The perils and promise of self-determination

  • October 21, 2017

Autonomy & Authority

Could Öcalan’s democratic confederalism offer a revolutionary alternative to the stalemated outcomes of the Catalan and Kurdish independence referendums?

Police violence against peaceful demonstrators in Barcelona. Military occupation by Iraqi army forces in Kirkuk. Institutions of autonomy and self-rule severely undermined from Catalonia to Kurdistan. The images are shocking, the state repression certainly repulsive. How did these nationalist conflicts become so polarized? What triggered such aggressive state responses? How are these ongoing conflicts likely to develop? And what are the prospects for rights-expanding, emancipatory denouements in each case?

It’s been over a century since Rosa Luxemburg rightly insisted upon the need to critically evaluate all claims about abstract and utopian principles — such as the principle of self-determination — in terms of their concrete impact on both local and global constellations of power relations. However, Luxemburg’s prescient warnings were long drowned out by the triumph of Marxism-Leninism and its influence upon the terms and horizons of so many anti-colonial struggles.

Nearly a generation after the demise of state communism, and nearly sixty years since the transition from colonialism to neo-colonialism, it is high time for us to heed Red Rosa’s sage advice, to strike a consistent chord in favor of internationalist revolutionary ideals. The global scope of the urgent problems that beset humanity, that threaten its very future, require globally coordinated forms of resistance. The global scope of “intersecting” and unjust hierarchies, of deeply-entrenched systems of domination — of class, of race, of gender — means that, now less than ever, the fatal formula of socialism in one country will simply not suffice.

Even so, the “international left” remains confused, still-clinging to hollow dogmas about the principle of self-determination, all-too-often mystified by reified, essentialist and nationalist visions and divisions of the social world, all-too-rarely capable of providing sober and “ruthlessly critical” analyses of the dynamics of mobilization and counter-mobilization at work in particular power struggles, in particular “peoplehood projects,” much less how such particular projects and power struggles relate to broader global trends.

We need look no further than the cases of Catalonia and Kurdistan, both dominating the headlines in recent days and weeks, where two highly contested, unilateral referendums on “self-determination” have taken place, in both instances reflecting as well as exacerbating already-spiraling dynamics of polarization and repression. The discussion of these conflicts in left-wing circles, perhaps especially in the English language, leaves much to be desired.

In both cases, even the most critical of analysts tend to bow before the sacred principle of self-determination, and thus tend to avoid evaluating secessionist tactics in the “ruthlessly critical” terms of their impact on local and global constellations of power relations. In both cases, the machinations of political elites have been confused and conflated with the “will of the people.” In both cases, “the Catalans” and “the Kurds” tend to be referred to as if they were unitary actors. In both cases, serious differences and divisions within, and perhaps especially at the margins of, these reified “national communities,” as well as competing projects of “self-determination,” have been systematically ignored — as have the serious differences and divisions within their reified “national” opponents. Such are the insidious ways of nationalist reification.

Conflict in Catalonia

In the case of Catalonia, much enthusiasm has been expressed in favor of the tactics and strategy of the expressly anti-capitalist Candidaturas d’Unitat Popular (CUP). And indeed, the CUP’s programmatic emphasis on feminism, social ecology and direct democracy is certainly to be lauded. Even so, its relative strength within secessionist ranks has tended to be overestimated, and its exclusive commitment to tactics of unilateral rupture, its dogmatic faith in the formula of “national independence” as the route to rupture with capitalism, must be critically interrogated.

This dogmatic formula has predictably led the CUP into a coalition with kleptocratic, bourgeois secessionist forces, legitimated via a miraculous 1515-1515 assembly vote. In this capacity, in 2015, the CUP would even be driven to vote in favor of the “regional” austerity budget. The CUP’s insistence upon the urgency of unilateral secession has also had predictably little success in attracting much in the way of support in the old industrial belt.

Indeed, all too little has been said about the limits to the appeal of the secessionist project in Catalonia, or its impact upon the broader terms of political contestation throughout all of Spain. For starters, as Antonio Santamaria has rightly emphasized, a look at participation rates in different municipalities proves most illustrative of the definite limits to secessionist appeal amongst the working class in Catalonia. For example, in the emblematic industrial belt town of Santa Coloma de Gramenet, the rate of participation in the referendum came in at less than 18 percent of the electoral census; whereas in the emblematically wealthy town of Sant Cugat del Vallès, by contrast, the rate of participation was over 54 percent.

To make matters worse, polarization around the “national question” has served to legitimate austerity politics and to keep corrupt, demagogic politicians unaccountable on both sides of the Ebro river. At the same time, it has served to shift the terms of debate forced onto the agenda by the indignados, who framed the basic antagonism in fundamentally class terms, as a struggle between haves and have-nots, rather than as a conflict between territories, a struggle between “nations.” Given the concrete constellation of social relations in the Iberian peninsula, it is very difficult for a struggle framed primarily in “national” terms to avoid the fait accompli of dividing and conquering the working class, not only in Catalonia but, perhaps especially, in the rest of Spain, too.

Given the balance of both legal and brute force, unilateral independence for Catalonia is nothing short of a pipe dream; some sort of negotiations with the political forces in power in Madrid would always be required to achieve a successful secessionist outcome. And, of course, the ideological orientation of the Spain-wide hegemonic bloc with whom would-be secessionists must negotiate matters quite a bit. So even out of self-interest, one might expect the secessionist bloc to work to strengthen the prospects and voice of the broader Spanish left. But instead, their unilateral secessionist tactics have played right into the hands of the Spanish right.

Not that the broader Spanish left is blameless. The “parliamentary cretinism” and opportunism of Podemos, and, to a lesser extent, even some of the municipal platforms — their co-optation, usurpation and at least partial undermining of the grassroots demands and direct-democratic logic of the indignado movement — has undoubtedly limited the appeal and potential of their counterhegemonic new-new-left project, and thus, by extension, helped pave the way for the substitution of class conflict by national conflict, with horizons of contestation polarized not for and against painful policies of austerity, but instead, for and against the so-called procés.

Pablo Iglesias and especially Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona and leader of the Comunes, have done their best to maintain a posture of calculated ambiguity, to keep the prospects for a “third way” between unilateral secession and ever-increasing state repression alive. But such efforts threaten to be drowned out in the successive waves of polarizing confrontation between Spanish and Catalan nationalisms.

Meanwhile, the bankrupt neoliberal “social democrats” of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) have fallen into line with the authoritarian escalation and tactics of repression pursued by the Spanish authorities. The PSOE itself has been riven with conflict over the past year, with current leader Pedro Sánchez already deposed once but now back again, marginally more prone to accommodation and compromise on the national question than are his intra-party foes, who prefer to mimic the Spanish right’s belligerent language about an alleged Catalan “coup” from the pages of El País, and do their best to legitimate and applaud (when not deny) state repression and police violence.

The Balance of Forces in Struggle

If Luxemburg was right to stress the importance of critically evaluating abstract claims for “self-determination” in terms of their impact on concrete constellations of power relations, Lenin was nevertheless also right to retort that the dangers of “big-nation” chauvinism should never be underestimated when making such evaluations. And indeed, big-nation Spanish chauvinism has certainly been on abundant display in recent months and weeks. In the social media and mainstream Spanish press, every aggression by the Spanish authorities has been celebrated, the more repressive and violent, the better.

The patriarchal core of Spanish nationalism thus re-emerges, with a vengeance. Like an abusive husband, the very same excuses used to justify violence against a wife who wants to leave. Union by force, because, you know, we love her so much. And for the sake of the kids, of course.

The Spanish right has even proven a disturbing capacity for popular counter-mobilization, with close to a million people filling the streets of Barcelona the weekend after the contested referendum, rallying around a Spanish flag already soaked in so much blood, cynically justified as defense of the constitution and “the rule of law,” even “civil rights,” even as far-right elements blended easily into the crowd, as if imperceptible, swimming freely, in their natural habitat, like fish in water. Popular counter-mobilization, officially led by “civil society,” though of course organically linked to the right-wing Spanish political forces who control the Spanish state.

The street-mobilizational element in the Spanish nationalist repertoire is a relative novelty, at least in Catalonia, at the same time that it is a reflection of the polarizing spiral in which the polity seems trapped. A relative novelty, but one that both mimics and reflects tactics long practiced by their erstwhile opponents, the Catalan authorities.

Make no mistake, the image of the conflict under way as one pitting the Spanish “state” against the Catalan “people” is an oversimplification, at best. All too often ignored is the crucial role played by the Catalan “regional” authorities and the “regional” mass media in pushing forward the procés, as well as the organic links between the Catalan government and regional administrative apparatus with such “civil society” organizations as the Assemblea Nacional de Catalunya and Òmnium Cultural, whose leaders were unjustly imprisoned without bail this week.

Nor can be forgotten the fawning over the Catalan “regional” police for its “professional” and “impressive” hunting down of those Moroccan-Catalan teenage terror suspects, their extra-judicial killings, with extreme prejudice, applauded in so many secessionist circles. Which just goes to show how close the Catalans already are to having a state of their own. Nevertheless, we must insist: multiplying “independent” state apparatuses is not the same thing as smashing the state.

The conflict between “Spain” and “Catalonia” is first and foremost a conflict between central and “regional” state apparatuses, in which both sides have benefitted from polarizing and utopian demagoguery. Which is not to deny either side niches of genuine popular appeal, especially in the ranks of the secessionist popular forces, whose core constituency can be found among Catalan-speaking middle classes, squeezed and threatened by austerity. Even so, a realistic assessment of the balance of forces in struggle requires a sober recognition of the role of political elites in control of state apparatuses on both sides of the conflict.

But let there be no confusion. If the still-spiralling conflict is best understood as fundamentally a stand-off between central and regional political elites and state apparatuses, both willing and increasingly able to mobilize a considerable degree of “popular” support, the balance of legal and coercive power nevertheless lays squarely with the Spanish state. As does the balance of economic force.

The commanding heights of the Catalan economy have consistently voiced a preference for a negotiated solution to the current impasse, emphasizing, of course, the need for concessions of greater fiscal autonomy. Even so, their clear opposition to a unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan authorities may end up being the decisive factor in determining the conflict’s denouement. For the Catalan authorities had crucially sold their utopian project of secession as low-cost, and had repeatedly promised that secession would mean more prosperity for all Catalans, once the yoke of Madrid had been shaken off. Many Catalans have likely been disabused of such illusions in the weeks since the contested referendum.

The business community in Catalonia reacted swiftly; big businesses, in particular, have simply too much to lose, especially given the very real possibility of forced exclusion from the EU in the case of a successful unilateral declaration of independence, as European authorities have repeatedly insisted. And so, the Catalan business community acted, with a wave of corporate flight, thereby delivering a devastating, perhaps decisive blow, to the secessionist roadmap, after at least 45 big and medium-sized firms transferred their corporate headquarters to other regions of Spain, including six of seven of its largest corporations, the ones listed in the Spanish Ibex, the index comprised of the 35 Spanish companies with the most liquidity.

This swift blow from the commanding heights of the Catalan economy may or may not prove decisive, but it has certainly been more effective in bringing the separatists to heel than beating up grandmothers trying to vote, taking political prisoners, or suspending Catalan autonomy, though perhaps such an economic blow is not as satisfying for those whose Spanish-nationalist appetites seem to demand more heavy-handed forms of state repression. A penchant for heavy-handedness that might just backfire in the short run, and that certainly will not be forgotten anytime soon, indeed will reinforce the sense of grievance that permeates and motivates secessionist imaginaries and convictions.

Meanwhile, many on the Eurosceptic left, perhaps especially in Britain, appear willing to cheer the secessionist movement on in its forward flight, to urge it to jump off any cliff, to applaud anything that “exacerbates the contradictions,” anything that promises to bring more instability for the EU project, without much in the way of a realistic assessment of which concrete social forces are bound to benefit from the climate of increased turbulence and nationalist conflict. Pyromania disguised as revolutionary courage. Never mind the fact that the vast majority of secessionists have consistently insisted upon their deep-felt pro-EU convictions, even their commitment to austerity, despite the official position of the still small minority CUP.

Even more crucially, the Eurosceptic left seems to ignore that, in the case of Spain, the potential for the victory of right-wing, authoritarian backlash is indeed very real, while the secessionist dream of establishing a left-wing independent Catalan republic is bound to remain a utopian fantasy, certainly so long as it fails to find much in the way of support among the working class of Barcelona’s Metropolitan Area, who, given the deep history and legacy of internal migration from the South of Spain, find themselves all too frequently torn, caught in the crossfires, alienated from both sides, each of which demands increasingly-exclusive allegiance and loyalty to “the nation.”

Conflict in Iraqi Kurdistan

Speaking of pyromania, let us now briefly turn our attention to a region of the world that two war-criminal pyromaniacs, Bush and Blair, set on fire close to a decade and a half ago now — with the help of their good buddy José María Aznar, it should not be forgotten, their loyal lap-dog and junior-partner in the catastrophically-destabilizing “Coalition of the Willing.” In Iraqi Kurdistan has taken place another contested referendum, exacerbating a conflict and stand-off between central and “regional” authorities. Another case, too, protagonized by a beleaguered regional president, in this case Masoud Barzani, even more beleaguered than the corruption-plagued Catalan ruling elite.

Indeed, Barzani finds himself unconstitutionally clinging to power, having served as regional president for close to two and a half years longer than the constitutionally-enshrined term-limit permits. The regional administrative and coercive apparatuses remain divided between those loyal to his KDP and those loyal to the recently-deceased former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and his rival PUK. Meanwhile, payments from the central authorities have been frozen since January 2014, over ongoing disputes about the distribution of oil resources. This, combined with falling oil prices, has meant a climate of serious economic difficulties for the regional authorities.

To offset the predictable rise in discontent, Barzani responded with a ratcheting-up of political repression, including repression of opposition forces in the regional parliament. But since consent cannot be manufactured through coercion alone, he decided to combine this with a populist power-move, via recourse to a plebiscite — more specifically, to a unilateral referendum on “self-determination,” a demagogic and utopian ploy; a means of legitimating, securing, even tightening, his grip on power. Even if, like his counterparts in Catalonia, he may well have over-played his cards, underestimating the counter-currents that his attempt at unilateral rupture would unleash.

The referendum, held on September 25, brought out a fairly impressive 73 percent of voters, close to 93 percent of whom voted yes. Clear evidence of a super-majority in favor of Kurdish independence, perhaps not surprising given the genocidal violence they have suffered. Even so, Talabani’s PUK had nevertheless warned against the referendum. As of course had Barzani’s American backers, who, after failing to persuade him to desist, were little-inclined to defend their “self-determining” oil-revenue-based, kleptocratic client.

Not surprisingly, even more angry were Barzani’s other erstwhile backers, the Turkish authorities. Barzani’s referendum predictably stoked the paranoias of the far-right on whom Turkish President Erdogan currently depends. It cannot be forgotten that complicity with the Turkish authorities, including collaboration and coordination in their ongoing war against the PKK, has been essential to Barzani’s project from the start. The Turkish authorities threatened to block oil exports and even close the borders in the wake of the referendum. Threats that, if fulfilled, would certainly bring the Barzani regime to its knees.

As for Barzani’s opponents in Baghdad, they responded almost immediately by stopping international flights into and out of Erbil and Sulaymania, along with demands for the KRG authorities to hand over control over airports. Before the week was out, the Iraqi and Iranian armed forces would be holding joint border drills on Iran’s border with the KRG. And on October 15, the Iraqi army would take Kirkuk without a fight, after having presumably cut a deal with the PUK forces who had controlled the contested oil-fields ever since the surge of ISIS in the summer of 2014. The PUK’s retreat from Kirkuk in turn triggered retreats from over 40 percent of disputed territory gained back then, and that had been showcased by Barzani as a constituent part of the KRG during the referendum. A stunning reversal, the result of an overplayed hand. And a human rights’ catastrophe in its own right, despite the avoidance of war, with reports of over 100,000 people fleeing from their homes in Kirkuk.

The Democratic Confederal Alternative

The discussion in Western leftist circles of events in Iraqi Kurdistan has been a bit more divided, due to the prevalence of suspicions about the geopolitical alliances binding “the Kurds” to the Americans, and even, on some accounts, to the Israelis. And yet, the discussion has been even more oversimplified and misleading than the one about Catalonia.

For starters, the forces behind the referendum are often referred to as simply “the Kurds,” thereby ignoring the deep divisions within the KRG, much less between the KRG and other parts of Kurdistan. Perhaps most problematically, so too is ignored the radical difference between Barzani’s nationalist project of “self-determination” and the tactics and strategy of the Kurdish Freedom Movement, including the PKK and the revolutionary forces in control in Rojava, Northern Syria, all inspired by the imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan, and by his program and model of democratic confederalism.

Democratic confederalism is a radical democratic project based on citizens’ assemblies, defended by citizens’ militias. It is a program and model which constitutes a radical reconceptualization of self-determination, one defined in terms of direct democracy against the state. A reconceptualization of “self-determination” that renounces as divisive and utopian the equation of the struggle for national freedom with the goal of an independent nation-state, and that seeks to overcome the danger of majority tyranny by institutionalizing a “revolutionary-consociational” regime. A consociational regime whose “social contract” guarantees multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, and multi-religious accommodation, by implementing quotas for political representation (concretely, in Rojava, for Arabs and for Assyrian Christians), by direct assemblies of different constituent groups, and by mobilizing these groups in their own militias of self-defense.

At the same time, democratic confederalism is a radical democratic project which also emphasizes gender emancipation, and implements a model of co-presidency and a quota system that enforces gender equality in all forms of political representation, by organizing women’s assemblies and women’s academies, and by mobilizing women in their own militia for self-defense. Finally, democratic confederalism is a radical democratic project which stresses the importance of “social ecology” and environmental sustainability, in a place where the soil bleeds oil.

Indeed, in striking contrast to Barzani’s project of “self-determination,” Öcalan and the Kurdish Freedom Movement’s “democratic confederal” project constitutes the only alternative to the negative dialectic of tyranny and chaos currently engulfing the region. Theirs is a project that combines radical democracy, self-defense, multi-cultural and multi-religious accommodation, gender emancipation, as well as social ecology. Theirs is a real road map for peace in the Middle East, and beyond. Perhaps even for Catalonia and Spain, where the CUP and the Comunes and the broader Spanish left could all certainly learn a thing or two from the valiant example of the revolutionary sisters and brothers in the Kurdish Freedom Movement.

As Abdullah Öcalan has powerfully put the point, in a moment of critical self-reflection, while trying to explain the motivations behind his principled renunciation of the goal of an independent nation-state:

If I am guilty of anything, then it is the fact that I accepted the culture of power and war. I became part of it since I was almost religiously convinced that we needed a state to become free, and that therefore we had to fight a war. Only few of those who fight for freedom and for the oppressed can save themselves from this disease. Thus, I have not only become guilty in the eyes of the ruling system but also with respect to the struggle for freedom for which I have given all I had.

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Thomas Jeffrey Miley

Thomas Jeffrey Miley is Lecturer of Political Sociology in the Department of Sociology at Cambridge. His research interests include comparative nationalisms and democratic theory. He is currently working on a project on struggles for self-determination in the twenty-first century.

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