September 10, 2013
This is a repost of my article at The North Star.
All empires produce the same lies. That their enemies (ever changing) are barbarians; that they defend civilization, honor, and morality against the latter’s outrages; that they provide the necessary peace and stability for a world that would fall into chaos absent their muscle; and that any action is justified to this end, however apparently remote from these lofty goals, because of the need to maintain the empire’s ‘credibility’ in the face of its domestic and foreign opposition. This credibility, of course, has nothing to do with what one normally understands by that. It is not a matter of being honest or truthful or transparent in one’s dealings. Empires are never any of these things: a tyrant can be an important ally one day and a cruel enemy of humanity the next, like the erstwhile ruler of Iraq. One can declare that the tyrant of Syria has crossed an internationally recognized moral line by the alleged use of chemical weapons, when one has repeatedly done the same. One can decry the Assad government as oppressive and violent, which it certainly is, and that it kills civilians on a large scale when threatened, which it certainly does, and yet see no harm in an absolute monarchy doing precisely the same thing with the active support of the empire.
Why then care about the empire’s moral denunciations, one way or the other? Empires have no morality, in the end, except to believe that without them things would be worse. This is a truth happily affirmed by the imperialist right, the ‘realists’ who defend it exactly in those terms, as one can read in any book by the likes of Niall Ferguson, Max Boot, and so forth. In this sense, they are more honest than the liberal moralists who take on the burden of the world unasked for, and when so playing the giant Atlas care little about whom they trample underfoot. The only honesty of imperialism is the straightforward presentation of the empire’s interests, but this rarely motivates anyone much. That is why all the ‘realist’ literature has the wink wink, nudge nudge tone of the old boys club: ‘you’re not supposed to say this, of course, but privately, we all know that’… On the other hand the moralist imperialists are possibly even worse, since unlike the realists there is no empirical content to their reasonings at all. The mission civilisatrice is both conclusion and point of departure of their arguments, and the ‘responsibility to protect’, as Freddie de Boer has pointed out, is justified exclusively by counterfactuals that nobody can contest, because they never happened. It is perhaps this cynicism that finally led to the surprising defeat of the British government on its motion for punitive strikes on Syria; a sign perhaps that the antiwar movement has had at least an indirect effect on the ‘credibility’, in the imperialist sense, of such arguments.
Given this, the whole charade about whether chemical weapons have been used and if so, whether by Assad or his subordinates or perhaps somehow by the rebels is rather beside the point. We know already that the regime of Assad has killed tens of thousands and is willing to continue to do so to remain in power, a power which it has used for the purposes of the self-aggrandizement of a long-necked eye doctor and the naked plunder of the country’s produced wealth. As with Assad senior before him, Bashar al-Assad’s pretend ‘anti-imperialism’ fools only those who want to be fooled by it. Even the pretense of a developmental dictatorship, once the rationale for the nationally-oriented middle classes in the Arab world to support the pan-Arabic Ba’ath programme, has faded entirely. Assad makes deals with Israel while pretending to be champion anti-Zionist, and keeps the peace in the Golan Heights. He pretends to be the saviour of the Arab dignity against the empire, just like Saddam Hussein did, while being equally happy to do what the empire wants when this suits his rule, just like Saddam Hussein did. This is illustrated by his enthusiastic participation in the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program. (In Saddam’s case, of course, the cooperation consisted of going to war with Iran: a conflict sponsored by the West… with chemical weapons.) Nor is Assad serious about some kind of developmental programme in the style of the 20th century’s ‘postcolonial’ period. On the contrary, like all the other rulers whose predecessors justified their rule in developmental terms, he has given up even this raison d’être in the face of the pressure of the world market, and has undertaken a neoliberal turn of his own; one which maps remarkably well onto the central sites of rebellion against his dictatorship.
The argument about chemical weapons should then be left for what it is. It matters not tremendously whether thousands die through artillery bombardment or through chemical weapons. This is not to say that the ‘international taboo’ on chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and the desire to rid all states of these should be treated cynically by the left. On the contrary, the effects of such weapons have become all the more visible by the latest incident of their use, and it underlines their fundamentally profoundly anti-human nature. It is all the more significant because due to technological constraints, it is generally (though not universally) a set of weapons only usable by states against their subjects, and this should give us all the more reason to uniformly oppose their existence, let alone their use. But what does deserve to be treated with contempt is the notion of their being such a taboo in the first place, and that the United States and the cruise missile moralists are the correct instruments for enforcing it.
As mentioned, the empire was all too happy for one of the worst tyrants of the last few decades, Saddam Hussein, to have all manner of chemical weapons, as long as he used them on the empire’s foe, Iran. That he promptly turned these weapons on entire peoples who resisted his rule, and that this could be readily foreseen, counted for very little. The very same story applies in Syria, where the UK had no problem permitting the export of the relevant chemicals to the Syrian government even long after the civil war in Syria had begun. (And no such materials are ever sent anywhere without this being a conscious choice of foreign policy, as those suffering the boycotts of the West, like the peoples of Iran and Cuba, can attest.) I have also mentioned the use of white phosphorus and depleted uranium by the US in Iraq, and could add the use of the former by Israel in Gaza in 2008 to that. And going further back, was this taboo on chemical weapons not established in the first place because of their large scale use in the First World War – precisely by powers like France, the UK, the US and Germany, who are now the enforcers?
One could of course think they have, wisely, learned from the experience. But the persistence of their supply to third party dictators suggests otherwise. What it suggests is that, like the WMD excuse for the war on Iraq, this obsession with punitive strikes and invasions has little to do with the enforcement of taboos on violence (which are obeyed only in the breach) and everything to do with the shoring up of the ‘credibility’ of the empire – the spirit here is not the melancholia of Wilfred Owen, but the older spirit of quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi. Who have learned from the experience are the people who suffer the effects of that mentality, the ones who have to endure the notion of missile strikes to liberate them from bombardments, or the generations that suffered the threat of nuclear destruction at the hands of the players of game theory. It is the empires and their supporters that have a chemical romance, and so do the petty tyrants that now appear as necessary allies, now again as dangerous madmen possessed of powerful weapons, as suits the mood of the day in Washington or London.
The only answer for the left can be, as always, a pox on both their houses. Nothing is sillier than the notion that in such conflicts, it becomes necessary to see one or another party as the instrument of liberation, just because they are the protagonists to the fight. We need not choose between Washington and Damascus, and indeed, it would mean absolutely nothing if we did. From neither, any form of emancipation can be expected except that final emancipation from the flesh that comes from the receiving end of a bomb or bullet. Moreover, as the anti-war coalition in 2003 also showed, the left today does not possess the power to prevent our own states from going to war, let alone that we figure in the calculations of the Syrian Army or the insurgents. It is therefore pointless to engage in grandstanding on behalf of one or another party, and the left habit of ‘upholding’ by means of uncritical whitewashing this or that side in every conflict is as pointless as it is undignified. We should not call on our states to shoot missiles, nor to send arms to the insurgents, about whom we know nothing and whose victory, if it is to have any emancipatory content at all, must take place without NATO armaments in any case. We should also not declare ourselves supporters of the tyrant of Damascus, who inherited his throne from his father (not unlike his rivals in the Gulf). His only claim to rule consists in the proven will of the Assad dynasty to level entire cities, if that’s what it takes to quell any resistance.
As always, it remains right to rebel. One cannot blame the Syrian insurgents, armed and unarmed – and it is worth pointing out that Assad’s brutal repression of unarmed resistance led to the civil war – for rising against a dictatorship that has no more legitimacy than Pinochet did. The interventions from the Gulf states have strengthened immeasurably the position of the religious reactionaries in this struggle. But this should illustrate for the left the futility of expecting regimes explicitly opposed to any emancipatory politics to sustain such politics by means of proxy war, whether Saudi Arabia or the US. What the left can’t usefully do is playing the great game of states, all the more in the absence of any state at all committed to the victory of the remaining left anywhere in the world. In most these countries, the left was only strong insofar as it was entirely beholden to the support of Moscow, and this put them in a great strategic difficulty as soon as actual revolutionary situations were to arise requiring local initiative, or if Moscow’s support were to fall away – as proven by the defeat of the left in Iran in 1979, and its virtual collapse since the fall of the USSR.
Perhaps out of the fires of the present wars in the MENA region, a new left can arise, one that obtains its strength from the struggles in the region itself, not from franchising to this or that foreign movement or international (and this includes, of course, the Trotskyist ones). But the rise of such a left is not helped by grandstanding from socialists abroad, nor from foreign interventions, nor from dressing up every political action or insurgency as being ‘really’ based in the extremely narrow organized industrial working classes of Egypt, Syria, or Iraq. Indeed, in most of the region the pervasive unemployment and unproductivity of labor makes a classically proletarian politics for now impossible: a consequence of the immense weakness of its capital, whose position is further undermined by the strength and activities of the rentier monarchies of the Gulf. All the same, countries full of young, unemployed people without a future are hotbeds for revolt in all of history, all the more so when they’re largely urbanized and not among the most desperately poor of the world. The response to this, triggered by rising food prices and the increasing weakness of the local dictators, has been a (proto-)revolutionary process – not a social revolution in economic relations, but a political process of rising consciousness and opposition to the corrupt and ineffective regimes of the region. The removal of these regimes is the absolute prerequisite for any genuinely revolutionary movement, needless to say.
It should be taken and supported as such, without any illusions about working class revolutionary politics and without the absurd theatre of ‘position taking’ every time foreign powers intervene for or against it. Ultimately, the present conflicts have nothing to do with ‘anti-imperialism’, chemical weapons, or any of these moral tales any more than the European conflicts of 1848 did. Our attitude should be that of 1848 as well: no foreign interventions, no ‘upholding’ or moralism, no overblown expectations. There may still be disagreement as to the means and the right groups to support, as is to be expected when the left is weak and has to substitute empty endorsements for action. But let’s not make this into a moral allegory. That we can oppose the tyrants, oppose the empire, and oppose the weapons of mass destruction they equally peddle in is clear enough, but it is a starting point, not a conclusion. It does not thereby prove the opposition to be the vehicle for socialist emancipation. It can’t be otherwise: there is presently no basis for such a politics. The rebellions of 1848 were all politically justified to the last, but none of them was justified by the historical conditions, and none of them could or did lead to a socialist politics. The same is true for the present 1848, the 1848 of the MENA region. I hope that the current conflicts end better than 1848 did, with its subsequent Bonapartism, though Egypt seems to suggest otherwise. Cynicism is never useful. But only by being honest about the real nature of conditions, precisely as empires and dictators can never be, can the left go beyond the moral tales of chemicals and revolutionaries.
May 5, 2012
It is a well-known quote, almost by now worn to the point of cliché, that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”.(1) Most people know this to be a true analysis of what the ‘liberty, equality, property and Bentham’ of the liberal order amounts to; but to see this manifest itself in practice is something to which we in the Western world have perhaps become unaccustomed. The salient point is not even so much that the pure equality before the law itself may hide considerable inequalities of class and status, but at least as much that the supposed neutrality and ‘safeguards’ of legal procedure may turn out to result in very different outcomes in similar cases. It is important to note these cases, as they don’t show impurities and imperfections in an otherwise fair system, as the liberals would have it, but show their true significance as the inevitable results of deep structural problems. Read the rest of this entry »
January 26, 2012
There have been many theories of imperial overstretch in the past, but surely none of them would have expected any empire or its allies to be so foolish as to attack three immediately bordering targets in a row. As the sophisticated statesmen and -women of the West once again steer us all towards an unnecessary and artificial conflict, one would do well to reflect on the nature and consequences of a war zone stretching from Iraq through Iran to Afghanistan and the western regions of Pakistan. None of these areas are known for their good governance, their stable political and economic structures, or their previous history of allowing easy conquest and rule. Yet this does not appear to restrain the dogs of war from once again throwing themselves at another country of the greater Middle East, this time under the pretext of the imminent danger of nuclear weapons. Read the rest of this entry »
October 18, 2011
Two weeks on from my previous article on the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, it is useful to comment on some of the developments since that time; as a wit might say, to take stock of events. Most heartening and most immediately obvious is the great spread of movements of a similar nature in other countries. This is not so much because the Occupy Wall Street movement was itself the first major response to the current great depression; the Spanish and Greek peoples had been moving onto the streets and mobilizing strikes in their hundreds of thousands before it. But it gave the very idea of a popular movement against our prevailing economic system, however widely or narrowly defined, a visibility and a focus that it had not had before. The Western media is chauvinistic and superficial, and easily writes off class struggle even in countries like Greece and Spain as mere indignation from lazy rabble in inefficient countries. Having, for the first time in the living memory of many, a mass movement that is very close to open anti-capitalism in the lion’s den itself is a different thing, and is bound to draw the attention even of the ‘great and good’.
This is not to dismiss the significance of the struggles in southern Europe and elsewhere. They play not only a major role in showing how class struggle can and should be done, and that it can be done anywhere; but they also have a significant effect on the political-economic constellation of forces, since in many ways the very fate of the European Monetary Union depends on the willingness of the peoples of southern Europe to accept any imposition by the north. Their resistance is therefore more than a ‘merely domestic’ affair. A rebellion in Judea will never quite be the same as a rebellion on the streets of Rome, as Jesus was never as much a threat as Spartacus was; at the same time, the latter’s ideological power has greatly outlasted the former’s. So it may well be here. One of the conclusions that must be drawn from events today is the absolute importance of the international dimension of the movement, not just in terms of political strategy, but also in terms of the battle of ideas. So far, one of the weaknesses of the movement has been its character as the ‘awakening of the white people’, the emphasis on the rebellion being an event in the rich countries: but this is only a major event precisely because of its rarity. That it happens at all is to be applauded, but if this movement is to survive, it must become a movement at least as much of the truly oppressed of the globe as it is a movement of the indebted and dissatisfied workers of the West. This holds true at least for as long as the protestors in New York, London and Berlin do not move their demands beyond their own immediate, domestic interests, and as long as they have no intention of actually threatening the rule of international capital in any way. Merely camping outside St. Paul’s does not harm anyone, and therefore achieves nothing.
But here also lies an opportunity. As Marx wrote, “one step of real movement is better than a thousand programmes”, and this movement has taken several major steps in a very short time. Splits and contentions in such a movement are inevitable and a sign of health rather than weakness, insofar as they lead to the further and further confrontation of those involved with the true nature of the prevailing system and its defensive structures. Every further step will lead some to halt in fear of what lies ahead, but it will also lead some to identify and overcome barriers where they had never known them before, and in so doing to grasp more and more clearly the full outline of our capitalist maze. While the nature of the First World is such that it’s ‘aristocracy of labor’ is the least likely to rebel against the dominion of capital, it is also true that if and when they do, it has the greatest impact. The current crisis, as crises tend to do, has opened the eyes of millions to the reality of the system in a way that no socialist pamphlet or labor conference could possibly do. This alone is invaluable. The real nature of this movement is shown precisely by the fact that even in the United States, the tendency within it towards fascism, chauvinism, and petty-bourgeois white populism has been insignificant in the extreme. Neither the ‘Tea Party’ nor the fanboys of Ron Paul have had any success in diverting it from its fundamental political understanding, however undeveloped that may yet be. This, again, is encouraging in the extreme.
If these analyses may seem contradictory, it is because the movement itself is. In fact, it could not be otherwise. Its diversity of goals and aims, and of causes for protest, is potentially a weakness; it is also potentially a strength. As Vijay Prashad, hardly a First World petty reformist, put it about the American branch of the movement:
Our strength comes in our diversity, in our realization that no single issue discounts any other issue. The interconnected web of injuries draws us into our anti-systemic politics. Some see the sheer diversity of our movement as a failing, asking that we concentrate on one or two issues, on the main issue, which more often then not strips bare life into a cartoonish abstraction (is the “economy” really absent race and gender?). To such frivolous objections, here are at least two reactions. First, it is precisely that the American Left is constituted by this vastness that makes it imperative to recognize the right of the many to castigate all wrongs. More people should be welcome into the American Left,certainly into OWS, bringing with them their many complaints and dreams. Our movement must promise more to each of us than what is available in the present. Second, no one claim to human freedom is essentially more important than another. In time, there will be a serious debate in our movement over how to frame our core issues, and how to move one part of the agenda before another. That is inevitable. But that does not mean that at the start we should already be closing our doors to these or those issues.
All that said, anyone who thinks that at this point they know exactly what its historical significance will be, where it will go and whether it will succeed or fade out is deluding themselves. Nonetheless, I suggest a number of political points must be made and understood by all involved if success is to be more likely, at least.
1) We may safely assume that the current Depression will last for a considerable time still. In fact, there is no basic reason in political economy to expect living standards in the West to return to the levels they previously were, or even to expect anything other than slow but certain decline. As in all situations of crisis, this will lead to a radicalization of a considerable number of the population, both towards the left and the right. The natural instincts of the masses in the West may be fascist, but this is not a necessity, and can be opposed with right politics.
2) Such a politics has the absolute duties of both promoting any real movement that, whether it is aware of it or not, is aimed against the formal and real rule of capitalism. It does not in this context much matter under what banner or slogan such a movement operates, as long as its goals are in the fundament incompatible with the current capitalist order.
3) Where the demands of the movement are compatible with the current order, and are merely aimed at one or another form of domestic relief, they are insufficient. But as long as they are made in opposition to the capitalist class, and do not take on a chauvinistic or reactionary character, they can and should be moved to develop in the direction of anti-capitalism. Anything that finds its natural final outcome in opposition to capitalism has potential.
4) Insofar as the demands have chauvinist and labour aristocratic elements, these are to be opposed, but by demonstrating the incompatibility of such demands with true opposition to the rule of capital. This will, in the West, inevitably over time lead to splits in the movement. Such splits are healthy. For example, one must point out the significance of Western imperialism, and this will separate the wheat from the ‘patriotic’ chaff. To do this in such a manner that it promotes understanding of the interrelation between the death of millions in the Third World, the disempowerment of blacks and Native Americans, the endless warfare regardless of the will of the peoples of the West, and the independent power developed by the ‘military-industrial complex’ to the destruction of even any formal democracy: these are the tasks of the socialist in the West. They are not easy, but if even one-tenth of those on the march now and in future months will develop this political consciousness, it will be a very serious gain. It is imperative that we do not forget that for socialism to succeed politically, one does not need an absolute majority of any population being active Party members or the like. This has never happened and never will. All one needs is literally and figuratively a critical mass, and a constellation of political forces such that the great majority will prefer the victory of the socialists to that of their opponents.
5) For socialists outside the West, the task is a much more straightforward one, if not therefore any easier and considerably more dangerous. The popular democratic movements in the Arab world and the Maoists in Nepal and India have nonetheless shown these to be as potently pregnant with possibility as any other, and they have shown that they no more ‘necessarily’ lead to socialism than elsewhere. This is the real stuff of politics, which cannot be reduced to a static, mechanistic view of economic interests.
6) The final target must be to promote a politics which makes the connection between these movements clear: not by papering over the difference in economic and class position between a teacher in New York and a landless peasant in Chattisgarh, but by showing to the former that the target of their rightful anger is the same as which oppresses the latter. Even where their material position is widely divergent, the crisis and the popular response against it are great political and economic forces which push towards a convergence, even if it is nowhere yet near reaching that point. The future of such countries as China and India will determine the future of the United States; but they will no more succeed along the capitalist road than anyone else has, and in the zero-sum game of competition, there can only be so many winners. Any gain by them is a loss for the Americans and Brits and Germans and so forth, but one would be mistaken in seeing here only a problem for socialists in the West: as the current movement shows, this is equally a ripening of possibilities that have not been seen since the years between the great wars.
7) The main power that can divert this movement in the West is the strength of social-democracy, the ideology of the aristocracy of labor. But the more the crisis endures, the weaker social-democracy is. It has no answers that are not either co-opted by the left or co-opted by the right, and the great mass of people is ever more aware of this. Hitherto, disillusion with social-democracy has translated mainly into disaffection with politics altogether. This movement has the potential to change that. The great virtue of mass movements for economic change, however underdeveloped, is that they reveal the workings of many things to many people. Once taught, these are lessons people do not soon forget. This is why all the charlatans and figureheads of social-democracy from Obama to Jeffrey Sachs have rushed to co-opt the movement and to imbue them with their own ‘lessons’, which all amount to nothing else but further debasement before the golden calf of parliamentary liberalism. The fact they saw the need to do so – and no need at all to do so in the case of the ‘Tea Party’ – shows precisely that they are well aware of the ability of movements of this kind to teach real lessons in political economy, once that cannot be found in the books of Krugman or Mankiw.