by any particular lane of intellectual enquiry. His reading ranged widely and deeply, from subjects like biology and physics to natural history and philosophy. His experience of industrial work—commuting to Bayonne, New Jersey, to pour steel in a hot foundry—only confirmed his sympathy for the socialist project. Later, though, his stint as a union organizer for the United Electrical Workers taught him that the American proletariat, concerned as it was with bread-and-butter issues and piecemeal reforms, was unlikely to be the revolutionary agent Marx had predicted. He began to take issue with other tenets of Marxism, including its emphasis on centralized state authority and its insistence on the “inexorability of social laws.”
It had also become clear to him by the late 1940s and early 1950s that capitalist development was in profound tension with the natural world. Air and water pollution, radiation, the problem of pesticide residues in food, and the impact on cities of imperious urban planners like Robert Moses called for, he argued, a re-evaluation of the effects of capitalism that took account of environmental as well as economic concerns.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bookchin was discussing ecological devastation as a symptom of deeply entrenched social problems, ideas he elaborated in a ground-breaking 1964 essay called “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” which established ecology as a political concept and made saving the environment an integral part of the project of social transformation. In contrast to Marx, who believed that it was the scarcities of nature that led to human subjugation, Bookchin argued that the notion of dominating nature was preceded by, and stemmed from, the domination of human by human and that only by eliminating social hierarchies—of gender, race, sexual orientation, age, and status—could we begin to solve the environmental crisis. He argued, against Marx, that true freedom would not be realized merely by eliminating class society; it entailed the elimination of all forms of domination. “Tragically,” he would later observe, “Marxism virtually silenced all earlier revolutionary voices for more than a century and held history itself in the icy grip of a remarkably bourgeois theory of development based on the domination of nature and the centralization of power.”
My father first began to elaborate these ideas in a series of articles in the mid-1960s with titles like “Post-Scarcity Anarchism,” “Toward a Liberatory Technology,” and “Listen, Marxist!”—essays that guided a young generation of antiwar activists toward a deeper understanding of the social ills that they felt demanded a new social order. During this period, he debated with and influenced many significant figures on the left, from Eldridge Cleaver and Daniel Cohn-Bendit to Herbert Marcuse and Guy Debord. He pressed the French revolutionaries of the May 1968 events not to succumb to the efforts of the Communist Party to corral the student movement; he pushed Black Panther Party leaders like Cleaver and Huey Newton to abandon their adherence to the Maoist dogma that revolutions are made by disciplined cadres guided by a centralized leadership; and he met with Marcuse to urge the veteran Marxist critical theorist to embrace a deeper ecological awareness.
Over the years, some of Bookchin’s theories about affinity groups, popular assemblies, eco-feminism, grassroots democracy, and the need to eliminate hierarchy were taken up by the antinuclear campaign, antiglobalization activists, and eventually the Occupy movement. These groups incorporated my father’s ideas—often unaware of their origin, perhaps—because they offered ways of acting and organizing that prefigured the social change they sought. By the 1980s, his work was influencing Green movements in Europe. Today, a “municipalism” movement based on his ideas is gaining momentum in cities around the world. Before Rojava, though, Murray Bookchin’s name was rarely mentioned in mainstream news reporting.
My father moved from New York’s Lower East Side to Vermont in 1971. He was fifty years old. He and Beatrice, my mother, had divorced after twelve years of marriage, but he continued to live with her for many years and she remained his political comrade and confidante for the rest of his life. In Vermont, he became active in the antinuclear movement, while she led the opposition to the efforts of Burlington’s then-mayor, Bernie Sanders, to put a huge commercial development on the Burlington waterfront. Together, my parents started the Burlington Greens, one of the first municipalist movements in the US. And it was in their Burlington home that he wrote his magnum opus, The Ecology of Freedom, published in 1982 and translated into Turkish twelve years later.
In it, my father traced the emergence of hierarchy from prehistoric times to the present, examining the interaction between what he called the “legacy of domination” and the “legacy of freedom” in human history. Alongside the trend of human civilization to become more socially stratified, which created vast inequalities and gave nation-states undue power, he argued, there existed a rich tradition of freedom, from its first appearance as a word in Sumerian cuneiform tablets, to its use by philosophers like Augustine and its appearance in the anti-statist, radical utopian thought of thinkers like Charles Fourier. That legacy of freedom provides a parallel vision of humanity’s potential development that challenges the accepted wisdom of Marx that the state and capitalism were “historically necessary” for the advancement of society toward socialism. Not only were they unnecessary, my father argued, but the classic Marxian belief in the “progressive” historical role of capitalism had hindered the formation of a truly libertarian left.
Öcalan read The Ecology of Freedom, and agreed with its analysis. In his own book In Defense of the People, published in German in 2010 (forthcoming in English), Öcalan wrote:
The development of authority and hierarchy even before the class society emerged is a significant turning point in history. No law of nature requires natural societies to develop into hierarchical state-based societies. At most we might say there might be a tendency. The Marxist belief that class society is an inevitability is a big mistake.
Illustrating the examples of egalitarianism and mutual aid that characterized early societies, my father argued that capitalism was not the inevitable end-product of human civilization. He suggested that a recovery of the impulses toward cooperation, mutual aid, and ecological sustainability could be achieved in a modern society by building a moral, ecological economy based on human needs, fostering technologies that can decentralize resources, such as solar and wind power, and building grassroots democratic assemblies that empower people at a local level.
My father’s emphasis on hierarchy became a signature aspect of Öcalan’s efforts to redefine the Kurdish problem. In The Roots of Civilization, Öcalan’s first published volume of prison writings, he, too, traced the history of early communitarian societies and the transition to capitalism. Like Bookchin, he celebrated the formation of early societies in greater Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization and birthplace of art, written language, and agriculture. He reminded us that the powerful kinship ties that remain a fixture of Kurdish family life—the traditional relationships of extended families, and folk culture—can provide a foundation for a new ethical society that melds the best aspects of Enlightenment values with a communal and ecological sensibility.
Öcalan goes further than Bookchin in the significance he places on patriarchy. My father had examined how hierarchies originated from the need of the elders in society to preserve their power as they aged by institutionalizing their status in the form of shamans, and later priests—a process that included the domination of women by men. Öcalan, though, sees patriarchy as a defining characteristic of human civilization. “The 5,000-year-old history of civilization is essentially the history of the enslavement of woman,” he wrote in a pamphlet titled “Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution” (published in English in 2013). “The depth of woman’s enslavement and the intentional masking of this fact is thus closely linked to the rise within a society of hierarchical and statist power.” Undoing these entrenched institutional and psychological relationships of power will, in Öcalan’s view, require a new vision of society—and a profound personal reckoning on the part of men.
Öcalan’s interest in women’s liberation preceded his time in Imrali, and was never simply a theoretical matter. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kurdish women from both Syria and Turkey, where they were suffering particularly harsh repression at the hands of the Turkish state, were joining the PKK in growing numbers. Leaving their villages and towns to travel to the PKK training camps in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and the Qandil Mountains of Iraq, these women helped to swell the ranks of PKK fighters to 15,000 by 1994, with women comprising an estimated one third of the force. In keeping with the PKK’s stress on study and education, these women, while they trained as guerrillas, also read feminist and other radical texts. Öcalan, who had already been reassessing the problem of the “dominant male” personality in the PKK, supported their demands for equal rights, a separate militia organization, and their own institutions. As Meredith Tax explains in her recent book A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State, the creation of all-female PKK units was crucial to “giving women the confidence and leadership experience to make the leap to a fully separate women’s army.”
Like Bookchin years earlier, Öcalan had also become disillusioned with state socialism. “Do not look at the Soviet Union as the God of Socialism and the last God at that,” he told an interviewer in 1991. “The dream of a socialist utopia is not just Marxist-Leninist. It is as old as humanity.” Increasingly persuaded that the state itself was the problem, he began to reframe his movement’s goal not as a Kurdish nation but as an autonomous, self-ruled democratic entity within a federation that gave similar autonomy to all its subject groups—a type of political system very different from any that now exists in the Middle East or almost anywhere.
“The nation-state makes us less than human,” Bookchin wrote in his 1985 essay “Rethinking Ethics, Nature and Society.” “It towers over us, cajoles us, disempowers us, bilks us of our substance, humiliates us—and often kills us in its imperialist adventures… We are the nation-state’s victims, not its constituents—not only physically and psychologically but also ideologically.” Öcalan came to share this view; in 2005, he issued a “Declaration” that “the political root of the democratic nation solution is the democratic confederalism of civil society, which is not state.” Rather, it must be based on the “communal unit,” an ecological, social, and economic construction that does not “aim to make profit” but rather meet the collectively determined needs of the people living there. The document served as a vision that he hoped would be embraced by all of Kurdistan—including the 6 million Kurds in Iran and a similar number in Iraq.
Here, Öcalan echoed my father’s program in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (later titled Urbanization Without Cities), which Öcalan had read in prison and recommended to the mayors of Bakur in southeast Turkey. In this volume, my father traced the history of the urban megalopolis, from Athens to the Paris Commune and beyond, in an effort to “redeem the city, to visualize it not as a threat to the environment but as a uniquely human, ethical, and ecological community” that could be reclaimed as the locus of a new politics of assembly democracy—an “art in which every citizen is fully aware of the fact that his or her community entrusts its destiny to his or her moral probity and rationality.” “The city,” he wrote, must be “conceived as a new kind of ethical union, a humanly-scaled form of personal empowerment, a participatory, even ecological system of decision-making, and a distinctive source of civic culture.” And he argued that by practicing a radical municipal-based politics, people can, in effect, create a new democratic society within the shell of the old, wresting back control from the central state.
These “Communalist” ideas have been put into practice in the cities and towns of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. An elaborate system of council democracy starts at the “commune” level (settlements of between thirty and four hundred families). The commune sends delegates to the neighborhood or village council, which in turn sends delegates to the district (or city) level and ultimately to the region-wide assemblies. Citizens serve on committees for health, the environment, defense, women, the economy, politics, justice, and ideology. Everyone is entitled to a say. And in keeping with Öcalan’s ideas on matters relating to women, the women’s councils have the power to override decisions made by other councils when the matter specifically concerns a women’s interests.
Although the PKK remains the leading opposition force for most Kurds who oppose the policies of President Erdoğan of Turkey, there have been divisions within the movement, notably in the mid-2000s when Öcalan began to implement democratic confederalism in earnest. Yet it is a testament to the character of his leadership, which has endured nearly two decades of imprisonment, that a great majority of Kurdish people have followed the path he laid out. Despite all this, the PKK remains on terrorist blacklists maintained by the United States and the European Union, and the Western media inexplicably persist in calling Öcalan and the PKK “Marxist-Leninist” more than a decade after that ideology was formally renounced, both in practice and in thousands of pages of Öcalan’s writings.
By the time of Turkey’s June 2015 election, the PKK had declared a unilateral ceasefire and the evidence of its commitment to grassroots democracy was in full bloom in the Kurdish cities and towns of southeastern Turkey, where women were working as co-mayors and serving in all areas of city administration. In the election, the Kurdish-led HDP party won 13 percent of the vote, making it the third-largest party in Turkey’s parliament. Summarily, Erdoğan halted the peace negotiations that had begun with Öcalan in 2013 and launched a sustained assault on the Kurdish region. The military campaign and PKK resistance led to the deaths of hundreds of people, with thousands more imprisoned—among them, Selahattin Demirtaş, the charismatic leader of the HDP who is now running for president from his prison cell in the snap election called by Erdoğan for June 24.
On May 24, the Rome-based Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, which was established in 1979 to continue the work of the Russell Tribunal (which had investigated war crimes in Vietnam), determined that the PKK was not a terrorist group but a combatant in a “non-international armed conflict,” and declared Erdoğan personally guilty of war crimes against the Kurdish people for failing to adhere to the Geneva Conventions over an eighteen-month period between June 2015 and January 2017. In a decision announced at the European Parliament in Brussels, the tribunal also found Turkey guilty of false-flag operations, “targeted assassinations, extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances,” destroying Kurdish towns and displacing as many as 300,000 civilians, and of “denying the Kurdish people its right to self-determination by imposing the Turkish identity and by repressing its participation in the political, economic and cultural life of the country.” The Tribunal urged the immediate resumption of peace negotiations with the Kurds in Turkey, and also called on Turkey to halt all military operations against the Kurds in Syria.
Turkey’s insistence that the Syrian Kurds, too, are “terrorists” because of their ideological affiliation with Öcalan has forced the US to walk a fine line—supporting the YPG and YPJ as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and denying their ties to the PKK, while maintaining that the PKK in Turkey is a terrorist group. The result has been that while US military officials vocally support the Kurds as “our best partners on the ground” in the fight against ISIS in Syria, the State Department has turned a blind eye to Erdoğan’s unrelenting human rights violations, echoing his rhetoric that the PKK must be destroyed, a policy that the Kurdish people say amounts to tacit approval of a war on all Kurds. This US policy, together with the near-silence of American and European leaders about the Turkish government’s assault against its Kurdish citizens between 2015 and 2017, may have emboldened Erdoğan to send his forces and the militias of former Free Syrian Army—including jihadists and former ISIS fighters—into the canton of Afrin in Syria on January 20. An estimated 170,000 people have since been displaced from Afrin; many are homeless and sleep in the open air. What was once a haven of peace and multiculturalism, a place where women held 50 percent of the public offices, is now under siege. There have been reports of abductions of women and girls, of Kurds’ being evicted from their homes and businesses, and of the partial imposition of Sharia law. In this, Turkey has received tacit support from the US, which has refused to stand up to Erdoğan on behalf of its Kurdish allies. The resulting devastation has been woefully under-reported by American media.
My father died on July 30, 2006, at the age of eighty-five, about two years after Öcalan’s intermediaries had contacted him. Arthritis had made it impossible for him to sit before a computer and type, so his correspondence with Öcalan ended after the exchange of a couple of letters from each side. In his last letter, my father sent his best wishes to Öcalan and wrote:
My hope is that the Kurdish people will one day be able to establish a free, rational society that will allow their brilliance once again to flourish. They are fortunate indeed to have a leader of Mr. Öcalan’s talents to guide them.
Upon Murray Bookchin’s death, the PKK issued a two-page statement hailing him as “one of the greatest social scientists of the twentieth century.” “He introduced us to the thought of social ecology, and for that he will be remembered with gratitude by humanity,” the statement’s authors wrote. “We undertake to make Bookchin live in our struggle. We will put this promise into practice as the first society which establishes a tangible democratic confederalism.” Had my father lived to see his ideas enacted in Rojava and southeastern Turkey, he would have been profoundly moved to know that his revolutionary spirit had been reborn among a generation of the Kurdish people. He would have taken heart that Rojava was one more historical instance of the desire for freedom that he himself felt so deeply and to which he dedicated his life.”
“Before “man” began to exploit “man”, he began to dominate woman; even earlier, the old began to dominate the young through a hierarchy of age-groups, gerontocracies, and ancestor-worship. Power of human over human long antedates the very formation of classes and economic modes of social oppression. . . It is no longer simply capitalism we wish to demolish; it is an older and more archaic world that lives on in the present one – the domination of human by human, the rationale of hierarchy as such.”
“At most, communitarianism seeks to gently edge social development away from privately owned enterprises—banks, corporations, supermarkets, factories, and industrial systems of agriculture—and the lifeways to which they give rise, into collectively owned enterprises and values. It does not seek to create a power center that will overthrow capitalism; it seeks rather to outbid it, outprice it, or outlast it, often by presenting a moral obstacle to the greed and evil that many find in a bourgeois economy. It is not a politics but a practice, whose constituency is often a relatively small group of people who choose to buy from or work in a particular cooperative enterprise.”
“Our cities are being hollowed out. Real estate developers carve up downtown areas for profit, displacing the poor to the urban periphery. One by one, public spaces are disappearing; cafés and libraries are closing down, and parks are increasingly patrolled by private security. Metropolitan sprawl swallows the countryside, mega-agglomerations stretch across continents. UrbanC transportation is dominated, even colonized, by the car. Small grocery stores get shuttered; life happens on strip malls and at gas stations. Neighbourhoods that once had a thriving street culture a generation ago are now quiet, and neighbours barely talk. Politics is reduced to a vote; there is little we can do to have a say and take control over our own future. It’s no surprise that we are today more lonely than we’ve ever been. Around the world, people experience the steady erosion of community ties, loss of traditions, and a deep sense of alienation. The opioid crisis in the United States is just one symptom of a toxic epidemic of isolation. Despite this bleak reality, a new kind of politics is emerging: a politics rooted in people’s everyday lives, which offers a sense of belonging and gives people a voice. This way of doing politics is materializing all around the world.
To take one example, Jeremy Corbyn put forward his party’s new economic platform this February. In his speech, he named an idea that has been simmering for a while now: socialist municipalism. What does this involve? For Corbyn, it means “the renaissance of local government for the many, not the few”. The past decade has seen a steady shift toward municipalist-oriented politics on the UK left. The Radical Housing Network in London has been part of this shift, where activists in every neighborhood started sharing resources and linking people fighting eviction and increased rents. When Grenfell tower rose up in flames, killing 72 people, this network was essential to the provision of much-needed support – and raised up the voices of the survivors who lost their home.
Plan C, another key group organising and coordinating leftist action, has also taken a decidedly municipal turn. In their pamphlet put out last June, Radical Municipalism: Demanding the Future, it states that “the ‘municipal’ – whether we’re talking about towns, cities or city-regions – might be a fundamentally important scale at which, and through which, to generate progressive movements towards post-capitalism.” In the US, the recent wave of municipal and state-legislative wins of lefty and even socialist candidates was a small, but necessary, victory. Crucially, the growing Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) played a key role in these victories. Across the country, tenant’s rights groups, often non-hierarchical and democratically organised, are self-organising and challenging a rampant real estate industry based on speculation and predatory lending. These movements and organisations have brought together people across racial and class divides, often becoming a site for people to organize for the first time and develop a political consciousness.
In Jackson, Mississippi, a growing movement for a just and democratic local economy has laid the groundwork for a new municipalism, led by black communities and revolutionaries. Their neighborhood-level base-building has fostered cooperative workplaces and housing, as well as the momentum that allowed them to take over city hall. Beyond the UK and the USA, there are vibrant movements in Barcelona, Spain; Rojava, Syria; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Oaxaca, Mexico that have been organizing for decades to take direct control of their local government.
These movements are helping to build a new vision for emancipatory politics. For socialists, power has always been in the workplace. This is where people can easily get together, where they have the most leverage against those who make the rules. But the above campaigns and movements have taken place where people live, on their way to work, and in town halls. In the face of alienation, they bring people together. Against ever-expanding urbanisation, they create meaningful places for people to discuss what matters in community with one another.
Why is this happening now? What is unique about the municipal level, and should a municipal strategy replace workplace organising as the primary tactic to leverage power against the state? Can they work together? In the previous installments of this column, we laid out our framework of combining local democratic autonomy with creating networks of co-dependency and dual power at higher scales, and used the recent case of Barcelona as an example of such a social movement that has taken over their city.
In this piece, we reflect on the current global economic situation and why the city and town matter more than ever as sites for organising. First, if we want to understand why municipalism is on the rise, we have to understand the present global economic reality. Increasingly, capital investments are being redirected from the production of material goods toward real estate and urban development. The city has become the most profitable site of profit and speculation. The scale of this can be difficult to grasp. Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Shenzhen: these cities have outgrown New York City in mere decades. We can hardly call them cities: they are part of a continuous landscape of urban sprawl. Even cities in the West are now being shaped by foreign direct investment, privatisation, and securitisation of public space.
Work is also changing. In the past, the factory floor was an active site of politics: the shared experience of work let people get together and block the flows of profit to the bosses. Especially in the deindustrializing and increasingly service-oriented economies of the global North, the workplace has become smaller and more surveilled, and jobs increasingly feel like useless bullshit. Gone are the days of workers’ pride in their achievements: today’s factories are fast food restaurants, diners, transportation, and customer service call centers.
At the same time, the economy is getting progressively more unequal, with a greater percentage of the profits going from the working class to the owners of capital. Given that work has become more isolated and fractured, the workplace is getting more difficult to organize in. Globally, an intricate web of supply chains has solidified into what geographers are calling “planetary urbanisation”. What we usually call the city has become absorbed into what Andy Merrifield calls a “shapeless, formless, and apparently boundless” mesh.
Rural areas are being transformed into stockpiles or sacrifice zones for urban consumption—rainforests in Borneo turned into palm oil plantations, fishing villages on coasts globally decimated as factory-like fishing fleets have brought 30 percent of the world’s fisheries to the point of collapse. Peasants are left destitute, with rampant farmer suicides and many forced into urban-rural migration, subject to the ebbs and flows of the global economy. Traditional ‘hinterlands’ are increasingly part of a globalised urban fabric. For many, the urban core has also become inaccessible. Gentrification has “regenerated” areas that just a generation ago had been left to rot by the state. Through that same process, poor people are being forced to move to the suburbs—where there are inevitably fewer amenities like clinics, social centers, and public space.
At the same time, what Ray Oldenburg calls the “great good place”—the pub, the cafe, the library, where people could relax and mingle—is being shuttered everywhere. Through these rapid changes, life has become atomised, isolating. There is no one you can turn to for support, the parents are never home, and neighbours are worlds apart. Cities have always been places of conflict: full of positive and negative potential. Historically, many cities were places where people experimented with and invented non-hierarchical forms of politics. The city, at its best, represents the ideal where every citizen can participate in the shaping of their own future. At their worst, human settlements are tightly regulated spaces, controlled by an administrative elite separated from the population. In such spaces, people are no longer citizens, and policies are determined by technocrats and the elite.
Here it is useful to distinguish between the city and the urban. The promise of the city is what Hannah Arendt, in one essay, called “the promise of politics”. Real politics is a promise because it remains an unrealised ideal. If politics is the ability of diverse people to come together and intentionally guide their own future, then the city is the space where people are able to do so. The urban, on the other hand, is managerial space. Being ruled by a central administrative body, it systematically undermines organic interactions—anything unplanned is abhorrent.
In the book Urbanization without cities: The rise and fall of citizenship, Murray Bookchin calls urbanization “a force that makes for municipal homogeneity and formlessness”. What should be dynamic and exciting, a space of organic possibility, becomes a space where all interactions are pre-programmed. It is this kind of space that is now spreading across the world, from Singapore to Lower Manhattan. Urbanization relies on a vast interconnected network that systematically undermines people’s ability to be self-sufficient. As people lose the power over their own economic production they are forced to rely on goods and materials from elsewhere. The urban becomes a space that is unable to limit itself; it can only expand.
We are at a key historical moment. The global deployment of hierarchical and undemocratic urban space, speculative urban real estate development, and increased social atomization all combine to disempower the citizen. At the same time, this urbanization of the planet through the undemocratic control of an elite class is a central feature of our impending planetary ecological crisis. Marxist urban geographers like David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre have long identified these trends, and argued that socialists must go beyond organising on the basis of work alone, for class struggle extends far beyond the point of production. As working-class people, we face a kind of double exploitation: at the workplace – increasingly fractured and alienating – and where we live – itself a site of profit and surveillance. By taking control over urban space, demanding the right to the city, we can force elites to make concessions and bring capitalism to heel.
But it’s not just about taking elites to task. People aren’t just workers: we are neighbours, citizens, strangers, acquaintances, and lovers. Without the spaces for meaningful relationships, the ability to practice conviviality, and the freedom to pursue our desires, we lose our humanity. We become monads, atoms – free from responsibility, but alienated from each other. The answer to planetary urbanisation, social isolation, the privatisation of our cities, and the ecological crisis is the building up of popular power – to make citizens of residents and consumers, of workers and neighbors. Radical municipalism is the idea that we can build popular assemblies and neighborhood councils, where people learn to manage their common life through face-to-face politics and develop the skills and the power to seize control: to take the city.”
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