While virtually everyone on the left would agree on the importance of anti-imperialism in principle, it is by no means always clear what this means. (I will exclude the Euston Manifesto types from our hallowed ranks.) Anti-imperialism can only be effective to the extent that imperialism is defined and understood, and anti-imperialist strategy only works insofar as there is agreement on what imperialism is. Oddly, while the rhetoric of anti-imperialism is a commonplace of left activism and organisational campaigns, there is often a lot of vagueness about what precisely is meant by the term. The fate of the antiwar movements since the war in Iraq has been an illustration of this problem. Despite the unprecedented numbers agitating against the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ and its invasion of Iraq to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein, the antiwar movement has shown virtually no staying power. The election of Obama seems to have taken the wind out of the sails of the American activists, despite the extension of drone warfare to many countries and the war in Libya, and in Europe only the occasional Israeli threats against Gaza can mobilise any numbers at all. While the predominance of economic concerns since the crisis have a lot to do with this, I suspect there is also a wider strategic problem. The best example of this is the (unofficial) slogan of the movement against the Iraq war, the concept of “no blood for oil”. By examining the weaknesses of this concept, I will try to nudge the left debate on imperialism away from its usual obsessions and towards a different perspective on the means and scope of imperialism today.
Three aspects of traditional anti-imperialist framing
The slogan of “no blood for oil” is a good place to start, because it shows one aspect of the traditional frame of reference of the post-Cold War left when talking about imperialism. This is the emphasis on resource imperialism: the manifestation of imperialism as Great Power attempts at invading or suborning countries by means of political and – especially – military pressure in order to obtain certain desirable resources. Nowadays, oil is the most important of these, and in the case of Iraq as well as Libya, it was and is common for many anti-imperialists to ascribe these wars primarily to the US need for oil. But other resources can be invoked as well as causes for war, such as the stories about the coming water wars, the fights over rare earth materials, the command of uranium, coltan, or gold and diamonds.
Another aspect of the traditional frame of reference focuses on imperialist power. The US in particular, but perhaps also the other Powers such as Britain, France, or even Russia are ascribed a tremendous power to control and command events in the world. An especially important and frequently invoked part of this is the role of the intelligence agencies and of forms of propaganda and espionage to exercise a great deal of hidden power over seemingly independent or unrelated events. While by no means all of the anti-imperialist left accepts the worst forms of paranoia in the form of snitchjacketing about CIA agents and MI5 infiltrators, it is very commonly the case that any situation of conflict, rebellion, uprising, coup or similar actions that are considered in some form or another favorable to Western (or Russian or Chinese, in some cases) interests are easily identified with the hidden hand of the CIA, State Department, Pentagon, MI5/6, and the like. In all cases, the guiding thread is the assumption that little of major import happens in the world that is not in some way both foreseen and controlled by the Western powers, and that any signs of activity of Western intelligence, diplomatic, or political agencies in such events is prima facie evidence of that foresight and control. If a Western organisation has involved, or tried to involve, themselves in some way by money or political support into a political turmoil in a Third or Second World country, this means that the events following this intervention should effectively be assumed to be under the control or at least strategic guidance of the United States or its allies.
A third aspect of the traditional frame is the strategy of anti-imperialism. As mentioned before, such a strategy has been difficult to develop, or at least to sustain, for activists in the West. This is due to disagreements about who the imperialists are in a given case, as well as the small power of the left to do anything about it even if the mechanisms and targets of imperialism can be clearly identified; but it is also, I suspect, due to the peculiar type of strategy of anti-imperialism commonly deployed. This comes in two, rather opposing types.
– The first version could be called ‘oppositional anti-imperialism’, and is more commonly associated with various M-L groups and the like, although it is also often followed by ‘ortho-Trots’. This consists of applying the rule of thumb that the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend, and as the main enemy is at home, whoever they’re attacking must be our friend. But it extends beyond this: if the target identified in this way is our friend, then we also owe them our solidarity at the political level, and this often goes so far as to play up their socialist or developmentalist credentials, to defend their policy decisions in their own countries, and to oppose their domestic opposition as well.
– The second version is more commonly associated with Trotskyists of the IS and other ‘heterodox’ traditions and some other currents as well, and could be called ‘third camp anti-imperialism’. This form of anti-imperialism was expressed during the Cold War as ‘neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism’, and while the capitals of the conflicting countries involved have often changed, the principle has remained the same. Essentially, the idea is to reject the wars or political conflicts of the Western countries with their opponents, but to also condemn those opponents as equally remote from socialist goals, and to promote instead anti-imperialism for the sake of ‘international socialism’. This last element, shrouded in vagueness, tends to consist of the playing up of the domestic opposition (quite in contrast to the first), and to attempt to identify in the whole conflict the group most easily associated with the organised working class and especially one organised along IS-type lines, no matter how small. This side is then identified with the goal of ‘international socialism’.
More aspects of the common frame of anti-imperialism among the Western left could be identified, but for now these three will do, as I think they’re most typical of the debates around this concept and the relevant strategies, and most representative of the positions of most of the sects and antiwar groups. More could be written and with more subtlety of detail about the different ways that different organisations give meaning to these forms of anti-imperialism, and specific examples of how they pursue these ideas, but I want to keep this at a general level precisely in order to get a general point across, not to criticize any particular individual or group or to argue about any specific war or intervention. Rather, I shall try to show that in my view, this approach to anti-imperialism means that the left frequently fails to see the forest for the trees, and that none of the three aspects of the approach I identify above are sufficient or even convincing. I will treat these in the order in which I’ve presented them, but I will try to integrate my critique in such a way as to make clear how the different parts, that in the above form of anti-imperialism have no obvious connection, should be made to relate.
Traditional anti-imperialism as a left IR realism
The overarching theme I want to identify is that all the above in some way represents the left having bought into a rather weak version of a weak theory: something resembling the international relations theory of realism. Realism, with its emphasis on different powers pursuing their national interests insofar as their power allows, and with its Hobbesian perspective on international relations, certainly is a valid description of some of the nature of imperialism and the world system as it operates today. But it has been many times vigorously criticized from within and without the IR discipline, and it is therefore somewhat puzzling how easily it is accepted by leftists – as shown in the above kinds of assumptions about imperialism. The traditional weakness of IR realism is the circular reasoning about what ‘the national interest’ is, its neglect of domestic divisions within countries (including class divisions), its emphasis on the nation-state and a uniform government as the actors on the international stage, and its dismissal of ideology and politics itself as having any significance beyond rhetoric.
Much of this is shared by the kind of anti-imperialism I have described above, which sees the Western powers (and sometimes others like the BRICS) as relentlessly efficient in their pursuit of their clearly defined national interests, which dismisses the ideological and political framing of state actions – at least on the part of the imperialists, if not their victims – and which ascribes all agency to this process of nation-state self-aggrandizement and control on the international stage. Indeed, class does appear in the left version of this, but only really as an afterthought: classes only exist insofar as it is important that the capitalists are in power (at least in the West) and that the working class is victimised in the process, but while this provides the motivation for imperialism it does not otherwise have any independent causal role to play in the analysis.
I think much of this is either misconceived or describes only a small part of the larger mechanism of imperialism, as I will try to argue in more detail now. Mind that none of this is to suggest that imperialism doesn’t exist, or isn’t really a threat, or doesn’t take on these forms on occasion. On the contrary, I want to argue against the above view because I think it does not describe imperialism’s most significant and most dangerous forms, nor does it accord agency correctly, and thereby it both understates imperialism’s scope and overrates its ability to succeed. This may sound paradoxical, but the attempt to reconcile both of these observations has a long pedigree on the left: think of the balance between Lenin’s description of imperialism as the ‘highest stage of capitalism’ and yet Mao’s description of imperialists as ‘paper tigers’. In the process of critiquing the traditional frame identified above, I will try to do justice to both these slogans.
The slogan ‘no blood for oil’, for example, completely misstates the process of how imperialism exercises political and economic power over weaker states and economic actors. While in the Victorian era of colonial conquest it is certainly true that imperialism at times took the form of conquest for the sake of resource extraction, and even now wars are fought over the control of diamonds, oil, and precious metals, the significance of such resource imperialism for the great powers of the West has ever diminished over time. The reason for this is that the resource imperialist model forgets that the unequal exchange between economies internationally is already a fact. The West did not need to invade Iraq to obtain its oil, because it already had it – under the ‘oil for food’ programme and other sanctions-evading arrangements, Saddam Hussein could not sell his oil except to the Western powers.
The same thing is true for Ghadaffi’s heroic ‘anti-imperialism’ in Libya, where the overwhelming majority of oil was sold to the EU before the NATO invasion. Ghadaffi’s close relations with Berlusconi are easily explained since the oil was shipped via Italy and they also had a mutual interest in preventing migration to southern Europe via the sea-route. The wars in Iraq and Libya have if anything reduced the supply of oil to the West, so that there is a complete inconsistency between the assumption of Western power and control and the complete futility of their actions from the viewpoint of resource extraction. Needless to say, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia and other recent Western campaigns of war and occupation are even harder to explain as cases of resource extraction.
The fact is that unequal exchange means precisely that developing countries are more dependent on Western buyers than the Western buyers are on them. This is why even the ideal left-developmental government, like in Cuba or Venezuela, has to sell to the West whether or not they claim their anti-imperialist credentials. High-productivity, high-research spending economies also have a much greater ability to substitute for raw materials, not just by policies of divide and rule between the suppliers, but also by creating synthetics or substitute goods. Chile’s booming fin-de-siècle economy crashed when its main export, guano for sulphur, became unnecessary after the Haber-Bosch process provided a more efficient synthetic substitute. The same goes for dyes, rubber, diamonds, and even the components of drugs. More technologically advanced countries with much bigger capital stock and higher productivity can also afford to extract under capitalist conditions where this cannot be done by poor countries – hence the observation that many poor countries are already dependent on Western companies to extract oil or other major resources for them.
The flow of value from poor to rich countries is a process of inequality of exchange and a result of capitalist political economy, and this operates on left governments as much as on those of the comprador type. Imperialism does not need to invade to obtain resources much these days, and can safely leave this to the processes of the international ‘free market’ – something much more true now than it was in the days of Victorian tarriff walls, underdeveloped international capital flows, and weaker transport connections. In those days, many colonies were occupied just to prevent others from being able to bar trade from them, not directly for any resource benefit; today, not even that is necessary for imperialism to function.
Certainly, nationalisations and other policies can change this, as can active efforts to create developmental investment strategies as in the USSR or Japan (again, left or right). But this brings me to the next point: instead of focusing on resource extraction models, it would be better to locate imperialism at the international and multilateral level. The wars over coltan and the like are fought by proxies of proxies of imperialists, if even that, and benefit them at very little cost. But this is not where the international structure of imperialism is determined. The world system consists not of the Victorian plantation model of direct imperialist control, since the great anti-colonial movements have made that all but impossible. Instead, imperialism is now indirect and multinational: it structures the world economy and politics, including its inequality and its constraints on all economic actors, through institutions like the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, and through the UN Security Council and NATO. While few even of the traditional anti-imperialists would deny the significance of these organisations, they tend to see them as merely additional agents of imperialism. But they are more than that: they are imperialism, in the sense that the world order shaped since San Francisco and Bretton Woods has been organised in order to sustain imperialist inequality. The direct interventions, coups, and proxy wars of the Cold War and beyond are merely the means of enforcing this rule, but they are not the order itself. They are means to an end, but the means can and do vary.
To understand these phenomena as being imperialism is to miss the forest for the trees, as I have said. It is the more complex and subtle indirect processes of political economy, as it were the formal subsumption of the ‘world economy’ or ‘globalisation’ under a form that can contain the actions and aspirations of the many poor people of the world, that is the real scope of imperialism. This is much larger than oil, proxy wars, or ‘color revolutions’. Hence Lenin’s idea of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism: not that I agree with Lenin’s specific formulation of imperialism, but it is important to understand that imperialism is a mode of appearance of the postwar political economic order, not the other way round. Its scope is as large as the processes and institutions that make up this order itself, and it lives through this order, whatever specific means are employed from time to time to re-assert it.
The agency of non-Western political actors
Having said this, one can then reasonably ask: but what of the developmentalist efforts you mention? What of the anti-colonial movements, the Non-Aligned Movement, and so forth? This brings me to the next point I want to address, the conception of imperialism as all-powerful and all-controlling. This view I have often criticized before, and I will do so again. Firstly, it denies agency to the independent struggles of poor and working people who live in ‘imperialised’ countries, as it can only conceive of them as victims of Western actions, or as heroic oppositions against such actions, but never as capable of having their own politics, motives, and aims in their own class and national situation – just like IR realism cannot conceive of this. Imperialist interventions, bribes, threats, extortions, and bombardments certainly play a role in the political actions and strategies of the Second and Third World, but they are not determined by it nor limited to it.
Equally, divisions within the peoples of the majority of the world are not inherently ‘artificial’, solely a product of great power propaganda or meddling, or even aligned along the political lines of Western politics. In, say, sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shi’a, or in civil wars in Africa, there is often no inherently ‘pro-Western’ and ‘anti-Western’ side; and even if there is, it need not be determined by Western action or under its auspices in any way. Western intelligence agencies or diplomatic propagandists may give money or support to this or that side, but that does not make these sides creatures of those agencies, nor does it mean the conflicts and their outcomes are foreseen and controlled from Washington, Moscow, or Paris.
With the denial of agency comes this idea of imperialist omnipotence or at least omniscience. The surveillance by the NSA of vast internet and phone networks and the Cold War tales of espionage, PSYOPS, and gentlemen with coffers full of dollars driving around remote capitals often strengthen this perception. But the reality is quite the opposite. The CIA and all the other agencies are precisely so vast in scope, their activities so secret and complex, and the surveillance so ambitious because the ability of imperialist powers to control events is rather weak. This ability is reliant on complex combinations of coercion, co-optation and superior information, and as it operates at many levels and has many links in its chains, it is equally vulnerable to disruption in many ways. It is striking how the traditional anti-imperialist framework of the left tends to accord such agencies – and I never deny that their activities are real and should be opposed – much greater efficacy, foresight and control than the agencies and their governments themselves do.
One can give many examples of why this is a mistake, and I shall mention a few. The first is the degree to which empire has always been dependent on ‘delegation’. From Roman foederati to Victorian askaris to the British Indian army and modern ‘peacekeepers’, the imperialist powers would never have been able to gain, let alone retain, power without the active role of cooperating forces elsewhere. Far from being mere puppets, such forces had and have aims and means of their own, and frequently demand something in return for their services. The rebellion of the ‘Sepoys’ in 1856 was the greatest anti-colonial rebellion until WWII, and it concentrated precisely on the very troops the British needed to retain control over India. It is of course nonsense, as is often claimed, that a few thousand British civil servants and officers held British India for the crown – it was the hundreds of thousands of Indian troops that did.
This is not to neglect the destructive power of imperialist weaponry, armies, and technology, but this too should be put in its proper context to assess where imperialist power truly lies. The imperial powers have overwhelming air forces, nuclear weapons, drones and whatever else, but all of these are solely powers to destroy their enemies. They are not instruments of control. In reality, the adventure in Iraq showed not the strength of imperialism, but its weakness: it showed that despite all their armies and their bluster, the Americans and their allies could not undertake state-building, could not reshape Iraq in their image, and could not even control a stable and pliant government. It is telling that after several years of virtual civil war, unchecked by the incompetent proconsul Paul Bremer’s pretend authority, the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ had to ask the United Nations to set up a mission to do the state-building for them. Is this a sign of the unilateral strength of imperialist powers to put their stamp on the world as they wish? Does this show they know and control events abroad as if it were in Washington? If one lives in fear of the CIA, one need but think of the Bay of Pigs.
Of course, this is not to say that coups and invasions never succeed in overthrowing undesired governments and installing new ones. They often do succeed. But they depend for their continuation on the cooperation and actions of political forces and classes outside the imperialist domains, and these are neither wholly known nor wholly controlled by any imperialist power, however much money and weapons they wave about. If the sorry history of Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion up to today does not show the inability of any great power to know or control events for which it depends on others, I do not know what would. It is in this sense that Mao rightly said that the imperialists are ‘paper tigers’. For all their weapons and spies and money, they have great destructive capacities, but little ability to build anything new or to control the course of events politically or economically. Many of the liberal and conservative critics within the Western nations also acknowledge this.
So to return to the argument about the great anticolonial movements and developmental strategies: the structure of imperialism today, it could be argued, is precisely a response to this show of independent agency on the part of the peoples of the developing world. The old system of colonies and mandates was destroyed, despite all of its military and economic superiority, by the collective will and action of peoples in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. The General Assembly gained in significance at the expense of the Security Council, and the various developing nations of the world were able to play off the great powers against each other. The left-developmental approach had some real limitations within the societies in question, ones which have become more apparent as time went on.
But these developments have, I would argue, shown two other things. Firstly that the internal political and economic dynamics of the ‘imperialised’ states are causally significant in their own right, following similar trajectories in many countries, but not thereby one foreseen or controlled by the West. But they have, if anything, also shown the ability of people to not just resist empire, but to actively reorganise the world system in their own image. The violence of the imperialist response in its direct or proxy wars, and the attempts to re-establish an imperialist system on the basis of a ‘race to the bottom’ between competing developing nation-states, should be seen as a response to independent action by various popular movements in the Third World, and one which is as contested now as it ever was. Again, this is not a claim that the coups and counterrevolutions promoted by the great powers have not been a serious threat and a punishment for the independent action of various states. It is rather to say that this project of enforcing control is opportunistic, incomplete, and uncertain for the imperialists as much as for the imperialized: a game of multilateral whack-a-mole played formerly via proxy wars and nowadays via the institutions of the ‘international community’.
The virtues of lacking a strategy
This, finally, brings me to the questions of anti-imperialist strategy. Now this needs to be taken with extra care. I have argued previously that it is important to remember that virtually no analysis at the level of generality common to left theory fully determines any particular strategy, and this article is no exception. One can be right about the analysis and yet wrong about the strategy, or even (though perhaps less likely) vice versa. I also do not pretend to have any particular insight into the process of socialist revolution or even of successful left-developmental anti-imperialism (which is often accepted as its substitute, rightly or wrongly). Like with all strategic questions, when I’m asked what the right way to revolution is, I answer: if I knew how, I’d do it! As so often, all one has to offer is negative advice, which is not a great position to be in. But here goes anyway.
The first thing I’d conclude from the above is to give up the tendency towards conspiratorial thinking. The Cold War in particular manifested itself in the form of CIA fronts, hidden propaganda, sudden coups: the stuff of spy novels. This has not gone away just because the USSR has, instead the US is now able to continue its surveillance, money-funnelling, and drug dealing operations more unchallenged. Nor has there been any change in the closeness between Western media and military and political leaders, or between the Western governments and oligarchs and tyrants abroad (depending on when it suits them). To point these things out and to expose them where they exist is not at issue. What I would contest however is to overestimate the causal efficacy of much of this stuff. In line with what I have argued above, I would not deny that the NED or CIA or DEA are active all over the world promoting American interests; this is to be expected. What I would deny is that they should be assumed to be successful, without further corroborating evidence, and that their presence and actions should be taken as indicating control over events or knowledge of all that goes on.
We see the world through a glass darkly, but this is no less true for the CIA and even the NSA. Their ability to act is much greater than ours, but this provides no guarantee of anything. If it did, all their secrecy would be redundant. That Edward Snowden could still millions of documents from the NSA and reveal its activities on a large scale, and that these activities are not indicative of a global capacity to predict or control the political actions of subaltern organisations, is a sign that we should take their actions seriously but not overstate their agency in events. The Cold War was a spectacle of the US and USSR attempting to support organisations that they did not control, which is precisely why the strategists were always so paranoid and game theory became so significant. The very figures they paid money one day shot down their planes the next. There is no reason to assume it is otherwise today.
The second point is that this mode of thinking moves us away from the class and political analysis of the countries in question. Both of the anti-imperialist attitudes described in the beginning of this essay are guilty of this. For the oppositional anti-imperialism, there are only imperialists (bad) and their enemies (good). Whatever they attack, we support. In this way figures who murdered communists on a large scale, repress all trade union activities, make the most opportunistic deals with Western powers, and who impose neoliberal ‘reforms’ on their already mostly clique-controlled and high-unemployment economies suddenly transform into heroes of socialist progress. For the third camp version, there are the imperialists (bad), their enemies (bad), and the independent working class (good). But this simply translates into a desperate attempt to identify some actor in the conflict, any actor will do, with the ‘real’ working class in action, so that the tiny organisations of left unionists in urban areas are magnified beyond all proportion, and so that every strike in a cookie factory somewhere in Peru or Yemen translates into the first bugle calls of socialist revolution.
Neither approach takes the political and social structures peculiar to the societies in question seriously, and neither of them is willing to adapt its model, even its view of who and what the struggling parties are, to the specifics of time and place. This, again, is a kind of left parody of IR realism, which only ever knows the diplomacy of the Peloponnesian War or the politics of WWI. It does not seem to occur that in a period like ours, in which the workers’ movement as a historical phenomenon is unprecedentedly passive and in which organised socialism has been smashed all over, we should expect there to be many conflicts in which there is no ‘good’ side, or even in which the dynamics owe nothing at all to the traditional politics of socialist struggle. (Mind you, this is not to say that classes as such have disappeared or play no analytical role – this would be to fall into the opposite error, those of the Fukuyama-Huntington set of orientalist theories.)
I provide no alternative recipe precisely because the idea that a single recipe can cover our present times at the strategic level has led to much self-delusion and substitutionism, but not to any appreciable results. The spectacle of one sect fighting another over the ‘obvious’ anti-imperialist demand to support/oppose X has done little to revive the dwindled ranks of the antiwar or anti-imperialist activist movements in the West. Given the position of the average person in the West as beneficiary of much of this imperialism, the lack of enthusiasm is not so strange; but the level of revulsion against the Iraq war shows that this, too, cannot be taken for granted. In my view, imperialism presents itself in more complex, more multilateral, and more subtle ways than most of the anti-imperialist sloganeering of today allows for. As I have tried to show, I believe it to be both more general in scope than the conspiratorial-resource approach allows, and yet also much less in control of events than much of the left believes. It exercises its control, I would argue, most saliently in an institutional and indirect form, while its direct actions (covert or otherwise) are usually opportunistic and reactive.
What would help the discussion and analysis of anti-imperialism move in a new direction, I suggest, is to focus more on understanding these institutional dynamics and the internal dynamics of societies affected by them, and the interaction between the two; the hard work of international political economy, more than the simple models of international relations. This, too, would aid the Western left in understanding its own position, its abilities to disrupt and affect imperialism, better than the perennial team sport of supporting this or that ‘side’ in Second or Third World conflicts does. And it will do so without relegating the actors in such conflicts to mere embodiments of Western agency or the response to it.