The theory of democratic modernity as a guide for building a new internationalism

by Aug 17, 2023All Articles, International, Middle East

The way out of global crisis requires global action. Under the hegemony of the global financial monopolies, the capitalist system is experiencing a general crisis internationally. This is happening at the same time as specific crises, such as the social and ecological. Political forces who support freedom, equality and democracy must act decisively, responsibly and comprehensively. That is the only way that this crisis will be overcome on the basis of those values. The anti-capitalist and democratic forces will have to jointly develop and put into practice global, systemic and structural forms of action and organisation for a safer, more peaceful, ecological and just world. It is becoming increasingly urgent for the forces of democratic modernity to establish an alternative.

Examination of 20th century revolutionary experiences plays an important role in the development of  the philosophy and politics of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Abdullah Öcalan. They may not have been able to realise truly independent systems in theory and practice, but they undoubtedly possess a wealth of experience. Therefore, the incorporation of real socialism, social democracy and the national liberation movements into capitalist modernity also had profound negative effect on opponents to the system. Movements incurred a loss of power. They are still in a deep crisis of confidence. According to Öcalan, the main reasons for this weakness are the anti-systemic forces’ own structural inadequacies and a flawed ideological and programmatic perspective. Postmodern, feminist, and ecological movements have recently emerged in response to these developments. Their current ideological and practical positions make it doubtful that they will be as effective as the system’s former opponents. In this context, Öcalan makes the important point that the opposition to the system needs “a radical intellectual, moral and political renewal”.

System opposition and an international democratic intervention in this phase of the system’s crisis is more necessary than ever, especially as social problems are increasingly aggravated. Capitalist modernity has been the central factor in all economic distortions and crises including: Hunger, poverty, environmental disasters, social and political class divisions, power, extreme urbanisation and all the diseases that result from it, ideological contortions – and the particular ugliness that results from the distortion of the arts, and moral impoverishment and decay that have resulted from this over the last four hundred years.

However, both the left of former days, which gave rise to real socialism and the New Left, ecological, and feminist movements of more recent times, as well as the World Social Forums, are far from being able to grasp and overcome the chaos. Here, Öcalan asks “what kind of a world did the ‘club of the rich’ – the World Economic Forum in Davos – on the one hand, and the ‘club of the poor’ – the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre – on the other hand, visualise? These shallow discussions never got beyond the necessities of the day.” He attests the lack of systematic and theoretical far-sightedness on both sides as a central reason for the limited discussions. According to Öcalan, the proponents of freedom and equality have neither the knowledge nor the necessary structures to successfully transform the crisis into a democratic, sustainable and liberatory awakening.

In his book Beyond State, Power and Violence, Öcalan states that the first basic prerequisite for the development of general theoretical perspectives is “to say farewell to old theories and tactics that focus on ruling power and finding a solution by either ‘destroying or seizing the state’”. As a fundamental perspective, he formulates “revealing the consciousness and will of the people and all the groups that constitute the people based on their self-identity and culture and researching, organising, and putting into action local and transnational solutions.”

While capitalist modernity bases its existence on capitalism, industrialism and nation-statism, democratic modernity bases its counter-system on democratic socialism, eco-industry and democratic confederalism. It develops its alternative through its ecological and feminist characteristics that are open to diverse multicultural, non-monopolistic political structures, as well as with an economic structure that meets basic social needs and is controlled by the community.

Democratic confederalism of democratic modernity is the political alternative to the nation-state of capitalist modernity. The democratic confederal system can also be defined as a non-state political form of governance. Central to this is the differentiation between democracy and the state: “The democratic confederalist system is democratic modernity’s counterpart of the nation-state, the main state form of official modernity. We can define this as a form of non-state political governance. It is this characteristic that makes the system so specific. We must not confuse democratic steering with that of the state’s administrative bodies. States administer; democracies steer. States rest on power, democracies rest on collective approval. In states, appointments are essential; in democracies, elections are central. In states obligation is essential; democracies run on voluntarism.”

Öcalan summarises several features that characterise democratic confederalism. On this basis, the first characteristic of democratic confederalism he mentions is its openness to different multilayered political structures. Horizontal and vertical political structures as well as central, local, and regional political structures relate to each other within a balance. Cultures, ethnic and national identities have the natural right to express themselves in political structures. Secondly, democratic confederalism is based on moral and political society: “Social forms that consist of capitalist, feudal, industrialist, consumerist, and other template projects based on social engineering are seen in the context of capitalist monopolies. While such societies don’t actually exist, their propaganda does. Societies are basically political and moral. Economic, political, ideological, and military monopolies are apparatuses gnawing away at the fundamental nature of society, chasing after surplus value and social tributaries. They have no intrinsic value. Even a revolution cannot create a new society. Revolutions can only play a positive role as an operation to restore the worn-out and lapsed moral and political fabric to its proper function.” Thirdly, it is based on democratic politics, which is defined as the “true art of freedom” and the “true school where freedom is learned and lived”. Central to this are council structures in which discussions take place and decisions are made: “There is no room for a leadership that acts as it wishes. From a general coordinating body (assembly, commission, congress) to local bodies, the democratic governance and supervision of social affairs are carried out by a bouquet of bodies that seek unity in diversity and are multi-structured in a way that suits the composition of all groups and cultures.” Fourth, democratic confederalism is based on self-defence. Not as a military monopoly, but under the tight control of democratic organs in accordance with society’s internal and external security needs. The task of the self-defence units is to validate the will of democratic politics. Fifth, there is no place in democratic confederalism for hegemony of any sort – particularly ideological hegemony. Democratic civilisations and democratic modernity do not tolerate hegemonic powers and their ideologies. Collective management of social affairs requires mutual understanding, respect for different proposals, and commitment to democratic decision-making. While the concepts of general governance regarding classical civilisation, capitalist modernity, and the nation-state overlap, there are major differences and far-reaching contradictions between these concepts and those embraced by democratic civilisation and democratic modernity. Succinctly put, what underlies the differences and contradictions is bureaucratic and arbitrary governance, on one side, and democratic moral leadership, on the other. There can be no ideological hegemony in democratic confederalism, instead pluralism is even valid among different views and ideologies. As long as society’s moral and political structure is not worn-out and hegemony is not sought, every opinion, idea, or belief can be freely expressed. Sixth, democratic confederalism “favours a World Democratic Confederal Union of national societies, as opposed to the union of nation-states under the control of super-hegemonic power (editors note: the USA) in the United Nations. For a safer, more peaceful, more ecological, more just, and more productive world, we need a quantitatively and qualitatively strengthened union of much broader communities based on the criteria of democratic politics in a World Democratic Confederation.”

The above characteristics of democratic confederalism are important principles for the internationalism of democratic modernity. Accordingly, World Democratic Confederalism includes various horizontal and vertical political structures, but it stands against rigid centralism, which Öcalan calls “a disease of nation-state thinking”. Since societies and their political structures are not homogeneous, but consist of numerous communities, institutions and diversities, it is the duty of democratic confederalism to guarantee and maintain a harmonious coexistence. An extremely centralist government often causes explosions in democratic units. In this context, Öcalan refers to historical examples and emphasises that “the main reason for the disintegration of real socialism was its quick replacement of confederalism, which was high on the agenda at the beginning of the Soviet Russian experiment, with a centralised state. The reason that national liberation movements were unsuccessful and were quickly corrupted is closely linked to the fact that they did not develop democratic politics and confederalism. The lack of success of revolutionary movements over the last two hundred years is also because they considered the nation-state to be more revolutionary and regarded democratic confederalism as a backward political form, and thus opposed it.” The same principles of organisation and governance that are central to all other processes in democratic modernity therefore apply to the construction of World Democratic Confederalism. “Rigid centralism and a hierarchical chain of command in organisation and administration are inimical to the organisational and governance principles of units of democratic modernity.” Öcalan explains.

Instead, “democratic politics is the way to build democratic confederalism”. Democratic politics offers each identity within and part of society the opportunity to express itself and become a political force. In the world of democratic modernity, mono-chromaticity is regarded as ugly, boring, and impoverished. The multicolours of a kaleidoscope, on the other hand, are associated with abundance, resilience, and beauty. Each of these autonomous units, from the local to the global, have the possibility of forming a confederation. The basic element of the local is the right to free discussion and the right of decision. A political functionality ranging from local unity, where direct democracy is practised and lived, to the global structure can be called democratic politics. Öcalan demands to think of the federal units in a very comprehensive way: “It is important to understand that even a village or district will need confederal units, and every village and district can easily be a confederal unit. For example, numerous direct-democratic units, from the ecological unit (or federal unit) to the units of free women, self-defence, youth, education, folklore, health, mutual aid, and even the economic, must join together at the village level. We can simply call this new ‘unit of units’ a confederal unit (the unit of federal units) or confederal union. If we take the same system to the local, regional, national, and global levels, we can easily see what a comprehensive system democratic confederalism is.”

A central prerequisite for democratic politics is a broad field of organisation. “It is important to always keep in mind that democratic politics require competent cadre, media, political party organisations, and civil society organisations, as well as continuous education and propaganda.” Features of successful democratic politics that are also crucial to the inner workings of organisation and society include; an overall respect for diversity within society as a basis for equality and reconciliation, a rich and courteous open discussion, political courage, the prioritising of morality, a comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand, a grasp of both the history and present, and a holistic and scientific approach.

The dimension of self defence, referred to as the “security policy of a moral and political society”, is also very important in this framework. It does not simply mean the military defence of societies, but is linked to the protection of identities, the guarantee of politicisation and the realisation of democratisation. Öcalan points out: “For every hegemonic network (commercial, financial, industrial, and ideological monopolies, as well as monopolies of power and nation-state), democratic modernity must develop the equivalent confederal networks of democratic politics and self-defence.” However, contradictions and tensions can also arise within internal structures of society. Since societies have long been permeated by class and power, they will retain their power-oriented characteristics and approaches both externally and internally for a long time. Therefore, self-defence will also continue to occupy an important place on the agenda for (World) Democratic Confederalism for a long time.

In the theory of democratic modernity, internationalism takes on a new meaning. Democratic modernity or its democratic confederalist form of governance actively prevents the formation of hegemony. In the system of democratic confederalism, only solidarity based relations and alliances are to emerge on the basis of social freedom, equality and democracy. The understanding of internationalism in the theory of democratic modernity overcomes the local and temporal limitation of socialism, i.e. the focussing of the revolutionary subject on one region or social group. “Instead of seeing socialism only as a project or programme for the future, it is necessary to conceive of it as a moral and political way of life that liberates the present, strives for equality and justice, and has aesthetic value. Socialism is a conscious way of life that expresses the truth,” Öcalan explains. Internationalism is ultimately a practical attitude and way of living life itself that cannot be postponed into the future. It is a relationship that is established at every moment, not only in times of war, or when the threat of war is looming, or in times of economic crisis. It is a moral and political way of life and collectivity between all participants. It is a relationship that emerges in communities and councils, not only in critical and difficult times, and is lived out wherever and whenever those involved need it. If the forces of democratic modernity succeed in approaching each other and building relationships with each other on the basis of democratic modernity’s understanding of internationalism, an internationalist force and long-term institutionalisation can emerge that can provide an alternative to capitalist modernity, and develop approaches to solutions for the respective social problems in each country.


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