PM Press Blog, Review

US OR THEM: Kelman’s ‘The State is Your Enemy’ Reviewed by Federica Giardino

The Drouth


What can you do for the Kurdish people? Let us approach the question by problematising its terms, in the same manner as James Kelman had confronted, among other matters, The Importance of Glasgow in (his) Work (outlining the ways in which Glasgow is, by contrast, not important).[1] What should the man in the street not do for the Kurdish people? The citizen, the artist, the writer, the academic, the activist?

For one thing, they should not utilise their efforts in the local Cause as a means to self-exonerate from international struggles for liberation. More importantly, it would be a mistake if they were to deem these too geopolitically distant for any attempted engagement to bring about meaningful impact.

In his new essay collection, The State is Your Enemy, Kelman lays out a complex argument encompassing broad international relationships, criminal complicities, and aspects of foreign policy which he reveals to be profoundly enmeshed in the inner machinations of the contemporary British State. So complex, in fact, thatKelman’s “Where to begin?”[2] is less of a rhetorical question and more of an admonition to proceed through the text having deserted all expectations that we may reach a hospitable and secure destination.

What one should not do is to refrain from destabilising their familiar perspective of social injustice, to be fearful of breaching the national borders, or to do so quietly so as not to awaken one from the turbid sleep of their circumscribed moral conscience; rather to welcome the present call to arms which bears no promise of an ultimate amicable settlement. If it is implied by Kelman that real change consists of subversion in behaviours, turning the activist’s awareness into a mere attempt to educate the man in the street no longer suffices.

One must defy the habit of looking at the Other as a subject to be studied. For the Biblical Samson, to be eyeless in Gaza is but a position of advantage in the unseating of the Philistine power and reclaiming of a “virtue given for lost, depressed and overthrown”.[3] According to Kelman, fight or assimilation are the only viable pathways. It is from under the ashes that the flame may rouse to damage the secular sovereignty of State authority.

James Kelman is a long-standing advocate of the language and struggle for self-determination of colonised countries, a vocal condemner of imperialistic practices, and a supporter of the autonomy of the Scottish people. The new essay collection testifies for the intersection of these concerns and unequivocally identifies the State as their matrix and common denominator. The author’s unique position as a Scottish writer with sustained involvement in locally-rooted activism (Clydeside Asbestos Campaign, Free University, Workers City) and an allegiance with international groupings (radical black and anti-racial movements)[4] offers an exceptionally informed assessment of the executive apparatus through which the Turkish and British ruling authorities perpetuate the prosecution and systematic nullification of minority groups and ethnicities, equally culpable notwithstanding the incomparable scales of their oppressed populaces.

Coherently with Kelman’s established approach to political writings and narrative prose, which ousts the narrator from any position of authority, the protagonists of the essays’ chronicles are members of various marginalised communities, the “lower order”[5] people whom the Leviathan subjects to its totalitarian prerogatives.

We further our understanding of the instances of Kurdish writer Yaşar Kemal and Turkish sociologist İsmail Beşikçi, who were sentenced by the Turkish state on charges of ‘thought crime’ as a result of their works, centred on Kurdish identity and liberation. A comparable case was that of Abdullah Öcalan, President of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), who was at the time condemned to death following the criminalisation of his once-sanctioned political party. The conversion from the status of liberator to that of terrorist is an etymological shift coordinated entirely by the hands of the State.

It is important for Kelman to afford as much freedom of expression to the collective voice of a given oppressed society, entrusted to the intellectual leaders and literati — writers, publishers, and journalists, as to the perspective of the masses. We are reminded, by paraphrasing Beşikçi’s words, that campaigns “cannot be about one writer, (they are) about the existence of Kurdistan, […] about justice for Kurdish people.”[6] The retelling of ruthless abuse inflicted by Turkish police on an unnamed 16-year-old young woman, as reported by Kelman,[7] demonstrates that it is not possible to apprehend the identities of all those Kurds whose human rights are regularly voided, who are consistently subjected to brutal tortures and murdered. Information is suppressed; the number of victims remains uncountable. ‘Kurdistan’, emptied of its semantic, geographical, cultural, historical ontology and human substance, is negated the right to have ever existed.

The clandestine work of Kurdish writers thus acquires paramount significance in the struggle for survival of the “undesirables”.[8] To show solidarity with these heroic figures is to strengthen the body of the resistance and amplify it in the presence of the media; to add one’s name next to theirs; to do so not in representation of a single individual, rather of a composite conscience. Accordingly, during the Gathering in Istanbul of 1997, 20 foreign writers including Kelman co-signed the Freedom of Expression pamphlet alongside “1080 intellectuals from various fields”.[9] The gesture signified the challenging and transgression of the Turkish Penal Code and the unreserved support of the Kurdish Cause as though this constituted a unicum with the circumstances unravelling in the writers’ respective home countries.

In the essay titled Literary Freedom and Human Rights, from the publication And the Judges Said…, Kelman had compared the personal accounts of two writers, Nigerian Ken Saro-Wiwa and Bangladeshi Taslima Nasrin,[10] noting that the exceptional coverage afforded by mainstream British media to the woman’s story was tied to the professional stature of the asylum seeker. He argued that support had been given ‘blindly’ to the cause in light of her role, perceived as ascribable to the dominant ruling elite, to the detriment of those victims not only of racist violations ordinarily occurring in the country, but also of censorship of the freedom to simply exist. The mediatic filter only welcomes the Other when they are recognised as a homologue or when it serves the agenda of the Establishment.

Several writings contained in The State is Your Enemy were previously collated in the aforementioned manuscript. The new anthology functions as a corollary of the author’s forensic discourse concerning the State’s endemic and capillary breaching of human rights implemented on the domestic scale. In the UK, the racist violations which trespass the media sieve are often accompanied by a saturation of information; the names of victims and suspects, attached to undeniable evidence of racist intent, however prove often insufficient in bringing criminal cases to judicial resolution.

Concealment of information and dismissal of motives is actuated by the State by virtue of police force and legal authorities. Kelman recounts, among many others, the case of Kuldip Singh Sekhon, who was victim of a vicious stabbing in West London: The offender was a man with a history of racially motivated crimes. Analogously, back in 1993, a gang of five youths with precedents of racist conduct were responsible for the notorious brutal murder of Stephen Lawrence. The author convincingly argues that “racism is institutionalized within the United Kingdom”[11] while illustrating the Ruling Elite’s operations of repression and deflection of information, as well as the discrediting of families, communities, supporters, and campaigners for social justice. In both trials, charges against the murderers were dropped despite conclusive evidence; the Lawrence legal case amounted to a part-conviction nineteen years later.

Kelman emphasises the underlying dialectic and polarity of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’, the prime mover of the imperialistic systems of the State, where ‘them’ consists of the “enemy within”,[12] “the natives, the Irish, the blacks […] so too […] the miners, the socialists, the communists and the anarchists”.[13] The existence of the Other poses a fundamental structural threat, an anomaly to be eradicated by all means necessary to preserve the harmonious Unity between the monarchy, the government, the Ruling Elite, and the abiding first-rate citizen. The state-machine decrees that the ends justify the means, thus genocide is normalised. From this point onward, it is expected that the methods of colonial torture deployed by Ian Henderson in Bahrain and Frank Kitson on the people of Kenya are not merely rationalised by political figures and judiciary bodies, but also publicly celebrated and rewarded. From this point onward, colonisation is understood as a practice run for self-colonisation. The Crown draws lessons from the world and applies them to its people unobstructed, suppressing an indistinct ‘terrorist threat’ across the country: Northern Ireland, the mining communities, the unions. There will be no lack of available information with respect to the proponents of war crimes: their names will be etched into colonial history books, but they will not be prosecuted, neither condemned formally nor in court – what the Armed Forces did to ‘them’, they had to do to protect ‘us’.

Kelman’s implicit exhortation is that we rectify the semantic provenance of the pronoun ‘them’, that we expropriate it from the vocabulary of the Establishment and fully embrace the implications of its antagonism. To bow our heads and accept that the gracious hand of the Crown bestows the title upon us—‘them’—is to adapt to the Unity, to repent for an unpardonable Otherness. Assimilate or fight. One step toward self-determination is to “accept the marginalisation and act on it”[14], to “take what exists and lay claim to it, transcend it, get beyond it”,[15] Kelman had previously urged.

The concern for language, ever-present in Kelman’s political writings and prose, is directly approached in the introduction and epilogue and dissected on multiple levels throughout the essays. The language of the State finds correspondence in “the language of the court, the language of government, the language of power”,[16] it operates through superimposition on – and erasure of – vernacular and minority forms of expression. Within this context, the dissemination of intelligence represents the principal effort to enact resistance and colonial survival. At the core of this collection lies an appraisal of the devices – linguistic stratagems, publications, and attention from media channels – that the marginalised culture must exploit in order for its knowledge and identity to withstand their silencing, urgent actualisations of De Certeau’s ‘poaching’ practices.[17]

While Kelman denies feasible comparability between the oppressed position of the Scottish and Kurdish populaces, despite ascertainable “parallels in the linguistic and cultural suppression”,[18] both the introduction and endnote of the book reference the Scottish condition. This may be deemed significant.

The work opens with reflections traversing aspects of class division, elitism, and racism, drawing from personal and vicarious experiences profoundly rooted in Glasgow. Educational background is tied to one’s belonging to a given community to the same degree as their religious orientation; these factors, appearing “irrelevant”[19] if not as indicators of a specific socio-economic status, serve the hierarchical interests of the British state as mechanisms to facilitate the self-exclusion of the second-rate Scottish citizen.

The issue is birthright against the power of being born-to-rule. The issue is that, in Britain, the scions of families affiliated with the Conservative Party, raised to be members of the Ruling Class, are indoctrinated through their formative years; in Oxbridge, they are presented with a very exact history of the world in alignment with the orthodox State approach to how foreign policy should be conducted. One learns the rules of the game; that providing military aid to the Turkish security forces brings significant economic benefits and opens important political relationships. In such a perfunctory and axiomatic manner are imperialistic objectives effortlessly pursued.

The issue is that the system leaves no space for alternative voices. The people with the capacity to make meaningful decisions come from a very narrow seam of society: they are born into a good family, attend a good university, and speak the language of the Establishment. They join the same groups, belong to the same political parties; their careers follow the same trajectories. “No matter how ‘the Cause’ is defined, the final goal […] cannot be achieved until the radical group, faction or party has managed to gain entry into a position to bring about the change.”[20] But how can this be attained – and can it be attained?

Contextualising Kelman’s statement may clarify his stance. In the last section, Home Truths, Kelman returns to the Scottish context. “Scotland is my country. Not Britain and not the United Kingdom and it can be difficult to explain this to people from other places.”[21] A difficult endeavour, for to address the question of ‘Where to begin?’ one must navigate the hostile territories which ideologically entrench ‘us’ away from ‘them’, but not quite enough; the answer to the diametrical ‘Where will it end?’ is yet to be found in the never-ending quest for self-determination.

The hypothetical scenario illustrated by Kelman in the last instance, which sees several newly-elected MPs as “ideological warriors”[22] futilely putting forward anti-fascist motions et similia in front of ‘Her Majesty’s Government’, is symptomatic of the broader tone of the conclusive piece. Home Truths is infused with a degree of suspicion toward the prospect of meaningful change. Perhaps deliberately, the introduction of the book had seemingly reflected the voice employed and perspectives conveyed in earlier works including And the Judges Said…, affording the reader an enthusiasm for political renewal, albeit imbued in existentialism, and a counter-active drive: Assimilate or fight. In the epilogue, Kelman delineates a governmental infrastructure of vacuous rhetoric, of impenetrable and inconclusive procedural paths, and streams of platitudes that accumulate decades upon decades in the State’s bureaucratic jurisdiction. To negotiate with the State is to join in the constitutional game. To play along with the Enemy is to not play at all.

The State is Your Enemy does not solely correlate historical facts of international breadth but constructs a cogent narrative which may be understood as Kelman’s reflection on his activist engagement, with the chronology of the essays spanning across over 30 years.

Between front and back cover, among past and present, are testaments of realist endurance, frustration, and attainment which, at their core, always link back to the condition of Scotland.

The first step in understanding what we may be able to do for the Kurdish people is to truly “acknowledge what’s happening under (our) nose”[23]—as iterated by Kelman through the circularity of the domestic theme. Perhaps it is in his birthplace, where unions once proliferated and “miscarriages of justice”[24] were made to be acknowledged, that we may recover the fertile ground for the fracturing of the status quo, or the ideal conditions to fail better. Here, covered by ashes, Milton’s “self-begotten bird”[25] awaits to revive and reflourish, “vigorous most, when most unactive deemed”.[26] Perhaps the real objective is as simple as solidarity. But if Samson had been sanctified for divine patience, Kelman is unwilling to wait any longer.

We must speak out to preserve the knowledge of the Forbidden, the Profane, and the Other in their integrity, and knowledge exists to be exercised. Failing to do this is to allow the State to be our friend.

[1] Kelman, J. (1992) The Importance of Glasgow in My Work. Some Recent Attacks. Essays Cultural and Political. Stirling: AK Press

[2] —–. (2022) Introduction. The State is Your Enemy. Essays son Kurdish Liberation and Black Justice. Oakland: PM Press. P.9

[3] Milton, J. (1966). Samson Agonistes; the poem and materials for analysis, ed. by Hone, R. E. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company. P. 54

[4] See Miller, M. and Rodger, J. (2011) The Red Cockatoo. James Kelman and the Art of Commitment. Dingwall: Sandstone Press

[5] Kelman, J. (2022) Introduction. P.1

[6] —–. Em Hene! P.53

[7] —–. The Freedom for Freedom of Expression Rally / Istanbul 1997. P.31

[8] —–. Home Truths (Endnote). P. 173

[9] Press releases by the Freedom of Thought initiative, in Kelman, J. (2022) P.42

[10] Kelman, J. (2003) Literary Freedom and Human Rights. And the Judges Said… London: Random House

[11]  —–. (2022) A Notorious Case. P.109

[12] —–. Pernicious Fabrications. P.103

[13] —–. Arise Ye Torturers-to-the Crown. P.163

[14] —–. (2003) Say Hello to John La Rose. P.228

[15] Ibid.

[16] —–. (2022) Introduction. P.3

[17] De Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. London: University of California Press

[18] Kelman, J. (2022) The Freedom for Freedom of Expression Rally / Istanbul 1997. P.33

[19] —–. Introduction. P.1

[20] —–. Home Truths (Endnote). P. 170

[21] Ibid. P.165

[22] Ibid. P.170

[23] —–. (1992) Oppression and Solidarity. P.77

[24] —–. (2003) Introduction. P.11

[25] Milton, J. (1966). P.54

[26] Ibid.

The State is Your Enemy: Essays on Kurdish Liberation and Black Justice