Given the significant impact of the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich by two British converts to Islam, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, I’m moved to make a brief comment on what I consider its implications. The ethics of the attack itself can be debated until the cows come home; as ethics are essentially subjective and arbitrary, they cannot really be argued out, and nobody will convince anyone else of the ethical merits or demerits of such an action if they do not already share that view. I will therefore not say much about that, though this is not to say I have no ethical concerns about it. But the political and strategic consequences are real and should be debated widely. The first point is that an attack of this kind cannot simply be considered a blow against British imperialism, even if it is – as voiced by the assassins themselves – clearly a response to British foreign policy, not least the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
In the kind of pop psychology profiles that the media like to undertake of people who engage in political terrorism (I will leave out the scare quotes as they make tiring reading) of this kind, there is often much reference to what makes people so dissatisfied with British policy in the first place. Such concerns are often more condescending and dehumanizing than they are insightful: as if the very possibility of a reasoned radical opposition to contemporary British policy were inconceivable! Conversion to some radical or strict form of Islam as a religion, too, gets portrayed generally in terms of some form of resentment, exclusion, or psychological weakness. It is by no means unheard of for a pattern of this kind to emerge in societies, but one can’t simply assume that, and if anything it raises a further question about the degree of social inequality (not just economic) that results in such patterns in the first place. It is clear, therefore, that we must look not just to ‘radical Islam’ or ‘hatred of the wars against Muslims’ as proximate causes: the very dynamic of imperialism abroad and ostensibly anti-imperialist ‘terrorist’ violence at home must be considered as an integrated whole.
That said, we must be skeptical of the anti-imperialist notion behind an assassination of this kind. Again, leaving the morality of the question out of it entirely, it is not difficult to observe that the consequences of an action like the one in Woolwich are far from clearly negative for the imperialist programmes of the British establishment. It is too simple to point to the systematic opposition against individual attacks of terrorism domestically as a means of advancing radical change from Marx through Lenin and even Mao – the latter inspired many such actions in the West, but only ever advocated an organized insurgency, not individual actions. One can still always argue that the situation is different now, or that they were wrong. More useful is to look at the strategic meaning. The net result of almost all actions of the type of the Woolwich murder is a completely negligible effect on the imperialist country’s power projection capabilities (the loss of one soldier will make no difference), a strengthening of the political ability of the government to introduce repressive legislation and to go after radical and/or anti-imperialist groups, and a political strengthening of the cause of the right-wing and open reactionary forces. The ‘War on Terror’ is nothing other than a great political strengthening of the idea of ‘interventions’ abroad, repression of radicals at home, fear of the foreign as a permanent threat to the ‘safety’ of the imperialist countries, and so forth. And it is also inescapable that the Woolwich incident has led to an almost unprecedented mobilization of fascist groups like the EDL – at the demonstrations in Newcastle and in London in the last few days, they outnumbered the anti-fascist forces by several times.
To this last aspect must be added the second point to be made about the Woolwich incident, namely the undeniable racial dimension of the effects of the Woolwich assassination. In the image of the two assassins waving their weapons in front of a crowd and the cameras, multiple dimensions of racist and right-wing thought come together. There is the fear of black men as unconstrained potential for violence; there is the fear of Muslims as a fifth column in Western countries, always latently poised to strike; there is the religious death defiance, the willingness to get killed rather than to attempt an escape, which characterizes the terrorism of the religious right and of nationalist movements, but much less so those of the left, and which contrasts so strongly with the casualty-minimizing, high-tech forms of violence pursued by the Western countries themselves. More generally, the combination of ‘black’ with ‘Muslim’ in the contemporary West evokes a strongly ideologically prepared response in terms of fear of the enemy within, as Sohail Daulatzai has argued; not least because each is already considered an outsider inside, but also because of the associations this combination evokes. In being the living image of Western colonialism and the struggle against it, the existence of such people conjures up the evil spirits that reside in the bad conscience of the white Westerner. This is the more true the more such attributes of ‘the Other’ they share.
All this adds up to a dangerous mixture, feeding precisely the atmosphere of xenophobia, militarism, and fear of internal subversion generated by the ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric and which strengthens immeasurably the counter-counter-violence of fascist groups like the EDL and the government’s own security forces at home and abroad. This cannot, for that reason, be meaningfully seen as striking a blow for a good cause. All this is aside from the objectionable nature of the violent forms of Islam that underlie the attack and most of the high-profile, well-publicized (attempted) terrorism in the West today; Islamism of this kind is by no means sympathetic to emancipatory movements, either here or abroad, and the enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend. (Which is not to say that quantitatively Islamism actually generates most of the contemporary terrorism; the EU list of terrorist incidents finds the vast majority of them to be undertaken by separatist movements. But this does not have the same politically strengthening effect on the imperialists and therefore is not accorded the same significance within the ‘War on Terror’.)
Overall, then, the effects of this assassination have been to strengthen the ‘War on Terror’ in its political dimension without seriously harming it in its strategic or military capabilities, while also strengthening the racial and xenophobic political atmosphere of intimidation that underpins the government’s ability to wage such a ‘War on Terror’ in the first place. Whatever the moral view on the event may be, purely strategically, this is no victory. The best of this kind were the campaigns of ‘propaganda of the deed’, undertaken mainly by anarchists in the 1900s and by left wing insurgents (often trained in the global South) in the 1960s and 1970s, whether white or black. In these cases, the ideological purpose was a good one, and the targets no doubt deserving. Certainly in their fin-de-siècle form, they could be argued to have had the political value of exposing the weakness of rulers, destroying the image of the invulnerable splendour of European governments at the height of their global power. But in these cases, too, the overall effect was that one functionary was simply replaced by another, the radical groups involved (and many others besides) were smashed, the secret police powers were expanded, and the overall development of capitalism was not seriously affected.
This applies even to the origins of the ‘War on Terror’ in our age itself. Osama Bin Laden’s strategy was to attack the United States economically through an act of terrorism, perhaps the most strategically effective variant of this approach (which is in no way to endorse the act or Bin Laden’s aims in doing so); it can also be argued that the response, the unleashing of war all over the greater Middle East and the launching of a global ‘War on Terror’, was intended to ensnare that power in a never ending campaign of its own making: a kind of global Afghanistan. Whether this will ultimately bring down American imperialism remains to be seen, but for the time being, its effect has largely been to strengthen imperialism politically and strategically, while the economic effects have been noticeable but limited. Bin Laden is dead and many thousands in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere have had to pay for this strategic gamble. Accelerationism, especially when pursued by the religious right, comes at a high cost.
It is interesting to compare this epoch of terrorism of the religious right to the episodes of left wing propaganda of the deed: in the 1960s and 1970s, the political climate was much different, so that the attacks by the RAF or black power groups could not enable the various Western governments to launch a similar ‘War on Terror’ and throw all politics into its gaping maw. The actions by the RAF and others were perhaps more symptoms of the moment of high tension in the West at the time, the height of the power of organized labor and of the struggle for individual and political freedoms, a sense like in 1968 that it would only take a small but forceful push for the whole edifice to give way. This, as we know, turned out to be illusory: the counterattack of the ruling class proved devastatingly stronger than expected. But in our times, it is difficult to see in such actions anything that would have the power to effect a similar final push: rather, it seems to be the wind in the backs of the fascists and their enablers in the ‘War on Terror’ alike. If there is a push, it is that every attack like the one in Woolwich pushes the world further towards the dream of the right on both sides: an ultimate showdown between Islamists and Western powers. This should, for us, be reckoned a loss.