1 Uninspired and liberal people around and the world are tempted to conclude, since neither unregulated neo-liberal capital : markets nor a fully planned capi- talism are able to provide a humane Thoughts about economic and social system, the obvious solution must lay somewhere in between my time with the those two extremes. However, in order to see the obvious solution one has to economic com- leave the straight imaginative line that stretches in people´s heads all the way mittee in Rojava from the “free-market” on the one side till the fully planned real-so- cialist economy on the other side. In- stead, we simply need to remind In the following I will give a short in- ourselves that the sake of economy is to sight about my experiences during the “fulfill the needs of society”. And who time with the economic committee of knows best how to fulfill their own the cantons of Qamişlo and Hasakah in needs? The people themselves. There- Rojava, North-East Syria. I will espe- fore, the only reasonable way to build cially focus on the economy up an alternative economy seems to be that is being built up in Rojava. As a for the people to take back their means second step, I will discuss to what ex- of production. Which necessarily results tend cooperatives can be part of a revo- in the build-up of an economy based on lutionary strategy around the world. structures like cooperatives.

To begin with, I invite you to think What is a cooperative? As the name about the primal purpose of all eco- suggests, a cooperative is about cooper- nomic activity. A definition used in ation. People cooperate instead of com- Wikipedia describes economy as “the in- peting against each other. The two most stitutions and actions that serve the distinguished hard-requirements of a systematic satisfaction of society´s cooperative are that the means of pro- needs”. It is evident that the capitalist duction are owned by the members of economy has been failing miserably to the cooperation and the decisions are meet the needs of society. It is clear debated and decided collectively and that the in the democratically. On top of this, new hand of private capital result in poverty, forms of (re)production, relationships postcolonial structures and environmen- and community need to be developed at tal destruction that puts our very exis- the same time since cooperatives should tence in danger. Even though the never be limited to address only eco- centralized real-socialist may nomic forms of oppression. have achieved to establish a society with less material inequality, their attempts to outrace the capitalist mode of pro- duction were not able to overcome the unhealthy human-nature relationship of capitalist modernity. It showed that a state-capitalist production contradicts an economy according to society´s needs, as well.

2 stresses the importance of building up Democratic Con- alternatives in the here and now, as a passage of the Manifesto of the Youth and describes: “Today, however, the buildup Cooperatives precedes the resistance. Wherever there is the opportunity, buildup is realized Here, in North-East Syria, widely immediately. If there is an attack, it will known as Rojava, the new paradigm of be defended.” the Kurdish Freedom Movement, Demo- cratic Confederalism, proposed by Ab- The economic committee of North and dullah Öcalan, is being built up. East Syria releases regulations of the cooperatives which depict the basic ide- ological principles concerning the imple- mentation of the cooperative economy as well as concrete rules that are sup- posed to prevent the cooperative princi- ples to fade away and suggest how a democratic organization involving dif- ferent committees within the coopera- tives as well as assemblies on a regular basis can be put into practice:

According to these regulations, the role of the cooperatives are closely linked to the true meaning of economics discussed

If society wants to continue its existence, it has to restore the above: “The fulfillment of the basic communal economy as its foundation. needs of the society and the harmony with the environment are taken as a ba- sis in all the activities of the coopera- In accordance to this alternative to the tives.” predominant capitalist modernity, the Rojava revolution has gained worldwide Furthermore, “Cooperatives, in their attention by emphasizing womens’ lib- daily life and work need to fight against eration, and social sexism in an effective way. A division of as the main pillars of the revo- labor, which removes the burdens im- lution. Another principle of democratic posed on women and promotes women's modernity is a communal economy will is the aim. Cooperatives pave the based on ecological industry and - way for women to become more actively eratives. For this reason, the Autono- involved in social and economic life. In mous Administration of North and East cooperative work, women's law is taken Syria does not only support any project as the basis in matters relating to to build up a cooperative with financial women.” and material means, but also actively visits different neighborhoods, villages The goal of the cooperatives is “to build and families every day in order to dis- a spirit of social responsibility for the cuss about the principles of a communal development of a moral and political economy and about how a local coop- society, making themselves the founda- erative could be established in this par- tions.” as well as “The production of the ticular place. The paradigm of basic necessities of society according to Democratic Confederalism especially the conditions of the war economy”. 3 The general assembly of any cooperative ing into practice. In many other regions is meeting at least every 3 month. In of the world, including the Middle East, the assembly other responsibilities, like however, this image of humanity does the administration, finance and archive not resemble the mindset and reality of committee as well as the monitoring the people. Here in North-East Syria for committee, which monitors if the princi- instance, nobody can tell me how many ples of the cooperative are being ad- individual people life in their village or hered to, are elected. are part of the cooperative. The unit that is being used is almost always the The income of a cooperation are distrib- family. Therefore, it makes more sense uted as follows: 5% go to the union of to speak of the family as economic and cooperatives, 25% will go to the funds societal subject (as opposed to object!). of this cooperative that can be used to expand and develop further cooperative The majority of cooperatives in Rojava activities and the remaining 70% will be are agricultural cooperatives planting open for the assembly to decide, typi- crops, vegetables and fruits. However, cally it will be distributed among the there are also cooperatives involved in members. The exact numbers, just like livestock (sheep, cow, chicken) and vari- most of these guidelines, are not fixed in ous low intensive production and ser- a dogmatic way and may be adjusted vices like bakeries, restaurants, (cloth) after discussions according to different shops, tailoring, hairdressing, sewing, situations. What can not be changed salt production and electricity. For pro- however, is the rule that maximal 5% duction-cooperatives outside of the should go to the regional structure (co- agricultural sector that involve more operative union): It may be less, but complex and technology-intensive pro- not more, in order to guarantee auton- cesses, the two limiting factors are at omy. times the lack of know-how about the concrete production process, but even more importantly, the unavailability of the necessary equipment and machinery. This is a direct result of the inner-state Cooperatives in colonialist economic policies against this region from the regime in the past as Practice well as of the embargo today. As a con- crete example, in recent months there Mainstream economic theory of capital- were some women who wanted to start ist modernity, the hidden ideological a cooperative for the production of justification for oppressive and imperial- socks but have not found a way to or- ist policies of nation states around the ganize the necessary tools yet. Gener- world, views the (egoistic) individual as ally, the cooperatives are directly the main economic object. Even diverse connected to the of the neigh- groups are being simplified as acting in borhood or the village or even to several the interest of one rational individual. . This assures that their ac- This is no surprise considering that this tivity is in the interest of the local pop- theory is predominantly made up by ulation. Western, white males. Within their soci- eties, they have indeed succeeded to a During my time with the economic large extend to put their conception of committee in Hasakeh, I was able to be the human being as “naturally” acting part of the initial process of establishing individualistically and utility-maximiz- a new cooperative from scratch. As a 4 first step, we visited one family in a of Mardin in Northern Kurdistan. Even small village in between the ancient set- though we were all tired, our mood was tlement of Tell Beydar and the border- pleased with the prospect of a new co- town Dirbêsiyê. While enjoying the operative about to enrich the Rojava obligatory tea, we asked the family plains. about their assessment for the prospects of building up a cooperative with the whole village - would the other villagers On a different day we attended a meet- agree? On this day, to get a first over- ing of a cooperative that is composed of view and set off the discussion, we only 51 families from 8 different villages. We asked about the circumstances that gathered in one of the villages under- could be relevant: What is the situation neath a row of olive trees which are of the land? Do the villagers already older than any of the present members. own the land around their village? Are enough people permanently present in the village to do physical work on the field? How is the water situation? Etc. We exchanged numbers and asked the family to organize a meeting with the whole village in a few days. About a week later, we returned to the village where everyone was already awaiting us. After shortly explaining why we suggest the village to start this project to all villagers and a few ques- tions had been answered, they began to discuss amongst each other about the Some members of the joint cooperative sitting underneath olive next steps to take. The self-administra- trees while discussing the hardships and listening to our tion only wants to act as a facilitator. If proposal for a sustainable long-term solution: Autonomy. necessary, the administration will pro- vide seeds, help with the construction of wells or improve the electricity supply. The cooperative repays the support re- These villages are jointly running an ceived by the self-administration. How- , mostly in- ever, there is no such thing as interest volved in wheat plantation. The rates and in case the cooperative has is- medium-term goal of these villages sues to repay (for example due to a bad though, is to start a second cooperative harvest or burned fields) they are not that would produce shoe strings. On forced to pay back the funds or pay this day however, the discussion was back in later years. In this village how- mostly about the general role and the ever, the infrastructure for basic agricul- support of the self-administration. Soon ture was available. In the end, the after the meeting started, some mem- village agreed on 3 persons that will bers reported about the difficulties and take the responsibility for initiating the hardships they face in their everyday process and gathering the knowledge life. One member explained that the about crops and techniques. We agreed road that connects the villages to the to meet again in 2-3 weeks. By the time next town is in a very bad condition, we headed back towards Hasakeh, it was they also lack clean water and electric- already dark and in the distance we ity. An old man added that they have could see the glittering lights of the city problems with an overpopulation of

5 rabbits and difficulties to find trans- of the cooperative and the strengthening portation for their children to get to of the communal spirit among the vil- school. lagers and between villages, we can take our future in our own hands. While a However, practically speaking, the Au- basic infrastructure is obviously neces- tonomous Administration does not have sary to maintain the daily work of a co- the agency to quickly solve fundamental operative, following a cooperative issues that effect the entire region like strategy with foresight will also improve the issue of water. The water shortage the general conditions of those villages. for instance, is a direct result of the This starts with the financial or mate- massive, environmentally disastrous rial independence that can be achieved dam construction of the Turkish state in when the cooperative can provide the North Kurdistan during the last decades subsistence for families but also includes which significantly reduced the water autonomy that can be gained in the flow into Syria and the Middle East in fields of self-defense or education general, as well as the direct effect of through organization. Furthermore, as more recent war crimes of the Turkish explained in the principles above, the state and its Islamist gangs, namely the earnings of the cooperative are to a targeted bombing of a vital water pipe- large part reinvested and used for com- line and the restriction of water supply munal projects. Hence, the commune from the occupied areas. will sit together and discuss what More importantly, we generally had to project is most needed for society. lower the expectations of some of the Those particular villages may decide to cooperative members and explained provide a regular school bus service or that we as the representatives from the repair the roads, for instance. Like this economic committee cannot bring them we tried to draw a future path that is a ready-made solution for all current worth struggling for. In this sense, the hardships of their communes. Instead, role of the self-administration is primar- our approach was to try to convince the ily to support the cooperative on the villagers that the only sustainable long tough way towards success. term solution is to reach self-sufficiency, which means to become as independent While the middle-term goal of estab- as possible of the support of the self-ad- lishing cooperatives all over North and ministration for fixing their issues and East Syria is definitely to reach self-suf- overcome the state mentality. Especially ficiency for the material needs of soci- considering the unstable political and ety, the deeper purpose that necessarily military situation that we are experienc- goes hand in hand with the first aim, is ing right now in the Middle East and in to facilitate the restoration of communal particular in North and East Syria with life. Every single cooperative is a seed the constant threat of local as well as for a new communal economy. A com- global powers, one should not rely on mittee member at the union of coopera- the availability of external support. The tives in Qamişlo confirmed my conditions surely become even harsher assumption that the most difficult part in the worst case that the land of the in the process of building up this alter- villages falls into the hands of Islamist native economy is to change the mindset terrorist groups, warlords or fascist of society. In contrast to most societies states again. in the Western hegemony, for instance, the most difficult part may not even be Therefore, we tried to convince the to overcome the harm of , members that through the amplification which has not managed to infiltrate the

6 society in the Middle East to that ex- points and we tried to clarify open tent. Instead, a frequent obstacle for questions. Just before sunset, we took a own initiative is a feudal mentality that walk towards the cooperative´s fields has been internalized over years of op- and tried some of the first watermelon pression. In order to provide an alterna- of the season. Besides the typical fruits tive perspective, the committee of and especially vegetables, this coopera- economy regularly visits cooperatives to tive has also gained some experience in initiate education and discussion about the plantation of jute, which may play a the ideological basis of the cooperative larger role in the agricultural coopera- economy and the life in general that tives in the future which I will explain thrives towards Democratic Modernity. below. The education among the cooperative One day we visited a relatively young members is not only seen as a an im- cooperative in a mostly Arabic village portant part of building up a coopera- south-west of Hasakeh on the way to- tive in the beginning. Instead, it is used wards Raqqa for the purpose of educa- as a constant tool to keep improving tion. according to the cooperative values. Responding to the question how we can prevent cooperatives in North and East Syria from falling back into feudalistic or capitalist mentalities, like many at- tempts around the world have done, a member of the House of cooperatives answered:

“You have to renew yourself continu- ously. Water that flows continuously is always clean. Water that stays in the same place and doesn't renew itself be- gins to rot and becomes polluted. How While the tomatoes a cooperative member observes in the do we renew ourselves? Through prac- picture were not ripe yet, the watermelons were delicious. The tice and education. It is not the case dry surroundings give a hint of the importance of water in the that someone gets an education then region. goes into practice, no, education contin- ues with practice. So as long you don't cut yourself off from your population Not all of us from the economic com- and continue education you will always mittee (including me) are able to com- have this system of discussing your ex- municate in Arabic, but since a society perience and deciding what step to take with three official languages is used to next. With your population, you are translation and mediation between dif- continuously renewing yourself and are ferent languages, the language barrier able to fight stagnation and the road seemed not to be a big obstacle. The that leads to capitalism.” topic of this day was the value and meaning of our land. After checking up As mentioned above in the principles of on the general situation of the village cooperatives and as a fundamental pillar and the cooperative in particular, we of Democratic Confederalism, ecology is started with the theoretical input. Even a central point for cooperatives in though an intensive debate did no fol- North-East Syria, as well. While ecology low, some members added their view- is a central part in the ideological edu-

7 cation in order for society to regain its regime, which has a huge water and close connection and harmony with na- pesticide consumption. Since the self- ture, there are also some concrete mate- administration was established, the cul- rial steps taken within the work of tivation of cotton has already been re- cooperatives. One central aim is to over- duced for these ecological reasons. come the extensive mono-culture of grain that was imposed on the people of Cooperatives are also seen as an oppor- North-East Syria by the regime. tunity to enhance intercultural and in- ter-religious exchange and understanding. Due to the diverse pop- ulation such encounters automatically happen in most cooperatives around North East Syria. However, in the countryside of Hasakeh for instance, a new project of the self-administration to facilitate a multicultural society is put into practice at the moment. The con- cept is to build a small village with an agricultural cooperative, making use of the direct surrounding land.

These are the yute plants that this cooperative is cultivating this year. This particular species are used as food and not construction material, however.

Newly founded, as well as already estab- lished agricultural cooperatives, are therefore encouraged to, in case they still decide to grow grain after all, only plant as much as is necessary for their own bread. Instead, the focus of produc- tion should shift towards fruits and veg- etables since the self-administration still One of the stone houses that is being built for the families to has to import these basic nourishment in soon. from other regions. At the same time, there are very interesting on-going de- This village is constructed completely bates about introducing new or only new for displaced families and the rarely used crops that could also pro- unique detail is that families of different vide non-food material and thereby ethnicity and religions are put together booster the regions economic autonomy. deliberately. The first time I visited this One proposal in this direction suggests place, the well, provided by the eco- to spread plants like jute which yields nomic committee, was already used to 100% biodegradable fibers that can be water nearby vegetables of the coopera- used to produce textiles, ropes and vari- tive. As of now, only one of the three ous other materials and has low pesti- families (Arab Muslim, Kurdish Ezidi & cide and fertilizer needs. This could Syriac Christian) that are supposed to especially be an alternative to cotton, initially start the project are living at one of the few other crops that have the place and so far they only life in a been cultivated in the region under the temporary tent. When we visited them

8 a while later 2 stone houses had already we ended up finding a suitable one. been build up and the second family These cooperative markets, which will was expected to move in within the next be stores run in a cooperative way, as days. the name suggests, will not only be a place for the local cooperatives to sell One concept that is in the process of their products. Likewise, local farmers planning in some areas while already that have difficulties to sell their harvest implemented in other cities is the idea will also have the opportunity to sell of a cooperative market, that allows their products. Furthermore, it is surrounding cooperatives to sell their planned that as another step also prod- products.During an assembly with a ucts from cooperatives operating in dif- large joint cooperative of 3 villages and ferent regions will be offered. This around 300 families north-west of Tirbe- would provide the basis for a coopera- spî, this was also discussed as a pro- tive trade of different goods between posal. Last season this cooperative had different regions. Besides providing a the problem, that they harvested more place for cooperatives to sell their prod- than they could use themselves and sell ucts centrally and creating more coop- in the local places. This led to some of erative work places, the main advantage their vegetables turning bad. In order to of the concept of a cooperative market prevent this in the future, the assembly is that there is no intermediate trader took the decision to invest a part of that will charge an extra fee. Therefore, their earnings from last year into a the general society will also benefit be- fridge for storing vegetables. In addi- cause cooperatives can provide lower tion, we suggested to open a cooperative prices than the general market. The co- market in the nearby town of Tirbespî operative markets will only amplify this in order to be able to sell all their veg- advantage and can be an important step etables to society. to bypass the logic of profit-driven mar- kets.

Among the cooperatives of North-East Syria that I have seen, there are some in which the responsibility to be a driving factor of women liberation has been put into practice and the involvement of women has been fully realized. In other regions, especially in the southern areas where feudal and patriarchal influence has been stronger, which is no surprise considering that some of those regions have only been liberated from the cru- The cooperative members are discussing a solution to for their cial rule of the so called Islamic State in storage problem. The elected administration is moderating very recent years, the inclusion of together with a representative of the the cooperative union on women is progressing slower. At one co- Qamişlo. operative meeting for instance, the women were mostly sitting on the floor A similar project is currently being im- next to the male members that were plemented in Hasakeh. For this market sitting on chairs. In other occasions only we scouted different abandoned build- very few women were present at all. In ings around the city, most of them were situations like this we try to encourage at least partly damaged by the war, but the participation of women in a twofold

9 approach: In the described case for in- The policy about work in this coopera- stance, one committee member rhetori- tive is organized according to the motto: cally asked: “Do the women not know ”Everyone according to their ability”. how to do agriculture?” - trying to play- Which implies that the work does not fully point to the fact that women are have to be hard work on the field in sitting at the side during the meeting, case of illnesses or a general physical taking care of the children. At the same weakness. The biggest difficulty this co- time however, we later also took the operative is facing is the embargo that time to explain and discuss in detail is put onto the autonomous region by why the participation of women is vital all surrounding nation states. The em- for the common life, the cooperative bargo does not allow them to import and this revolution. important parts to repair their tractor for example. Just like in other aspects of life in Ro- java, also the economy has an autono- mous women section (aboriya jin). Earlier this year, I was part of a delega- tion where we had the chance to visit two cooperatives of the autonomous women economy. One of them is an agricultural cooperative not far from Tirbespî, which aside from the cultiva- tion of a great variety of vegetables and fruits also includes some animal farming Members of the cooperative are fixing young vegetables. In this like sheep and goats. When this cooper- women cooperative actually also some men are working. ative first started, they payed out wages However, only as part of a member family- no “single” men to the members. Nowadays however, can become members. they have overcome the classical salary system and instead distribute the prod- ucts and the earnings gained from sell- ing their products on the local market. The other cooperative is located in While there are some cooperatives Tirbespî itself. This autonomous women where each member (family) receives cooperative produces several different the same share of the return or harvest, jams and canned vegetables. Some of this cooperative decided to allocate the the women had earlier worked for an according to the specific NGO but now earn more money at the needs. Even if two members do the cooperative while others were stuck in same work for instance, the member their homes before and experience whose family consists of 5 children re- working with the cooperative also as a ceives accordingly more than the other tool of empowerment. The responsible member with only 2 children. This person from the women economy ex- shows that the cooperatives can decide plained that in one year one of their autonomously in their assembly how to machines broke and they could not pay structure their cooperative as long as any wages. At least, she argued, this they stick to the basic framework. This was helpful for the members to realize cooperative is organizing through a that this is their own project and not a weekly Tekmil (report&reflection) and a normal wage labor. And in the following monthly general assembly as well as a years they were able to increase their monthly education, either work related earnings. or on an ideological level.

10 An interest insight of those visits was also that both cooperatives are closely Other work of linked to each other since the agricul- tural cooperative directly produces some the economic of the raw products (fruits/vegetables) committee for the cooperative producing jam and other canned food. Especially confronted with the reality of Comparing the cooperatives of the an ongoing war, a huge inflation crises women structure and the general eco- due to international sanctions targeting nomic structure, it made the impression the Assad-regime that hit the self-ad- to me that the women cooperatives were ministration just as hard as well as a better organized and generally more strict embargo in all directions, the top elaborated which results in a productive priority that the Autonomous Adminis- outcome and quicker material and ideo- tration has put for itself is to secure ba- logical improvements on the one hand sic provision of nutrition to prevent but also has a greater danger of resem- people from starving. Even though co- bling some traps of western coopera- operatives are well suitable to fulfill this tives. The cooperatives of the general role, the targeted expansion of the self- structure had less influence from the initiative of society to build up cooper- economic committee which may lead to atives is not enough yet, therefore the more independence and autonomy and a self-administration is running several communal spirit on the one hand but fields of production. may explain that their structure and or- ganization seem sometimes more loose One example are the crop silos. During and less focused. the harvesting season I spent a week at various silos in the Qamişlo canton. The Considering that especially for the administration buys the crops directly women structure my insight was very from the farmers and later distributes it limited this comparison may be rather to different bakeries etc. In order to arbitrary. Therefore, instead of conclud- provide some financial security to the ing that the women cooperatives are farmers in times of a highly volatile generally better organized but less inde- Syrian pound, the price for crops has pendent, I rather want to stress that co- been pegged to the US dollar. I asked operatives in North-East Syria develop several of the employees at the silos quite differently according to their local about their situation. Most of them circumstances (village/city, type of have been working at this place for at product, activity of committee) but least 25 years - most of the time for the most importantly, according to the will regime, in recent years for the self-ad- of their members. ministration.

They told me that compared to working for the regime, their working hours have reduced significantly which gives them time to be with their families. In addi- tion, nowadays food and drinks are pro- vided for them.

In front of the gates of the crop silos there were endless lines of trucks wait- 11 ing every day, loaded until the very top ability of basic food are the “Newroz” with the fresh harvest, for their turn to stores in every city where food and weigh and sell their crops. Sometimes other basic household products are sold the mood among the farmers was quite for affordable prices. During times of tense, everyone wanted to be next in intensification of the constant crisis like line. Even though waiting for hours in during the outbreak of the Coronavirus, the hot sun may have explained some of the self-administration additionally the temper, the underlying reason was gives out free food-packages for poor most probably the generally difficult families. economical situation that further inten- sified after the US had introduced new Another task of the economic committee sanctions a few days before. is to prevent individuals to take advan- tage of a situation of crises by offering overpriced goods. Independent of the current crisis, the committee also works in order to prevent monopolies from es- tablishing or maintaining their presence in North-East Syria. Private enterprises are still existing in North and East Syria and there are also no plans to ex- propriate the owners of the small retail shops that are the most visible economic activity within the cities of North-East Syria, for instance.

Furthermore, private ownership is pro- After the quality check the harvest is dropped into an pit tected according to Aricel 41 of the so- underneath the ground from where it is moved into the big cial contract that was declared in 2014. Silos by electronic suction control. The same article also states however, that private may be deprived Overall however, the harvest this year for the sake of social interest. The goal was nearly twice as high as last year. of the economic philosophy of North While last year entire areas of crop and East Syria is to put private prop- fields were burned down by Islamist erty in the service of society. What this gangs ( ISIS sleeper cells and others) in means in practice has to be ascertained order to weaken the autonomous organi- with the experience on the ground. One zation of the people in North and East of the more obvious conclusions is that Syria, these terrorist attacks have been any kind of monopoly will be prevented. greatly reduced this year with the huge dedication of the volunteer Social De- One day a worker of the economic com- fence Forces (Hêzên Parastina Civakî - mittee returned to Qamişlo from a HPC). meeting in another city and brought back 2 bottles of the same fruit juice They kept watch and ward of their local and two different receipts. He showed us fields around the clock and thereby se- that at one town he payed almost three cured the subsistence for thousands of times as much for the exact same juice farmers and the nutrition for all people compared to the other town. He told me of North and East Syria. that they will try to talk to the owner of the store to adjust his prices to a Another example to provide the avail- reasonable level.

12 In general, the economic-committee is Cooperatives as a constantly working on plans and several project for the future such as the recy- revolutionary cling of cow and chicken manure to gain methane and biological fertilizer and strategy - facing many more projects to foster the transi- tion towards an ecological and social capitalist moder- economy in the midst of the ongoing war. nity

The idea to start building up socialist elements withing capitalism through co- operatives, often accompanied by some kind of (con-)federal unionism, is not new. This strategy may indeed sound tempting in theory. However, estimates suggest that today there exist already up to 3 million cooperatives with nearly one billion members worldwide, there- fore 12 % of humanity is claimed to be involved in cooperatives, also in many centers of capitalist modernity coopera- tives are formally a part of economic re- Another preoccupation of the economic committee is to ality. The International Labor rebuild and maintain the basic infrastructure as a basis for Organization (ILO) even claims that further work: This picture was taken in the countryside of Al- 50% of the world´s agriculture outcome Hole where we were examining the remains of the a water is marketed through cooperatives. If all channel providing water for the city before ISIS deliberately this is true and cooperatives are sup- destroyed it as a tool of warfare. The plan is to rebuilt the posed to be the solution for an economy water system and we were trying to figure out which route based on democracy, why is the world has priority. not a better place yet? Is it just because the current does not provide the necessary conditions for co- operatives to show their actual poten- tial?

Anyway, it seems obvious that only a small part of those statistics accounts for “true” cooperatives that are not yet integrated into the capitalist mode of production. In addition, it seems like the ILO counts every field that is not in the hand of a big international firm a cooperative. Closely related, for our main issue more importantly however, is the question why has the significant ex- istence of cooperatives across different regions and times often not led to any revolutionary movement or at least po- 13 litical organizing? Is there something position and even creates their own fundamentally flawed with the idea of opposition to later use them to delegit- cooperatives as a key to overcome capi- imise any true opposition. Following the talism? The fact that many liberal west- same logic, there is also the danger that ern scientists and organizations like the assimilated cooperatives even help to UN are proposing to foster cooperatives, prolong the survival of the capitalist as well, is another reason for doubt. system. What is there interest? Will coopera- tives even be used to stabilize the cur- By providing help in the adaption to rent power structures? necessary reforms and time trends like the consideration of ecological aspects One thing that is certain is that we will or giving employees a voice on the sur- not overcome capitalism by simply face level without touching fundamental adding cooperatives. We do not even contradictions, assimilated political have to talk about stateist, financial or movements, including cooperatives, international power structures that will make capitalism more resilient against rather sooner than later prevent society critique and attacks. from taking the majority of the econ- omy, including the core industries, un- Therefore, many fellows argue that for der their control: The current owners allowing cooperatives to take the role of and profiteers of the means of produc- leading us towards a serious alternative tions do not even have to actively inter- to capitalist modernity, they need to be fere into the potential danger of embedded in a profound revolutionary cooperatives taking over, since those al- strategy. Before a revolutionary situa- ternative economic institutions simply tion, cooperatives may only be able to get absorbed by the system as soon as play the role of preparing, educating they reach a considerable size or influ- and building up a minimum of alterna- ence. A very good example is the tive structure, so that we do not have to Basque cooperative Mondragón, which start from zero as soon as the opportu- is taken as an example that coopera- nity to challenge dominant power struc- tives can work well even on a large tures realizes. Furthermore, I agree with scale, even by allegedly radical propo- that “the roots of a nents of cooperatives like Richard Wolff. successor project of capitalism and its In practice however, the true coopera- neoliberal organization will have to be tive basis of this conglomerate seems to constructed within the existing econ- have broken down under the pressure of omy”. Abdullah Öcalan furthermore capitalist assimilation. Outsourcing states that “It is a necessity of social their production for cheap labor has be- nature that there is resistance and an come part of their practice, furthermore, alternative to capital accumulation and nowadays only a third of the people the resulting instruments of power working for Mondragón are actually whenever and wherever they exist”. This members of the cooperative. goes hand in hand with the understand- ing that the status quo will not simply This tendency of absorption is the rea- dissolve itself without violent counter- son why the ideology of is so revolutionary attacks as an alternative powerful in preventing any kind of alter- economy arises. Instead, even in a fu- native to gain ground, not only in eco- ture where democratic modernity has nomic but also in other political and been recovered, capitalist modernity will social spheres. Liberalism is able to ab- continue to coexist for the time being, sorb the ideas or movements of any op- at least in the mentality of society.

14 At the same time, cooperatives may contradiction of trying to implement a stand for a theory of revolution, that fo- cooperative economy within the capital- cuses on preparing for the appearance of ist hegemony is the unsolved riddle of a “Kairós-moment” (window of opportu- how to create cooperatives that reach nity) through organizing and establish- beyond the niche while avoiding the ing concrete alternatives. The power constant pressure of the logic of capital- vacuum in North-East Syria prior to the ist markets. Following the argumenta- beginning of the Rojava Revolution can tion of , I agree that be described as such a “moment of op- within capitalist modernity, coopera- portunity” which led to success since the tives are bound to fall into traps. In her window of opportunity was recognized pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution and society had been organized many Luxemburg heavily criticizes Eduard years in advance. Bernstein for revisionist argumentation. While I defend Bernstein´s analysis that This concept combines and distinguishes capitalism is adoptable and would not itself from other approaches to revolu- inevitably collapse rather soon as many tion: The classical/orthodox Marxist of his critics like Luxemburg predicted view of waiting for the revolution to ap- (with my slight advantage of access to pear through historical determinism and 120 years more of capitalist history), I history as progress (which degrades us agree with her general criticism and use to passive observers until the conditions her argumentation why his proposed are ripe) on the one hand as well as the cooperatives and trade unions “are to- Leninist strategy of forcing revolution tally incapable of transforming the cap- through organized vanguardism or a italist mode of production”: rather insurrectionist/spontainist ap- proach of claiming “revolution is when- Cooperatives may either fall in the as- ever and wherever we want it to be” on similation trap, which means giving in the other hand (organization is key, but to market competition. In this case, trying to force the revolution without sooner or later, the control of produc- acknowledging the external time frame tion by the interest of capital becomes and conditions is hopeless). In a cooper- unpreventable for the survival of the ative revolutionary strategy the cooper- cooperative. Or alternatively, if the ative is used as a tool of organizing and members are resisting the first trap and preparing which has to start right away, manage to keep some of their principles while always having a broad but clear alive, they fall into the second trap of analysis of the political situation in or- isolation and self-exploitation. In this der to recognize a Kairós moment as case they are relatively detached from soon as it appears in which the coopera- the capitalist market but since no alter- tives (along with other institutions & native is existing, this leads to the (rel- structures) will be set free from their ative) insignificance of a neighborhood leashes and provide the foundations for , burn-out of members or dis- the emerging alternative. solvement. Luxemburg explains: “ [co- operatives] are obliged to play the role Hence, this strategy admits that a revo- of capitalist entrepreneur toward them- lutionary rupture is only possible or sus- selves - a contradiction that accounts for tainable if the conditions are suitable, the usual failure of cooperatives in pro- while stressing however, that those op- duction, which either become pure capi- portunities can only be taken if the nec- talist enterprises or, if the workers’ essary preparations had been taken in interests continue to predominate, end the years or decades before. The main by dissolving.” 15 As a next step, Luxemburg argues that that the capitalist hegemony is not the the only way to avoid the capitalist natural habitat of cooperatives. market pressure is to withdraw from this mechanism. She proposes that (pro- Another common critique towards co- duction-) cooperatives need to organize operatives as the base of a future eco- the demand side of the economic circle nomic system is that they do not in an independent way. She suggests fundamentally break with the wage sys- that this would be the role of consumer tem. Just because we pay our wages to cooperatives. So consumer cooperatives ourselves, it is still a wage. This issue are the missing puzzle piece for the so- goes hand in hand with the fundamental lution? Not so fast, Luxemburg contin- question whether we can organize a ues that this will still be a very limited complex economy without the use of scope due to the limitation of the prod- any money. Even though these are very uct range demanded by consumer coop- interesting and important questions, eratives which is usually bound to food neither wage labor nor money is a nec- and small scale production. In order to essary attribute of a cooperative. The take control of the economy however, core principles of a cooperative can also system-relevant industries would be (probably even better) be applied in a needed. At the same time however, she system without any wage or even with- describes how a symbiosis between pro- out any money. But the details of this duction and consumption cooperatives require another discussion. could still achieve an economic produc- tion circle mostly independent of the In addition, as describes above, in Ro- main capitalist market structures. If we java some cooperatives have at least dont have illusions that this on its own succeeded to overcome the wage system will pose an existential threat to global in the sense that each member works production patterns, it may provide an according to their needs and receives a environment for organizing and gaining share of the outcome according to the valuable experiences. necessities of their family. Furthermore, the economic committee of North-East So we have seen that cooperatives will Syria is constantly considering and hardly be able to develop according to making experiences in different ways our wishes in a capitalist system. At the how a new economy can be realized. same time, if cooperatives would func- There is a village in Rojava for instance, tion perfectly within the capitalist sys- where money has been abolished as a tem, would this not indicate that daily tool. The only time those villagers cooperatives are not the root of the al- have to use money is if they leave their ternative economy that we are striving village for a different region. However, for? Marx describes the self-exploitation this is only a small scale experiment. trap when he states that “the workers become their own capitalists”, which is If we honestly believe that a fundamen- arguably is a more favorable situation tally different way of organizing life is compared to being exploited by an exte- possible, we have to believe in the abil- rior “real” capitalist, but the goal should ity of society to rediscover a communal be an economy which is not based on and cooperative way of fulfilling its the extraction of profit at all. The fact needs. The strongest argument in favor that cooperatives can hardly survive in of using cooperatives as a revolutionary capitalist modernity without giving in tool is the fact that cooperatives are a to compromises, self-exploitation or fundamental part of the alternative so- some other form of assimilation, shows cioeconomic system that we want to 16 create one day. Even if one concludes tire economy. However, we need to keep that trying to implement this “breath of in mind that the Kurdish minority in ” in the current system today is North-East Syria was not even allowed not promising, it may still be useful to to own their own fields, houses, shops gain experience in all different aspects and were even banned from planting of the building of a cooperative econ- trees. These oppressive conditions obvi- omy, for instance, transforming a capi- ously did not allow to gain experience in talist company into a cooperative. the establishment of cooperatives. Even though the majority of the people Regarding this issue, we can learn from around the world are not suffering un- our experience here in Rojava. In the der such extreme direct oppression, we first years of the revolution, the con- should remember that a serious attempt struction of cooperatives were done ac- to build up a cooperative structure will cording to different principles then face the confrontation by states and today. To keep it short, one can say various individuals and institutions that that the early cooperatives shared some benefit from the current system. Hence, of the shortcomings of most western if we ask “Should we build up coopera- ‘capitalist’- cooperatives nowadays. For tives around the world?”, we also need instance, it was possible for people out- to answer the question “(Under which side of the cooperative to invest in them conditions) can we do it?”. And the cru- and therefore make profit of other peo- cial question that follows is “How should ples´ labor. The self-administration rec- we do it?” ognized this shortcoming and soon new principles was introduced which bounds When talking about building up a co- the cooperatives to the local commune operative economy, this often implies which ensures that the cooperative is actually establishing new cooperatives run by the people for themselves. This from scratch, which promises to allow us is one example of the very important to implement every step purely accord- experiences that the people in Rojava ing to our principles. However, another involved in the construction of an alter- possibility is to make use of the existing native economy make every day. And we know-how and facilities by taking over have to acknowledge that even with the existing firms to turn them into a coop- most sophisticated and thought-through erative. theory how a cooperative economy should be build up, many mistakes and What makes this strategy worthwhile new difficulties will only appear in prac- considering is the advantage of being tice. able to seriously materialize a change of property control since we would not be This is a strong argument for starting to limited to small scale production any- make at least some of those experiences more. In addition, such a takeover im- everywhere around the world. Why mediately poses the questions of class, should we wait for external condition to power and violence since it will quickly change? Hence, one could conclude that show how the state with the police as if the people of Rojava had started its executive power is protecting the in- building up cooperatives long before the terest of private profit and property. A Autonomous-Administration was estab- well-known example of factory takeovers lished, they would have learned from are the worker-reclaimed factories in this mistakes and the cooperatives Argentina in the 2000s´. Following the would be at a more mature state today, economic depression of 2001, many more able to be the backbone of the en- businesses went bankrupt, laid of work-

17 ers and closed their factories. One im- ferent focus: Cooperatives can become portant factor was that the occupations places of education and organizing: A and takeovers of factories were embed- way of creating community and bringing ded in a general political movement op- a neighborhood together. This may re- posing the neoliberal of the mind you of one of the central aims of Argentinian state. In the end, however, cooperatives here in Rojava, discussed unless such a movement can gain huge above, as well. What distinguishes this momentum and overtake a significant from other existing social/community part of the main industries (this would centers? In some sense not a lot, but likely be a scenario in the dimensions even if it is just a cafe, shop comparable to a ), it will or bike repair, if implemented consis- still be exposed to the same contradic- tently, it is still more than just a place tions of a capitalist environment. for people to hang out and take a break from the everyday hustle within capital- It is obvious that the role of coopera- ism, it is a small material realization of tives has to differ according to the cur- communal economy and democratic rent socioeconomic and political modernity. May it only be for the pur- circumstances in different regions pose of providing a concrete alternative around the world. Therefore, in the end, to arouse from sleep society´s drive for I will try to give an outline of what dif- a meaningful life and provoke appetite ferent strategies in three different cate- for more. gories of settings may look like. The second category or stage may apply The first stage I call center of capitalist to countries and regions where the men- modernity. Even though one has to look tality and economic unlogic of capital- carefully to find any culture that has ism have not managed to reach every not been influenced by the age of capi- corner or where the influence of the talism until today (literally there is even state is not as comprehensive as in the no culture/place on earth not affected center of capitalist modernity. In such considering climate effects), I am talk- an environment cooperatives may actu- ing about modern capitalist nation ally have the breathing room to reach states where the hegemonic system is some extent of autonomous economy, not even perceived as a historical sys- even if, for example, only limited to a tem since it has reached far beyond ma- certain region within a that terial conditions and is omnipresent in has a politicized society. Even if this the peoples´ mindset. In this hostile en- will rather realize in remote areas far vironment, the traps that cooperatives from capital cities, once a network of encounter (described above), are most cooperatives has been established within relevant and difficult to overcome. It is a loophole of external and internal pres- here that we have to ask ourselves if sure, society will be willing to defend time and effort of revolutionaries may this new freedom from attacks by the be better invested in different projects state or international market forces. or different regions of the struggle. If we Therefore, for this second scenario, the still decide to build up cooperatives in goal should be to sincerely build-up a this first scenario, the focus of coopera- parallel economy which eventually chal- tives may be related to basic needs like lenges the hegemonic power relations. health-/care, housing or culture rather than in the production of goods. Hence, The third case I describe as absence of nation the only viable compromise may be that state power or a situation where the power is the role of cooperatives shifts to a dif- in the hands of the people in form of a revolu-

18 tionary movement committed to people´s lib- ecology, intercultural exchange, grassroots eration. In this scenario, the aim should be democracy and the reestablishing of communal clear: Materialize cooperatives as the base of a way of living. In short: Cooperatives are Revo- communal economy. North-East Syria in the lution. last 8 years, obviously, falls into the third cate- gory. Important to consider is that it is hardly possible to just jump from 0 to step 3. This means that if the society has not had the change to gain any practical nor theoretical ex- perience in organization of life and economy in a cooperative way, it is not possible to enforce this from above. This is a significant difference in which Democratic Confederalism distin- guishes itself from centralist real-socialist at- tempts of the past: The members of the economic committee stress that is is vital to take the detour via, what I describe as steps 1 and 2, in order for society to build up a pro- found alternative economy instead of imposing Cooperative economy? This way! Ultimately, the question the way of producing, and thereby living, from whether a cooperative is revolutionary or not depends on above. This may be a positive outlook that co- whether the intention of its members is revolutionary or not. operatives within scenario 1 or 2 may indeed play an important role of paving the way until scenario 3 realizes. If the phases of politiciza- tion, organization and experiences were missed out, or politically not possible (like here in North-East Syria due to the oppression by the regime as describes above), these steps will therefore be taken even though we are actually in the third scenario.

In the end, I still can not imagine how a fun- damental alternative economic system cannot be based on some kind of collectively owned units with democratic member control, in other words: Cooperatives. This does not im- ply that building up a cooperative is always and everywhere a strategically clever and revo- lutionary thing to do. I tried to share my thoughts on why this approach can be totally in vain, misleading or even counterproductive. At the same time, I also presented some ideas why, how and under which circumstances we should maybe still consider to start building a cooperative economy today, no matter where we are. Rojava shows that the cooperative economy reaches far beyond the fulfillment of society´s economic needs: It shows that the es- tablishment of cooperatives can and should go hand in hand with women liberation, radical

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