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Pseudo Anti-Imperialism

Now that the imperialists are bombing Libya, again speaking of liberation and humanitarianism, certain sections of the mainstream North American left are tripping over themselves in sophistic attempts to justify the intervention of their governments.  Gilbert Achcar, Znet favourite, even goes so far as to argue that supporting the "no fly zone" (those imperialist parameters maintained by US and Canadian bombs) is actually anti-imperialist.  In fact, he attempts to convince the reader that all "critical anti-imperialists" would support the intervention in Libya, using a fallacy known as a "false analogy" that compares the imperialists to police, Libya to a rape victim, and Qaddafi to a rapist.  Apparently Achcar missed the irony that his false analogy is an imperialist favourite: they always like to compare themselves to police, guardians of a rule of global law, when more accurately (as more than one critic of Achcar's post has noted about his analogy) they are more like those rapists and mass murderers who blame their violence on their victims.

How is it, though, that supposedly "left" intellectuals can confidently, and without any apparent cynicism, defend their capitulation to imperialist logic as anti-imperialist?  Probably for the same reason that signification portions of the North American mainstream left have often ended up cloaking their capitulation to bourgeois ideology in pseudo-left lingo: not because of a desire to support oppression but out of a theoretical misunderstanding of the structure of global capitalism.  After many decades of the impoverishment of revolutionary theory––of a replacement with either positivism or post-modernism (both of which replace an attempt to understand the total meaning of history and society with either fragments of obscure numbers or appeals to irreconcilable identities)––we do not understand what it means to be anti-imperialist and internationalist.

Pseudo Anti-imperialism #1: the uncritical anti.

Recently, Speed of Dreams posted a quote from False Nationalism, False Internationalism expressing frustration over the mainstream North American left's pseudo-internationalism.  This left often demonstrates an inability to understand what it means to be truly internationalist by supporting anyone who appears to fit its anti-state radicalism.  We already saw this banal radicalism when the Middle Eastern intifadas began and some argued that the Egyptian army, simply because it at first seemed to be supporting the people, was somehow revolutionary.

And so, when the Libyan masses rightly rose up against Qaddafi, instead of actually thinking our way through the contradictions of global capitalism, we decide that the most dubious faction of the uprising––a faction calling for imperialism––should be supported.  Of course we fill our support with qualifications so we can still sleep well at night and then label it "critical anti-imperialism."  Except this position is not a truly "critical" anti-imperialism (and what critical thinker would base his entire argument upon a logical fallacy in the first place?) because it is the same uncritical internationalism that has been masquerading as anti-imperialism in North America for decades.

Generally speaking, just as large sectors of the mainstream left are not critical anti-capitalists because they cannot properly define "capitalism" (which is why there are so many social democrats calling themselves "anti-capitalist"), these same sectors are often not critically anti-imperialist because they cannot properly define "imperialism."  One would expect that in order to claim you are against something, you should know what this something is in the first place.  And someone who argues they're against superstition, and then tries to argue that astrology is a science, is not anti-superstitious because it is clear s/he doesn't understand the meaning of "superstition."  It matters little if s/he calls hir position "critical anti-superstition"––we all know the "critical thinker" in this argument by analogy is no more "critical" than hir astrologer, no matter how many false analogies s/he uses.

Thus, to be truly anti-imperialist we have to have a critical understanding of imperialism, what Lenin called "the highest stage of capitalism," and the historical development of imperialism from its emergence to now.  Then we can understand not only what it is but then understand what it actually means to be anti-imperialist.

Pseudo Anti-imperialism #2: externalism passing as internationalism

In my previous post I complained about activist affinity groups that were externally focused at the expense of the internal political landscape: this is the second type of false internationalism.  Anyone who spends most of their energy focusing on something happening elsewhere, and at the expense of organizing against revolutionary politics in their own social context, is not an internationalist but an abdicationist.  To live in the oppressive context of one society but spend all their activism focusing on the oppressive context of another is not revolutionary; it is simply a more formally radical version of canvasing for an NGO.  Social democrats think that everything is nearly just and in their countries and that we should think only about the plight of others elsewhere: not the problem of their nation's capitalist exploitation, not the fact that problems elsewhere are due to this very nation's existence as a privileged nation––any of the privileges we experience in this context are directly and indirectly due to the exploitation of other nations.

The point is not simply to understand what happens elsewhere is linked to what happens here, but to also be involved directly in your social context: as a radical you should be trying to overthrow the terms of oppression in your own context, not spending all of your energy agitating for other contexts.  If you live somewhere, participate in its institutions, and produce your living conditions within a given social context, then you are responsible for your participation within that context's class structure.  And when this context is (as in the case of North America) an imperialist and settler-colonial context, then you should be thinking about how your existence is dependent on colonialism and imperialism––and not simply on how the latter affects people elsewhere, but how your daily existence in this context might possibly benefit from oppression elsewhere and work to overthrow the oppressive conditions of this daily existence.

This was the qualification for being an internationalist given by Lenin and Mao, a qualification often ignored by externally focused activist groups.  The pro-Palestinian movement, for example, is a current example that demonstrates this problem.  It is by far the cause de jure of the left radicals (which is not by itself a bad thing) but it tends to focus all of its organizing power on Palestine, on issues here primarily connected with Palestine, rather than on the fact that we are living in ––and often benefitting from––a capitalist/colonialist/imperialist state ourselves.  We should be supporting Palestine while primarily involving ourselves in a struggle to overthrow our oppressive context.

In point of fact, attacking the oppressive system here would be true internationalism, proper anti-imperialism, because it would be targeting the very basis of imperialism and international inequality.  Che Guevera once argued that the best way for people in the imperial centres to be in solidarity with the struggles of the global periphery was for them to struggle in "the belly of the beast."  There was a time when people took that sort of internationalism seriously, and radicals understood that internationalism was one expression of a holistic revolutionary project––but a project aimed mainly at revolution in their society, not simply looking elsewhere.

Supporting struggles elsewhere at the expense of the primary struggle here is simply a more radical form of charity and awareness work, not the sort of internationalism promoted by the revolutionaries of the past.  This is not to say we should not support these anti-imperialist struggles, or that they are not useful, but just that we often involve ourselves in them, believe that we're radical, while benefitting from what caused these struggles to emerge in the first place: imperialism and our participation, here at the centres of capitalism, in imperialism.  Thus it needs to be emphasized: anyone who wants to support an international struggle as their primary activism, and does not realize that this should be secondary to the struggle where they live and produce the very terms of their life, is not an anti-imperialist.

The general confusion surrounding what constitutes anti-imperialism has plagued the North American left for decades and has led us to make more and more mistakes when we argue for internationalism, or expend our energy in utterly outward-focused solidarity groups.  And, seriously, someone needs to stop Achcar from posting his "critical anti-imperialism" stupidity (now, according to the comrade who informed me about his initial post, he's apparently trying to argue that Lenin would agree with his support of imperialism!) before he produces an army of Hitchensians.


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