Mar 31, 2005

Hamerquist Responds to Matthew Lyons

Hamerquist Responds to Matthew Lyons (3/31/05)


Sorry for the delay. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

Let me start with the easiest point: I like the Juan Cole blog for Middle East information. I’m also taken with Thomas Barnett’s blog. If you can tolerate massive displays of ego, check it out. It illustrates what the leading edge of the ruling class should be thinking. How’s that for alternative ego. You can see the trouble with my analytic framework…shopping around for a favorite capitalist ideologue.

I’m going to go through your points in more or less the order they were raised but first I want to say that I appreciate your demand for evidence, however inconvenient, and recognize that my stuff is notable for its absence. However, I would point out that evidence is a slippery thing in political discussions. It is usually the case that a position is developed and then the proponents start looking for supporting evidence. That’s certainly how I do it…maybe it’s what Marx (and Hegel) meant by rising from the abstract to appropriate the concrete…maybe not. I also appreciate your reluctance to accept sloppy and inconsistent definitions and formulations and have no similarly pat way to minimize this criticism’s applicability to what I wrote.

As opposed to Goff, who says he believes the war in Iraq was “probably inevitable”, I initially saw it as an accident, a tactical mistake that would be reversed as the costs mounted. I admit it, I was sure Bush would lose well before he did the aircraft carrier victory routine. (It’s still hard to comprehend how the Dems. managed to blow it.)
I don’t know if I sent you what I was writing at the time, but the main point was that the likely reversal of this ruling class tactical error should not be interpreted as a big popular victory since it was likely to disguise a strategic shift in global capitalism, a shift embodied in the “war on terror”, that we were not at all prepared to counter.

The fact that the Iraq War continues and Bush carries on in a second term can only be testimony to the fact that the involvement in Iraq has more than tactical significance for capital and that a significant sector of the ruling class, here and abroad, recognize this. There is certainly no popular sentiment for it, here or elsewhere in the world. Nor is there any shortage of potential grounds for the development of a tame reformist opposition of an overwhelming magnitude… but it doesn’t happen and I know this cannot be accidental.

This gets to the neocons who argued for targeting Iraq before 9/11 and during the PNAC period well before the Bush election. Why did they argue this way and what, if not ‘oil’, made them persuasive, despite facts on the ground that didn’t support their position? Facts that made it clear, even to many in this country, that the “Iraq threat” was bogus.

First, I think it’s important to see that the Iraq focus evolved. While it was an element in the PNAC, it was contained within a larger perspective…the prevention of the emergence of any potential rival to U.S. power. There is no way that the Iraq War can be seen as a means to that end. In fact, there is a substantial body of evidence that this strategic goal is no longer the paramount concern of the neocons. I know that there is contrary evidence as well, but my argument is that this is one of the things that are “no longer the same after 9/11”.

On a narrower level, there was a substantial neocon sentiment to “reorganize the Middle East” beginning with Saudi Arabia, not Iraq, … see the Dore Gold book, and I think that Perle was also involved here. It’s clear that S.A. was a better fit for the Straussian ‘Wilsonian’ ideological arguments. After Khobar Towers and certainly after 9/11, it was also a much more plausible anti-terrorist anti salafist target. Also, any considerations that focused on oil would prioritize Saudi Arabia over Iraq. Not only does it have by far the most, but Saudi Arabia, in contrast to Iraq, had a domestic opposition that could conceivably break with the international oil cartel, if the regime collapsed. So Iraq was not the only target at the end of this particular vision tunnel.

Second, some major proponents of the invasion and the occupation were converts who had been initially opposed to it. The most notable is Cheney who was on record with a categorical and quite clear sighted opposition to the exact Iraq policy with which he is currently identified. (I think that I sent you a citation in this regard.) I would place him as someone that shifted emphasis from the single superpower framework towards a focus on non state threats. You might also say that Kerry went through a similar transformation, but it is likely that a poorly thought out opportunism was more of an operative factor in that case.

I’m searching for the specific reference, but I think it was Admiral Inman, the NSA guy, who advised the first Bush in 1988 that the country would not tolerate military actions that involved substantial costs. Thus following the Lebanon incident, a series of antisceptic wars - military engagements; that were more or less casualty free for ‘our side’: Grenada, Libya, Panama, Persian Gulf, Iraq I, Somalia (oops, bit of a glitch here), Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo. Not to mention the various cruise missiles here and there. A lot of neocon ideologues objected to this approach. They believed that what was needed was a ‘real’ war that would toughen up the populace for the impending challenges of the post coldwar period. A war where this country would shed some blood… No more paper tiger, no more Vietnam syndrome. “Globalization needs a Policeman (Barnett)”, and the “policeman” needs a gun that can and will be used.

There was also an obvious internal military impetus to check out new doctrines, techniques and equipment, but the political, as always, is the most important. The political necessity, according to the neocons was the development of the organized will to intervene forcefully and globally with no squeamishness about costs; political, economic, or human. The well-known pragmatic Wolfowitz explanation for the emphasis on WMD in the build up to the Iraq war – it was the easiest selling point - demonstrates this mindset: To extend the parallel, active military intervention to reconstruct the Middle East was needed and Iraq was the easiest sell of the potential places where it could be initiated.

Finally on this point: Beyond fabricated and puffed up enemies that might be used to secure various advantages, there is the growing perception of a real danger from “fascism” in the salafi jihadist form, dictating that the military focus should be on the Arab Middle East, the area where the danger is most developed. You’re clearly right that Iraq was far from being the center of this danger in the Middle East, but the jihadists are a transnational movement with significant mobility. Mobility across national borders is central to the takfiri conception of the struggle. It may be a stretch, but isn’t it possible that some ruling class types might have had the resources to be able to predict…and to welcome…the lightning rod effect of this particular war?

When all of this is combined, I can’t agree with you that many other countries “would have made better targets.” In the short run at least, this was not true. In sum, I can see a range of factors that combined to result in this war, not as a necessity, but not as an arbitrary and wrongheaded mistake either.

I don’t think that the neocon perspective in Iraq is tightly tied to traditional conceptions of national success or failure. This situation is more than likely to lead to a relatively rapid disentanglement, notwithstanding all of the “we can’t afford to lose” rhetoric. A chaotic “failed state” situation in Iraq, and/or its Balkanization, wouldn’t be the neocon’s favored outcome, but neither would it be an intolerable outcome. It would be well within spin capacity, and could become a case study for the intractability and the seriousness of the problems in the ‘gap’. To say it another way, Iraq is not Vietnam. A defeat of capital here does not translate into a popular victory for anti-capital in the same ways as it did then. It will not unleash a similar wave of popular democratic struggle. “One, two, three, many Iraq’s will not have the same resonance when it can be embraced more fully by the fascist right than the radical left. This, I think, is understood by the neocons, but not by the left.

On the reading of the neocon’s strategy…I don’t quite understand where you see the contradiction on the main danger issue. I think the ruling class consensus is that the salafist danger is real and is different from the normal types of challenges and oppositions that it faces. The immediate differences within this consensus concern the proper response to the danger. There are other differences growing from alternative estimates of what it involves. You ask, “How exactly would neocons characterize the main danger…?” In the first place, the characterization wouldn’t be ‘exact’, but that is evasive. I think that the characterization increasingly will be that it is a fascist danger. Of course, this is a prediction, not evidence. We’ll see.

I know that you are also questioning my conception of fascism, so I hope you will let me slide close to tautology on this point for a while. Despite wide variations within the group, neocons are more likely than other ruling class factions to define the danger as something more than and different from religious fundamentalism, including Islamic fundamentalism. They are less likely to regard the danger as pre-modern; more likely to view the cultural challenge as directed at the capitalist “rule set” in general and not just particular features of it.

This leads to the issue of ‘unilateralism’. Part of my argument is that the neocon project is an attempt to develop functional political structures that better correspond to the needs of global capital. I think that this involves a frontal opposition to the international state structures and multi-state undertakings that developed in an earlier era. It involves paradoxes, Wolfowitz in the WTO and Bolton at the U.N. It involves private militaries rather than international peacekeepers. It involves an evasion of the strictures of domestic parliamentary democracy at home in the supposed interests of establishing them elsewhere in the world. So the apparent unilateralism is not so much a manifestation of nationalism, but is a reassertion of the ultimate dominance of the global economic over the political through a process in which economic determinism initially appears as that which is transcended. How’s that for a thought that begs to be rewritten.

My position on the social base for fascism comes from Marx’s arguments about the “crisis in the law of value” in the Grundrisse passages that I referenced in the earlier piece and from notions of the ‘common ruin of the contending classes” and “socialism or barbarism”, that show up in various places in the literature. A number of people have told me that this section of the fascism piece pushes them towards the persistent vegetative state, and suggested it for Goff’s “Dead Sea of meanings”. Nevertheless, I think that rather than a changed estimate of fascism, I’m guilty of a lousy writing style. I’ve been attempting to present the concept of a social base for fascism that is a consequence of late capitalism all along, just not doing it very well.

Your last points on the conception of neo-fascism, ‘explicit’ or not, get to where my position is particularly shaky. First, let me back away from the absurd: the conception of an ‘explicitly neo-fascist group that consciously and explicitly rejects fascism, does violence to language and meaning. I see that I said something close to that…please ignore it.

You are certainly right that my laundry list of characteristics is both too broad and too shallow to define neo-fascism as a definite political phenomenon. Even considering these characteristics as part of a totalitarian self sufficiency doesn’t make the divisions with other types of reaction clear cut and evident. Some sects do this as well.

However, although nationalism is bound to be a common form for the rejection of universalism, I don’t see “some kind of nationalism” as the missing essential ingredient in the conception of fascism, as you suggest. What I think is crucial to separate facist from reactionary is the element of radical rejection of the universalist pretensions of modern capitalism by a social strata that has an awareness that it is a product of modern capitalism. What’s difficult is that this feature of fascist differentiation from reaction blurs the line between neofascism and what passes for revolutionary anti capitalism (imperialism).

This gets to the point of whether we are actually dealing with a phenomenon that should be identified as fascism, given all the baggage that that entails, when what is really distinctive is how this phenomenon is impelled by the failures of our struggles as much or more than by the failures of capitalism, how much it is the repository for the warts on the revolutionary movement.

Mar 1, 2005

Matthew Lyons comments on Hamerquist and Goff exchange


Your reply to Goff offered a lot of good food for thought, and left me wanting to hear more. I appreciate the way you discuss the Iraq war, the neocons, and the question of Middle Eastern fascism, but I have questions about all three. Maybe because I haven't seen the earlier exchanges (although I did hunt up and read Goff's original piece), at several points I felt like an important piece of your argument was missing or unclear.

First, why did the United States invade and occupy Iraq? Agreed, the war isn't a "probably inevitable" result of imperialism, and it's not being fought simply to control oil or boost Hallliburton profits. And, as you point out, if the central aim was to demonstrate the invincibility of imperialist military power, many other countries would have made better targets.

So why was Iraq targeted? I don't think you directly say. A quick reading of your essay suggests that the main goal was to strike at the heart of "jihadism" and the Islamist fascist threat to global capital. But that's a big stretch, since the Baathist state was hostile to the Islamic Right.

Iran -- or, better, the Sudan -- would have made much more logical targets for that goal. And the neocons started pushing to overthrow Saddam Hussein years before Al Qaeda & Co. became central targets of the War on Terror, and the connection between them was always contrived. So what am I missing?

Second, I'm unclear on your reading of neocon geopolitical strategy. You say that "all factions of the global ruling class...see salafi jihadism, particularly its takfiri strand, as the current 'main danger.'" But elsewhere you seem to contradict this (or is it just a difference of emphasis?) with the statement "the neocons, more than other ruling class tendencies, believe that the real danger to capitalist hegemony and power cannot be reduced to 'political Islam.'" How exactly would neocons characterize the main danger, in your view? Again, I don't think you directly say.

Also, even though the neocons are generally identified with a unilateralist US foreign policy, you say it's a mistake to identify them with a resurgence of US imperialism. Okay, I'm willing to be persuaded.

So, do you see evidence of support for neocon strategy within the global ruling class anywhere outside the US (and its British adjuncts)?

Your discussion of fascism is, in large part, a good summary of themes from "Fascism & Anti-Fascism." I especially liked the way you presented the point about a three-sided struggle between global capitalism, fascism, and the left. A new theme, I believe, is your short discussion about fascism's social base among the "declassed and the marginalized." Does this represent a shift in your thinking since "Fascism & Anti Fascism"?

If I understand correctly, you argue that the Islamic Right has many fascistic features but isn't full-blown fascism in ideological terms. What exactly is the difference between them? All of the characteristics of fascism you list ("emphasis on hierarchy, order, discipline and sacrifice," anti-universalism, "forceful subordination of majorities to minorities," etc.) would, I think, fit many Islamic rightist movements (among others). So what do you see as the difference? Is it, as some people argue, that fascism is based on some kind of nationalism, which is different from a religiously defined ideology? Or something else? You talk about the potential that "Islamic radicalism might lead to an organized explicitly neo-fascist movement" Given that many (most?) current-day fascist groups don't call themselves fascists, what does "explicitly" neo-fascist" mean?

Lastly, what sources of information about Middle East politics do you find particularly helpful?

Okay, those are the main points. I hope these comments and questions are useful -- feel free to circulate them, or not, as you wish. I look forward to continuing the conversation.


Matthew Lyons