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Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Should The Kurds Have an Independent State?

Al Jazeera reported "PKK threatens raids on 'devious' Iran." The article reports: "
Cemil "Cuma" Bayik, the de facto leader of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), said: "We have the right to launch attacks against Iranian forces."
The PKK has fought Turkey for years in its battle to establish an independent state in the majority Kurdish southeast of the country. He said recent Iranian artillery shelling of PKK camps in Iraqi Kurdistan meant that the rebel group's battle could spread to Iran. "We are on the defence. If we're not attacked we won't either. We believe politics and democracy are a better path," Bayik said.

But Bayik said PKK "intelligence reports" suggested that Iran was preparing to shell rebel positions again.

Some have interpeted this as further proof that ethnicites can not live together for long periods of time under conditions of "artificial" borders. The logical outcome of this statement is that every nation, if possible, should have its own state. This wisdom was encapsulated in Wilson's 14 points, and, the idea of 'national self-determination.' But do nations need separate independent states when possible?

Nations and States Internationally

Kurds, or any other political community which wants to express itself collectively, only need a "state of their own" when existing state institutions are designed to harm them and the ability of the community to self-express.

National self-determination is not, as some would have you believe, a good in and of itself. The idea of self-determination is premised upon an organic conception of nationness, which presupposes that some group, connected through history either by blood, culture, or both, always already exists and is merely waiting to be internationally and juridically recognized. Organic definitions of the nation tend to focus on factors like ethnicity, religion, and language as being sufficient conditions for nationness--as if common birth and territoriality produced the sense of being in nation before political activity takes place. This is the idea behind the sentiment that you are "born into" a nation and can't help what nationality you are. This idea of the organic nation is wrong because the nation itself, as a political idea, gets produced and imagined in different ways over time.

The nation is not an objective thing existing separately from the collective imaginings of the people who often express nationalism as a political response to certain kinds of discrimination-- as the Kurds certainly are. Nationalism is not a simple reflection of an ethnicity or language community in a given territory. Rather, the nation is a community of anonymous others in which individuals imagine themselves as experiencing a simultanous series of calendrical clock-moments (what Benedict Anderson calls "transverse empty horizontal time"), and, who are, in principle though not in fact, involved in a horizontal fraternity of equality. These collective imaginings are reinforced through certain kinds of public performances, like war memorialization, and certain medias, like the novel and the letter. Both public commemoration and literary devices create the sense that individuals were connected across time and space through some entity called "the nation", and, allowed for certain elements of the "past" to become political definitive of the national identity in the present.

Participating as both a national sphere and in nationalist moments, a political community can express collective demands on the state institutions of the territories in which they reside-- a phenomena know as nationalism. The coup of the early 20th century--- what Britain and France through the League of Nation mandates refer to as the "spirit of the age" when implementing the Sykes-Picot agreement in the Middle East after WWI-- was to these nationalist imaginations and affective bonds to the territorial power of the state institutions, and presenting this relationship as natural and desirable. Zionism, in a strange way, reproduced this effect by claiming that anti-Semitism demonstrated that the Jewish nation needed a state of its own to experience the particular collective imaginings entailed by nationalism fully. Current criticisms of colonialism also support the idea that the national-state, or the nation-state, is the desired norm. The criticism maitains that the crime of colonialism and imperialism was not the brutality through which one state imposed tyranny on populations that would never be welcome into the colonial center but rather that one nationality would rule over another, and then draw "artificial borders" that created states without respect to nationality. (A little history would prove this argument silly as the European states developed *before* nationalism existed, proving that states can arise independent of nationalism and be fine. In fact, France's problem after the French Revolution was not discovering who the "real" Frenchmen were and including them in the French national-state, but rather the state needed to produce a nationalism to ensure loyalty and to create the mass army. The problem was turning "peasant into Frenchmen" as Hobsbawm put it. The anti-colonial nationalism of the postcolonial world were easily swept aside, in some cases, by state-centered nationalisms as Partha Chaterjee details in "The Nation and its Fragments." Iraq, Syria, and South Africa, for instance, contain many nationalities who, when the state institutions were strong, commandeered the anti-colonialist nationalism and enveloped them into a state-centered nationalist project. Turkey, and Attaturk's Turkification, is one of the best examples of state-centered nationalisms.)

The "Kurds" are not a nation waiting for a state, as if not having a state was some form of lesser national existence, nor, do states require monolithic unified "nations" inside them to secure their territory and distribute goods and services. The Kurds are, rather, a persecuted minority who have turned to collective imaginings, similar to the Zionists, as a potential solution to the discrimination they face in the states in which the Kurdish minority is recognized and imagined as a group coherent enough to slate for discrimination. In the United States, race, gender, and sexuality rather than nation, arethe politically salient factors by which some individuals have been targeted for discrimation. As such, we see racial, gendered, and sexual imagining through both commerations--like the civil rights movement, Stonewall, or Roe v. Wade--and through literary genres of representation and difference. In Europe, we should see an emerging Islamic "nationalist" public, as religion is the new ethnicity in Europe these days, demanding a politics of piety and recognition as equal citizens within the European states.

If a Latino uprising manifested in the Southwest, and, we had a group of citizens imagining themselves as a nation, the correct response is to facilitate their collective self-expression through existing state institutions and find ways in which the collective imagining of what is American includes, and is not opposed to, what is Latino.

National States and the Struggle for Justice

Analysis of Lenin's support for national self-determination gives reasons why granting nations states will not solve the dilemmas of discriminaiton within the community, only, discrimination against it. Lenin emphasizes the class aspects of the struggle too much, but does an excellent job of stressing the limits of national self-determination as a means of redress.

For Lenin, national states are the sign of the first period of capitalism—the triumph over the feudal order—and represent its awakening. “The typical features of the first period are: the awakening of national movements and the drawing of the peasants, the most numerous and the must sluggish section of the population, into these movements, in connect with the struggle for political liberty in general, and for the rights of the nation in particular (Lenin 1974, 45).” Nationalism is an excellent source of mobilization, and, in turn creates the desire for each nation to create its own state. This nationalism, however, is dangerous because of its connection to reactionary elements: “The general “national culture” is the culture of the landlords, the clergy, and the bourgeoisie (Lenin 1974, 12).” The nationalist imagination itself is a product of bourgeois culture, and it ultimately used in the service of spreading capitalism through what Lenin terms 'imperialism.'

The countries of Asia, the greater part of whom Lenin identifies either as colonies or as depressed, dependent nations, best exemplified the historical link and logic of nationalism and capitalist development. Japan, the only independent national state in the region, had witnessed a speedy growth of capitalism, after which the bourgeois state began to “oppress other nations and enslave colonies. (Lenin 1974, 43)” The link between the bourgeoisie culture, capitalist development, and imperialism caused Lenin to distrust valorizations of these national liberation movements because they distracted the proletarians from their class struggle and threatened to divide the proletariat along national lines. “All liberal-bourgeois nationalism sows the greatest corruption among the workers and does harm to the cause of freedom and the proletarian class struggle…It is under the guise of national culture…that the Black Hundreds and the clericals, and also the bourgeoisie of all nations, are doing their dirty and reactionary work (Lenin 1974, 11).” The challenge, Lenin postulated, was to create a concept of national liberation that did not sell the working class revolution short. To do that, he turns to the fact of imperialist oppression to forge the tactical, though not ideological, alliance between the social democrats and the nationalists.

“In every nation there are toiling and exploited masses” and the oppression of those masses give rise to the democratic claim of national self-determination as a claim against imperialism (Lenin 1974, 12). Narrowing the goal of liberation to the expression of a desire against exploitation served Lenin’s internationalism in three ways. First, it allowed him to situate national liberation in the progression of history from communalism to communism: “If we want to grasp the meaning of self-determination of nations…by examining the historico-economic conditions of national movements…the self-determination of nations means the political separation of these nations from alien national bodies, and the formation of an independent national state (Lenin 1974, 28).” Second, mere political separation constitutes a social democratic claim similar to the right of women to divorce their husbands and opposed only by critics on the right. “Just as in bourgeois society the defenders of privilege and corruption, on which bourgeois marriage rests, oppose the freedom of divorce, so, in the capitalist state, repudiation of the right to self-determination…means nothing more than the defense of privileges of the dominant nation and police methods of administration, to the detriment of democratic methods (Lenin 1974, 66).” Three, casting nationalist aspirations as particular manifestations of democratic dreams co-opts a potent source of mobilization from Lenin’s political adversaries. “Combat all national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for “national culture” in general?—Of course not (Lenin 1974, 22-3).” Lenin feared that nationalists wanted to divide the worker’s movement to continue capitalist exploitation along national lines, a situation he saw as currently present in the United States. “In the Northern States Negro children attend the same schools as white children do. In the South there are separate “national”, or racial, whichever you please, schools for Negro children. I think that this” resulted from “the division of education affairs according to nationality (Lenin 1974, 25, 24).” The challenge for social democrats, as well as the challenge for Lenin, is to accomodate nationalist imaginings without deferring justice.

Lenin's internationalism--his focus on the coming world social revoltuion-- encouraged Lenin’s frigidity toward struggles for national liberation. Even though he mentions that it is the duty of socialists to aid revolutionary parties in their struggle against imperialism, even if these struggles took on a nationalist character, the struggles for nationhood were distractions from the struggle for social democracy and mere transitions along the path to world socialism (Lenin 1974, 113-14). The growing number of nationalist movements testified to the success of imperial capital awakening the need for national states; socialist assistance of this need aimed toward the imminent world revolution. The nationalisms of the peripheral, colonial, and depressed nations were important only as sites of armed resistance against capitalism. Oftentimes that imperial burden obfuscated the glorious mission of proletariat, observed Lenin in his reflections on Engels and Marx’s comments about the relationship between the British and Irish working classes (Lenin 1974, 81-4). Since “only the victories of the working class can bring about the complete liberation of all nationalities”, it is not surprising that Lenin observed “the English working class will never be free until Ireland is free(Lenin 1974, 82). ” Justice for the Irish, a subjugated nation at the time, is subordinate to the democratic aspirations of the working classes within the imperial nations.

Unlike Lenin, I believe that nationalism, and collective imaginations are helpful in expanding democratic public spheres and presenting identities that political institutions can recognize. The expansion of the publics and the recognition of new identities grounds political liberalism in a search for an overlapping consensus in which the laws and norms of society are revised by the participants to attain the largest possible coalition of persons for whom the law is self-authored. Multiple collective claims increases not only the contexts from which liberal subject emerge, but also furthers the diverse bases of the liberal project through pluralist politics. In this way, it is better for nation collective imaginings to democratize institutions through sustained political engagement and revolution if necessary, than to spawn off into a more localized tyranny.