09 April 2015
by Joost Jongerden, Assistant Professor, Wageningen University
In 2005, the Partiya Karkêren Kurdistani (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) (PKK) announced that it considered the nation-state a hindrance on the road to freedom, and that its strategic objective was not the establishment of a state but of an interlinked network of councils as the basis of self-determination and a new way of living together. The objective of this article is to discuss and explain the PKK’s understanding of politics as it evolved in the 2000s by looking at two concepts: ‘democratic autonomy’ and ‘democratic confederalism.’ This article will put these concepts in a historical and comparative perspective, and contextualise them in wider discussions in political and social sciences. The question central to this contribution is how these concepts make sense in the context of political theory, and how they have the potential to address fundamental shortcomings in modern democracy. Data has been collected by the study of primary sources and interviews.
In its 1978 foundational program, the Partiya Karkêren Kurdistani (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) (PKK) expressed the objective of establishing a single (united), independent state called “Kurdistan” (PKK, 1978). Over time, this changed. In 2005, the PKK announced that it considered the nation-state a hindrance on the road to freedom, and that its strategic objective was not the establishment of a state but of an interlinked network of councils as the basis of self-determination and a new way of living together (PKK, 2005: 175). Drawing and dying for borders, argued Salih Müslüm, chair of the PKK’s sister party in Syria, the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (Democratic Union Party) (PYD), is a European illness from the 19th and 20th centuries. The council model of connectivity, he declared, is the model for the future (Müslüm, speech at the Flemish Parliament in Brussels, 19-9-2014).
The objective of this article is to discuss and explain the PKK’s understanding of politics as it evolved in the 2000s by looking at two concepts that are central to the PKK’s imaginary of a new political architecture: ‘democratic autonomy’ and ‘democratic confederalism.’ In my discussion of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism, I will put these ideas in a historical and comparative perspective, and contextualise them in wider discussions in political and social sciences. While making sense of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism as a praxis, that is to say both idea and engagement, this paper aims also to contribute to a body of work that takes as its subject a thorough understanding the PKK.
 The objective of this article, therefore, is to discuss, in the Kurdish context, the ideas of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism and show the potentiality of these as practises that radicalise democracy. The question central to this contribution is how these concepts make sense in the context of political theory, and how they have the potential to address fundamental shortcomings in modern democracy. Data has been collected by the study of primary sources and interviews.
II. Radical Democracy
Although commonly depicted as a guerrilla/armed organisation, the PKK should not be characterised in military (or similar) terms, since it is primarily a political organisation, prompted to use violence in circumstances in which there was no alternative (legally permitted) avenue of genuine political expression (Bozarslan, 2004: 23; Jongerden and Akkaya, 2011: 168-9). Militants active in the PKK today also do not refer to the movement as a military or insurgent movement, as one such militant recently stated, for example:
“Every single Kurdish movement is a revolt, but I don’t mean the PKK is an insurrectionary movement. It isn’t. The movements before the PKK were revolts, in terms of process, aims, and general emphasis, but the PKK is much more than this, so it shouldn’t be called an insurrectionary movement. The PKK is a politically organised movement, a freedom movement. Calling the PKK an insurrectionary movement narrows it.” (Interview with PKK militant, E.D., 06-08-2014)
When the PKK was established as a political party in 1978, it had a classical communist party type organisational structure. Reading PKK documents, one may distinguish between two political objectives the movement has had from its inception. The first was a progressive realisation of the right to self-determination, the second a reunification, or better, reestablishment of the left, a reestablishment envisaged in both organisational and ideological terms (Jongerden and Akkaya, 2012: 10). The PKK’s ideological and political outlook of “radical democracy” emerged in the 2000s as three intertwined projects: democratic republic, democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism, each intended to function as a “strategic dispositif” as ways in which Kurdish political demands are (re)defined and organised (Akkaya & Jongerden, 2012: 22).
The project for a democratic republic aimed at the disassociation of democracy from nationalism, of demos from ethnos. Concretely, this resulted in the proposal for a new constitution, one in which citizenship is not defined or even conceived of in terms of ethnicity but rather in terms of the civic republic and civil rights. While the project of democratic republic addressed the character of the state, the projects of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism aimed at developing an alternative for state-oriented politics toward a people-oriented and emancipatory politics of connectivity. This politics of connectivity is grounded in a rethinking of the separation between people, power and politics, and the attempt to address these disconnections.
The concept of democratic autonomy does not refer to a form of sub-sovereignty granted to institutions within a sovereign state, the transfer of (limited) state functions and responsibilities to institutions which form a sub-state (Reyes and Kaufman, 2011), but to a new grounding of the political status of people, on the basis of self-government rather than people’s relations with the state (Duran Kalkan, personal communication, 28-10-2014). The PKK carefully distinguishes democratic autonomy from autonomy. “Most people confuse democratic autonomy with autonomy” confirms senior PKK member Cemil Bayık “–in fact, there is no relation between the two” he states (personal communication, 30-10-2014). Explaining this, Bayık goes on to say that whereas autonomy takes the nation-state as its basis, democratic autonomy is based on democratic-confederalism.
Democratic confederalism refers to a societal organisation that can be characterised as a bottom-up system for self-administration, organised in Turkey at the levels of village (köy), urban neighbourhood (mahalle), district (ilçe), city (kent), and the region (bölge), referred to as “Northern Kurdistan” (Jongerden & Akkaya, 2013a). “The basic principle of democratic-confederalism,” continues Bayık “is self-governance of communities.” In other words, one could say, democratic autonomy concerns the ability and capacity to have (or regain) control over political, economic and cultural institutions, while democratic confederalism refers to the ability to decide and administer. The aim is not to build a state, but to develop a democratic society. “Fifty years ago, a hundred years ago,” argues Duran Kalkan (personal communication, 28-10-2014), “the state was small and society big, but today, the state is everything and society nothing.” The projects of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism are intended to reverse this, to develop the self-governing capacities of people and thus to radicalise democracy.
III. Democratic Autonomy and Democratic Confederalism: Yesterday and Today
Following the work of Murray Bookchin, it was the imprisoned Abdullah Öcalan who initiated debate on democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism among the Kurds (Biehl, 2012: 10; Öcalan, 2008). Bookchin differentiates between two ideas of politics, the Hellenic model and the Roman, which gave rise to two different imaginaries of politics and understandings of government. The first, the Hellenic model, stands for a participatory and communal form of politics, with which Bookchin aligns himself, and the second, the Roman model, for a centralist and statist form, which he rejects (White, 2008: 159). The statist, centralised Roman model has a herd of subjects (Kropotkin, 1897), while the Hellenic model an active citizenship (Bookchin, 1991: 11). Bookchin argues that it was the Roman model that was to become the dominant form in modern society, informing the American and French constitutionalists of the 18th century. The Hellenic model exists as a counter- and underground current, finding expression in the Paris Commune of 1871, the initial councils (soviets) that emerged in the spring-time of the revolution in Russia in 1917, and in the Spanish Revolution in 1936-39.
The PKK’s projects of democratic confederalism and democratic autonomy stand in a rich tradition of thinking and doing politics. Murray Bookchin (1991) placed autonomy and confederalism in the Hellenic tradition –with expressions in the Paris Commune (1871), the initial soviets (councils) that emerged in the revolution in Russia in 1917 and were later supressed, and the Spanish revolution of 1936-39– in opposition to the authoritarian Roman tradition, on the basis of which our polity has been shaped. Darrow Schecter (1994: 74-102) discussed the council current within the communist movement, referring to Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci and, in particular, Anton Pannekoek. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Hardt & Negri, 2004), but also Hannah Arendt relates the council movement to currents in the American Revolution and the idea of “the citizen’s right of access to the public realm” (Arendt, 1990 (1963): 127).
According to Arendt, the councils are the lost treasure of revolution, representing “an entirely new form of government, with a new public space for freedom, constituted and organised during the course of the revolution itself” (Arendt, 1990 : 249). Historically, these councils have been established in revolutions in America, France, Russia, and Spain; today, they are revived in Kurdistan under the umbrella of the KomaCivakên Kurdistan (Association of Communities in Kurdistan) (KCK), coordinated in Turkey by the Kongreya Civaka Demokratîk (Democratic Society Congress) (KCD), and in Syria by the Tevgera Civaka Demokratîk (Democratic Society Movement) (Tev-Dem).
The PKK’s idea of radical democracy can be viewed from a historical perspective, but may also be compared with present-day social movements or projects elsewhere. A few examples should suffice to give an impression of the wider horizon. Since the PKK has been compared to the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) (EZLN) (Gambetti, 2009; Kucukozer, 2010), the most obvious point of contemporary reference is to the political project of this movement. The democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism being developed in Kurdistan clearly resembles the Zapatista creation of autonomous municipalities in Chiapas (southern Mexico) (Stahler-Sholk, 2000) and its adherence to autonomy as a bottom-up development of self-organising and governing structures and capabilities. Like the PKK today, the EZLN claims not to want to take power (in the sense of control of the state) but to develop alternatives for the sovereign power of the state by creating a network of practices through which self-government can emerge. Like the PKK, the Zapatista conceptualise this self-government in terms of assemblies, which are not only institutions of administration but also spaces of deliberation, with accountable and revocable delegates and “posing the possibility of the permanence of the rule of all.” (Reyes & Kaufman, 2011: 516)
One can also find similarities with the socio-political struggle of the (primarily Brasilian)Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Movement of Landless Rural Workers) (MST) to transform relation between people and between people and the state and the development of the idea of active citizenship (Wittman, 2009). More generally, one may note the recent round of mass street protests and occupations, from environmentalist and anti-globalist activism (notably with the anti-G8 demonstrations and riots in Seattle, 1999) and developing into the Occupy movement, which has also seen expression in the emergence of spontaneous assembly movements (e.g. in İstanbul, 2013) and raised the profile of pre-existing direct democracy platforms (e.g. the People’s Assembly Movement, in the UK).
IV.Power, People and Politics
The PKK’s project of radical democracy and the idea of council democracy or self-administration (democratic confederalism) and the development of autonomy potentially address three problems: the separation of sovereign power from people, the separation of people from one another and the separation of power and politics.
4.1. The Separation of Sovereign Power from People
In the early modern (18th century) conception, democracy was considered the rule of everyone by everyone. Yet the way in which the idea of democracy has become institutionalised as “government by officials who are accountable and removable by the majority of people in a jurisdiction” is far from this (Hardt and Negri, 2004). Arendt(1990 : 268-9) argues that “representative government has in fact become oligarchic government (…) though not in the classical sense of rule by the few in the interest of the few; what we today call democracy is a form of government where the few rule, at least supposedly, in the interest of the many” – so that the most the citizen can hope for is to be ‘represented’, where a system of representation implies a delegation of interests.
Indeed, according to Hardt and Negri (2004: 247), representation has a dual nature in that it “simultaneously connects and separates.” Representation not only implies a connection between the represented and representative, but also disconnects the rulers from the ruled: “When our power is transferred to a group of rulers, then we no longer rule, we are separated from power and government.” (Hardt and Negri, 2004: 244) The separation of people from sovereign power is a basis for state-formation, Hardt and Negri argue, defining democratisation as “[e]very step that narrows the separation between representatives and represented,” so, to “neutralise the state’s monopoly of power” it follows that democracy “would have to be constructed from below” (Hardt & Negri, 2004: 249, 251).
For Arendt, this should also imply the forming of opinions “in a process of open discussion and public debate;” people need to become proactive, to lead the process, since it would not suffice were we merely “supporting, while action remained the prerogative of government.” (Arendt, 1990 : 268-9, 271) It is precisely this relationship that the co-chair of the PYD, Salih Müslüm, criticises, arguing that the relations between state and people in the Middle East over the past decades have been conceptualised and practiced in terms of an active state with the people as its objects, while the new model of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism is based on active citizenship, with people as subjects in their capacity to decide and act, debating problems and enacting solutions by the people and for the people (Salih Müslüm 19-9-2013 at the Conference on New Models and a Solution of the Kurdish issue, Flemish Parliament, Brussels). In a similar vein, Cemil Bayık (personal communication, 30-10-2014) and Duran Kalkan (personal communication, 30-10-2014) argue that the paradigm shift includes, among others, a shift from state-building to society-building, and, relatedly, from taking power (‘iktidar,’ as in state or sovereign power) to the development of societal self-governing capacities.
4.2. The Separation of People from one Another
Representation does not only separate people from power, but also turns politics from a public capacity into a private one. The ballot box represents the capacity of private choice, since it is based on giving people a right in their private capacity, the right to vote. This relation, argues Arendt (1990 : 277), is transformed into that of individual seller and buyer, while political action is to stand in front of others and to form opinions, whereby the space of a plurality of perspectives on political topics can be formed (Sitton, 1987). The ballot box does not provide a space to be public and political, a space of encounter (Merrifield, 2011), but only one of private action and the expression of choice (selection from a given range of alternatives).
According to Arendt, political activity cannot be narrowed down to the individual right of choice, since is also about a public engagement with others, and, as she notes (Arendt, 1958: 57), the significance of being seen and heard by others derives from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position. For Arendt, freedom is the freedom to act as citizens, and this means to participate, to be heard, to debate, to exchange views and to make decisions. Freedom, therefore, is not about giving people power in the private capacity, but about people being empowered in their capacity of citizens though the establishment of a public space. And thus does Arendt (1990 : 253) refer to council democracy as a treasure of revolutionary tradition, of the public spaces people historically created to form opinion and make decisions together. It is indeed such a council democracy system that has been initiated by the KCK (through the KCD and the Tev-Dem).
4.3. The Separation of Power and Politics
Democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism also address the problem of what Bauman (2007: 1-2) calls the separation of power and politics in modern society. Power, defined as the ability to get things done, and politics, the ability to decide the direction and purpose of action, were previously available to the nation-state, but they have been divorced. A changing political economy –in particular the globalisation of capital, in combination with the neoliberal contracting out of functions previously performed by the state– has turned national and formal politics into “a protracted exercise in deciding what ought to be done– without actually being able to do it.” (Roos, 2012) Without the ability to get things done, responsibility is not much more than an appeal. Without the capacity to decide, responsibility cannot be assumed. The PKK’s project of democratic autonomy, one could say, is about the capacity to control, while democratic confederalism is about the ability to decide. This would imply that the PKK’s twin projects of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism bear the promise of re-connecting power and politics, not in the context of homogenising nation-state politics, but in the form of an assembly based form of self-government.
V. Radical Politics beyond Retreat and Engagement
The ideas of democratic confederalism and democratic autonomy have the potential to address a series of disconnections between power, people and politics, but they may also alter the idea of radical politics. Radical politics have often been discussed in the context of a dilemma between retreat and engagement: a retreat from the established political forms and institutions to develop alternatives or an engagement with the established forms and institutions in order to practice change. In her work on the idea of radical democracy, Chantal Mouffe (2013) creates an opposition between the ideas of exodus and engagement. Exodus here refers to a form of political action that consists of a rejection of and defection from the state. Its principal aim is the development of a non-state public sphere and a radically new type of democracy based on construction of and experimentation with forms of self-representative and extra-parliamentary democracy organised around councils. This exodus implies a negation, however, with the aim of rendering irrelevant the meaning of the state in daily life. In opposition to that, Mouffe (2013) distinguishes a politics of engagement, which holds that radical politics should engage with institutions in order to disarticulate them, to separate them from existing discourses and practices, with the aim of constructing new ones.
The first option, the exodus, is the strategy of Hardt and Negri, the strategy of protest movements that say “We don’t want anything to do with parties, with trade unions, with existing institutions because they can’t be transformed; we need to assemble and organise new forms of life; we should try democracy in presence, in act.
 This is the position of the radical left. The second option, the strategy to which Mouffe (2013) adheres, is to create something by engaging with existing institutions and transform politics from an arena of antagonisms, in which the other must be defeated, through an agonism in which we positively deal with and accept differences. This is the position of the reformist left. In its project of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism, however, the PKK seems not to make a choice between the retreat or engagement: it creates its own alternatives (the councils) while engaging with existing institutions (the municipality).
This double position, of both developing one owns alternatives while engaging with existing institutions, is close to what Henri Lefebvre (2003) refers to as “transduction.” Transduction for Lefebvre is to connect to actual practices and grounding oneself in the realities of the moment, without, however, accepting the existing boundaries of contemporary society. The aim is not to connect to existing struggles and institutions or going beyond the existing order, but to connect to existing struggles and to go beyond the existing order. “We must never remain contained within the actual,” Lefebvre says, “we must always move toward the virtual, that which has not yet been actualised.” (Purcell, 2013: 320) It represents a radical engagement with the actual without limiting oneself to what exists.
The developing of alternatives brings us again to the difference between autonomy and democratic autonomy, as indicated by the senior PKK leader Cemil Bayık. Autonomy, as indicated, is based on the transfer of (limited) state functions and responsibilities to institutions that form a sub-state, while democratic-autonomy refers to practices in which people produce and reproduce the necessary and desired conditions for living through direct engagement and collaboration with one another, in the political domain but also in the economic and cultural domains. This idea of reproduction of the necessary and desired conditions for living together is conceptualised as ‘self-valorisation’ in autonomist Marxist literature.
The concept of self-valorisation was developed in Toni Negri’s (1991) reading of Marx beyond Marx, in which Negri presents an alternative reading of Marx that grants primacy not to capital, but to labour. This inversion of perspective, so typical of the autonomous Marxist approach, brought the idea of “practices of autonomy” and “self-activity” to the centre of political debates and analyses (Tronti, 1980) and “provides a useful concept to draw our attention to struggles that go beyond resistance to various kinds of positive, socially constitutive self-activity” (Cleaver, 1993). In a similar vein of thought, the philosopher and pedagogue Ivan Illich drew attention to the need to reclaim life from the state and its professionals through the development of autonomous capacities.
The development of modern society, Illich (1977) argued, comes together with a war on autonomous subsistence activities –in which we need to read subsistence activities not only in terms of the economic organisation of life, about which Marxist thinking is primarily concerned, but also of activities that sustain human life in other fields, such as schooling and health, two of the fields to which Illich directed his attention, and to the political, an issue discussed by Arendt (1990 ). The negative operation of modem institutions is to undermine the self-helping capacities and abilities of people, subordinating human productive activities to the command of professionals. Democratic autonomy is about reclaiming work form the sphere of value production and reclaiming life from professionals and the development of self-governing capacities (Gibson-Graham, et al., 2013). Like the self-valorisation idea of the Italian autonomists-Marxists and Illich’s idea of developing autonomous capacities, democratic autonomy as developed by the PKK is not so much a project of resistance, but one of building alternatives. “To be a revolutionary movement means to construct, not to destroy,” said Cemil Bayık in a recent interview (personal communication, 30-10-2014). The construction of a new society, the PKK today believes, is based on the development of new forms of administration and government beyond the existing order. As such, it does not aim at destroying the existing order, but aims at rendering it irrelevant by constructing alternatives.
This article has looked at the PKK’s understanding of radical democracy through the exploration of two of its key-concepts or projects: democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism. I did not only look at how these projects have been defined by the PKK, but also presented the concepts in a historical and comparative perspective. Concerning the historical dimension, I have showed how the ideas and practices of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism connect to a counter-current in political history, referred to as the Hellenic model. This model stands for a participatory-democratic form of politics, based on active citizenship. Concerning the contemporary dimension, I have focussed on the similarity between, on the one hand, the PKK’s ideas and practices of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism, and on the other, experiments and experiences elsewhere, referring especially to the EZLN in Mexico and MST in Brazil.
Democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism have the potential to addresses fundamental problems in representational democracy, namely the separation of people from power, the separation of people from one another and the separation of politics and power. I have explored this potential referring to the work of, among others, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Hannah Arendt and Zygmunt Bauman. I have also indicated that thinking and working along the axis of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism comes together with a rethinking of progressive politics. It is not about an either-or choice between retreat and engagement; it is a choice for transduction, connecting to existing struggles while moving towards what has not yet been actualised by enacting it.
These issues –the historical and contemporary dimensions of the PKK’s project of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism, the reconnection of people, power and politics, and the issue of transduction– have only been touched upon here. More than an elaborate treatment of the issues, this represents an outline of a possible theoretical and empirical research agenda. However, what is clear is that thinking along the lines of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism has the potential to address fundamental flaws in our contemporary polity and radicalise the idea of democracy.
Assistant Professor Joost Jongerden, Wageningen University
Please cite this publication as follows:
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See ‘A Vibrant Democracy Needs Agonistic Confrontation’ – An Interview with Chantal Mouffe. [Accessed date 6 March 2015], Available at:
- Democratic Socialism
- Democratic Modernity
- Nation State
- Democratic Confederalism
- Democratic Autonomy
- Abdullah Ocalan