Democratic Confederalism: How Cascadia Can Be Free

CascadiaRojavaEspecially as a small child, I marveled at the beauty of the West Coast. On family road trips to Vancouver Island, I spent the duration of the drive gazing out the window in starry-eyed amazement. I was captivated by the rolling mountains covered in the great Douglas fir and Redwood trees, both of which towered above me like giants. I was enchanted by the luscious green rainforest from which all manners of life seems to grow, and which in the eyes of a child seemed as though it could only be explained by magic. The bald eagle, as it soared magnificently above struck me with awe, and I longed to have wings to fly as they do to distant lands. I was humbled by the respectable power of the moose, and enthralled with the playful intelligence of the Orca and Raccoon. In a word, I fell in love with the Earth.

However it was not until much later in life that I learned that this land has another name: Cascadia, a name designated to this bioregion by a movement for the protection of its ecosystem and for its independence, as well as a movement that holds dear to it autonomy, equality, and protecting our future. But in the twenty first century, how possible is an autonomous Cascadia? What barriers stand in our way? Is the creation of a new bioregional state the best form of organisation for Cascadian independence? I will answer these questions from the perspective that a free Cascadia is possible and that democratic confederalism, the political system of the revolutionary Kurds fighting the Islamic State terrorists, is the best means of achieving this.

Barriers to Secession

In 2005 a survey conducted in Canada by the Western Standard showed that 30.8% of respondents from British Columbia agreed that “Western Canadians should begin to explore the idea of forming their own country”.1 Though difficult to specifically gauge support for secession in the states of Washington and Oregon due to the unavailability of research on the subject, a nationwide poll done by Zogby International in 2008 determined that 22% of Americans who responded now support a state’s or region’s right to “peaceably secede from the United States and become an independent republic…”2 While one may be inclined to be optimistic at these poll results, depicting nearly a third of respondents in British Columbia in favour of secession and nearly a quarter of American respondents overall in favour, it must also be recognised that these figures still depict a clear minority, and also that neither of these polls were specifically about forming an independent Cascadia. Canadian and American nationalism may pose a significant barrier to having a sizable amount of people in favour of bioregionalism. Bringing people to the conclusion of secession from this point is another task on its own. This problem is compounded by the fact that to be fully independent Cascadia would need to secede from both Canada and the US, as it is divided between the Canadian and American border. This is even further complicated by the fact that despite the Clarity Act allowing Canadian provinces to leave the confederation under certain conditions, the American Civil War demonstrated that states have no right to leave the United States.

These aforementioned barriers to secession notwithstanding, let’s explore the viability of the formation of a state in the hypothetical situation of Cascadia successfully seceding. We must consider what challenges to Cascadia’s autonomy would arise in the event of actually achieving independence from Canada and the United States. If we were to achieve a separate state, there would be a question of whether we would truly be independent. That is, an “independent” Cascadia wouldn’t necessarily be called part of Canada or the United States, as in it wouldn’t get coloured the same as either nation-state on the map, however it would be so integrated into the American economy that it would effectively be a colony. Should this independent Cascadian state ever attempt to leave the phalanx of capitalism it would be brought to its knees either through embargoes or through force. All this is something that must realistically be considered by any movement for the independence of a state, province, or region within Canada or the United States that seeks to establish a new state of its own.

Thus far we have covered matters of practicality, with regards to the difficulties faced in the creation of a new nation-state as a means for achieving Cascadian independence. We must also however give due consideration to matters of ethics. Any social movement which values equality and that seeks to secede from Canada or the United States must have as a part of it a sense of fairness for the original inhabitants of this land. I speak of course of the numerous Indigenous peoples who inhabit the region of Cascadia. As the majority of this bioregion falls within the geographical boundaries of British Columbia, we must acknowledge that Cascadia is overwhelmingly situated on occupied and unceded First Nations territory. (Meaning never acquired through military conquest or through treaties.) In fact, nineteen different First Nations inhabit the Georgia Strait region alone.3 Seeking to establish a new state on land belonging to these First Nations is myoptic and has an air of colonial pretensions to it, as it doesn’t consider the role that the state has historically played in being complicit in colonialism in North America. It has been hundreds of years since North America was first colonised, and we cannot simply turn back the clock and undo what has been done. However, we must find a solution to the issue of colonialism which is based in respect, solidarity, preservation of Indigenous cultures, and autonomy, especially for First Nations, who have historically been subjugated to domination and deprived of their right to self-determination as well as their ancestral lands.

The Relevance of Democratic Confederalism

For the reasons I have mentioned above, I do not believe that the creation of a new state provides a viable means of achieving Cascadian independence, and that if we’re to have a real chance of achieving autonomy, it should be done through a non-state form of social organisation. I am of the opinion that the most likely means of achieving Cascadian independence is through the political theory of democratic confederalism.

Democratic confederalism is the twenty-first century’s non-nation-state paradigm of the people. It is the political system of the revolutionary Kurds of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). These groups are attempting to build an autonomous society in the Rojava region, which they aim to make free from patriarchy, the nation-state, capitalism, and oppression, while at the same time fighting the Islamic State terrorists. Under democratic confederalism, society is organised as a decentralised confederation of directly democratic and face-to-face citizen’s assemblies in which decision making is based around constructive debate and the majority vote, and which take place at the level of municipalities, districts, communities, streets, or wherever an organic community exists. These assemblies are connected through a network of councils in which the members of are delegates, mandated from the local assemblies, who are rotatable, recallable, and rigorously instructed in written form to support or oppose any idea that appears of the agenda of the confederal councils. Decision making with regards to policies would be done democratically at the level of the assemblies, and the implementation of these decisions would be done by elected municipal governments. For example, the decision to build a road would be decided upon at the local assemblies, but the engineering and construction of the road would be done by the municipality.

Democratic confederalism is directly compatible with Cascadian ecological values. It was initially conceived under the name “libertarian municipalism” by the libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin as the political component of the philosophy of social ecology, which locates the roots of the ecological crisis in the relations of domination between people. The domination of nature is seen as a result of domination within society, and under capitalism the domination of nature reaches the crisis proportions that we see today. Social ecology holds that there presently exists a crude dualism between human and non-human nature, and that rather than dominate and subsequently destroy the Earth, humans should exist in a complementary relationship with non-human nature in which they foster biodiversity. It is through this principle of complementarity that social ecology seeks to overcome this dualism, and unite human and non-human nature as a whole. As such, living in ecological balance with the earth is an intrinsic part of democratic confederalism, and so a democratic confederalist movement in Cascadia would have immediate interests in the preservation of our beautiful ecosystem and be a form of social organisation that respects the ecological limits of our bioregion. For example, democratic confederalism holds that food production should be local and sustainable, and subsequently that we must move away from industrial monocrop production which poisons the land with pesticide and kills biodiversity, and move towards techniques such as permaculture and agroecology done on a small-scale and in a decentralised manner. It holds that we must move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy like wind and solar, and that the enormous urban belts where we presently live, requiring unsustainable amounts of energy to function, must be broken up into smaller municipalities. (This would be accomplished through decentralised assemblies and production, not physical relocation.) Libertarian socialist and horizontally democratic in its political orientation, democratic confederalism is also compatible with the principles of autonomy and equality held so dearly by the Cascadian movement.

The question remains: How does democratic confederalism overcome the barriers to secession that would be faced by the creation of a new state? Let us begin with addressing the problem that those in favour of an independent Cascadia are a minority. The implementation of democratic confederalism does not require that the majority of a state or province agrees with its program. It only requires that local municipal assemblies are organised and attended, and that they create a vibrant and participatory sense of public political engagement which draws a sizable amount of people to them. Once these assemblies and their councils become large enough, they can begin to slowly replace the functions of the nation-state and render it unneeded for Cascadians. (We will expand on this point in a moment.) Democratic confederalism requires only that it has substantial support in particular municipalities and the communities within it, not within the state or province as a whole as a secession referendum would require. Secession would begin at the local level, achieving autonomy for a particular municipality like Vancouver or Portland, before spreading to other municipalities in the area.

As stated before, once the democratic confederalist assemblies and their councils become large enough, they can begin to slowly replace the functions of the nation-state and render it unneeded for Cascadians. This is an explicit part of democratic confederalist theory, and has the name “dual-power”. This strategy has been an essential element of past revolutionary struggles, and there are even examples of it in North America. Though we may not agree with all of their politics, the Black Panther Party, at the peak of their organisation, operated over sixty social programs which provided for Black communities.4 These included meal programs, community pantries, free clothing programs, free health clinics, and numerous others. One does not have to agree with the politics of the Black Panther Party to see why this is an effective strategy for building a mass movement, and one that can used by a democratic and libertarian socialist one. This is the idea of dual-power: to create community-based social infrastructure that replaces the functions of the nation-state, rendering it unnecessary for communities. Under this sort of strategy, it is less relevant whether or not a state or province is allowed to secede from a nation-state, because once these programs become large enough the nation-state will find itself unneeded, because people will no longer come to it for these sorts of social services. They will receive these social services from the democratic confederalist assemblies and their councils.

In addition to dual-power, another explicit component of democratic confederalist theory is self-sustainability within the confederation of municipal and community assemblies. Democratic confederalism respects personal property such as your house and your other belongings. However, it holds that productive enterprise should be gradually put under the control of the local municipal assemblies, which will in turn democratically decide how production will function so as to meet the needs of the community as a whole. This would be done in piecemeal steps as a transitional process, beginning with the reclamation of public lands by the municipalities through the purchasing of sizable enterprises, especially those in financial hardship, which would then be which would then be turned into cooperatives and put under public control via the assemblies. It is through this sort of municipalisation of the economy, rather than nationalization or collectivisation, that democratic confederalism seeks to establish self-sustainability within the confederation. This manner of self-sustainability will increasingly allow Cascadia to achieve economic autonomy, and as such provides a way to alleviate the problem of being an essential colony due to being heavily integrated into the American economy. Placing production in the hands of the assemblies also allows for it to be done so in a way that preserves our ecosystem, as production can be done so on a humanly scaled level.

I have stated that any social movement which values equality and that seeks autonomy from Canada or the United States must have as a part of it fairness for the Indigenous Nations of this land, and support a position of anti-colonialism. Democratic confederalism is directly compatible with this. To see how it is compatible we must look at how democratic confederalism is already a part of anti-colonial struggles elsewhere in the world. I have stated that democratic confederalism is the political system of the autonomous region of Rojava in Syria, and that the democratic confederalist system in Rojava is being organised by members of the PYD, TEV-DEM, and YPG/J. These groups are members of the umbrella organisation the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), which was created by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). At its origins in the 1970s, the PKK was inspired by the rise of decolonisation movements all over the world. It was in this context that they tried to find their own way with regards to the particular situation of their homeland (the “Kurdish Question”).5 Much like the rest of the decolonisation movement the swept the world at this time, the PKK initially sought to resolve the Kurdish Question through the creation of a Marxist-Leninist state. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the PKK was forced to reconsider its goals and strategy. In March 2005, the PKK began to abandon Marxist-Leninism.6 In its place, it sought to struggle for freedom through libertarian municipalism, calling it “democratic confederalism”. Subsequently the PKK formed the KCK as an organisation for putting the theory of democratic confederalism intro practice.

Democratic confederalism, the confederation, exists as the macro level form of political organisation in Rojava, as well as to a lesser extent in South Eastern Turkey. At the micro level, that is, at the level of the municipalities, the KCK organises what is called “democratic autonomy”. Democratic autonomy insists that the state respect the democratic will of the population and its need for self-management, while at the municipal level it holds that the creation of dual-power must be facilitated to collectively construct institutions outside of the nation-state and capitalism.

The question remains, what is the relevance of democratic confederalism to decolonisation struggles in Cascadia? Kurdistan, like Cascadia, is home to numerous different peoples. Armenians, Assyrians, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Czechs, Yazidi, Alevi, Sunni Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others all live within the borders of Kurdistan. Democratic autonomy seeks to guarantee the protection and development of these cultures, and its activists organise these diverse social groups through bottom-up democracy by creating councils in their communities.7 The councils are organised in a way that rejects statist centralism, insisting that decisions must be made by the base. Democratic confederalism, in following the example of the democratic autonomy of the KCK, would respect the autonomy of all peoples in Cascadia, and assist in the preservation of their cultures.

How We Begin

If we are serious about building a better world, we need to start now. We cannot wait for collapse. If we do, more organised groups, possibly authoritarian or fascist in nature, could take control.

Any revolution has been preceded by long periods of consciousness raising. Before any mass movement for Cascadian independence through democratic confederalism can take form, the viability of the idea must be spread. We must educate our fellow Cascadians as to why this is the most ideal form of social organisation for Cascadia. Additionally, we as organisers must refine our understanding of democratic confederalism as outlined in Bookchin’s “From Urbanization to Cities: Towards a New Politics of Citizenship”. That is not to say that everyone involved in a Cascadian democratic confederalist movement must study Bookchin’s works (that would be entirely unrealistic to expect), however as organisers, we must realise that it is from an understanding of theory that the realization of revolutionary praxis follows.

Still, democratic confederalism is not a complex idea. We don’t need complex ideas. We need ideas that work. For democratic confederalism to begin tangibly manifesting itself at the levels of our local communities, requires only that local assemblies are organised according to the principles of mass direct democracy, that they create a vibrant and participatory political life, and that these assemblies talk to others in different municipalities. That is, they must confederate. We can begin organising these assemblies now, and through these assemblies we can begin to assert a moral influence over the municipality. We can also run municipal candidates to help organise these assemblies. Assemblies already organised can provide a movement which will support these candidates. It is from here that a mass movement will begin to form, and from where we will begin to realise our revolutionary praxis.

My fellow Cascadians, it is our dream of freedom that sustains us, however dreaming alone does not bring about action. We must not only dream, but we must believe that freedom is possible. We must rise up. An autonomous Cascadia free from ecological destruction and oppression can be ours, if we have the will to organise it.

Notes:

  1. Western Standard, A Nation Torn Apart by Kevin Steel, August 22nd, 2005. Retrieved from http://www.westernstandard.ca/website/article.php?id=928.
  2. Middlebury Institute, Zogby Secessionpoll 2008, July 23, 2008. Retrieved from http://middleburyinstitute.org/zogbysecessionpoll2008.html.
  3. The Georgia Straits region is home to the Homalco, Klahoose, Sliammon, Comox, Qualicum, Se’shalt, Sne-Nay-Muxw, Squamish, Quwutsun, Sto:lo, Semiahmoo, Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, Tsawwassen, T’Sou-ke, Esquimalt, Songhees, Saanich, and Coquitlam Nations. Source: The Museum of Anthropology, First Nations of British Columbia, at the University of British Columbia.
  4. Stanford University, the Black Panther Research Project, Black Panther Social Programs. Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/group/blackpanthers/programs.shtml.
  5. “Democratic Confederalism” by Abdullah Öcalan, Transmedia Publishing 2011. Pg. 7.
  6. “Bookchin, Öcalan, and the Dialectics of Democracy” by Janet Biehl, February 16th, 2012. New Compass. Retrieved from http://new-compass.net/articles/bookchin-%C3%B6calan-and-dialectics-democracy.
  7. “Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan” by TATORT Kurdistan, New Compass Press 2013. Pg. 21.
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3 thoughts on “Democratic Confederalism: How Cascadia Can Be Free

  1. An excellent article. Though I don’t yet know enough about democratic confederalism to come to a conclusion on its feasibility, I do have great respect for the Kurds, and am eager to see how they implement it.

    I’m curious as to how democratic confederalism solves the contradiction between city and farm. Subsistance gardens can go a long way, but cities like Seattle or Portland or Vancouver have a lot of people, and it’s hard to imagine all of them living healthily without having to bring in food from the countryside, where the population will be less dense and more food can be grown.

    This sort of problem is very similar to those that the USSR and PRC faced, where the contradiction between urban workers and rural peasant was even greater. It seems to me that, if taken too far, democratic confederalism might still contain the seeds of inequality, if just on a land division basis.

    And what about private property? How does democratic confederalism prevent the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer individuals through the system of private property? You don’t have to be a socialist to see that Capitalism tends to increase inequality, but how does democratic confederalism plan to inhibit Capital from enriching certain citizens at the expense of the rest?

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    • Thanks for your kind words. I’d recommend checking out our “Links and Recommended Reading” page if you want to learn more, as there are a few good resources in there as well as some good book titles.

      The contradiction between city and country is one that is incorporated into the democratic confederalist analysis as a fundamental component of its theory. Democratic confederalism explicitly seeks to unite city and country so that they compliment each other, rather than exist in total contradiction as they do now. As such, urban decentralisation, so as to have cities exist ecologically with the Earth while being able to sustain themselves, is an important part of democratic confederalism. Marcus Amargi & Stephanie Amargi’s pamphlet (http://www.communalismpamphlet.net/#urban-decentralization) discusses this in brief and is worth checking out. They say:

      “The actual size limits of future cities would be left up to the popular assemblies themselves. It is beneficial, however, to speculate on such matters in order to grasp the possibilities that are at hand. The population limit of 30,000 that Ebenezer Howard placed on his Garden City concept seems like an appropriate upper limit. 53 Anything beyond this limit would likely take a toll on local resources while becoming incomprehensible as a totality to each individual resident. While a city of this size would still prevent all of the citizens from knowing each other on a personal level, the city would be divided into numerous neighborhoods that would approximate the communal inclusiveness of a small town. These neighborhoods should themselves be no larger than 1,000 inhabitants with each containing their own democratic assembly. 54 Neighborhood assemblies would join together to form a municipal confederation that governs the city as a whole. To avoid conglomeration, cities of this size should be spread out across the land. Each of these cities could mark the centerpiece of a decentralized municipal arrangement known as a township. In a township a relatively large city is surrounded by a number of smaller cities, towns, and villages all of which is enclosed by agricultural and forest land. This arrangement allows for a harmonious balance to be struck between town and country. 55 The municipalities within a township would themselves form a township confederation, while all of the townships of a region could join together to form a regional confederation. ”

      As far as property goes, democratic confederalism seeks to municipalise the economy and the means of production, and place it in the hands of the local assemblies so that they can meet the needs of their immediate communities as well as the confederation. In this sense, property is put into the hands of the “masses”. Bookchin discusses this at length in his “From Urbanization to Cities”, which is the most thorough outlining of democratic confederalism (though Bookchin called it libertarian municipalism at the time) and is the book which the Kurdish assemblies are organising according to:

      “… Libertarian municipalism proposes that land and enterprises be placed increasingly in the custody of the community — more precisely, the custody of citizens in free assemblies and their deputies in confederal councils…. In such a municipal economy — confederal, interdependent, and rational by ecological, not simply technological, standards — we would expect that the special interests that divide people today into workers, professionals, managers, and the like would be melded into a general interest in which people see themselves as citizens guided strictly by the needs of their community and region rather than by personal proclivities and vocational concerns. Here, citizenship would come into its own, and rational as well as ecological interpretations of the public good would supplant class and hierarchical interests.”

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  2. Pingback: Anti Government | Cascadian People’s Brigade: Democratic Confederalism for Cascadia

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