The Political Economy of a Stateless Nation: Polanyi Meets Gramsci

by Omer Tekdemir*

These days we are witnessing a growing interest in Karl Polanyi’s framework to explain the organic crisis of neoliberalism, including the populist reaction; while Antonio Gramsci has always been popular within a wide range of movement studies from different disciplines.
My recently published monograph Constituting the Political Economy of the Kurds: Social Embeddedness, Hegemony, and Identity develops the ideas of Polanyi and Gramsci within a poststructuralist framework i.e., social constructivism, radical democracy, agonistic pluralism and left-wing populism as a tripartite theoretical formulation. It explains the trajectory of the Kurdish political economy and the transformation of collective political identity through interrelated levels and historical contexts. It offers a model based on social, political and economic progress.
The book analyses three main historical periods as case studies to understand the nature of the uneven development of the Kurdish social formation, which emerged through unorthodox and alternative practices in the Middle East. Hence three distinct conjectural and critical accounts are utilised to examine the micro-dynamics of human impact (e.g., society, agents) rather than focusing on macro factors (e.g., the state) as essential determinants of the micro-foundations of the Kurdish political economy. This use of an innovative methodology helps to go beyond the essentialist analysis of political economy.
A stateless nation can be defined as the people without their own sovereign nation-state and includes people like Kashmiris, Tibetans, Tamils, Palestinians, Catalans and Scots. Among these, the Kurds are identified as the largest ethnic population in the world without a nation-state. I call these political communities, the societies that ‘missed the opportunities’ of the nineteenth century to undergo their ‘great transformation’ in the form of industrialisation, institutionalisation and a Westphalian state model. Yet they have survived within their own moral political economy in the form of ‘imaginary communities’ sustaining their survival and resistance against the predatory newly constituted ‘artificial’ nation states.
In the so-called Kurdish question of the Middle East, the Kurdish political actors propose a wide range of formulates in the post-Westphalian regional nation(alist)-states, such as Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey for a ‘real’ solution. Therefore, after a historical victory against the Islamic State (IS/ISIS-DEASH), as the ‘Rojava revolution’ in Northern Syria, they established a ‘stateless democracy’ to generate a communal economy and Canton-based autonomy in an ontological manner, while the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) practises a de facto state, free-market economy and liberal democracy in Northern Iraq and the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) as a Kurdish-led and left-wing populist party promotes a radical democracy in Turkey.

Moral political economy 
In the first part of the book, I argue that the rise of a self-regulating market economy system with the push of international capital demolished the moral values of the traditional Ottoman imperial society by dis-embedding the economy from the social formation. The process of macro economy and polity of empire embarking on its ‘great transformation’ entailed that the economy was dis-embedded from social life and thus from its morality, resulting in the commodification of nature, labour and money as fictitious commodities even though it was against the intrinsic characteristics of such moral political economies. With the rapid emergence of the market economy paradigm, the economy no longer worked as embedded in everydayness as it had always done in the past, a change that defined the nature of the new political economy. This commodification and new income-based economic system clashed with the existing social relations as people used to be governed by the principles of embeddedness, reciprocity, redistribution and household economy via the institutional pattern of symmetry, centricity and autarchy where social rather than economic formations primarily determined the character of the society.
The Kurds, however, being on the periphery of the empire, resisted the imposition of the centre’s great transformation and a new fin-de-siècle order. Hence Polanyi’s anthropological theory of economy based on embeddedness and double movement provides an analytical tool to understand why the internal dynamics – noneconomic archaic institutions (such as tribes, endogamy, kiriv [kinship], tariqas [Islamic orders]) and political leadership (i.e. emirates [principalities], aghas [landlords] and sheikhs [Islamic scholarship) – could not follow the linear modernist process of industrialisation and institutionalism. Hence their moral economy provided a base through which they resisted the change towards a modern economy and market society.
The loyalty of society to their traditional social formation and a moral economy based on cultural and spiritual-religious values as their raison d’etre hindered the ‘great transformation’ to a market economy and explains the Kurds’ uneven (and –perhaps- combined) development. As a pre-capitalist civilization the profit motive-based production was not so important for their economic behaviour. The relationship was not oriented economically towards self-interest as the economy was not monetised or focused on production for exchange and profit. Self-sufficiency was dominant in the household economy and sustained through solidarity, a gift economy and social responsibility since honour, reputation, kinship, and faith based on the expectation of the quid pro quo principle of moral political economy were more important than individualism and personal gain.

Social protectionism in a double movement 
Revisionist agents of the Istanbul government of the Empire (i.e., Tanzimat, Young Turks, Abdulhamid) aimed to change this authentic Kurdish regional economy into a self-regulating market economy as a part of the project to save the Empire. The Kurds demonstrated resistance to this in order to sustain their social protectionism based on a moral political economy. This counter-movement was led by the conventional political leadership aimed to prevent the transformation of Kurdish society into a market economy, while the archaic socio-cultural establishment resisted being replaced by modern institutions in their daily life.

State hegemony and colonial society
The expansion of laissez-faire principles and the nation-building process after the failure of many local armed rebels and the absence of political authority in Kurdish society created a hegemonic gap filled by Republican Turkey. With the involvement of the state in internal affairs and the control of the region through the Republic’s centralisation and marketization policies applied through coercion and internal colonisation, the organic nature of Kurdish society was forced to dissolve and replicate a dis-embedded economic and institutional form. Because the change was imposed through a top-down process externally, suddenly and by force, Kurdish society was forced to adapt nineteenth century institutions without having a corresponding shift internally and organically. It should be noted that the Kurdish moral political economy managed to hold its ground until the1980s when the neoliberal policies in Turkey acted as a soft power to generate its transformation and convergence. Consequently, according to modernist literature, the Kurds remain economically underdeveloped and politically disunited in the new world and hence have become the subject of colonialism and disdain.
The book then turns to the notion of hegemony to explain this post-sultanate era, as nationalism became ‘common sense’. Polanyi’s moral economy needs help to explain the problematised issues such as identity, sovereignty, emancipation, internal colonialism and the strategies of struggle, i.e., frontal attack, historical bloc and passive revolution. This is complemented by Gramsci’s hegemonic articulation which offers an appropriate justification for the power struggle between the new state and the Kurdish leadership in the twentieth century. Hence the historical evolvement of the Kurdish narrative and moral political economy can be continued to explain through the meeting of Polanyi and Gramsci.
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* Omer Tekdemir is Associate Professor at Coventry University. He is the Managing Editor New Middle Eastern Studies and Co-Convener of International Studies of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Asia working group of the British International Association. He writes on political economy, populism, identity, nationalism, democracy and moral economy.
This post originally appeared on Progress in Political Economy blog, on April 5, 2022

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