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Reviewed by Michael M. Gunter, Professor of political science, Tennessee Technological University; secretary-general, EU Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC)
New Compass Press, 2015. 215 pages. $22.95, paperback
Although Abdullah Ocalan seems almost paranoid toward the United States and Western capitalism — "The way I was captured demonstrated that the capitalist modernity of which the USA is the world leader, is a system with no inhibition to oppress and abuse" (p. 24) — his Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has almost never attacked the United States or Western interests. Indeed, in the struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the PKK and its associated party/militia in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD)/Peoples Defense Units (YPG) and its female fighters (YPJ), have been the most effective U.S. allies and boots on the ground. The desperate battle for Kobane in Syria (October 2014-January 2015) and Sinjar in Iraq to save the Yezidis (August 2014) are prime examples. As Ocalan has concluded: "The overall situation in the Middle East might one day demand that the USA will have to choose the Kurds as its new strategic ally in the Middle East" (p. 30).
The book under review, the first of a projected four dealing with Ocalan's philosophy and theories, often makes for difficult reading. In part, this is because of Ocalan's specialized usage of such terms as democratic modernity, civilization, nation, society and confederalism, as well as capitalist modernity, liberalism and industrialization, among others. His subtitle referring to "masked gods" and "disguised kings" adds to this opaqueness. A glossary at the book's beginning would have been most useful.
Although he has been imprisoned by Turkey since February 1998 "under the conditions of total isolation on the island of Imrali ... [and] was not able to do the research necessary" (p. 31), David Graeber declares in his preface to this book that "Abdullah Ocalan seems to have done a better job writing ... than authors like Francis Fukuyama or Jared Diamond did with access to the world's finest research libraries" (p. 18). Graeber is an American anthropologist and anarchist activist who taught at Yale from 1998 to 2007 before the university declined to rehire him when he came up for academic tenure. The resulting controversy sparked a petition drive that obtained more than 4,500 signatures. Although Yale declined to yield, Graeber is now a full professor at the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE).
Ocalan attempts to create the foundations for his subsequent theses on what he terms democratic autonomy or democratic confederalism, a return to a simpler bottom-up, stateless rule based on gender equality and respect for ecology — in contrast to "the bloody, exploitative and at times genocidal march of this monster" (p. 89), the nation-state. As Ocalan explains, "The historical struggle, that can be traced back at least five thousand years, is essentially one between state-civilization and democratic civilization; the latter consisting of pre-state village and agricultural communities. All ideological, military, political and economic relationships, conflicts and struggles occur under these two main systems of civilization" (p. 198). "The real face of civilized society is one of violence, lies, deception, vulgarity, conspiracy, wars, enslavement, annihilation, servitude, treachery, seizure, looting, immorality, disrespect for the law, adoration of power, distortion and abuse of what is sacred and divine — all for the benefit of a rapist and gender discriminatory elite,... a society where some have access to everything while others are hungry and poor" (pp. 171-72). "Today, I have no doubt that the ideal life for humanity can only be sustained in the villages that are in harmony with the ecology — not in the city structures of modernity" (p. 92). "When we rid ourselves of modernity's hellish shackles, namely profiteering, industrialism and the nation-state, we will be able to live a meaningful life again ... [and] escape playing the role of modernity's fool" (p. 93). After considering Ocalan's arguments, the anarchist-turned-LSE-professor, Graeber, concluded that Ocalan "is never quite satisfied even with the thinkers he most admires — Bookchin, Braudel, Foucault: rather he wishes to speak, as a self-proclaimed amateur, about a history and social science that does not currently exist but, perhaps, can only be imagined" (p. 12).
In addition to his advocacy of democratic autonomy or bottom-up self-rule, ecology and feminism are two other key concepts in Ocalan's imagined utopia. For example, Ocalan rues that the current era "has brought the environment to the brink of disaster" (p. 35), while declaring "my concern for the ecology" and desire "to transform [city structures of modernity] into ecological villages" (p. 92):
Housewifization ... means women's labor is considered a natural resource, freely available like air and water ... the total atomization and disorganization of these hidden [female] workers....[Moreover] proletarianization of men is based on the housewifization of women (p. 201/n22). ... Being confined to the house is ... worse than being in a prison: it is being kept in a state of continuous and profound rape.... With the rise of male dominated society, woman was systematically removed from the values of production, education, administration and freedom through various forms of violence.... She completely lost her identity and was recreated as something else: a wife (pp. 179-80).
Elsewhere, Ocalan further notes that "in Turkish, a ... public prostitute refers to prostitutes in a brothel and private prostitute to wives in a patriarchal marriage (pp. 203-204/n7), and that "I never approved of the dominant culture's way of shutting women behind doors.... I remember how I have always saluted the free women of these mountains with the morning breeze of goddesses" (p. 91).
True to these feminist beliefs, gender equality is practiced in the PKK, including the militia and co-leadership positions that call for both a male and female head including the co-presidency of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), in effect the PKK's more inclusive alter-ego. In addition to their rival territorial claims, the PKK's advocacy of gender equality and secular skepticism towards organized religion are probably two more important reasons for the existential hostility of ISIS. Indeed, the term "masked gods" in the subtitle of Ocalan's book is an unflattering reference to religious exploitation, while "disguised kings" refers to the organized state's exploitation.
However, these enlightened kernels of thought must be sifted out of the obscure and, at times, rather trite dilettantism of Ocalan's wide-ranging musings. "I know my attempt is amateurish and unpolished, but this work is necessary — not only so that we can understand history, but also so that today's problems can be resolved" (p. 196). Moreover, Ocalan also exhibits awkward arrogance when he compares himself to the prophet Abraham and even Jesus. "I too started my resistance by making my exit from Suruc in Urfa, similar to Abraham. However, my resistance led to a crucifixion different to that of Jesus" (p. 145). "With Jesus, Judas did the betraying; with me, this role was played by the alliance of MOSSAD and the CIA" (p. 205/n35).
Nevertheless, Ocalan's thinking is important because the PKK is increasingly a major force in the Middle East, and Ocalan remains its unquestioned leader. His book reveals both his surprisingly wide-ranging intellectualism and his commitment to a political solution. Although the United States is not the driver of all the problems of modernity, there can be little doubt that the capitalist market system does create gross inequalities while virtually excluding many from its rewards.
The book contains a useful collection of endnotes and an index, both added by the editors, who for the most part did a commendable job in preparing this manuscript for publication but might have explained Ocalan's specialized vocabulary better. Despite its problems, his book should be read by all practitioners and scholars involved in these events. This journal published, in its issues of fall 2007, fall 2011 and summer 2012, reviews of previous books Ocalan wrote in prison.