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In late 2014, a two-day conference devoted to establishing the basic principles of a democratic economy in Northern Kurdistan was held by the Democratic Society Congress in the city of Wan. The conference was organized to initiate a process of putting into practice the Kurdish movement's ecological, gender egalitarian, council communalist, socioeconomic vision. This brief note provides a sketch of the historical conjuncture of the conference and identifies the important assets of the movement as well as the challenges it is facing in its struggle to build a “new life” through the democratization of economy.
Yahya M. Madra
Democratic Economy Conference:
An Introductory Note
In early November 2014, in the midst of a state of war in Kobanê just south
of the Turkey-Syria border, the Democratic Society Congress, a Kurdistani
umbrella organization active to the north of the border, held a two-day con-
ference devoted exclusively to establishing the basic principles of a demo-
cratic economy in the region. The conference was the culmination of eight
dierent workshops conducted during the summer of 2014 in dierent cit-
ies of Northern Kurdistan, located within the borders of (the Republic of )
Turkey. The workshops and the conference in Wan were made up of activ-
ists, academics, municipal ocers, representatives of local business associa-
tions and labor unions, experts, journalists, and a variety of other local
actors. Decisions made at the conference were intended to function at mul-
tiple levels in the coming years. First, in its declarative tone, this manifesto is
intended by the Kurdish movement as an announcement of its ethico-politi-
cal commitment to the democratization of the economy. Second, it provides
a broad orientation for the democratically organized self-governed bodies
(communes, councils, etc.) to conduct economic politics both against the
onslaught of “capitalist modernity” and toward building a “new life.” Finally,
it is intended as a practical policy guideline for the municipalities controlled
by the Democratic Regions Party (a sister party of the Peoples’ Democratic
Party exclusively focused on local politics in Northern Kurdistan).
The Kurdish movement’s interest in concretizing its now more than
decade-old turn toward ecological, gender egalitarian, and communal socio-
economic vision needs to be situated within the context of the fragile peace
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and settlement process with the Turkish state as well as the harsh economic
conditions of the war-torn region. Indeed, with unemployment rates signi-
cantly above the national averages, with an overpopulated urban poverty in
stark contrast to the depleted countryside (due to both economic hardship
and forced evictions executed by the Turkish armed forces), and with a rather
limited industrial production and discontinuous cross-border trade with
south (Iraqi) and west (Syrian) Kurdistan, the need for an economic renewal
in the region is more urgent than ever.
On the one hand, the settlement process provided a respite from the
tense state of war (at least until the war in Rojava broke out) and an opportu-
nity for the movement to put into practice its socioeconomic program—
informed by Abdullah Öcalan’s vision of “democratic modernity.” On the
other hand, since for the government (then led by Erdoğan’s Justice and
Development Party) “peace” essentially means lucrative investments and
intensied extractionist practices in the region, the task of rapid construc-
tion of a democratic and autonomous economic alternative entails more than
the realization of an economic utopia. It is a matter of utmost urgency for the
survival of the movement in the post-conflict period. The government-
funded development agencies and the Turkish investors ushered in by the
Kurdish members of parliament for the Justice and Development Party
proudly announce that, once the armed conict comes to an end, capitalist
development will eliminate poverty, provide employment opportunities,
ourish cross-border trade, and so on. Within this context, the movement
needs to simultaneously defend the social ecology of Kurdistan against the
incursions and seductions of “capitalist modernity” and solve the many
entrenched socioeconomic problems of the region in its own fashion, that is,
by putting into practice the vision of democratic economy articulated in the
principles, strategies, and guidelines listed below.
A fairly valuable asset for putting the movement’s economic vision into
practice is the large number of municipalities that it won in the March 2014
local elections. Nevertheless, the experience of municipalities governed by
the movement has been mixed. While certain social policy innovations have
been successfully implemented, many of those eorts have been curtailed
both by the nancial limitations imposed by the central government and by
the direct “political genocide” implemented during the 2009–13 period,
when more than ten thousand elected ocials and activists were imprisoned
under terror charges. Yet, the hope is that the newly elected municipal gov-
ernments, bolstered by the dramatic electoral success of the Peoples’ Demo-
cratic Party in the most recent general elections of June 2015, will be able to
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gain some traction in building a “new life” through the democratization of
the economy.
Another important yet usually unacknowledged asset of the move-
ment in democratizing the economy is its strong organizational capacity,
which manifests itself in consistently eective political and humanitarian
relief campaigns. On the political front, the movement has conducted suc-
cessful electoral campaigns (increasing its voting base in each successive
election) without any ocial nancial aid, against organized obstructions,
and based solely on voluntary labor. On the humanitarian aid front, the
movement has provided shelter for Kurdish, Yezidi, Arabic, and Turkmen
refugees escaping from the war in Rojava, once again based on voluntary
labor and contributions. Both types of activities entail highly complex logisti-
cal capabilities, require the mobilization of care-labor (in the form of orga-
nizing labor) at a regional scale, and can only be maintained through the
nancial support of a large number of small donors. And precisely for these
reasons, they demonstrate the availability of a tacit muscle memory in the
body politic of the movement for organizing solidarity economies.
Yet, there are a number of important challenges. First and foremost,
what may appear to be an innocent grassroots practice of economic politics
in the context of Western liberal democracies can suddenly be coded and
persecuted in Turkey as a national security threat to the unity of the nation-
state. For instance, consider implementing a local exchange trading system,
a local currency that would protect the regional economy from the turbulent
dynamics of capitalism and prevent the syphoning o of social surplus from
the region. It is not hard to imagine how this may be construed in the public
as a challenge to the sovereignty of nation-state and its currency. What is
even more ironic is the fact that if such a local currency were to be intro-
duced in the predominantly Turkish regions of the country, it would proba-
bly be celebrated as an innovative economic device for local development.
Similar concerns apply even more forcefully when local governments explic-
itly demand budgetary autonomy (including the right to raise local taxes),
when activists protest against large-scale hydropower projects or dangerous
mining activities, or when locals undertake small-scale cross-border trading
activity. In short, in Kurdistan there are many ways in which enacting local
economies can be considered a security threat by the Turkish state.
A second set of challenges pertains to the antagonistic relations among
the three major blocs making up the economic eld in Northern Kurdistan.
First, there is the growing yet still fairly shallow capitalist developmentalist
bloc with its ties to Turkish and international capital, partially supported by
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the regional development agencies. On the other end of the spectrum, there
is the democratic economy bloc, equally limited in its scope, consisting of a
disarticulated smattering of cooperatives and other forms of solidarity econ-
omies (associations, NGOs, etc.). In between these two poles, there exists a
vast heterogeneous area consisting not only of small-scale capitalists, tradi-
tional artisanal producers, and petty-commodity producing peasantry but
also of the municipalities and a sizable public service sector organized
around them.
The struggle for the democratic economy bloc is two pronged. First, it
needs to impart a certain density to the solidarity economy by proliferating
the number of cooperative institutions and articulating these entities into a
wide coordinated meshwork that connects producers with other producers
and with consumers. Such coordinating activity (potentially undertaken by
the regional “research centers”) among producer and consumer cooperatives
will facilitate the discovery of knowledge (regarding product mix) in the
absence of a fully edged competitive market or a central planning board.
(While the former is deemed undesirable, the latter will be construed as a
step toward state building and criminalized.)
Second, the emergent democratic economy bloc needs to provide, using
the municipalities as an important leverage, a framework that can convince
those who inhabit the diverse economy of the gray area to desire to be a part
of the eort toward building a democratic economy. While the movement is
indeed in power in almost all of the Kurdistani municipalities, its conduct
will be colored by the social and economic forces that it relies on in the com-
ing years. In the absence of a robust cooperative economy, the municipalities
will inevitably be pulled toward the gravitation of the capitalist development
bloc. Again, without the protective shield of a solidarity economy, capital-
ist tendencies toward concentration will probably exert their forces over
the small-scale artisanal producers, urban petty commodity producers, and
small-scale peasantry, potentially leading to their gradual liquidation.
While this agenda of uniting noncapitalist class formations with
small-scale capitalist formations against the monopolistic and rentier forms
of capital has some strong anities with the political economic vision of left
populism (such as those found in thein the United States during the 1890s
and 1930s and in the United Kingdom during the postwar period), what dis-
tinguishes this notion of “democratic economy” is its postnationalist, radical
ecologist, gender egalitarian, and council communalist characteristics. No
wonder then that the nal declaration and the proposals of the Democratic
Economy Conference were received with a certain disdain by not only the
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orthodox Marxists of Turkey (for being not revolutionary enough) but also
Kurdish nationalists (for failing to dene a national developmental strategy)
and the representatives of the Kurdish business associations (for being too
Below, we reproduce, for reasons of space, only the concrete set of pro-
posals that follow the nal declaration of the Democratic Economy Confer-
ence.1 Organized thematically around the topics of the preparatory work-
shops, the various proposals range from establishing research centers for
gathering information and coordinating economic activities to replacing
labor subcontracting in municipal services with cooperatives. In their brutal
mundaneness, they display a certain sober sense of antiheroics that contrast
starkly with the diverse struggles of the movement, which have ranged from
guerrilla warfare to the defense of Kobanê under siege by ISIS (Islamic State
of Iraq and Syria) and from electoral campaigning to protecting the historic
Hevsel gardens from demolishment. In contrast to the passionate aective
intensities associated with these forms of action and activism, this set of con-
crete proposals is a testament to the fact that the dicult and inevitably
repetitive labor (to the extent that it involves reproduction of life) of building
a democratic economy requires a dierent kind of work, a kind of methodi-
cal, though no less subversive, conduct of the “ordinary business of life” in
an ecological, egalitarian, and participatory mode.
Decisions of the Democratic Economy Conference
November 8–9, 2014, Wan
1. The male-dominant (masculinist) capitalist modernity conceptual-
izes the economic sphere in a manner that renders women invisi-
ble. This conceptual frame needs to be replaced with alternative
concepts along with a struggle for a rapid change in language.
2. A campaign needs to be organized to counter the governmental
social policies that put women into the position of having to take
care of the disabled, the elderly, and children under conditions of
underpaid and undocumented work without any social security.
This struggle must be undertaken on the grounds of international
3. Women must be able to participate in all decision-making processes
regarding local resources. Urban spaces must be planned with an
aim to ease the lives of women, the disabled, and children. Not just
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parks but all common life spaces must be transformed in accor-
dance with women’s perspectives, and women-focused cities need
to be swiftly brought into existence.
4. Institutional research centers need to be established for undertak-
ing inventory work as well as for gathering and systematically ana-
lyzing knowledge on women’s participation in the economy.
5. No economic formation (of production, distribution, or consump-
tion) or organization has a chance of succeeding without women’s
participation. Therefore, armative action toward women in all
spheres of democratic economy must be implemented.
6. Women-only communes should be established in diverse areas to
ensure the direct economic participation of women.
7. Women’s invisible domestic labor in the kitchen, in the home, and
as caregivers must be socialized through the establishment of
appropriate institutions (day care centers, communal kitchens, etc.).
8. An exclusive conference on women and economy must be orga-
nized to evaluate women’s participation in the economy in a more
specic manner.
1. Social economy is created collectively, and its basis is land. Agricul-
tural production must be developed on the basis of needs and the
protection of local seeds. Agriculture (crop cultivation and stock-
breeding) structured on the criteria of eciency and prot leads to
the degradation of soil and therefore must be rejected.
2. Agricultural production in forcibly evicted villages should be devel-
oped anew in accordance with a communal awareness. In order to
democratize already existing agricultural production units and
cooperatives and develop those production areas where women
have tacit and natural knowledge, model village communes and
cooperatives must be established. Women-only cooperatives and
communes must be set up.
3. Since agriculture is a leading productive sector in Northern Kurdi-
stan, municipalities must establish units for the development of
4. In urban areas, prototypes of agricultural production units based
on communal production and distribution must be established that
prioritize the support of the participation of women and disadvan-
taged groups.
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5. Struggles must be undertaken against the state and male-domi-
nated forms of land ownership from a perspective that considers
land use to be communal. Struggles for land reform must assume a
gender-based perspective.
6. The system of seasonal work exploits women based not only on
their ethnic identity and socioeconomic standing but also on their
gender. In order to eliminate seasonal work, local economies must
be developed in Kurdistan and measures must be taken to support
family farming and encourage indigenous agricultural production
in suitable lands.
7. Land mines and war waste must be cleared and legal action and
struggle must be undertaken to protect the ora of the aected
8. The pastoral nomadic lifestyle (koçerlik) in Kurdistan must be given
its due attention since it is a form of life embedded in nature and
the environment and entails commoning in production (üretim
ortaklığı). Therefore, nomadic culture must be protected and sup-
ported (i.e., safety on migration routes needs to be secured, and
education, health care, and similar basic needs must be catered to
in locations of migration).
9. Fauna, ora, swamps, and forests destroyed during the forced evic-
tion of the villages and by forest arsons must be taken into protection
and the cultivation of new forest formations must be encouraged.
10. Pastures, highlands, and forests must be cultivated and defended
from commodification, development, and changes in zoning
11. For the landless peasantry, currently excluded from both the tradi-
tional and modern legal systems, new mechanisms of justice must
be developed and struggle should be waged to distribute (state-
owned) treasury land among landless peasants.
1. Hydroelectric power plants already built and currently under con-
struction and dams set up for security purposes are harmful to
nature, human health, and the landscape of Kurdistan. Social move-
ments against their construction must be supported. Fossil fuel con-
sumption must be minimized, and ecological, alternative sources
of energy production must be considered (e.g., solar, wind, geother-
mal, and waste energy). Alternative sources of energy must be freed
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from the control of monopoly capitalism. In order to develop self-
management in the energy sector, platforms and cooperatives that
voice the people’s concerns must be established.
2. As a means to develop better and more conscious usage of energy
sources, especially in regions where production takes place, aware-
ness-raising measures should be taken (e.g., the organization of
public meetings and training workshops).
3. As values [deǧer], water, land, and energy belong to all animate and
inanimate beings and to society as a whole, they must not be com-
modied. Therefore, these values must be identied as and consid-
ered sacred. To bring the sacred status of water to social attention,
water festivals must be organized.
4. The development of a socially based water management system is a
task of utmost urgency. Water distribution for drinking, agricul-
tural use, industrial use, and other daily uses must be determined
on the grounds of social needs and ecology. Water must be redis-
tributed equitably among those living within varying degrees of
proximity to the water sources. An organizational infrastructure
must be built for the democratic management of water through
water councils where communities are able to exercise their right to
water and make decisions concerning water.
5. In Northern Kurdistan, due to improper mining and water extrac-
tion practices, water reservoirs have been contaminated. As a means
to avoid further contamination, necessary precautions must be
taken and further zoning and development must be ceased.
6. Political and social struggles must be undertaken for the delegation
of authority to extract and operate natural resources under and above
the ground from the central administration to the local authorities.
7. Local governments must lead the organization and use of alterna-
tive types of energy. In urban planning, eective energy use must
be designed in accordance with climate conditions.
8. Environmental impact reports must be prepared and evaluated for
all economic activities.
Industrial Production
1. All existing and future investments supported in Kurdistan must
be based on the basic principles of a democratic economy.
2. Local raw materials and resources are exported out of the Kurdistan
region without being processed and imported back to the region in
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processed forms at higher prices. Therefore, to bypass intermediar-
ies, production cooperatives must be established that generate raw
materials on the basis of need, without harming the ecosystem, and
with priority for local markets. Production and consumption coop-
eratives must be organized as a coordinated network.
3. Economic forms such as shopping malls that have adverse eects
on local production dynamics and consumer culture must certainly
not be encouraged. Small local producers, craftspeople, and trades-
people must be organized into unions and distribution cooperatives
in order to sustain and develop their operation.
4. Within the emerging new economic structure, public health, work-
ers’ health and safety, etc., must be supervised. To this end, social
control mechanisms involving the participation of producers, users,
and consumers must be developed and institutionalized.
5. Waste products and used resources must be recycled, and a public
awareness about recycling must be cultivated.
6. Diversication of production and environmentally friendly technol-
ogies and services must be developed and implemented throughout
industrial production processes in Kurdistan.
Trade, Finance
1. A funding mechanism for supporting the social and economic
needs of the people (women in particular) must be established, and
alternative use values must be prioritized [over exchange value].
2. Barter markets should be given priority. A needs-based social mar-
ket must be established to weave together the divided markets of
Kurdistan. The development of natural agricultural production in
its natural course should be encouraged and marketplaces for natu-
ral agricultural products should be organized.
Social and Cultural Policy, Health Care, Education
1. Social policies that aim to dissolve the social network and develop a
relation of dependence between the state and the individual must
end, and the mentality and language of “aid” in the eld of social
services that reproduce the representation of poor as indigent must
be changed. To this end, an inventory of social needs must be cata-
logued and social services must be delivered based on a collective
social solidarity economy approach.
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2. The current tourism policy (implemented by the central admin-
istration) ignores the multilingual, multireligious, and multicul-
tural structure of cultural memory and heritage of the region.
Against this policy of cultural genocide, material and nonmaterial
cultural values must be protected. To prevent further destruction,
social movements must be cultivated, and material and immaterial
cultural heritage must be catalogued while protective policies are
3. In Kurdistan, the impending intensication of the intervention of
capitalist modernity into the social eld will aect, in particular,
the condition of women working in the textile and service sectors.
Therefore, along with the establishment of cooperatives in these
sectors as alternatives to the capitalist sector, in the short term, a
struggle to improve working conditions and democratize the work-
place must be undertaken in the domain of capitalist employment
4. Subcontracting is a system of exploitation, and, as such, it must
be rejected. Starting with the municipalities, subcontractors must
be replaced with production and service cooperatives organized by
workers with participative democratic values.
5. Sports, art, health care, and education are basic civil rights. As such,
they should ultimately be available free of charge as public
6. Social policies of the state expose the dispossessed, especially
women, to undocumented work and exploitation. The social secu-
rity system must be reorganized in favor of the workers. Social
actions against labor exploitation must be cultivated and social con-
trol mechanisms must be developed.
7. Union movement must organize in such a way so as to include both
the unemployed and the undocumented workers.
8. Workers’ councils with workers’ participation must be established
in the workplace to ensure active participation by laborers in man-
agement and control.
9. As a result of economic genocide in Kurdistan, people have disen-
gaged from their productive capacities. To re-engage the society
with its productive capacities and to occasion a change in people’s
attitudes, educational and public awareness raising activities must
be enacted.
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Local Governments
1. Existing development agencies cannot provide a fair distribution of
public funds. At the local level, agencies must consist of elected mem-
bers and shall be transformed into democratic investment agencies.
2. At the municipal level, new budgets that are participatory, transpar-
ent, and emancipatory with regard to women must be created with
the people’s participation, taking into account communal-confeder-
ate economic needs.
3. Housing is a basic human right. In opposition to housing con-
structed for excessive prot, housing cooperatives that meet the
needs of the people without intermediaries, are adaptable to the
ecosystem, and do not cause social isolation must be established
and supported by local government regulations.
4. Capitalist modernity has created urban-rural division in which
urban spaces are associated with awareness, modernity, and wealth,
while rural spaces represent backwardness, poverty, and ignorance.
Rural areas, while being very well adapted for development of a
communal eco-economy, quickly depopulate. Therefore, settle-
ments must be approached from a holistic perspective and planned
as habitable spaces.
Democratic Autonomy
1. Based on the principles of a democratically autonomous economy,
in each city, local economic structures must be governed by eco-
nomic councils and a parliament.
2. Working groups focused on energy, water, mining, trade and
nance, agriculture (crop cultivation and stockbreeding), industrial
production, social policy, etc., must be established.
3. Changing the economic mindset is not enough in itself. It must be
accompanied by leadership to organize and implement this change.
To this end all relevant institutions need to be treated at the same
time as academies that aim to produce solutions. Academies must
be widely established in places ranging from schools to practical
training centers and cooperative training sites.
4. An institute that would conduct eldwork and create an inventory of
raw materials, local resources, and productive capacities must be
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5. Proposed working groups must organize workshops and confer-
ences related to each sector of the local economy.
6. The Democratic Economy Conference considers the establishment
of a Democratic Economy Congress as an objective.
7. This conference is dedicated to Kader Ortakkaya, who personies
all the martyrs of Kobanê; to women seasonal workers from Isparta
who lost their lives in a work accident; to those who lost their lives in
workplace murders in Soma, Ermenek, Istanbul, Zonguldak, and
—Translated by Yahya M. Madra
1 For the full declaration in Turkish, see
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