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What Democratic Socialism looks like in Kurdistan

posted on: May 6, 2021

Map of Kurdish-inhabited regions

By Steven Brander / Arab America Contributing Writer

The Lay of the Land

The project of a consolidated Kurdistan presents a different narrative about the birth of a nation than is perhaps typical in history. Rather than a rebellion against a colonial power or a post-war re-drawing of borders, the Kurdish project is one working within multiple other countries’ borders to achieve independence of only parts of those countries with substantial ethnic Kurdish populations. 

In northern Iraq & Syria Kurdistan is all but a reality, with Kurds establishing autonomy over the regions. The Kurds have seized upon the instability created in the wake of the IS offensives in both Iraq and Syria to claim power in the new vacuum. In Turkey and Iran, though, Kurdistan exists at a sub-national level, as a history of oppression, discrimination, and even open rebellion in both states means access to official power is elusive. The primary focus for the purposes of this article is the region of Kurdistan in northern and eastern Syria known by its Kurdish name Rojava, where the Democratic Union Party (PYD), in partnership with several smaller leftist Syrian organizations, maintains administrative control and seeks to implement it’s political vision. 

Flag of the Kurdistan Communities Union
Flag of the Kurdistan Communities Union

Of the People, By the People

The throughline of Kurdish democratic socialism, also called democratic confederalism, libertarian socialism, and Kurdish communalism, is that political organization can be self-driven by the people, as opposed to the top-down model seen in other (state) socialist countries and theories. Its founder, Abdullah Öcalan (who is currently a political prisoner in Turkey) built the theory as an explicit rejection of capitalism and embrace of democratism, feminism, and environmentalism. Öcalan envisions a society which prioritizes local (political) administration that is directly democratic. That is, political power is held by local councils, parliaments, or congresses with direct participation by the members of the community. 

And rather than a hierarchy, or even any kind of centralized apparatus at all, these communities are bound together by their mutual acceptance of the overall, democratic constitution they themselves take part in. To put it more simply, in Öcalan’s confederation, all communities hold the same legal structure and especially protections, but are not responsible to a centralized government as such. Instead, each community makes decisions for themselves so long as they respect basic constitutional principles like the freedom of speech. 

The resultant society would resemble quite a bit less the modern representative democracies seen in most of the world, and help up as the paragons of self-government. Instead, a democratic socialist confederation would operate more as a collective of communities. These communities would be independent from one another, but also provide mutual aid to each other; ensuring no community or locality ends up substantially worse-off due to no fault of their own. 

Some Comparative Politics

Contrast this understanding of democratic socialism with the way the term is currently used in US politics, after its rise to prominence within the national ethos following the 2016 & 2020 presidential runs of Senator Bernie Sanders and the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, both members of the Democratic Socialists of America. The term’s usage in the US is notably quite difficult to pin down; like pretty much anything to do with Socialism™, anyone’s particular understanding of the term acts rather more like a Rorschach test than a specific political philosophy, or even grouping of philosophies. 

Leaving aside issues of complete misunderstandings, i.e. when democratic socialists are conflated with the USSR, democratic socialism is generally defined in two ways. The traditional and more precise way is characterized as having some public ownership of important public goods or utilities (like the National Health Service in the United Kingdom) as well as worker empowerment in the form of either or both workplace democracy and different forms of worker ownership. That is, contrary to scaremongering among conservatives, private (as opposed to public/state-owned) enterprise would still exist, but the decision-makers would either be or at least operate on behalf of the workers, as opposed to investors. 

The other philosophy often mislabelled as democratic socialism, but confusingly also reflected in a number of policy proposals by Sen. Sanders (among others), is that of social democracy (also referred to in American politics as the Nordic model). This emphasizes strong social safety nets and social welfare programs, but with none or very few changes in the ownership of the economy. Popular policies like Medicare4All, in which the state guarantees universal access to a public good, are examples of social democratic policies. 

Senator Sanders introduced legislation to establish a $15/hour federal minimum wage, 2017
Senator Sanders introduced legislation to establish a $15/hour federal minimum wage, 2017

I am once again asking you to define democratic socialism

Obviously, there are some key differences between the Kurdish system, even broadly imagined, and the American platform. The former, due in part to the power vacuum the Kurds have stepped in to fill, is able to construct their democratic socialist plan and reconfigure both the region’s economy and political system from stem to stern. Communities already exist, but now they are brought into a mutually self-determined network and begin to repair the damage that has been wrought. In the US, meanwhile, the focus is less on constituting a new legal and political system, and more on adapting the one that exists to transform the economy into one that empowers, rather than exploits, workers.

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