Utopia and economic practice among the Kurds of Rojava

Una combattente curda

Kurdish people of Rojava, an autonomous region in northern Syria, know well what fighting means. The challenges are not only political and military, like those imposed by Sultan Erdogan or the Daesh terrorists, but above all cultural and environmental. The revolution must have a response to the exploitation of resources perpetrated in the area until 2012 by Assad’s regime, but it also has to present a response to the violations of human rights that the Turkish invader has committed.

“The Kurdish revolution. The factory of a utopia” is the title of a conference that was held in October as part of the “Festival of Courage” in Cervignano del Friuli (UD) and it seems to me particularly explanatory in this regard. The theoretical (but also constitutively practical) response of the Kurds lies in the field of ecological utopia and intends to derive from its philosophical premises (to be sought in the thought of the American Murray Bookchin and the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan) a model of practical action to apply to the coordination of social and economic relations.

Talking about the factory of a utopia might sound oxymoronic because of the evident friction between a word traditionally linked to concreteness and another relegated to the realm of imagination, but actually this expression properly summarizes what has been happening in Rojava since 2012, when the Kurds took control of this area during the Syrian civil war.

1. Utopia

The philosophy of Rojava is based on social ecology, a theory that grows from the awareness of the problems of hierarchy and domination as equally concerning the relationship between man and nature and between human and human (Bookchin uses the distinction between man and human linking his thought to ecofemminism).

As far as domination is concerned, the American philosopher Murray Bookchin underlines in his The ecology of freedom (1982) that this way of thinking is very far from nature. Grown “before the birth of capitalism and completely absorbed into it”, the thought and the practice of domination was first adopted by man towards nature and only consequently concerned the relations (including the political ones) between human beings.

Why is dominion so alien to nature?
It is true that we may confuse it with the natural selection dynamics (but maybe it is too human to think that survival implies oppression). However, Bookchin immediately solves our doubts:

The dissociation we have operated between society and nature, at first mental and then factual, is based on the barbaric reification of human beings to means of production and objects of domination, a reification that we have extended to the whole living world (emphasis mine)

Reification is the most foreign element to the environment but it actually pervades the social, political and economic action of people. The thought of the thing and its application to any being is only human.

The extent of this thought (which touches any being) places the reflection exactly in the field of ecology, which, according to Bookchin, “deals with the dynamic balance of nature, the interdependence of living beings and non-living things”.

If society is intimately connected with nature, we can understand that every social and economic challenge requires an ecological solution, respectful of the harmony between the individual and the environment.

The economic theory that arises from these premises primarily affirms its fundamental contrast with capitalism, “anti-ecological by definition” according to Bookchin because it is governed by a competitive and accumulative logic.

Moreover, the American philosopher finds another theoretical distance: the problem is no longer choosing whether to nationalize or privatize the economy, but a third way is opening up, suggested by political reflection whose cornerstone is direct municipal democracy, which aspires to create a network of communities self-managed by citizens.

Therefore, the proposal is to municipalize the economic structure in order to involve the entire community in the control of the means of production. In Democrazia diretta, Bookchin says it is about:

a radically different kind of economy in which territory and business are entrusted to the managemet of citizens gathered in assemblies with their own representatives in confederal councils.

We have seen what this model of economy is not and what it draws inspiration from, but now its definition requires a careful critical look.

Bookchin calls it “the moral economy“. The goodness of the economy would derive “from the sense of ethical intent that [people] give to their productive activities” and the exchange, no longer characterized by “interest, cost and profit” but by “care, responsibility and commitment” would set the seller and buyer free from their classic polarization so that they recognize themselves in the same economic community.

Although utopia requires some hesitation in criticism because it can propose models in evident contrast with the present directions of development, the definition sounds problematic to me from the very beginning.

Economy? Moral? Perhaps Bookchin himself is aware of the aporia of this expression in the context of his thought.

If it is true that, for the rest of the world, the economy has a primary role and is also an unconscious model for social relations ( so much that “being in society” is immediately perceived as “being expendable in the market”), in the text it is secondary: the social utopia prevails and, as a consequence, the term “economy” resonates in a different way, no longer financial but linked to its etymological sense: it is nature itself, as a house (oikos), that inspires its management (nomos).

After these considerations, even the strangeness of the adjective “moral” would be smoothed out. I speak of “strangeness” because we could say that capitalism is also a moral economy, with a certain philosophical tradition, started by Nietzsche, making us sensitive to the contradictory implications of this term.

Bookchin’s expression does not rhyme with guilt, resentment or reward, but should perhaps be read by considering its broadest meaning: moral means “good” but also “concerning life”, relating to the conducts that inevitably characterize it.

So the moral economy is a good economy because it is inspired by nature, which has an ethical sense in itself, an understanding of actions that have to do with life and are not crossed by mortuary dynamics: values ​​are recreated, mutualism, cooperation and responsibility replace competition and profit.

2. Practice

“A policy that promises salvation from the current crisis can lead to a correct social system only if it is ecological”: this is how the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan shows the strong link between ecological utopia and its practice.

Why has the ecological theory been received with particular sensitivity in Rojava? As previously mentioned, this region has been condemned to the exploitation of resources aimed at exporting agricultural products to the rest of Syria: deforestation has prepared the place for monocultures of wheat in the canton of Cizîrê and olives in Afrin, drastically changing the landscape of Rojava.

Moreover, Turkey has constantly used the threat of economic embargo accompanied by the real construction of dams in Northern Kurdistan, which causes a dramatic water shortage in Rojava. 

There is another fact to add: the canton of Cizîrê is rich in oil. The Syrian regime moved its processing to large industrial centers, but after the revolution in Rojava petrol and diesel fuel, necessary for the local economy, are produced independently. However, there are still serious pollution problems which, due to the lack of technological means, are slow to solve.

Cizire lakes polluted by oil, source: book “Make Rojava green again”

The application of an idea of ​​moral and ecological economy in Rojava is evident in agriculture. In recent times, the community has given rise to reforestation works, has introduced separate collection that goes hand in hand with the reuse of organic waste in agriculture and the purification of gray water. Finally, it has promoted the establishment of “tree cooperatives” in which everyone works for the green “repopulation” of an exploited and dried area.

The ethical foundation of the economy emerges in these cooperatives, which are open to free and voluntary membership, without any discrimination, and within them, regardless of their economic or social weight, the members have the same voting rights.

Part of the share capital is always a common property of the cooperative and is also invested in the education of the members and in awareness campaigns for public opinion.

One of the characteristics that makes the Kurdish project unique is its openness to the rest of the world, which is achieved through associations, sites and conferences.

In the conference I mentioned at the beginning of this article the speaker Hassan Hamdoche, president of the French association Espoir Afrin, answering to a question in which I asked if Europe in crisis could learn something from the Kurdish revolution, found the perfect metaphor to invite us to imagine – why not – an ecological rebirth of democracy:

Europe was built on a set of values that we share. I say: Europe doesn’t have to get inspired by the Rojava project, but Europe must rediscover its origins, its roots. Because the roots are common even if there are two different trees growing close to each other.

Original Italian versione here.


  • M. Bookchin, The ecology of freedom
  • M. Bookchin, Democrazia diretta (Eleuthera, 2015)
  • Internationalist Commune of Rojava, Make Rojava green again
Sara Nocent
Informazioni su Sara Nocent 5 Articoli
Frequento il corso di Studi letterari e storico-artistici a Trieste. Mi interesso di sociologia e filosofia e sono alla ricerca di un linguaggio più vicino alle cose.

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