Some very schematic thoughts on anti-imperialism

April 21, 2018

Ok, this is a very brief, schematic post, based as so often on far too little reading. Still, for what it’s worth, recent debates on the UK left (broadly understood) about Syria have made me think about old and ongoing fights about anti-imperialism. “Anti-imperialism” here, throughout, to be clear, denotes a politics adopted by leftists in the UK and other core states, rather than the politics of those in the actual periphery or semi-periphery of the world system.

So – Stephen Bush, the best political journalist on the Blairite wing of the UK Labour party, in my view, suggested somewhere (perhaps the New Statesman podcast) that there are three tests to be met for ‘humanitarian intervention’: 1) is something awful happening? 2) can intervention stop it from happening? and 3) can this be achieved with sufficiently low domestic cost as to be politically feasible?

This doesn’t strike me as the worst way in to the problem of ‘humanitarian intervention’. As you’d expect from a Blairite, it is a framework that will often favour intervention – it clearly assumes that humanitarian crises can warrant use of military force, it clearly doesn’t regard states as intrinsically bound by international institutions, and it is concerned simply with delimiting the situations in which the use of (potentially unilateral) force is wise. It’s a controversial position, but it obviously isn’t an incoherent one.

Off the top of my head, I can think of four broad alternative frameworks that would push back against this approach. First, straight-up isolationism – the idea that the political and ethical concerns of the state do not extend outside the boundaries of the state at all. Second, old school ‘realpolitik’ realism – the idea that states’ foreign policies should purely and coldly serve the national interest, and should not attend to humanitarian matters. Third, rule-bound liberal internationalism – the idea that military force should only be used in accordance with the processes of the relevant international institutions, which here means the UN. Fourth, anti-imperialism. It’s this last that I’m interested in, in this post.

In the recent debates over Syria, Jeremy Corbyn – the Labour party leader – has been widely criticised for his opposition to the UK’s participation in the latest round of US bombing. Corbyn’s opposition is articulated in liberal international proceduralist terms – he argues that military intervention is only warranted when it complies with the principles laid out in the UN Charter. This position has been criticised both on its own terms (because the UN, it is argued, is an institution incapable of fulfilling its necessary role in cases like these, where a permanent member of the Security Council is willing to exercise its veto power), and because many critics see Corbyn’s liberal position as in large part a ‘respectable’ way to reach a conclusion that Corbyn himself has reached on other grounds.

For myself, I think that Corbyn is probably more of a liberal internationalist than he’s often taken to be – but the pundits are also in my view right that this liberal position is at the very least strongly informed by an additional set of anti-imperialist ideological commitments. What are those commitments?

There’s a lot of variety, and a lot of debate, within the anti-imperialist tradition (as of course there is in the other traditions mentioned here). Still, as a first pass let me sketch three categories of commitment that pick out a foreign policy position as anti-imperialist in the relevant sense (recognising that there’s a great deal omitted here).

First, the idea that the international system is structured by core/periphery relations that are both economic and military, with the US by far the most powerful actor in the world system, and with other imperial core states largely aligned with and benefiting from US imperial power.

Second, the idea that ‘Western’ foreign policy – that is, the foreign policy of the states that comprise the imperial core of the global geopolitical system – serves the interests of this imperial core in exploiting the other members of the international system, as well as being informed by imperialist and/or capitalist ideology. That is, that the US and other imperial powers are basically malign actors on the world stage.

Therefore, Third, the idea that opposition to the malign international actions of the imperial core states is a crucial (probably the most important) geopolitical or foreign policy task, a prerequisite for any politics that is emancipatory at a global level.

This bundle of commitments is what critics of anti-imperialism characterise as knee-jerk anti-americanism, or hostility to ‘the West’. How do these commitments stack up, relative to their rivals in international politics? (Obviously I mean – how do they stack up in my own opinion). I will very quickly give my take on these commitments (not in order).

W/r/t the second of these commitments, then – for me, the idea that the US and other core imperial states are mostly malign actors in their military actions is clearly true. Obviously this is a controversial normative judgement and there can be no proof in matters of norms. Similarly, there is no claim about social reality – particularly not one as bald and generalising as this – where it is wrong to say that “things are more complicated than that”. But still, if you have to pick a commitment off the shelf about the military actions of imperial core states, the idea that those actions are driven by the states’ own interests and ideology, which do not align with the interests of those in whose lives the states are intervening, seems extremely solid to me.

This fact on its own (if we take it to be a fact) as I see it badly undermines Stephen Bush’s criteria for intervention, with which I began. Where the humanitarian interventionist sees the actions of the US or UK militaries as in this context first and foremost tools for achieving humanitarian outcomes, the anti-imperialist sees these actions as first and foremost serving imperial interests and ideology. This perception greatly raises the bar for intervention. The interventionist asks: can we (that is, ‘the West’) make a humanitarian difference? The anti-imperialist perspective reframes this question as: can imperial states pursuing their own – admittedly often misperceived – geopolitical and economic interests while caring little or nothing for the lives of those in the countries they bomb and invade make a humanitarian difference? These different framings of the same basic question typically yield different answers.

W/r/t the third of the commitments – the obligation to oppose the military actions of imperial states – things get a bit more complicated, in my view, even at a crude first pass. In what does this opposition consist? Lobbying our governments not to intervene – but what else? Should we also support (or stand in solidarity with, whatever that means, if anything) those ‘on the ground’ opposing imperialism? If so, who? At base, who are ‘the good guys’?

Very roughly speaking, there are two answers to this last question, corresponding to the two main attitudes of ‘Western’ radical leftism to the Soviet Union. On the one hand, the ‘tankie’ attitude is that we must stand in solidarity with those powerful actors opposing imperialism – a solidarity that frequently extends to endorsing an anti-imperialist state’s own oppressive violence and coercions. On the other hand, the ‘trot’ attitude that we should support “neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism” – a support that often apparently in practice means deciding which micro-group in a civil war is the most socialist.

In my view, the ‘tankie’ perspective is pretty straightforwardly horrific. If we want a more emancipated world, we need our ideals to be opposed to tyranny, torture, etc., not to align with them where the tyrants and torturers occupy the role of an oppressive elite within a state attacked by empire. Obviously there are political scenarios where one needs to make a hard choice and endorse the lesser of two evils – but analysing conflicts and picking sides in debates within the UK media or social media public sphere isn’t even close to being in this category, to my mind. This seems to me relatively straightforward position to reach. The position I’m calling the ‘trot’ one is better. In general, though, I think it’s important to recognise that there may not be a group or political actor available to endorse – that our opposition to imperialism does not in itself require a specific identification with an alternative actor. Social reality is complex, all groups are internally diverse, and the potentials of any given social movement or social moment are always multiple and conflictual. It is not an intrinsically materialist or leftist obligation to collapse those potentials into the endorsement of any ‘actually existing’ political entity or movement – even though this is a very common expectation in radical debates.

This point is also relevant to the first of the commitments I’m discussing – the idea that the global system is structured in terms of core/periphery relations. Here I think things are also more complex than ‘crude anti-imperialism’ would suggest. As I discussed in my post on Wallerstein, the basic world-systems perspective, while grounded in the analysis of core-periphery relations, sees those relations in quasi-cyclical terms. For world-systems theory, there are four stages in the ‘cycle of hegemony’ – the hegemonic stage in which a single imperial power dominates the world-system; the stage of imperial decline, in which other states begin to increase their power relative to the declining hegemon; the stage of multi-polar great power rivalry, in which multiple states jockey for geopolitical position; and the period of world war, in which these great powers militarily compete in a major great powers war, resulting ultimately in a single new global hegemon.

‘Classical’ anti-imperialist theory was established during the later two stages of this cycle – Hobson’s ‘Imperialism’ was written in 1902; Lenin’s ‘Imperialism’ in 1917. This early anti-imperialist perspective therefore typically analysed imperialism in terms of competing imperial powers. Post-war anti-imperialism, as I mentioned above, analysed imperial relations in terms of the rival powers of the US and the USSR – with the latter often seen as the hard power bulwark against US global imperial dominance. Post-1989 anti-imperialism has typically analysed the international order in unitary terms: there is a single dominant global power – the US, with its allies – and a range of different lesser powers and movements resisting its global dominance. There are then also a series of debates about whether other, lesser great powers can also be usefully analysed as imperialist.

However, again as I see things, we’re now entering a period of increasing rival great power competition. In this context, an anti-imperialism that sees the global order as shaped by a single dominant power or group of allied powers is poorly suited to accurate geopolitical analysis. I’m not saying that all contemporary anti-imperialism has this problem, but quite a lot of it does, I think.

To sum up: I’m very crudely arguing that there are three elements of anti-imperialism: 1) a core-periphery analysis of the global geopolitical system; 2) a belief that the core actors within that system act in their own imperial interests; and 3) a belief that these core powers’ imperial actions should be opposed, politically. I’m saying that, for me, (2) is pretty solid as a first approximation to the geopolitical reality, and that (1) and (3) are both true for some value of ‘true’, but that the ways in which they are cashed out within contemporary anti-imperialism are often ‘problematic’. Specifically, it’s important that a critique of imperial power within the global system doesn’t naively (or indeed cynically) align itself with politically oppressive rival powers. This is particularly important because we are now entering a period of increasing rival great power politics, and ‘anti-imperialist’ powers that anti-imperialists might choose to align with are therefore increasingly likely to themselves be, or be aligned with, potential rival imperial powers. At the same time, it’s obviously important to make these points without engaging in apologism for actually-existing present or past US or other core states’ imperialist actions.

This is all a long-winded (yet much too brief) way of making some pretty crass points – and self-evidently there’s a lot more that can be said about all of these issues – but this kind of first pass discussion is what blogging is for, so that will do for now.


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