How the global left hinders Kurdish liberation: a reply to Žižek

The global left is guilty of exactly the same thing as the so-called Great Powers, which have long treated the Kurds as a plaything in their strategic agendas. They want to see the Kurds living out all their fantasies of a utopian society with no thought as to whether it is to the Kurds’ actual benefit.

Turkey, which has subjected its own Kurdish population to a life of inequality and political repression (and this certainly did not start with Erdogan’s authoritarian regime), has launched a cross-border offensive in Northern Syria to create a so-called safe-zone. Its ultimate purpose, however, is the demolition of Kurdish sovereignty. Turkey seems to have taken an oath not to tolerate Kurdish self-rule in any form, anywhere. With Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds, the Kurdish dream of state-less autonomy under the protection of a state (the U.S.) collapsed immediately. Since the attack there has been an outpouring of support from people of conscience around the world, especially from those on the left who feel solidarity with a long-oppressed people. While the Kurds deserve all the sympathy they can get, their plight has been and still is often cast in a language that is not exactly truthful: that of genocide. Why should the defense of the Kurds- who are absolutely deserving of defense- require a betrayal of truth? And why does the intellectuals’ understanding of the Kurdish situation remain in the realm of willful fantasy?

Take, for example, Slavoj Žižek’s recent piece in The Independent: “European leftists are rejecting the Kurds over their reliance on the U.S. It is just another disgusting betrayal.” As an expression of sympathy, one can only be grateful to the author for his gesture, but as a piece of thought it manages to exemplify the very naïvete it calls out.

Žižek starts by invoking the “primitive” image of the Kurds that was in circulation up until recently in the European imagination and is then happily surprised at the ultra-progressive image associated with them today. But he does not pause to ask how such a radical transition could have happened. Did it really happen? Is there a Kurdish shortcut to the future? Did Kurds really skip capitalism and the nation-state and arrive directly at a post-capitalist dreamland? What if it were all a dream- a leftist dream into which Kurds have been marched under military rule?

The global left is guilty of exactly the same thing as the so-called Great Powers, which have long treated the Kurds as a plaything in their strategic agendas. They want to see the Kurds living out all their fantasies of a utopian society with no thought as to whether it is to the Kurds’ actual benefit. The destruction of the Kurdish post-national experiment in Syria costs Western progressives at most the cancellation of a conference appearance in Ankara (as in the case of David Harvey) and gives them the opportunity to lob a few choice insults at Turkey while serving up yet more fulminous praise for the brave, suffering Kurds. For the Kurds, however, it cost a once-in-a-century shot at independence. 

Marxism and its associated forms of transcendence, among them Murray Bookchin’s ecological communalism, have become a metaphysics for Kurdish politics, and a pernicious one at that. These theories, dogmatically followed by the leader(s) of the Kurdish movement, block clear thinking and the pursuit of self-interest. Thanks to the ideological proclivities of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, the Kurds have fallen prisoner to a false consciousness.

Why, of all people, should poor Kurds carry the burden of the “European legacy of emancipation”, as Žižek puts it? How does it fall to the Kurds, in their desperate and fragile condition- the most deprived of all peoples in the region (“exemplary victims” Žižek says)- to be “the only glimmer of hope”? Is there not something abnormal at work here? When Žižek claims that “the Kurds ARE the only angels in that part of the world,” his rebuke to Trump is of limited value as a gesture of solidarity with Kurds, for it also represents a dangerous endorsement of the Kurds’ ideological self-delusions. In painting victims as angels, do we not deprive them of their humanity? 

The Rojava Revolution is more true in the minds of progressives and the self-promoting films of Bernard-Henri Lévy than it is on the ground. And surely the Kurds would be better off in terms of equality and the capacity for self-defense if they were not encouraged to become angels in the service of humanity. Unfortunately, as “exemplary victims” the Kurds have become sacrificial angels on the altar of the global left- a people whose labor is wholly exploited not only by the “imperialist” powers as proxies of war, but also as guinea pigs in the ideological labs of Western leftists. The so-called Kurdish experiment is at best a marketing gesture, at worst outright exploitation of a naïve local people by postmodern utopianism. Intellectual adventurists should not encourage the self-inflicted pathologies of the colonized. No one bothers to tell Kurds that the noble fantasies that nourish the residents of Burlington, Vermont, are not so well suited to Qamishlo, Rojava.

The guilt borne by global-left spectators of the Kurdish experiment lies in their failure to critique and intervene in (or even recognize) the false consciousness that plagues the intellectually naïve Kurdish leadership. While uncritical enthusiasm for the Kurdish experiment in Northern Syria serves the intellectual and class interests of its distant enthusiasts, it has prevented the Kurds from forming a proper grasp on their reality.

Instead of well-intended and sincere sympathy coupled with ill-informed and superficial support for the Kurds, Žižek, Chomsky, Harvey and other intellectuals should take responsibility for their failure to recognize how Marxist metaphysics hinders the Kurdish desire for liberation. As Euro-American leftists, they bear a direct responsibility for allowing the formation of the “theory bubble” their Kurdish intellectual clients have built around themselves. Kurdish selflessness is harmful to the Kurds and of no benefit to humanity. 

January 11, 2020 Do Kurdish lives matter?