Miley: Redefining Self-Determination in our Collective Existential Crises

The Kurdish Center for Studies (KCS) recently conducted an interview with Dr. Thomas Jeffrey Miley, Lecturer in Political Sociology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. In the interview, Miley shares his expertise on defining “nation” and “nationalism” and elaborates on Abdullah Öcalan’s democratic nation and his reinterpretation of the concept of self-determination. He also discusses the idea behind his upcoming book “Struggles for Self-Determination in the 21st Century”, which will be published by Black Rose Press.

KCS: In one of your articles, you define the ‘nation’ as a hegemonic project. Could you explain what you mean by that?

M: In ontological terms, the “nation” is best conceived as a hegemonic project. It exists only insofar as people believe it does. This does not mean that the nation should be equated with an ethereal “system of ideas,” nor relegated to the super-structural realm, much less diagnosed or dismissed as a form of “false consciousness.” For to do so would entail perpetuating a false binary between materialism and idealism, between base and superstructure. Like any other idea, the “nation” can only exist as a material force in history, “embodied in institutions and apparatuses” – in other words, as “institutionalised form.”

Nationalists aspire to the institutionalization of their beliefs, so that such beliefs can be diffused, adhered to by an ever broader public, and reproduced. The process of diffusion and reproduction of nationalist beliefs by state apparatuses has been described in architectural terms as that of “nation-building.” More recently, Brubaker has described state apparatuses engaged in such processes as “nationalizing states.” He refers to “nationalization” and to “nationalizing nationalisms of the existing state” and to “nationalizing elites.” Four sets of Ideological State Apparatuses are especially implicated in the cultivation of “nationalizing” and “nation-building” hegemonic projects: (1) the educational system, (2) the mass media, (3) the bureaucracy, and (4) political parties.

Nationhood and nationalism are dialectically interrelated. Gellner has famously insisted that “[i]t is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way around.” It is certainly true that nationalists aspire for their beliefs to be institutionalized. Nevertheless, Gellner’s formulation is not quite correct; for nationhood and nationalism cannot be neatly distinguished in terms of cause and effect (at least not when these terms are used in a unidirectional and undialectical way). Rather than fixating on questions about which determines the other, about which comes first (the “chicken or the egg,” so to speak), it makes more sense to understand nationalism and nationhood as two dimensions of the same inter-subjective phenomenon, operating simultaneously at different levels of consciousness – corresponding with the “programmatic” and the “banal.”

Nationalism operates primarily at the conscious level, manifesting itself as “ideology” – at its core, a political program that “holds that the political and the national unit [and] should be congruent.” Nationhood, by contrast, operates principally at the semi- and even sub-conscious levels, as a “pervasive system of social classification,” an organizing ‘principle of vision and division’ of the social world.”

“…it makes more sense to understand nationalism and nationhood as two dimensions of the same inter-subjective phenomenon, operating simultaneously at different levels of consciousness – corresponding with the “programmatic” and the “banal.”

KCS: What do you think of Öcalan’s project of the “democratic nation”? To what extent is the “nation” in his project not hegemonic?

M: The principled rejection of the strategy of “national liberation,” understood in terms of the pursuit of a Kurdish nation-state, has included a rather elaborate set of arguments against the insidious evils of what Öcalan refers to as “feudal nationalism,” most often in reference to the example of Barzani in South Kurdistan. The ideological and programmatic re-orientation of the Kurdish Freedom Movement thus includes not just a renunciation of the goal of a state, but more ambitiously, the aspiration to transcend altogether the confines of the “nationalist imaginary.” Such a transcendence should not be confused with repudiating pride in Kurdishness, but rather, with escaping the dialectic of “majority” versus “minority.” Indeed, as Öcalan has insisted, “in democratic confederalism there is no room for any kind of hegemony striving.”

Self-administration and autonomous organization of direct democratic assemblies, not to mention, of self-defense militias, for all ethnic and religious groups is the alternative to the tyranny of the majority, to the “hegemonic striving” deeply ingrained in the ideology of nationalism. A tall order to ask from a movement that has sacrificed so many lives for the dream of a Greater Kurdistan. An exercise in democratic leadership, if ever there was one, on the part of Öcalan, his attempt to get his followers to dream internationalist dreams of radical democracy, to imagine forms of confederation that cut across and beyond the mental borders imposed by the cult of national community. Easier to pronounce than to achieve.

“Self-administration and autonomous organization of direct democratic assemblies, not to mention, of self-defense militias, for all ethnic and religious groups is the alternative to the tyranny of the majority, to the “hegemonic striving” deeply ingrained in the ideology of nationalism.”

KCS: You recently wrote a book entitled Struggles for Self-Determination in the 21st Century, what prompted you to do so?

M: We live in an era of collective existential crisis, in which it is imperative that we think anew the fundamental categories of political life. The essays collected in that volume all reflect a preoccupation with self-determination, a concept and principle as indispensable as it is contentious.

The essays were almost all composed in the aftermath of my encounter with the Kurdish Freedom Movement, whose leader and inspiration, Abdullah Öcalan, has undertaken an impressive and valiant effort to redefine self-determination, from his lonely prison cell on Imrali Island.

Before actively engaging with the Kurdish struggle, my orientation towards appeals to self-determination had been perhaps excessively critical. I had long been sceptical of the paradigm of national liberation within which the discourse of self-determination seems to be most frequently situated. My conviction was that there is a relatively ubiquitous tendency to essentialize and reify the collective “self” in this discourse, and that therefore the application of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” seems the most appropriate response to any and all appeals to such a principle. More specifically, I maintained that in any context where the discourse of self-determination emerges as salient, this discourse should be subjected to a sociological interrogation, in order to illuminate just how it is embedded in concrete constellations of material and social power relations, and to decipher whether it tends to legitimize and reinforce or, alternatively, subvert existing hierarchies.

I remain convinced that the cultivation of a sociological sensibility, that is, awareness of how the discourse of self-determination is embedded in and tends to affect existing power relations in any given context, is crucial. However, at the same time, I have become increasingly persuaded that it is equally important to pay attention to the creative appropriations and resignifications of the core categories of this discourse as employed in particular times and places. The transformation of the Kurdish Freedom Movement, its effort to transcend the paradigm of national liberation; to resignify self-determination in terms of the struggle for radical, direct democracy against the state; the struggle for multi-cultural and multi-religious accommodation; the struggle for gender emancipation; and the struggle for ecological sustainability, has impressed upon me the potency and potential for simultaneous discursive continuity and paradigm shift.

In a word, what we witness is a convergence between appeals to the doctrine of self-determination and the pursuit of the democratic confederal ideal in the Kurdish context. This is self-determination of a different kind. It is no longer aligned with the aspiration for a sovereign Kurdish nation-state. Instead, it has come to mean the struggle against illegitimate and unjust hierarchy in all its forms – including the domination by the state over political and ethical society, the domination by one ethnicity or sect over others, the domination of man over woman, and the domination of humans over nature.

A most ambitious agenda, the extent of acceptance of which by the activists and core constituency of the movement, merits rigorous empirical inquiry, to be certain. However, even at the level of programmatic imperative, the reorientation and rearticulation of self-determination achieved by Öcalan, and at least partially emulated by his followers in the movement remains quite remarkable.

“The transformation of the Kurdish Freedom Movement, its effort to transcend the paradigm of national liberation; to resignify self-determination in terms of the struggle for radical, direct democracy against the state; the struggle for multi-cultural and multi-religious accommodation; the struggle for gender emancipation; and the struggle for ecological sustainability, has impressed upon me the potency and potential for simultaneous discursive continuity and paradigm shift.”

KCS: What do you think about the joint declaration of Sweden and Finland with Turkey under the auspices of NATO to fight against the Kurdish movement after they joined NATO? Do you think that this will also have an impact on AANES?

M: I think it shows Turkey’s strategic leverage within NATO in the context of the unfolding conflict with Russia. NATO has opted for WWIII, and so it is not surprising that fascists like Erdoğan are empowered. It should disable anybody of the idea that NATO is in any way an ally of the Kurds. On the other hand, it shows the total capitulation of European Social Democracy before the dictates of NATO. Concerning the second part of your question, yes, this will inevitably increase the pressure on the AANES by the forces of Turkish fascism.

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