The world has changed over the past fifty years. There are different names for this change — neoliberalism, postmodernism, postfordism, globalization. The term i prefer to use is “neocolonialism”. But despite this clear reference to one specific thing — colonialism, the relationship between oppressor and oppressed nations, which i would argue remains central — the change that has taken place encompasses much more than that, being not just about the fake integration of of colonized people as pretend “equal partners” in imperialism, but also about the fake integration of women as “equal partners” in patriarchy, and about all kinds of direct and indirect ways in which global capitalism was restructured to respond to the political challenge of the 20th century anticolonial movements.
Whatever you want to call it, one thing that is clear is that within the imperialist centers (countries like canada, the united states, etc.), there is a lot more mainstream cultural space allowed for rebellious noise, innovation, and “freedom” of a sort than there used to be in capitalism’s previous phase. Indeed, all kinds of cultural innovation, love it or hate it, is allowed to thrive as it can under these conditions, the sole condition being that it not frontally assault the system today. My guess is that partly this is because the constraints of old style colonialism were defeated, but also partly because this noise, innovation, and “freedom” has become a big moneymaker, not just a fringe niche. And partly, looking at the settler colonies and especially the united states as a trendsetter culturally as much as economically within the anglosphere, this can be seen as an immediate echo of the integration into “whiteness” of myriad non-WASP europeans in the early 20th century, followed by the integration/appropriation/commercialization on a world scale of various oppressed-nation cultures1 in the postwar period. Things opened up.
At the same time, under neocolonialism, there is less space for actual change which will make life better for the oppressed majority, by which i mean (speaking schematically) the world proletariat and peasantry, the overwhelming majority of whom are found in the oppressed nations, within which women play an increasingly prominent and critical part. Capitalism in the previous period, but especially after World War II, had a lot of wiggle room, and there were tangible victories that could be scored. (Was this “low lying fruit” in historical terms? i would say no, though maybe it appears that way looking back.)
Not only is there less room for improving the lives of the most oppressed under neocolonialism, but as there is less and less economic wiggle room in general, the memo has gone out to every nation and would-be-nation and class and collectivity out there: get ready to fight for what you have, or for what you want, or if for nothing else then at least for the crumbs. Because it is like a global game of musical chairs, who will be out next? Greece? Spain? China? Wait and see … but know if you’re just sitting on your thumbs waiting, you might end up resembling that deer in the headlights …
In other words, whether it is the NDP or the Parti Quebecois, or QS or Syriza, this thing they call “austerity” is on the agenda, even for the global middle class. Less wiggle room all around.
At the same time, while there is less room for economic change or even consistent social bribery under neocolonialism (offbalanced by plenty of room still for sporadic and ad hoc bribery and privilege), the present world order incorporates a higher level2 of instability than old-style colonialism — not really unrelated to the aforementioned game of musical chairs — and this makes various conflicts and challenges appear super risky, and confusing — think Syria, Libya, Ukraine … ISIS, Boko Haram, etc. — there is no unified left position on these things, and even where bunches of us do agree, we neither know how to intervene, nor do we (in the imperialist west) have the capacity to intervene in a meaningful way.
It is all very discouraging. Add examples like Nepal and Palestine and the Dominican Republic into the mix, and it gets downright depressing.
So what to do, when there is extra space made for words, including angry words, but less space for real change … plus remember, more dangerous and daunting possibilities whenever even one of the system’s satraps is challenged?3
Lined up like a math equation that way, the answer isn’t a mystery: energies get spent developing those angry words, and the relationship of those words to real change becomes less and less important. Indeed, we think away from change, whenever we can.
i think it is rare on the activist left for people to do this in a machiavellian or malevolent way. i don’t think people are saying to themselves “how can i opportunistically posture while not actually doing anything that would make me a target”. i think it generally happens on a more subtle, subconscious, diffused-through-the-global-middle-class-and-expressed-with-good-intentions kinda way. But that is what i see happening, in a process than affects me as much as anyone around me.
In this way the current economic-political setup which is neocolonialism structures even those movements that oppose it. And as this is done, they bring into being a particular emotional register, as all social structures do. The living consequence as people feel it, is movements in which there is a pressure to be judgmental and conformist, in which people feel unusual amounts of insecurity about saying or doing “the wrong thing” (often without anybody being able to articulate why it is wrong in a way that makes sense outside of the clique), in which we have lots of nice sounding words for people from oppressed nations or suffering gender oppression, but also in which we have few solutions which are both collective and real4 — in other words, despite our subjective intentions, we build movements with all the characteristics of neocolonialism itself.
i wrote the above, in somewhat shorter form, in a facebook thread about the statement “men are the enemy”, which was defended on the grounds that it was some kind of syllogism to “white people are the enemy”. Statements which — as is usually the case in my experience — were being made by men and white people, amongst others. i was trying to explain why i objected to the statements, in that i do not feel such statements are “real”, i do not feel such statements are generally said with any kind of intention to act as if this were true, that such statements are more about staking out positions than anything else, and why i find that to be characteristic of radical movements in the imperialist centers during the neocolonial age.
But to be clear, i think the above applies to a whole range of practices and ideas which increase in their shiny impressive edgey radicalness5 just as they abandon any intersection with people’s lives or actual political choices. Following the rightward swing of the 1980s, pretty much anything coming out of academia seems to have to contend with this as an overwhelming temptation. In terms of identity politics … well, identity politics is often a prime example of this, but it should be kept in mind that it is not the root of it, and bashing identity politics can be just as much emblematic of the neocololonial grandstanding imperative. In fact, grandstanding is a big part of what this is all about.
Or, to borrow an observation from another author, much younger than me and perhaps more intimately acquainted with the unpleasantness all of this engenders, the current phase of capitalism-imperialism encourages “dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism”, tendencies which were obviously not absent from the left in the past.6
Of course, all of this is a schematic look at how neocolonialism engenders this kind of attitude on a macro level. On a more intimate, more on-the-level-of-our-experiences, level, this stuff plays out according to its own identifiable mechanisms. But that is not specific to this, it is more how stuff operates in general. The macro level creates openings and opportunities which are then filled, generally autonomously, by things thought up or developed or chanced upon by actual people, and then generalized/popularized/institutionalized. For better or for worse. What i am trying to say here, is in this case it is for worse.
This is something i may return to in future posts. It is certainly something i have been thinking about. i don’t consider it to be a major strategic issue, or something that uncovers some big bad truth about capitalism or the world today. However, within sections of the radical left, i feel the most pressing issue facing us is to “get real”, and the noise described above is one of the first obstacles to us doing that.
first and foremost amongst them being those of the internal colonies, esp. the Black/New Afrikan nation ↩
by this i don’t just mean “more”. i mean the instability occurs on a higher level, as in “higher” or “bigger” bodies of governance can break down, be contested, be overthrown but without overthrowing capitalism/imperialist or creating space for the oppressed to rebuild — think the so-called “failed states”, think zones of civil war ↩
is this really so? think the fall of the Paris Commune, think the Nazis, think the low-intensity wars against the national liberation movements … more daunting than that? but those weren’t the henchmen, the stand-ins, the compradors being challenged, that was — or appeared to be — the system’s sovereignty itself. Nowadays a mere changing of the neocolonial guard is often accompanied by genocide, whereas some “civil wars” and “failed states” are really themselves simply new permanent zones of what might be called primitive accumulation, not unstable from the perspective of capitalism just instable from the perspective of people living there. ↩
by “real”, i mean, which will actually work for people outside of our subcultures, in their daily lives, not just when they are in their early 20s and part of our clique, and not just when they have alternate forms of privilege to barter with or fall back on ↩
an oversimplification — what they increase in is a particular form of emotional energy. this often comes across as shrill, self-righteous, grandiose, but not only. ↩
This article, “Everything is Problematic”, written by a pseudonymous graduating mcgill student in 2014, is one of the genre of “i am leaving the radical left it was all very culty” pieces, but i think it is still worth reading sympathetically, as the author does make a number of good observations, focussing on aspects of radical left — and esp. campus-based radical left — political culture which i am also discussing here. ↩