The Promise of Direct Democracy and the Paradigm of the Kurds


The following is the speech given by Debbie Bookchin during this year’s B-Fest in Athens, Greece (25, 26, 27 of May).  Bookchin took part in a panel entitled “The Promise of Direct Democracy and the Paradigm of the Kurds”, together with Yavor Tarinski (TRISE) and Swen Wegner (Internationalist Center Dresden).

It’s a great pleasure and honor to be with you – even remotely – today and I’m sorry that I couldn’t be there in person. It’s especially poignant to me that you are gathered in Athens, the birthplace of democracy in the West, and that you are doing something that capitalist society finds increasingly threatening: meeting together face-to-face to discuss, debate, celebrate, experience music and art and exchange ideas. You are prefiguring, to use the expression that has gained popularity in recent years, a free, open, democratic society. And the fact that this is such threat says a great deal about the political direction in which capitalism is taking us.

My father the social theorist Murray Bookchin, was very concerned about what he called the “forms of freedom” – the ways in which people could give expression to their uniquely human abilities to be creative and ethical and meaningfully steward the natural world. He spent 60 years thinking about how to create an ecological, liberated society free of domination and toil. And one of the central ideas that he pioneered during the 20th Century was that oppression was not limited to economic exploitation, important as that issue continues to be. He emphasized that a much more fundamental change had to take place in order for people to truly express their freedom: we had to abolish every form of domination–by gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation. We had to recognize that the very idea of dominating nature, which has led us to the verge of a devastating ecological crisis, comes from the very real domination of one human being over another.

So we have to go beyond challenging capitalism – we have to challenge all forms of domination and hierarchy, first to eliminate the rapacious attitude we have toward nature, but also because only in this way will we create societies that are truly democratic and liberatory. To do this, we must confront the power of the nation-state, because these forms of oppression, of psycho-institutional power based on social status, are all enforced by the state. States institutionalize systems of domination; they enforce coercive systems of rule.

How do we go about contesting the overwhelming power of the nation-state? People all around the world are answering this question decisively: they are organizing horizontally, creating community centers, social centers, recuperating and democratizing workplaces and now, little by little using the combined power of all these activities of the social movements to begin to take political power on the local level, in their municipalities. They are creating new local political institutions—municipal assemblies–that can place decision-making power back in the hands of the people, where it belongs.

My father wrote about the power of what he called libertarian municipalism or communalism over many decades in various books and articles, including in a series of essays that I am very pleased to see has just come out in Greek in the book called: The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and The Promise of Direct Democracy. In these works he describes how a libertarian municipalist politics is our best hope for fundamentally transforming society. And he critiques the failures of past movements both anarchist and socialist. So from these essays and from his book The Ecology of Freedom you can gain a much more comprehensive argument about why municipalist politics is a good idea than from anything I can say in a few minutes.

But I’d like to use my few minutes to emphasize why I think this movement is so important and why everyone – socialists, anarchists, feminists, environmentalists, LGBTQ activists and anyone who cares about the future of the planet and the importance of human rights—should be on board with this new municipalist politics and should play a formative role in shaping it so that it maximizes the chances of success and minimizes the chances of being coopted.

Despite claims to the contrary of people like Slavov Zizek, history has proven repeatedly that seizing state power is not a recipe for democracy. Over and over again, political movements that have resisted authoritarian regimes have themselves become coercive faceless bureaucracies the moment they assumed the authority of a state power reducing their constituencies to a faceless mass that, if lucky, sometimes gets to rubber-stamp decisions made far away.

Yet, those who have rejected power altogether or eschewed working in political institutions have also found themselves marginalized. The anarchist resolve to remain outside the halls of power, has created an effective politics of resistance – but we need to do more than resist. We need a politics of transformation. Municipalist politics bridges these two poles, the Marxist and the anarchist, with a third way: it rejects representative democracy in favor of direct democracy; it harnesses the spontaneity and vibrancy of the social movements by giving them a political voice, by giving the people in the movements power in the civic arena. It turns every neighborhood into a public forum where people can gather in community assemblies to meet, talk, decide and implement the decisions that are most meaningful to them in their neighborhoods and their towns. And as the municipality grows stronger, it can increasingly contest and take power away from the nation-state.

When we create organizations on the local level where ordinary people become transformed into political actors in everyday life we not only counter the power of the nation state, we also transform ourselves from passive instruments of capitalism into free citizens. We build community; we recognize our fellow citizens not by their job titles but as our neighbors, as people who have a common interest in keeping our communities green, livable, and healthy. We re-envision the city, the municipal realm, and it’s organ of democracy – the people’s assembly – as the place where we find fulfillment and a sense of common purpose.

Municipalism celebrates the power of local assemblies to transform and in turn be transformed by an increasingly enlightened citizenry. And I think this dialectic, between the individual and the assembly is very important. Because clearly today, there are many places where the citizenry is unenlightened and where fear and phobias are strong. We need only look at the rising tide of nationalism sweeping many countries in Europe or the constituency that elected Donald Trump as president of the United States to see that this is true. That’s why education is so important on the individual and community level. We should be meeting with our comrades in study groups and reading political theory and history, educating ourselves by looking to the past to make sure we don’t repeat the same mistakes in the future. And we should be educating our neighbors by discussing specific community issues as part of a detailed platform based on the principles of an ecological and moral economy, and a commitment to individual and collective freedom.

This is why we have to consider municipalist politics a long-term project. Such a political program must include short term goals such as stopping mortgage foreclosures, recuperating public spaces, implementing renewable energy sources and creating federations of worker-owned cooperatives such those being developed by Cooperation Jackson, in Jackson Mississippi, in the American South. But it also must include long term goals such expanding the environmental and cooperative economic ventures into an increasingly caring and moral economy and creating confederations that will allow municipalities to work together to address broader regional and even global issues without the need of a centralized state

And ultimately, this means running candidates for municipal office. But to avoid the pitfalls of traditional political parties, we must insist that our candidates are not representatives, but rather delegates for the assemblies whose views they express. Winning office does not entitle a candidate to make his or her own decisions; rather they are elected on a platform crafted by the assembly, they donate part of their salaries to the assembly, the abide by the code of ethics drafted by the assembly; they are completely transparent and responsive to the assembly; and ultimately they can be recalled by the assembly if they fail to respect the it’s wishes. Thus, power resides with the assembly, the people, the community, not the individual holding city office.

So it’s time to reclaim the term “politics” to mean the activity of self-rule that we undertake when we meet face-to-face to make decisions about our concerns and our communities. Municipalism demands that we restore the idea of politics to its fundamental origins – what Aristotle considered the highest calling of human beings: interacting in the polis as free citizens to chart our common destiny. Together, we fashion our ideal society, in a process that liberates us to express the civic virtue that has for too long been denied to us.

If it seems like a far off dream, it’s important to remember that this ideal of civic virtue is reflected in some of the most transformative and revolutionary moments in history, when citizens have come together in assembly democracies and taken power into their own hands, from the Paris Commune of 1871, to the anarchist collectives of revolutionary Spain to New England town meetings.  These institutions of popular power – what Hannah Arendt called the lost treasure of the revolutionary tradition – should become the foundation of our activism.

Most recently it has been expressed in the Zapatista communities of Chiapas Mexico and in the democratic confederalism project in the territory known as Rojava, the swath of northern Syria about half the size of Greece. In Rojava, more formally known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, Kurds have established a bottom-up political system of popular assemblies, that enshrines the values of non-hierarchy, women’s liberation, ethnic plurality, religious tolerance, direct democracy, and ecological stewardship. The 96 articles of the Rojava social contract guarantee all ethnic communities the right to teach and be taught in their own language; they abolish the death penalty, and mandate public institutions to work towards the elimination of gender discrimination. They require that women make up at least 40 percent of every electoral body and serve as co-chairs at all levels of government administration. They guarantee youth the right to actively participate in public and political life and promote a philosophy of ecological stewardship that guides all decisions about town planning, economics, and agriculture.

Most importantly, as I’m sure many of you know, the Rojava region is governed by a decentralized political system in which every member of the community has equal say in the popular assemblies that address the issues of their neighborhood and towns. So, power flows upwards, from the neighborhood commune where Kurds, Yazidis, Turkmen, Syriacs, Arabs and every member of he community meet together, to the district councils to the city-wide and region-wide councils.  It’s an example of direct democracy in the truest sense of the word, and its profound human resonance is demonstrated by the fierce commitment we’ve see in the men and women fighters of Rojava to defend it.

And until the Turkish dictator Erdogan razed the Kurdish cities of southeast Turkey two years ago, a similar system was in place there as well. Now Erdogan — emboldened by having taken over the largely Kurdish canton of Afrin in Syria — is threatening other areas of Kurdish-held Syria and Iraq. And I think this is an enormous danger that threatens to snuff out one of the most important and visionary political movements since Spain in 1936.

So I want to make a specific plea for people here to become more involved in defending Rojava. The crushing forces of neoliberalism have overwhelmed many of us in terms of dealing with day-to-day domestic issues. But the rise of fascism and worrying trends globally demand that we also show solidarity with the people who are fighting those forces by pursuing a politics so new and original that they are reinventing the very idea of politics. And the fact that women are playing such a forward role in this project makes it all the more important – it’s a movement that everyone who considers themselves a feminist should be supporting with every ounce of activist commitment they can muster because it amounts to a major paradigm shift in the very nature of politics itself. We should be lobbying our representatives to support the Kurds, demanding a boycott of arms sales and deliveries to Turkey, insisting upon the representation of Rojava Kurds in any Syrian peace negotiations, demanding the release of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, and the resumption of peace talks between the Turkish government and the Kurds in Turkey. It’s impossible to overstate how important this moment, this movement is in Rojava. Surely we don’t have so many existing revolutionary moments as far-reaching and visionary as this one that we can afford to let it be crushed?

Every month there is more dire news about the ways in which capitalism is destroying the Earth. Most recently there have been reports that the ocean currents are being threatened in ways that could create a tipping point in which irreversible warming will lead to extremely frigid weather patterns in Europe, desertification in parts of Africa and flooding in the eastern seaboard of the United States. I understand why people, especially young people, would want to shut out some of this information. No generation should be forced to bear the burden that my generation has inflicted on yours…the burden of literally saving the planet. But that is the burden that has fallen to you and it brings me full circle back to the beginning of my remarks: saving the planet and creating a new politics that recuperates our humanity go hand in hand, are inseperable, and should not be thought of just as work. It must also be an act of celebration, of rediscovering a shared sense of community, of reveling in the power of solidarity and mutual aid that has been denied to us for too long.

As you celebrate the remarkable creativity displayed in the music, art and ideas discussed over the days of this festival, I urge you to carry it forward into your political activities in the weeks and months ahead — to take it to your neighborhoods and towns by building a radical municipalist movement using the example of activists in places like Barcelona, Bologna, and Jackson Mississippi where even in the belly of the beast citizens are discovering new ways to empower themselves at the local level and cultivating programs and candidates who will carry these ideas forward. This is a chance not only to save the planet but to save our humanity. I send you all best wishes and solidarity in this important effort. Thank you.

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