In his new book, Jeff Miley traces and analyses the idea in theory and practice, as it has evolved via Marxist thought through post-colonial struggles for self-determination to its present-day application by the Kurdish freedom movement. Matt Broomfield spoke with Miley to learn more about his contribution to the political conversation inspired by Abdullah Öcalan
30 June 2023 | Medya News
The contentious and explosive concept of ‘self-determination’ lies at the heart of the political struggle for a better world, according to Jeff Miley, a lecturer in political sociology at the University of Cambridge. In a new book, the academic traces and analyses the idea in theory and practice, as it has evolved via Marxist thought through post-colonial struggles for self-determination to its present-day application by the Kurdish freedom movement.
‘Self-Determination Struggles: In Pursuit of the Democratic Confederalist Ideal’ draws on numerous sources, including the anti-imperialist socialist Rosa Luxembourg and Marxist pan-Africanist Frantz Fanon, to critique both the state-socialist model of self-determination and attempts to co-opt this revolutionary idea in service of liberal, neo-colonial hegemony. As such, the movement is written in conversation with the work and ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, the intellectual figurehead of the Kurdish movement whose ideas have proven influential in Kurdistan and beyond despite his decades-long incarceration by the Turkish authorities.
Medya News’ Matt Broomfield spoke with Miley to learn more about his contribution to the political conversation inspired by Öcalan. Highlights follow, and you can listen to the full conversation above.
What is the political history of ‘self-determination’?
The notion of self-determination lies at the very core of the democratic ideal. The idea that we should be able to exercise control over the forces that control us. Self-determination is born alongside the idea of the sovereignty of the people… 2.24 There are various iterations of the idea of the idea of self-determination in the 19th, 20th to 21st centuries, and it became a dominant standpoint for the international order as well. So it’s both born with the struggle of the people, and against empire.
What contribution did Öcalan make to this idea’s evolution?
Öcalan, particularly since his imprisonment, but even before, began to articulate an understanding of self-determination that doesn’t mean an aspiration for a nation-state. And there I think Öcalan’s articulation of self-determination is world historic. With the revolution in Rojava, the significance of the project catches the revolutionary imagination of the left more generally.
Beyond his commonly-cited relationship to Murray Bookchin, how does Öcalan’s work follow other post-colonial struggles and thinkers?
I think there’s an affinity between the call, which is very in vogue in the academy, to ‘decolonise’ things, and the way in which Öcalan builds upon Wallerstein with respect to world-systems theory. Öcalan has an articulation of self-determination which has an affinity with all sorts of accounts, from Mignolo through to the Zapatistas. There’s an elective affinity between things which Öcalan is calling for, and things which are happening on the Left after the demise of the state-communist project. Öcalan and the Kurdish freedom movement, born as a national liberation movement, can transcend its national underpinnings and be at the forefront of the theory of freedom understood as self-determination in the 21st century.
Where can we see these ideas developing beyond Rojava and the Zapatista movement in Mexico?
There’s potential to spread the good news that Öcalan brings, and proselytize for a re-orientation of grass-roots political movements, in accordance with this dialogue that Öcalan has so usefully sparked. 13.00 The project that I’m working on right now is born out of an essay that I wrote last year called ‘I dreamed I was a Rasta’. This is about experiences I had in the ghettos of Nairobi with Rastafarian elements of these community empowerment groups that have been springing up for the past decade. Talking to them about Öcalan’s ideas and the way in which they got very excited when I was talking about Öcalan’s ideas, they saw a continuity between Öcalan’s ideas and the Land and Freedom or Mau-Mau movement.
What are the contradictions and potential pitfalls in the Kurdish freedom movement’s approach to self-determination?
Any revolution, in order to survive, has to spread. The difficulty the Kurdish revolution in Syria has is that it’s surrounded by such implacable foes, and forced to be co-opted in a sense, or to be crushed, or perhaps both, if it doesn’t spread. In order for the revolution to spread, we have to have a critical assessment of its strengths and limitations. Where the revolution has been very good at acceding to political power, the question [remains] of the transition to democratic confederalism and what are the prospects of moving toward that, given the war economy and surrounding war conditions. I don’t think it’s supportive to support the movement without being critical at the same time. We can provide a critique and engage in a dialogue which overcomes the neo-colonial aspect as we talk to one another as equals.