By Ali Cicek
This article was first published in the March/April 2021 edition of the Kurdistan Report.
“The virus is a mirror. It shows what kind of society we live in. We live in a survival society that is ultimately based on the fear of death. Today, survival is the absolute highest thing, as if we were in a permanent state of war,” comments South Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han on society in the Corona era1. Han goes on to explain that in the face of the pandemic, we are heading toward a biopolitical surveillance regime, and in the face of this pandemic shock, the West will be forced to abandon its liberal principles. The West is thus moving toward a biopolitical quarantine society in which our freedom will be permanently restricted. The winners of these developments seem to be those who plead for more state and power. In Germany, this can be seen, among other things, in the strengthening of the right (the so-called `Querdenker`) and the left’s (in)ability to formulate criticism2. According to a study on income losses as a result of Corona, the state presents itself as the savior. Spiegel magazine, for example, ran the headline “Corona takes it, the state gives it”3. Trust in Germany’s political elites has also grown stronger, it said. “Corona was the game changer for Merkel,” according to Deutschlandfunk4. According to the report, Corona once again catapulted Chancellor Merkel’s popularity to “completely different heights.”
The problem of power and the state is also the subject of Abdullah Öcalan’s defense writings. He actively led the Kurdish liberation struggle as chairman of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from its founding in 1978 until his abduction on Feb. 15, 1999. He continues to be considered a leading strategist and one of the most important political representatives of Kurdish society. Because of his political philosophy and struggle, he has been imprisoned in almost complete isolation on Imralı prison island for 22 years. The analyses he formulated in the book “Sociology of Freedom”5 describe a similar picture to Han’s theses: “The problem of power and the state is obviously in one of its worst phases. In the age of finance capital, the most virtual monopoly of capital in Capitalist Modernity, society is undergoing a historically unprecedented disintegration. The political and moral fabric of society has been shattered. What is happening is a ‘sociocide’ – a more serious social phenomenon than genocide.” Öcalan warns that the nation-state is causing society as a whole to disappear and it is suffering a maximum loss of its political and moral character. The balance of sociocides, he says, is even worse than that of genocides, because it is reflected in the loss of the moral-political quality of society as a whole. Masses of people who do not feel any responsibility even for the most serious social and ecological catastrophes prove this.
Democratic Politics as a Vaccine in Post-Corona Times
In the face of this danger, Öcalan proposes democratic politics as a way to win freedom through the defense and organization of society: “The society that defends itself against individualism, the nation-state and the monopolies through democratic politics transforms itself into a modern democratic society by making its political fabric functional.” In the post-Corona era, where the state and power are expanding for all to see, this question of defending society is more urgent than ever. What political formations will emerge from the structural crisis of the world system in general, and the current crisis-ridden period of the post-Corona era in particular, will be determined by intellectual, political, and moral efforts. With this in mind, I would like to elaborate below on the concept of democratic politics proposed by Öcalan.
Politics as the Art of Freedom
What is politics, asks Öcalan, who in his defense writings gets to the bottom of concepts such as freedom, state, power, morality, society, democracy and peace. In his books “Beyond State, Power and Violence” and “Sociology of Freedom” in particular, he explores the question of what politics actually is and how it has developed historically. As a provider of ideas for a social movement, he also formulates political tasks for the forces of Democratic Modernity that oppose violence and capitalist exploitation.
Central to Öcalan’s concept of politics is his distinction between the state and power, which he formulates as follows: “The state means rules, while politics is creativity. The state governs the existing, politics, on the other hand, governs by creating. State is craft, politics is art.”
To make his view clearer, Öcalan lists a number of activities that he does not count as politics: State activities are not political, but administrative activities. Based on the state, politics is not made, but administered. Matters that do not affect vital social interests do not constitute politics in the true sense of the word. They take place on the level of routine matters that are handled by other social institutions. Matters that have no connection with freedom, equality and democracy are basically none of politics’ business. The opposite, however, is of fundamental concern to politics: the vital interests of society, according to Öcalan, include survival, security, food, and the freedom, equality, and democracy that are prevented by power and the state.
Political and state affairs, Öcalan says, are therefore not the same thing, but are in contradiction to each other. Politics is narrowed and weakened the more the state expands and intensifies. Öcalan’s definition of politics approximates that of Hannah Arendt, who wrote in her essay “Freedom and Politics:” “The purpose of politics is freedom.” For Öcalan, politics is the art of freedom, and democratic politics is the true school in which freedom is learned and lived. As much as social politics produces freedom, power and the state are areas where freedom disappears.
Power and Politics
In Öcalan’s works, the definition of terms takes on a central significance. According to him, without the definition of fundamental terms, there is a danger of drowning in a sea of countless individual phenomena. A great confusion of terms in the social sciences reigns here, especially in the network of relationships between power, leadership and politics. These terms are used as if they were identical and can be cited as one of the reasons for the disorientation in the social sciences of the present. For example, any (militaristic) activity of a ruling system is called politics and the political participation of citizens is reduced to elections held every four years. “When I think of the terms war, conflict and exploitation, which are almost identified with politics, I feel quite uneasy,” Öcalan writes in this context.
Öcalan’s reinterpretation of the concept of politics in the context of freedom and equality contrasts politics and power as two diametrical poles. According to him, politics must first begin as resistance against power, which is based on the exploitation and oppression of others. Since power seeks to conquer and colonize every social unit and individual, politics must seek to win and liberate every unit and individual. Since every relationship, unitary or individual, is power-related, it is also political in the opposite sense. Since the networks of power are everywhere, politics must also be resistant everywhere. Since power is based on every social unit and every individual, politics must also be based on every unit and every individual. Öcalan defines any “anti-monopolistic community” as a unit: “Every community – from the Democratic Nation to the village association, from an international confederation to the city district – is a unit. Every governing body, tribal or urban, local to national, is a unit. There can be units of two people, even of just one person, to units representing billions of people.”
Politics from a Historical Perspective
Öcalan derives his concept of politics from history. According to him, throughout the history of civilization, the dominant tendency has not been subjugation, but resistance. Among other things, in his historical perspective, he cites numerous examples of politicized cities resisting the forces of capitalist civilization, pushing back the role of politics. For example, he sees the reason for the glory of Athens and Rome in antiquity as their respective political strength. He presents Babylon, Carthage, and Palmyra as examples of a city’s independence and autonomy. In order not to come under the yoke of larger powers and states in the surrounding area, Öcalan says, these cities skillfully and masterfully pursued a policy of independence and autonomy. Öcalan also mentions the resistance of urban autonomies in the Middle Ages, writing, “We are virtually facing a starry sky full of cities that resisted great empires.” This thread of resistant urban autonomy is drawn all the way to the triumph of the centralist nation-state in the nineteenth century.
Central to the interpretation of politics is the recognition that history continues in the present. Thus, the central conclusion from historical retrospection is that there has been a continuity of local and regional autonomy politics in history and that the history of this democratic-confederal tradition even prevails. For Öcalan, there is no place where resistance, i.e. politics, has not taken place.
Politics as daily moral behavior
In Öcalan’s thinking, politics also has a moral dimension. The fundamental role of morality, he argues, is to provide society with the rules it needs to continue to exist and survive, and to give it the ability to implement them. The role of politics, on the other hand, is to provide the moral rules necessary for society and also to constantly discuss and select the means and methods for satisfying society’s basic material and spiritual needs.
Just as in the historical perspective civilization has pushed back the role of politics, Öcalan says, so in all civilized societies the sphere of social morality has been restricted and the share of law has constantly been enlarged. Just as the political capacity of society has been prevented and replaced by administration and bureaucratization, the same has been done with law versus the moral capacity by the state and power. But nevertheless, for Öcalan, it is not the state’s legal system that sustains society, but the moral element. Thus, he argues, morality is crucial to the defense and organization of society, in addition to democratic politics. Politics, in this sense, is for Öcalan “the daily education and the daily moral behavior”.
Democratic politics, Öcalan argues, therefore means the existence of a democratic atmosphere and its responsibility is to continuously develop the moral and political society. Together with democratic politics, Öcalan considers self-defense as the core of contemporary politics. He says that self-defense protects society against attacks of power on its existence, freedom and egalitarian and democratic structure. In a certain sense, it can be called the security policy of the moral and political society. However, self-defense is not limited to external attacks, such as the militarization of the nation-state or exploitation by various monopolies of power.
Öcalan draws attention to the fact that contradictions and tensions can arise at any time even in the internal structures of society: “Today we are confronted with a reality that permeates all pores of society not only from the outside but also from the inside.” In this regard, he argues, social sexism is one of the most common weapons against moral and political society, one of the ideological instruments that spread power and exploitation to every pore of society. Therefore, Öcalan sees the democratic freedom and equality movement of women as having a main role in solving the problems of society. Democratic politics is therefore only possible with the complete freedom and equality of women, the right to complete self-determination and free expression of will in all matters concerning gender.
Feminization of politics
Against ideological instruments, such as the ideology of social sexism or patriarchy, women can thus achieve a victory in the ideological field through self-defense or a women’s liberation ideology. This is because societal sexism literally besieges societies and interpersonal relationships, so that daily patriarchal violence in its various forms is considered and accepted as normal. Öcalan points out that general social freedom and equality do not always have to mean freedom and equality for women. Therefore, the formula he considers true is that the degree of freedom for women also defines the degree of freedom in society6. Specific organizing, i.e., the creation of specific democratic goals and organizations of women, is considered a prerequisite for this. In the context of politics, Öcalan writes here, “When women’s liberation tackles the political sphere, it must know that it faces the hardest struggle there. Without the knowledge of how victory in the political sphere is possible, no achievement can last. Winning in the political realm does not mean that the women’s movement is aiming for a state. On the contrary, in the struggle against hierarchical and etatist structures, it means creating political structures that are not state-fixated. It means striving for a democratic-ecological society as well as for the liberation of the sexes.”
Thus, the movement for women’s freedom has a leading role to play in democratic politics for the development of non-state political structures. A democratic women’s organization therefore includes all structures of civil society, the field of human rights, as well as local governments. One mechanism proposed by Öcalan in this context is the system of co-chairs, which, according to him, needs to be implemented within local governments and political parties. In this “feminization of politics”7beyond the increasing presence of women in decision-making processes, the way politics is practiced is changed. The goal is to shatter masculine patterns that reward behaviors such as competitiveness, urgency, hierarchy, or homogeneity. Feminized politics instead seeks to emphasize the importance of the small, the interconnected, the everyday, questioning the artificial separation between the private and the political.
Alternative System Building as the Task of Democratic Politics
So if we ask with Öcalan what democratic politics is, it is also about the question of what structures and institutions of participation and co-creation are needed in order to be able to become actors again. Öcalan also defines democratic politics as an institutional totality. The practice of democratic politics could not unfold if there were not numerous institutionalizations and activities such as parties, groups, councils, non-governmental organizations, media, rallies, and so on. In order to deal respectfully with all differences in society and to focus on equality and consensus-building, there is also a need for continuous social education work.
In the new interpretation of the concept of politics, the central task of democratic politics is an alternative system building. In the words of Öcalan, “democratic politics is the way of building democratic confederalism.” While capitalism is trying to preserve its power within the global crisis by rebuilding the nation-state, the task of the forces of democratic modernity is to build a democratic confederal system that aims to defend and develop moral and political society. In this regard, democratic politics offers every part and identity of society the opportunity to express itself and become a political force. Each community, ethnicity, culture, religious community, intellectual movement, economic unit, etc., can each autonomously structure and express itself as a political entity.
If we consider that for Öcalan politics has suffered the greatest loss in the capitalist world system and that today we are witnessing a political decay of unparalleled proportions, then democratic confederalism is the central means of repoliticizing society. Whereas capitalist modernity is always administered through instructions, democratic modernity governs by actually making policy through discussion and consensus.
Redefining Democratic Politics in the Post-Corona Era
Similar to the philosopher Han’s view of contemporary society under the conditions of a permanent state of war, Öcalan sees the character of state and power as an “iron cage” in which society is imprisoned. Accordingly, how things continue “after Corona” also depends on the extent to which democratic politics can assert itself in the face of power and the state. It is precisely in this “annus horribilis,” the Corona period marked by danger and insecurity, that the state presents itself as the only helper, which in turn, as we have explained above, can have fatal consequences. For it harbors the danger that the state of emergency can be declared the normal state. The only prevention against this is the constant development of democratic politics. In this context, Öcalan is not content with merely taking stock of the situation; with his reinterpretation of democratic politics, he argues for a paradigmatic shift in politics itself. We must not leave our political tasks to those who destroy the plurality of politics, abuse politics for their power and have developed this into a profession in order to be able to live from it. And as Hannah Arendt writes, one cannot speak of freedom without always already speaking about politics. For freedom is synonymous with democratic politics, with political action in public.
5In this third volume of his Manifesto of the Democratic Civilization, Öcalan lays out a method for solving the most pressing problems of the 21st century. The book was translated into English in 2020: http://ocalanbooks.com/#/book/the-sociology-of-freedom
6“In general, the thesis can be put forward: Social progress takes place in accordance with progress in the liberation of women, and the decline of the social order takes place in accordance with the decline of women’s freedom. The extension of woman’s prerogative is the general principle of all social progress.” Charles Fourier: Freedom in Love. Marx, to whom this formulation is often attributed, merely quotes Fourier. Murray Bookchin points this out in his major work, `The Ecology of Freedom`, to which the title of this volume refers.