I wrote a draft of this in early December that had some limited circulation. This version moves the focus away from criticisms of the left responses to the Obama Afghanistan policy towards the policy itself. In some ways it’s a restatement of arguments I made about
Barack, Badiou, and Bilal al Hasan
Obama has made his speech on
The majority of the U.S. left looks at these issues in the context of classical conceptions of imperialism, emphasizing the interests of U.S. capital in maintaining and extending its dominant position: in the first place against popular anti-imperialist movements; but with increasing frequency also against purported imperialist rivals.
“... this war is not about “defending the American people” — but establishing a stable U.S. domination over a highly strategic arc reaching from Iran...to Pakistan...It is a war for consolidating U.S. domination in large parts of the world.” Ely, Kasama (12/2)
“All this ... is about oil. But not just oil, but all other resources, and not just resources, but the control of those resources and the fear of a rising multi-polarity being led by the Chinese with accompaniment by a renewed belligerence of Russia and the rising economic power of Brazil and India among others (the BRIC nations).” Miles, Znet (12/4).
I realize these short excerpts don’t adequately express Ely and Miles’s complete positions. However, taking them as they stand, whatever their other merits, neither helps explain why Obama is implementing this particular policy and not another – potentially quite different - one.
“...Protecting the U.S.”; establishing an “...arc of domination” in SouthWest Asia; acting against a, “...rising multi-polarity” within the global capitalist system, may or may not point to some of the motivations that underlie U.S. policy in general, but they are hardly sufficient to explain this particular policy. The goal of “U.S. domination” could arguably be implemented through policies which were quite different. Non-military interventions could be pursued rather than costly and unpromising wars. A concentration on mounting problems closer to the “homeland” could be prioritized to ensure there there actually was a more “stable” base from which to expand “U.S. domination”.
The other day I ran across this in a column by Tom Friedman, perhaps the best known publicist for global capitalism. It illustrates my point:
“Frankly, if I had my wish we would be on our way out of Afghanistan not in, we would be letting Pakistan figure out which Taliban they want to conspire with and which one they want to fight, we would be letting Israelis and Palestinians figure out on their own how to make peace, we would be taking $100 billion out of the Pentagon budget to make us independent of imported oil...”
There is no question whether Friedman would prefer a stable U.S. domination over this section of the world - this “strategic arc - of course he would. There is no question that he is worried about the weakening of U.S. economic power relative to its capitalist competition and to the challenges it faces – he’s written a number of irritating books on the subject. But there is also no question that he doesn’t like the current Obama policy and supports a substantially different approach. This possibility for substantially different ruling class policies from sectors of the class that share a substantial agreements on assumptions and objectives, should motivate us to look beyond our own generic ‘explanations’ for what is happening. This is particularly true when, as is the case here, these explanations are firmly rooted in the political categories of a past where we didn’t do all that well.
So what “facts” support these postulated U.S. imperialist objectives in Afghanistan? Do the gas pipelines, the narcotics trade, the copper mining proposals and similar factors create a clear interest for U.S. capital that is appropriately pursued by this grotesquely asymetric use of military force? Which U.S. ruling class factions have organized to promote these interests? Where is the trail of influence from these alleged interests to the adopted policy?
Exactly how does a more consolidated domination emerge out of increasingly destabilized territories and regimes? If the goal in Afghanistan actually is that of “consolidating U.S. domination”, one obvious objective would be establishing a friendly and stable pro-capitalist regime. The institutionalized and protracted external domination suggested by the Obama policy will make Afghanistan and the region less friendly and a whole lot less stable, not more so. It is hard to see a, “stable consolidated U.S. domination” developing out of these policies under the best conditions. If it is assumed that U.S. policy will also confront a “rising multi-polarity”, based in rival centers of capitalist power looking to gain some relative advantage, it is impossible. This leaves us with a goal – stable consolidated domination – that would be completely at odds with the means – military conquest and occupation with limited forces. My firm belief is that the ruling class does not subject itself to stress tests that it has every reason to believe it cannot pass.
Let’s look a little closer at the “rising multi-polarity” interimperialist conflict, argument presented by Miles. There is no doubt that there are inter-imperialist conflicts and contradictions in the region, but what is their relationship to this Afghanistan policy? Does any potential inter-imperialist conflict over resources in Afghanistan (U.S/NATO. vs. BRIC is the one Miles proposes) outweigh the historic conflicts in the region - between Russia and China, between China and India, between India and Pakistan? Does it outweigh all three country’s counterparty status or the dependence of the BRIC states on inter-imperialist coordination to maintain stability in the international financial and commodities markets? Does it outweigh their common interests in managing internal populist unrest – perhaps with Chinese Uighers and Russian Chechens – or threats to Russia’s interests in the formerly soviet ‘stans’? Does it outweigh the common interests of these rivals in combatting “terrorism”, such as that flowing from Naxalite peasant insurgency, newly marginalized Chinese workers, or neo-fascist tendencies in the ruling Hindi elites and among the Russian National Bolsheviks. I’d say no, inter-imperialist contradictions don’t outweigh these factors, and if they did we wouldn’t be in Afghanistan in the way that we are – nor in Iraq, for that matter.
(Thomas Barnett’s essay of a few years ago, “Recasting the Long War as a Joint Sino-American Venture”, provides a good picture of ruling class approaches to such issues and makes it pretty clear that they are well integrated into the discussions of alternative policies in ruling class circles.)
In short, most left explanations of the underpinnings and objectives of Obama’s Afghanistan policy can’t provide an adequate explanation of the concrete policy: of the specific changes it involves; of the adaptations it might undergo in the future; of the policy alternatives to it that may or may not be viable – such as Friedman’s. Actually they are worse than inadequate because, sometimes explicitly and sometimes by default, they contribute to the widespread left common sense that it is not really important to look for coherent explanations of specific ruling class policy. Perhaps because, as Kolko has said, there are no such explanations because policies are just an incoherent resultant of the interplay of the most immediate and crass motives of economic and political self and sectoral interest. Other analyses come to similar results without utilizing this chaos theory. They see U.S. capitalism being pushed towards desperation making it prone to fundamentally illogical, even irrational, positions – to ‘mistakes’.
Such positions were more popular and more explicit during the previous administration – particularly with respect to Iraq policy. The Bush regime was easy to picture as ignorant and venal, mistake-prone and even incompetent from a ruling class perspective. It was easy but, I think, essentially wrong. This mindset contributes to a dumb left optimism in which analyses of ruling class motives and perspectives are regarded as unproductive and unnecessary. And in the process it typically muddies the distinctions between a radical and a liberal opposition to ruling class policies. For a case in point, it also was easy, but wrong, to overestimate the potential differences in the policies that a supposedly more clear-headed incoming Obama administration might pursue. Many on the left went this route and are still scrambling to catch up.
In fact, except for some unimportant, largely cosmetic, trappings, Obama is much the same as Bush. In Afghanistan, Obama hopes to apply some lessons and experiences learned from Iraq and in doing so is incurring very real domestic costs and taking significant risks just as Bush did, most notably in Iraq. These common priorities in both administrations can be explained as a rational pursuit of capitalist class interests, but only if these interests are seen as global, not national. That is, only if they are understood as capitalist interests in which the political, economic and social stability in the U.S. is not the primary point of reference. Therefore, despite much public rhetoric to the contrary (particularly from the remnants of the Bush camp now that it is removed from policy-making), the policy directions chosen by both administrations can quite possibly place the hegemony and domestic stability of the U.S., the “sole superpower”, at risk, but still be a rational attempt to defend and extend the hegemony of global capital.
How might global capitalist interests be operative in Obama’s Afghanistan policies? A full answer, including the structural elements of the current economic crisis is beyond this argument. However, clear hints of a partial answer are in the language that Obama used to present his policy at West Point - especially when it is augmented by the language he used a few days later in Oslo when he accepted his bizarre award of a “Peace Prize”.
Obama said that the policy towards Afghanistan was part of a strategic response to a “real danger” from; “...disorderly regions, diffuse enemies; and ‘failed states’.” In the Nobel speech he stressed in Bush-like phrases; “I deal with the world as it is...(and)...There is evil in the world”. I wrote down the former phrase at the time I heard it, but I’ve seen no reference to it in the commentary on that speech. Hopefully, at least some of the Fourth Generation War websites will eventually pick it up. I’m sure that the invocation of evil in the Oslo presentation was not missed, but without the earlier passage as a context, it becomes a rhetorical flourish and loses much of its practical significance. These phrases point towards a rationale for Afghanistan policy that makes some sense for a global ruling class facing a secular crisis, but not for a national U.S. ruling class, focused on its internal stability and economic health and on maintaining its relative position in a classically imperialist structure. Consequently, unlike Tom Engelhardt, I do not find Obama’s pursuit of a very expensive Afghan policy instead of a, “...reasonable jobs program at home...”, to be a “...strange wonder of the world..” ZNet 12/6.
This Obama statement opens some important questions: What is the danger in Afghanistan? Who is responding to this danger? What is the nature of the response? Focusing on these questions, not the logical errors and factual irrelevancies, and the bloated patriotic rhetoric which filled both the West Point and Oslo speeches, will open some possibilities to place what is happening within the context of global capital and international class struggle.
I’d suggest three working hypotheses, recognizing that their validity is provisional:
1. At the end of the last century, the global capitalist system rapidly extended the penetration of what used to be called the ‘second’ and ‘third’ worlds. It now faces an growing difficulty profitably utilizing the labor that it has ‘freed’ and endowed with new needs and demands. This increasingly marginalized labor force is also increasingly mobile. This is one underpinning of a general populist threat to global capital that has both liberatory and reactionary elements.The problems and conflicts, the social turmoil that this process entails, cannot be quarantined even under the best of circumstances and it now affects the entire system, including the capitalist core areas.
A variety of political projects with a diverse array of antagonisms and accomodations to the global capitalist system are attempting to organize this growing base of fundamental discontent. Global capital sees the populist threat as the major current challenge to its continued dominance and is focused on developing a response to its jihadist components. This is a real priority, acknowledged by and acted on by virtually all national segments of capital. It is not a pretext or a facade to provide space and resources to pursue other goals although it will certainly be used in these ways if and when the opportunities arise.
2. The collapse of the global financialization system and the serious cyclical crisis that is related to it have exposed structural limitations on capitalist accumulation. The growing problems maintaining profitability and cultural hegemony within the core areas of the capitalist system are compounded by the emergence of the issues of the gap in the core. This has increased the awareness within capitalist elites of the need for major structural adjustments, but this awareness is confronted with an increasingly limited flexibility for material and incorporative concessions to the working classes in the core as well as growing limitations on the tools, particularly the non-military tools, available to deal with political challenges in gap regions - such as Afghanistan.
These factors are combining to undercut the ruling class confidence that capitalist development has sufficient flexibility and momentum to deal with the complex of emerging threats and instabilities. Certainly it has eroded any confidence that these challenges can be dealt with simultaneously. In place of a generalized confidence that capitalism can incorporate all potential futures, there is a recognition that history may not have ended, and that securing the future prospects for capitalism requires a major restructuring of its disciplinary apparatus and a risky reordering of political and economic priorities.
3. There are major issues with the organization and the content of capitalist power. To efficiently advance the interests of capital, global political and economic considerations should determine the rational use of power, but this power is politically organized within, and limited by an increasingly dysfunctional nation state framework. This is a problem at the top when military capabilities become inflexible and unwieldy - not properly oriented to asymmetric non-state threats where specific and rapidly changing political factors must outweigh technical military considerations. At least potentially it is also a problem from below when the structures of privilege and subordinated participation through formal parliamentarism that have provided some stable national bases for capitalist power in the core don’t work in the ways that they have historically.
I intend to say a few things about how I see these three points in play in Afghanistan policy. First, although it may already be apparent, I should make it explicit that these points assume the essential validity of one of Negri’s central arguments in ‘Empire’:
“The United States does not, and indeed, no nation-state can today, form the center of an imperialist project.” (Empire, p. xiv)
A fundamental point. It will be less obvious, but they diverge significantly from another Negri position:
“The guarantee that Empire offers to globalized capital does not involve a micropolitical and/or microadministrative management of populations. The apparatus of command has no access to the local spaces and the determinate temporal sequences of life...” (Empire, p. 344) This is a mistaken and dangerous assumption, I think. In my opinion this is exactly what is being developed and with some success.
In distinction to Negri, who places minimal weight on any elements of consciousness and organization – obviously including those that relate to ruling class policies, I think there is an emerging global capitalist project – in this case a project lurking beneath the Obama pronouncements – and it is important that we understand it. I want to speculate about this in two areas: – one with implications for the gap, and particularly the “non-integrating” seams in the gap; and another with implications for the core. (I’m assuming some familiarity with these gap/core categories from Thomas Barnett, but in any case their meaning should be obvious from the context).
Remember a few short decades ago when Carter and Breszhenski schemed to bring down the Soviet union by giving it “its own Vietnam” in Afghanistan. I believe that one distinctive feature of the current situation is that no rival national centers of capitalist power are oriented towards entangling the U.S. in Afghanistan this way. This certainly cannot be explained by a fear of U.S. military and economic power which has demonstrated increasingly clear limits. I find the best explanation to be that, in contrast to the talk of “a rising multi-polarity”, the global ruling elites increasingly subordinate inter-imperialist rivalries to an appreciation of common enemies and common risks. This emergent sense of an over-riding common interest is reflected in the virtually universal support of every state for what is called a called a “war on terror”. It is reflected in the generalized cooperation to regain some equilibrium in global financial systems and commodities markets.
Afghanistan is both a specific problem and a manifestation of more general ones in an important regional zone of disorder. For global capital, Afghanistan is an opportunity to experiment with new ways to discipline increasingly unruly populations while maintaining and even extending capitalist control over global flows of capital and labor. It is an opportunity, as well, to develop better techniques to disorient and demobilize emerging challenges to capital’s global disciplinary regime. At its core I believe that the Obama “surge” is such a test of new methods and new tools. It is a concrete project in which most sections of global capital share definite common interests. Of course, it is not a project that represents an overt ruling class consensus. There are remaining conflicts and contradictions on important issues that are sometimes quite evident in policy differences – particularly on questions of tactics. But, I think, the underlying perception of a common interest is pretty clear.
I’d like to argue for and explain this view with a few specific points in two distinct areas – the gap (warzone) and the core (homeland).
(First, however, a parenthetical note of caution: It is hard to raise issues of ruling class policy without implying that it is more consciously calculated and coordinated than the available evidence shows. What I say here will be subject to this interpretation. So from the outset I want to be clear that I don’t mean to deny that there is, and will always be, a range of contradictory factors; elements of controversy and indeterminacy, not to mention incompetence, that go into the formation of ruling class policy. I hope what I say doesn’t lead to the substitution of assumed conspiracies for a concrete investigation of actual processes. This can lead to a host of political problems that frequently end in passivity and defeatism.
However, in this case I’m more worried about the opposite problem – the underestimation of the extent and impact of the organization and planning that goes into maintaining capitalist power. The fact is that any approach to radical political organizing will have to choose some operating assumptions on these questions when the investigations that could establish their respective validity have barely begun and the most pertinent results are still not generally available. I think that it is prudent to adopt the protective principle of ecological science in this situation and work from the assumption of the worst case. Considering the massive resources the capitalist state devotes to its defense, presumably producing some usable product, this is probably not only the prudent course, but the wise one as well. As Mao might have learned before leaving the scene, its very important to avoid any tendency to underestimate the enemy – and that means strategically, not just tactically.)
To me it seems that the Afghanistan surge is not premised on a victory over the Taliban, the eradication of Al Qaeda, or any type of nation building. The force structure focused on Afghanistan is clearly unable to achieve a traditional military victory and that should indicate to us that it is probably not meant to do so. I think that “winning” in Afghanistan is not about establishing a relatively stable pro-capitalist nation state that is a more docile part of a U.S. sphere of influence (a completely utopian objective under any scenario). Instead, consider Afghanistan as Obama described it; a “failed state”, in a “disorderly region” containing “diffuse enemies”. Afghanistan is the archetypical disorderly region, and it is not insignificant that it has many features placing it on the dark side of the establishment’s manichaean discourses on Evil.
A more likely goal of this policy is that it is a test, oriented towards developing and controlling balkanized enclaves through direct relations with empowered reactionary elements of civil society and bypassing centralized governmental structures, including compradorial ones. This involves an attempt to relate directly to all sides of all existing social divisions, hoping to gain effective control over the resources of the underground and illegal economy and to fragment any potential nationalist or internationalist resistence, particularly anything with an anti-capitalist aspect to it. And in doing this it tacitly assumes that the “disorderly region” will remain disorderly and that these methods of domination that are being worked out are for the long haul and will have more than a provisional and local significance.
Notably the surge discounts the significance of the imperialist initiated “national” borders – with Pakistan, with the ex-Soviet stans, with Iran – while building up centrifugal pressures towards micro states and ethnic fiefdoms with their accompanying internal borders – both geographic and social. In implementing this segmenting project the surge will utilize organizational forms and policies that are as transnational as those of the Jihadis, but that provide an effective deniability of the blood trail back to the actual originators of the policy.
This approach can be detected in what was said and what was not said in the speeches. Note the careful reference to direct contact with local officials and leaders bypassing the Kabul central authority; note the careful reference to the surge of “civilian” experts on agricultural (sic) policy and other sensitive issues; note the careful lack of reference to the surge of “civilian” and military contractors – which is equal or greater numerically and certainly in the breadth of function to that of the formal military forces - and to the ethnic limitations of the current central government that make further military training of its forces beside the point. Note the lack of mention of any public accountability, benchmarks or timetables for contractors, either military or “civilian”, or for the operation of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC, McChrystal’s last gig) which functions covertly throughout the region, well beyond the feeble political oversight that nominally constrains the CIA. Finally, note well the absense of any mention of who and what is involved in the expanding operations in Pakistan.
What is emerging out of this is a secret privatized intelligence gathering system and a privatized military capability – all of which is profit-making. This objective has been pursued actively by elements of the U.S; ruling elite (with clear international connections) since the mid-twentieth century, and the pursuit has intensified since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new forms of Muslim insurgency.
DYNCORP, L-3, FLUOR, XE Systems, etc., all of whom are acknowledged players in Afghanistan, are such assets for capital; able to circumvent the limitations on state militaries and provide deniability to actual policy makers; sufficiently flexible and robust to respond quickly to shifting needs while bypassing the bureaucratic parliamentary filters.
This looks something like a rerun on a global scale of the Pinkertonized class warfare of the nineteenth century in this country. But it is more than that. There is a particularly modern character to these formations: they are operating within the context of a global capitalism, not a national state; and they are confronted with structural limits on capitalism that were not a factor in the period of Molly Maguires or the Moyer, Pettibone, Haywood trial.
The functions of this privatized force structure goes beyond repression and suppression of external (to the U.S.) populisms and their supporters. The capacities being developed will ultimately be used to influence and distort the character and objectives of all oppositions, internally as well as externally, class-based as well as populist. These emerging oppositions have become less susceptible to a gradual evolutionary political incorporation within the framework of capitalist expansion and there is a growing ruling class recognition that they are essentially impossible to eliminate by traditional military or police methods because their social preconditions are constantly regenerated by essential dynamics of capital accumulation. To repeat, such oppositions will not necessarily always be outside of the core – or even the homeland.
I think that we must assume that the privatized – multinationally staffed - contractors that are doing the targeting for the drones and the hit squads in Pakistan and elsewhere are also developing the networks of covert operatives and agents of influence that will enlarge their potential uses in the future, if they haven’t already – think Haiti. If these groupings can develop sufficient information to accurately target jihadist leaders, they can also affect the tactics of the resistance more fundamentally through systematic penetration and an increasingly tight encapsulization. One likely result will be more anomalies in the mold of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia - more of those “terrorists” most likely to demoralize a revolutionary population and expedite an expanded counter-insurgency. If capital develops these capacities with respect to jihadists, there will be ramifications shortly down the road for anti-capitalist movements with radically different agendas and perspectives.
These new tools do not and will not operate autonomously. Their oversight may be strategic rather than operational, but there is not much doubt who will ultimately provide the money and determine the jobs. It will not be any state apparatus that is remotely accountable, you can bet on that...but it will be elements and appendages of the global ruling class, you can bet on that as well.
To recap, capital currently faces a real danger from populism in the gap, and the gap is increasingly less defined and limited by geography because of the mobility of populations and the increasing access to information and new forms of communication. Moreover, the gap is not shrinking in any real sense, as the current crisis confounds the capitalist triumphalism of the Barnetts and the Friedmans (T. not M.). The challenges to global capital from this populism will become more, not less pressing.
Afghanistan is one of the regions of the world where for the historical moment global capital has some flexibility to respond to these dangers experimentally without worrying that much about issues of moral standing or legitimacy in the exercise of power. However, such operations would hardly aim to achieve a social equilibrium in Afghanistan in any meaningful time frame and they are even less likely to rapidly achieve successful results on a broader scale. The likelihood is that the more effective these new methods prove to be, the more they will make themselves needed - and the more expensive, economically and politically, they will become. This points to a major linkage between the issues in the gap and emerging questions of capitalist hegemony in the core. The economic and cultural cushions that have supported hegemony in the core are wearing thin even while the actual and prospective actions in the gap are becoming more costly, and now with significant elements of the costs in blood - that is the problem for capital. As more resources have to be directed at fundamental instabilities in the gap and their actual and potential spill overs into the core, it becomes more difficult to preserve an adequate reservoir of hegemonic flexibility at home.
The global dominance of capital rests on its hegemony in stable nation states in the core. For a variety of historical reasons, these are regions where the ruling class must be concerned with maintaining legitimacy in the exercise of power and avoiding the collateral damages from an excessive reliance on repression. This approach to both maintaining and disguising capitalist rule has been built on a network of incorporative privileges which are increasingly hard to sustain, politically or economically, under the existing circumstances – and it is impossible to expand them significantly except in the most localized conditions.
The functional needs of capitalism change as a range of tensions emerge between the globalized pursuit of surplus value and its nation - based system of rule. In the current crisis, the benefits and losses of one nation tend to find their zero sum reflection elsewhere, and increasingly elsewhere means other nations in the core. Certainly in this country it is almost hopelessly hard for capital to politically explain the rescue of multi-national and foreign financial institutions while sacrificing Detroit; the borrowing of billions to finance wars that make no sense while a pathetic health care “reform” must be deficit neutral. If it happens as it well may, it will be hard to explain bailing out Spain, Greece, and Austria rather than California.
To avoid a general spiral down towards the pit, capitalist priorities cannot be limited within national borders and overly influenced by nationalist sentiment. Increasingly they will be set by larger issues of global power and profit but there is no accepted procedure for adjudicating the resulting conflicts. There is no clear framework of legitimacy for a global capitalist perspective.
Any general resort to reliance on repressive methods has its own risks. The maintenance of political equilibrium in the core nations depends on an essential passivity which contains grievances within an official structure of legitimacy that undercuts the capacities for mass collective resistance. Many aspects of capitalist discipline and control are obscured by this accepted subordination, more accurately a repressive self-discipline that limits natural resistances to oppression and authority. This culture is a major part of capitalist strength and resiliency, it is not an advantage that will easily be surrendered. Consequently, major increases in repression, and, particularly, overtly imposing elements of a repressive authoritarian “world government” in the U.S. or elsewhere presents unacceptable risks – at least for now.
This leaves capital struggling to develop more effective methods to discipline new populations and regions, while facing increasing problems maintaining social cohesion and a non-police centered discipline in its traditional centers where material conditions are deteriorating. One possible general response of capital to this dilemma, the one that I believe will eventually predominate, is what has been called global social democracy. (Following Walden Bello, although he appears to have recently backed away from his conception.)
Since the vision of shared prosperity has become a pretty threadbare joke and significant improvements in material conditions are not a general possibility, the Fordist wage/consumption path to class collaboration must be replaced. And it is not hard to see what will be central to any such alternative. It will be fear:
“Fear is the ultimate guarantee of the new segmentations.”(Negri, Empire, p. 339).
The primary fear is of an enemy that might emerge from the populist reaction to capital. An enemy consisting of “fanatics who hate us and our freedom” to paraphrase from the house of George. An enemy pictured as anti-modern, anti-liberatory and neo-fascist – a picture that has plausibility because it does accurately describe significant elements of the existing mass populist movements. An enemy that is mainly in the gap, but that be expected to materialize in the core as well.
This fear will be generated from capital’s recognition and popularization of actual dangers from the right o its continued hegemony. It will also be generated by a ruling class appreciation of the utility of a new set of fabricated enemies for the reconstruction of a popular narrative to replace the “communist danger”. (It’s beyond the scope of this argument, but I think that another fabricated element of this popular “fear” will emerge through the manipulation of the ecological crisis to confine alternative responses within an essentially Malthusian assumptions. The ecological problem seen as too many “other people”.)
We had a major historical experience in WWII with a repressive right wing structure of authoritarian rule in this country. This was not just a manifestation of imperialism at war. It was part of a global response from capital to a perceived threat from a transcapitalist fascism and a potential threat from communism. It was a framework that incorporated the willing participation of the overwhelming bulk of the left and progressive forces under the rubric of a popular front against fascism. Despite its repressive content, the process presented itself and is still viewed as a continuation of the social democratic momentum of the New Deal.
Currently, big sections of the near left – at least in this country and probably throughout most of the other “developed” areas – are more than open to a refurbished variant of the same structure. The other side of this possibility, and, in a sense, the proof of its reality, lies in the lack of a militant anti-war movement after a decade of exquisitely rotten wars; in the lack of class conscious anti-capitalist militance, solidarity and internationalism at a time of capitalist crisis that is increasing exploitation, marginalization, and oppression around the world.
What I have argued above is sketchy and tentative, but I am relatively confident of some points. To think seriously about revolutionary politics we must challenge some left presuppositions and develop new categories of strategic analysis that fit the qualitatively changed circumstances of the present period. We are living in the aftermath of an extended revolutionary process that had its debatable successes. But these were rapidly transformed into limits that now constitute obstacles to a more basic struggle against capital. While we cannot deal with new political questions, without a clearer understanding of the struggles of the past century, an understanding that avoids both nostalgia and meaningless recriminations, we are going to have to act, moving ahead with whatever intellectual, moral, and material resources are available to us even before we have an adequately grounded and workable political perspective.
I’d like to finish this piece with a more explicit treatment of attempts to refurbish one of the old categories – that of anti-imperialist national liberation. Given the emergence of important populist movements in the gap, it is logical that there would be a renewed interest in the revolutionary potentials of mass struggles of oppressed peoples against external political and economic domination.
A recent discussion on a more limited topic on the Gathering Forces website raised a point that I think is a good starting place:
“...we need to revisit the Third Worldist imagination – not the politics of the national bourgeoisie (radical or otherwise), but the masses who resisted and provided a potential alternative to capitalist
I certainly agree that this “third revolution” should be revisited in light of the current conditions. But it should be clear from the outset that yesterday’s potentials are not easily resurrected. It is an illusion to think that the movement for national liberation can be rebuilt and produce different and better outcomes, if only some obvious mistakes are not made a second time. The weight of the past including its failures, combines with transformed present circumstances to qualitatively change what can and should be done in the future – closing some possibilities and opening others. I’m sure that mlove would agree that the revisiting of the “third revolution” should start from a critical reconsideration of whether it still might provide a “...potential alternative to capitalist
Here again I want to begin with a passage from Negri; although with the usual ambivalence because he offers so much else with which to disagree.
“From India to Algeria and Cuba to Vietnam, the state is the poisoned gift of national liberation.” (Empire, p. 136, Negri emphasis)
Cross class coalitions in oppressed nations, challenging imperialist power and demanding national independence and socialism were the most important element of the international struggle against capital for much of the last century. But I agree with Negri that they will not play that role going ahead. We aren’t confronting Lenin’s Imperialism, which for the benefit of the censors he called capitalism’s highest stage while actually thinking it was its end point – just a step short of international working class revolution. This conception of imperialism is no longer strategically relevant, and neither is its antithesis, anti-imperialist national liberation. That set of possibilities is historically exhausted. It will not be revived by the new populisms which appropriate some of its characteristics, not even when this goes beyond rhetorical posturing to a rejection of some elements of global capital - as it does at times.
The historic national liberation struggle was indelibly marked and is increasingly limited by the specific context in which it developed – a context which has been decisively modified. This changed context has two important and related elements: First; classically, imperial domination was a relationship between a developed capitalism and an exploitable “outside” as
The economic side of this process and its essentially transitional character are forecast in the well known passages in the Grundrisse (p. 408-410) about the tendency of capital towards the creation of a world market. Now this transition is essentially complete and these ex-colonial societies for the most part have been thoroughly incorporated into global capitalist production and thoroughly penetrated by capitalist institutions and ideologies. While they have developed into capitalist societies that are very different than those in the core, they are still part of capitalism and no longer constitute an outside to its global system. Here it should also be noted that this capitalist system has now quite clearly also subsumed the “
The social classes of these post colonial regions have interfaced with globalized ruling and ruled class structures. Little remains to anchor a progressive multi-class front against a clearly defined imperialist oppressor nation. Instead, a progressive momentum requires coalitions of working classes and marginalized strata in the gap with a more concrete anti-capitalist and internationalist orientation; an orientation that that aims for solidarity with all similar forms of resistance, and that opposes all the forms in which domestic and foreign capital is manifested particularly those in which they are combined into unified ruling structures and policies - states and quasi-states.
Second, during the classic period of anti-imperialist struggle in the mid-twentieth century, it was widely accepted that “socialism”, as embodied the so-called socialist bloc, was a real alternative path to modernization and economic development. Despite its problems, it was held that socialism potentially challenged both capitalist markets and capitalist culture. The more progressive and radical anti-imperialist movements all specified that their political objectives included national independence and socialism. When this “actually existing socialism” proved illusory for the global working class struggle, it likewise disappointed the movements for national liberation. Any possible progressive trajectory for a cross-class anti-imperialist movement looking towards gaining state power in an independent nation and joining a socialist camp was rapidly eroded. No socialist camp; meant no sustainable alternative to the capitalist world market which translated to little genuine sovereignty and power from formal “national independence” and even less “liberation” from the “victories” of national liberation movements.
Again I will use a (heavily excised) passage from Negri to illustrate the point:
“It is strange now to have to recall this amalgam of ideological perversions that grew out of the ... democratic hopes of socialist representation... And while we say our farewells we cannot but remember how many ideological by-products, more or less fascist, the great historical experiences of socialism were condemned to drag in their wake, some merely useless sparks and others devastating infernos..” (Negri, Multitude, P. 255)
This dual historical failure of both ‘socialism’ and ‘anti-imperialism’ left more than political vacuums. They left a disillusionment and cynicism that provide a social base for the anti-capitalism of the right as well as for secessionist orientations that seek special solutions and unique benefits for some in the context of a general worsening of conditions for most.
In his late 2008 presentation; “Is the Word ‘Communism’ Forever Doomed?” (see Kasama, 9/30), Alain Badiou has presented a framework that I think is helpful in settling accounts with our collective past. I’m a newcomer to Badiou and certainly don’t have an adequate understanding of his recent positions, much less his earlier ones. However, what I do think I understand I like a great deal and it will be the basis of the rest of what I write here.
“Our problems are much more the problems of Marx than the problems of Lenin...” (Badiou, “Is the Word ‘Communism’ Forever Doomed”, p. 18, Kasama, 9/30)
The “problems of Lenin”, according to Badiou, fit within an extended phase of the revolutionary process; “...from 1917, the Russian Revolution, to 1976, the end of the Cultural Revolution in
We are left with the problem placed by Bilal al Hasan in a more limited context:
“...the question here is what comes after the end of a revolution and its failure.” Bilal al Hasan (this was part of a commentary on the Palestinian movement on the Gathering Forces website. G.F. 11/09).
Badiou argues for a conceptual return to the standpoints of the 19th century, but not on the premise that a simple class polarization can be resurrected through some act of political will. He is concerned with an issue of philosophical stance – with posing the idea of communism in terms of the “conditions of its identity” – a 19th century problem – and not as a question of “...the victory of the communist hypothesis” – the problem of Lenin and the party/state and of the revolutionary movement for most of the past century.
This line of argument is relevant to the revisiting of third world revolution. Badiou indicates the elements of the communist hypothesis in the nineteenth century as combining, “...the idea of communism as a popular mass movement with the notion of savior of all.” (P. 15). The original conception of communism was that of a multiform struggle that would embody and culminate in universal emancipation through, the “...process of the Decline of the State.” (P.14)
In my opinion the core element in this conception is the inseparable linkage of the notion of, “savior of all”, stressing the universality of the project, with the destruction of the state – a state that is sometimes defined inclusively by Badiou as; “...all that limits the possibility of collective creation” (P. 14). The vanguard parties and revolutionary blocs characteristic of the 20th century had a different orientation. In Badiou’s terms they were party/state formations which might seize and hold power locally but could not transform social relations because their essential character incorporated features of a state. Thus they inevitably became the antagonist of the mass “Communist movement” (Badiou’s term). But only through such a movement, that is necessarily, “beyond the state” (Badiou), can communism be achieved.
It is quite clear that even the best of the national liberation fronts were essentially party/state formations. They functioned even more as shadow governments than did the vanguard parties. The discipline they enforced was more overtly military and not subject to even the more or less hypothetical democratic forms of vanguard parties or to the objective limits that are inherent in a defined class base.
These movements were nationalist, (including some more hopeful pan-nationalist and ‘continental’ formations that were of limited temporal and geographic duration) and, at their best, treated liberation as more a matter of autonomy and expanded rights of self determination, than of internationalism and solidarity. This is demonstrated indirectly by the uniqueness of the Guevara experience, and was supported in an ultimately damaging way by the Maoist version of Marxism when it elevated the conception of self-reliance over that of internationalism.
These issues emerge currently around questions of the character of the populist resistance to global capital, particularly, but not exclusively, in the gap. To what extent do these developments project a fascist, rather than a liberatory, alternative to global capital? To what extent are they contained or containable within neo-colonial limits. I’ve written on these issues elsewhere and regard myself as within the Threeway Fight tendency. However, no general recognition of contradictory potentials should substitute for concrete evaluations of specific cases. And our goal in such evaluations should always go beyond clarity on the problems and limitations and also attempt to discover and build on the best possibilities.
That said, we should also be categorically clear that universal liberation is not to be achieved through structured movements that limit creative participation as an element of their ‘self determination’ and cultural autonomy. This is particularly relevant concerning the role and status of women and the attitudes towards the use of force and violence. I will leave these points as they stand for now, but feel obligated to confess that I’ve been around long enough to have made major mistakes on all conceivable sides of these questions.
Don Hamerquist 1/20