Dr. Thomas Jeffrey Miley
Lecturer of Political Sociology, Cambridge, and Member of the EUTCC Executive Board
Thank you very much. It is an honor to get the chance to speak here again, I was here last year also speaking, and today on this panel as well, with its very important interventions, with respect to this question of what international solidarity must look like in the 21st century, and I do think that the international campaign of solidarity, particularly with the Freedom for Öcalan campaign, is very important. And it is important that people spread the message of Abdullah Öcalan. I myself have been committed to doing that. This book that we have recently published has been part of getting that message out, and I think it is urgent that we do so.
I have been asked to speak about this question, towards a new internationalism, this book was born as an effort of international solidarity, linked to the experiences of the Imrali Delegation, which, I think it is worth mentioning, the book is in honor of Judge Essa Moosa, who was Nelson Mandela’s lawyer who originally spearheaded these Imrali Delegations, these international delegations pushing for a reignition of the failed peace process, right as things were escalating and the human rights situation was moving towards the abyss very rapidly that we find ourselves in right now.
But there has been a lot said about the situation in Turkey, and in the Middle East. I want to focus on why I think Öcalan and his message is so important. I want to begin, very much like what Federico was saying, by reaffirming that international solidarity is not at all about charity, but that actually the Kurdish Freedom Movement is at the vanguard of a struggle which is a global struggle, a struggle for the very existence of humanity. So let us begin with a diagnosis of the situation, so that we can understand that, as we sit here in Europe, even though it seems that this Kurdish struggle is somewhere else, that the struggle that the Kurdish movement finds itself in the trenches of is the struggle for the very future of humanity. This is something I wrote a while back, and I think that we begin with a diagnosis, and then we turn to talk a little bit about the significance of Öcalan’s message, the Kurdish answer, as Federico says, and then some of the strategic impasses, and I will have some things to say about what I think internationalism requires going forward. In terms of the diagnosis:
Humanity and all life on the planet are under serious threat of extinction. The tyranny of the plutocrats and the war-mongers has most perversely inverted Fukuyama’s prophecy about the end of history, giving it a self-fulfilling, apocalyptic twist. The imminent onset of an Anthropocene, or genocide-cum-ecocide, is virtually ignored by the mainstream press, around the globe. While the Orwellian war on terror and, now, a resuscitated Cold War, fan the flames of resurgent reactionary nationalisms. Most of the public – at least in Europe, the United States, the rich countries – fails to take note, remaining caught within the confines of consumerism, their consciousness constricted and confused by the infotainment and entertainment industries. Even among those trying to pay attention, comic-book consciousness reigns supreme. The ever-more sophisticated weapons of mass distraction effectively manufacture popular consent for the creation, sale, and use of ever-more lethal weapons of mass destruction. While the multinational corporations collude to contain and control the global governing institutions – including this Parliament here – rendering them unaccountable to the vast majority of humanity, oriented instead towards securing the production and reproduction of ever-more unfettered market relations, at the behest and in the service of the greed and rapaciousness of the privileged few. A collective existential crisis for humanity, consumed by the quest for freedom as domination, as if propelled by a spiralling dialectic of creation and destruction.
The anti-capitalist left has been thoroughly demoralised. The revolutionary flame, all but extinguished by the defeat, and by the crimes, of state-communism. And yet, and yet – and here is where the Kurdish Freedom Movement comes in – resistance flares up, again and again. Wherever there is tyranny, sooner or later resistance emerges. The human spirit, its determination, its resilience, indeed, its propensity to engage in collective struggles against injustice, can only be suppressed for so long.
The urgent problems, the entrenched obstacles to collective rationality, that humanity must face and successfully surmount if we are to survive, are immense, and global in scope. We desperately need a new internationalism, to help coordinate and connect local struggles against unjust hierarchies and intersecting systems of domination – systems of domination of of class, of ethnicity and race, of gender, over nature. The time is now, or never.
So that is the diagnosis of the situation. It is grave, and it affects all of us, all of us. Some people are in the trenches, and other people can, for the time being, continue to live in a bubble, but this bubble will burst, and is bound to burst.
And so, let me just say, I came to the Kurdish movement, I had the fortune of having a student come to me at Cambridge by the name of Dilar Dirik, who wrote the forwards of this book, Your Freedom and Mine. She invited me on an academic delegation to Rojava, back in December of 2014, when Kobane was still under siege. So I had the fortune of experiencing what is a very difficult situation obviously, but nonetheless, very inspiring to see something that I had only read about in books, you know, I spent a lot of time studying Spanish politics, the history of the Spanish revolution in the 1930s, revolutionary pasts, but I thought of revolutions as a thing of the past, and to witness this revolution as it is taking place, as it was taking place under the most grave and grievous of circumstances, of total war, nonetheless was, in one respect, very inspiring, to see this will to resist, this heroic resistance.
And the heroic resistance of Kobane is I think something that is of world-historical significance, insofar as it reignited the imagination, revolutionary imaginations, of an alternative, of a possible alternative to the tyranny and chaos ripping the Middle East and the world apart, in fact. So, in the first instance, I see the Kurdish Freedom Movement, and the Kurdish answer to the problems of capitalist modernity, the contradictions, as they get more and more exacerbated, in the first instance, the Kurdish answer, and something we all have to learn about, and learn from the Kurdish movement, is this heroic will to resist. And it is a revolutionary flame of resistance, the Kurdish movement is not unique historically, but it may be unique at this moment in history, keeping this flame alive. And as someone who comes from the United States, such a culprit with respect to the situation in the present but also historically, this heroic will to resist reminded me of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, something I read in high school and in college in the United States, Frederick Douglass was a slave in the United States, someone who experienced the worst form of unfreedom, the worst form of tyranny, but managed to achieve his freedom, and became a prominent advocate in the struggle for abolition, emancipation from slavery, and wrote eloquently about his experiences. And there is something that he says, and this is the first volume of his autobiography which rings very true, and I see the continuity between the struggle for freedom as Frederick Douglass articulates that struggle and the struggle for freedom that the Kurdish Freedom Movement is engaged in, and that we all need to be engaged in, if humanity is to survive.
In the first part of this book in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he talks about all of the things that he experienced, he refers to it as a socialisation into subservience, a socialisation into assuming his position, his condition, his lot in life as a slave. And then he turns and he tells how a spark of resistance came, how he came somehow inexplicably, how he decided that come what may that he would resist, and he gets involved in a struggle, a physical struggle in fact, with a slave-driver, someone who his owner, who had been relatively benevolent, had rented him out to. And he talks about this will to resist, he recounts this physical struggle that he has, this determination that come what may, he will struggle to the death, and he talks about this struggle, and he says:
“This battle with Mr. Covey – [this slave-driver who had beat him]– was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification accorded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection from the tomb of slavery to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place, and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping me must also succeed in killing me.”
So this is something that I think the Kurdish Freedom Movement in many ways embodies, and pushes forward, this courageous will to struggle. And we need to learn about this, from this, because we need to rekindle this flame if we are going to overcome this tyrannical war on terror, this globally cohesive plutocracy, this pending climate catastrophe. We need to understand what it takes to struggle.
But it is not just the will to struggle; it is also struggling for something which is a viable and desirable alternative to this capitalist modernity, the project of democratic confederalism. A project espoused, articulated, inspired by the imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan. And so I think it is very important to talk about democratic confederalism, but also link it to Abdullah Öcalan, to the cause of the freedom for Öcalan, because Öcalan is considered terrorist number one, the PKK on the list of terrorist organisations, and so to talk about the freedom for Öcalan, to do what the British trade union movement is now courageously doing, to espouse that, is to begin to think about what it will require to dismantle this war machine, this war machine that must be dismantled.
And so let me just end with a couple of reflections – if I may take a couple minutes over my allotted time. Let me just talk about what this model is, and why Öcalan’s answer to this diagnosis is, I think, so important for people to take very seriously. This comes from the book, a review of Öcalan’s Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization:
All respect for Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish freedom movement, “chained to the rock of Imralı.” he is a symbol of resistance, resilience, and fortitude, a responsible leader and prophet with a powerful political vision—a vision that has inspired the revolutionaries in Rojava, in Syria, and that fuels the Kurdish resistance to Erdoğan’s tyranny in the southeast of Turkey.
The heroic defense of Kobane caught the world’s attention with the movement’s will to struggle, its ability to mobilize the people for collective self-defense, to sacrifice, and to die for a cause. is cause is the project of “democratic confederalism,” a project which represents the only alternative to the negative dialectic of tyranny and chaos currently tearing the Middle East apart and, in Öcalan’s terms, the only alternative to “hierarchical and dominated civilization.”
The project of “democratic confederalism” in construction in Rojava is an experiment in radical, direct democracy, based on citizens’ assemblies, defended by citizens’ militias. It is a radical democratic project that emphasizes gender emancipation, by implementing 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.
It is a radical democratic project that redefines “self-determination” as direct democracy against the State, 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” system. The social contract of such a consociational regime guarantees multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, and multi-religious accommodation by implementing quotas for political representation (concretely, 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. It is a radical democratic project that stresses the importance of “social ecology” and environmental sustainability in a place where the soil bleeds oil, and imperial vultures circle in the sky. In sum, it represents an alternative to the dialectic of tyranny and chaos, an alternative to the colonial machinations of divide and conquer, a project that combines radical democracy, self-defense, gender emancipation, multi-cultural and multi-religious accommodation, as well as social ecology. This is a real road map for peace.
The road map sketched by an imprisoned leader with a prophetic message, a man who, especially since his abduction, has, even in the harshest of conditions, been eloquent and prolific in elaborating his model of “democratic confederalism”—initially as part of his defense in his trial. Paradoxically, prison has proven a space of intellectual freedom for Mr. Öcalan, as it was for Trotsky, for Gramsci, for Malcolm X, even Mandela before him. While behind bars, he has spent much of his time reading (though with very limited access to books), writing, and reflecting upon his predicament, that of his people, and that of the modern world.
For this reason, he deserves our respect, and his message deserves to be spread. And I think that one of the things that we as internationalist people who come to the Kurdish movement, this I think is a very important thing for us to do, is to think about how we can spread that message.
This past summer, I had the fortune to be in East Africa, I spent time organising with people in the ghettoes of Nairobi, at a place called the Mathare Social Justice Centre, and I was very inspired, and it made me very hopeful to see, first of all, the fact that they were already somehow converging on democratic confederalism, but also how receptive they were to the message. Nairobi is not just any place, of course. This is the place where Öcalan himself was abducted. To see, in a place in the world where people have literally nothing to lose but their chains, in Mathare, a place that was once the place where the Mau Mau hid in Nairobi, and now is a ghetto in the very worst of conditions, to see people organising against extra-judicial police executions, against all forms of severe state deprivation, understanding very clearly the limits of freedom in the context of the post-colonial state, how enthusiastic they were in hearing about Öcalan’s message, in wanting to spread Öcalan’s message themselves. In fact, they are right now beginning to organise for a demonstration on the 15th of February, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of Öcalan’s abduction.
So I think this is an important thing, to think about the places in the world, and I think it is important also for the Kurdish movement to think about this, because for obvious reasons, linked to where the diaspora is, where the power politics play, the Kurdish movement itself is often very oriented towards Europe, thinking about how we can lobby in Europe. We are here in Europe, we are talking about internationalism always from a European perspective, but in fact there are many places in the world where it is a lot easier to talk about the message of Abdullah Öcalan and have it received with the kind of enthusiasm, places where people have nothing to lose but their chains, where the contradictions of capitalist modernity are felt most gravely.
So I think that is one first kind of concluding point, and then let me make a second point, and I will end on that. So we need to spread the message of democratic confederalism, to try to figure out ways in which we can bring people, groups that are struggling at the grass roots in different places together, in platforms together, to coordinate the local struggles, to think about the relationship between the different local struggles and the global struggle. But we also have a very important role to play here, in the center, we who are citizens, as a citizen of the United States, as a teacher at Cambridge, we who occupy positions of privilege in this capitalist modernity, to think about the links between these spaces that we occupy and the disaster that is being wrought upon the peoples of the Middle East, across Africa, across much of the world.
At the place where I teach, the University of Cambridge, you know, which understands itself to be, which propagates the image of itself as being this space of truth, this space of learning, but in fact, it is silent, it is silent on almost all of the important issues, when it comes to this diagnosis that I have made at the outset, of this real existential crisis for humanity. Most academics keep their heads down, follow their careers, don’t speak out. And the silence in fact is not just silence, but it is silence that is caused by complicity. Complicity that is linked to a corporate take-over of the university, that is linked to the links that the university has with, you know, the fossil fuels industry, the war industry generally, the arms trade. And so we also see burgeoning, and there is hope, burgeoning an anti—war movement, a demilitarise, divest movement happening at the University of Cambridge, and we have to think about the links between these emergent movements, student movements, thinking about how we can defend the university from the corporate tyranny, from the complicity with the war machine, from the complicity with the plutocracy, and think about the links between these places and the other places around the globe. And I think that is the only way that we will move forward as humanity, to realise that our struggle here are the same struggles, in different places, but it is the same struggle, for the future of humanity.
And I think Öcalan and the Kurdish movement have kept that flame going, but they themselves, if we think about the situation in Rojava, the revolution itself is cornered, it’s caught, it’s in a dilemma where it is surrounded and forced to either collaborate with the United States or be pummelled by the Turks, or perhaps both. So the revolution, like all revolutions, for it to survive, must spread. And we as internationalists must try to make it spread. And with that, I end.