[‘Dilar Dirik, Sixth New World Summit, 29–31 January 2016, Utrecht.’ Photo: New World Summit]
The late American historian and political theorist, Murray Bookchin (1921–2006), remains a prominent theorist of the peoples’ assembly. Bookchin pioneered the field of ‘social ecology,’ concerned with the inter-relations between social justice and ecological wellbeing. He considered collective face-to-face meetings as the ideal form of direct democracy, drawing from examples found in Ancient Greece, the Paris Communes and as evident in the town hall meetings of his chosen home of Vermont. Since his passing his ideas and methods have been revived through anti-capitalist social justice movements such as Occupy, who are also concerned with concentrations of power.
Bookchin was adamantly against the professionalisation of politics, representative democracy and the centralisation of government, proposing instead a model of ‘Libertarian Municipalism’ or ‘Communalism’ in which citizens’ assemblies held in neighbourhoods and municipalities would express and arrange for the peoples’ will (Bookchin 1995). Developing his concepts over a lifelong engagement with socialist movements, histories and concepts, Bookchin specified that such municipalities would not be strictly autonomous, but rather interdependent; drawing on each other to meet their needs. Effectively these ‘grass roots’ networks would act as a counterpower to defy and ultimately overcome the top-down hegemony of the nation-state. Rather than being defered to as voters in short-term personality-focused electoral campaigns, citizens would become politicised as actors in socialised collective decision-making and self-governance. It is a pragmatic theory for the devolution of centralised power that is explicitly anti-statecraft.
Interestingly, Bookchin’s ideas were adopted by Abdullah Öcalan, one of the founders of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighting for a separate Kurdish state, who has since 1999 been imprisoned in a Turkish island prison on the Sea of Marmara. Before his trial Öcalan turned away from the Marxist-Leninist ideals that informed the PKK and he has since re-interpreted Bookchin’s thoughts in a series of books written in prison that describe a democratic ideal for the Middle East. Öcalan’s theory of Democratic Confederalism (2011) is ‘The Philosophy’ that drives the Rojava revolution, in which popular assemblies held in decentralised multi-ethnic ‘cantons’ organise and guard against the development hierarchical political structures. At its outset Rojava appears anti-statist in character, however when questioned on this matter by political theorist Jodi Dean during the recent sixth New World Summit in Utrecht, Dilek Öcalan, a member of Turkey’s parliament for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and Abdullah’s niece stated:
Democratic Confederalism is not against the state, it helps the state be run more efficiently and more appropriately, in many terms and many aspects it is a way of making life easier within the state with additional attributes (Dilek Öcalan cited in New World Summit 2016, [02.40.00 in clip below]).
Janet Biehl, Bookchin’s biographer and partner who has become a keen observer and critic of Rojava, notes that Abdullah Öcalan is also ambiguous about the role of the state, observing that he has at times advocated for a ‘limited state’ to exist in parallel to the confederacies to organise functions such as public security, social security and national defense. Biehl reports Öcalan seems perplexed by his own conclusions, claiming: ‘The state remains a Janus-faced phenomenon,’ and reasons that this may be an issue of transitioning from a state-based model to democracy (Biehl 2012, p. 9). Commentators such as political theorist Richard Gunn (2015) also question Democratic Confederalism’s ability to scale-up and address more-than-local problems whilst simultaneously resisting hierarchical forms, pointing out Bookchin’s own awareness and lack of answers to such issues.
In Western Europe the prominent women who have come to represent Rojava’s anti-patriarchial stance, such as scholar and activist Dilar Dirik, claim their politics of liberation is a revolution for all, not only Kurds, and certainly their experiment in ‘stateless democracy’ resonates with separatist organisations, social-justice movements and artists alike. Rojava’s representatives perform Öcalan’s words as an ongoing living experiment in revolutionary counterpower that they are eager to proliferate across national boundaries.
Biehl, Janet, 2012. ‘Bookchin, Öcalan, and the Dialectics of Democracy’ [transcript], Challenging Capitalist Modernity–Alternative Concepts and the Kurdish Quest, 3–5 February Hamburg University [PDF].
Bookchin, Murray, 1995. ‘Libertarian Municipalism: The New Municipal Agenda (excerpts from From Urbanization to Cities),’ Anarchy Archives.
Gunn, Richard, 2015. ‘Democratic Confederalism—A Review,’ Word Power Books, 12 May.
New World Summit (NWS), 2016. ‘New World Summit Utrecht—Saturday, 30th January 2016’ [YouTube video documentation].