Today’s world is wracked by a proliferation of bitter and bloody conflicts, as divisions and hatreds crack open around a labyrinth of national, ethnic, religious and tribal fault lines. In addition to intolerable pain and suffering, it becomes harder to see where any of it can lead except to planting the seeds for unending generations of strife. Many activists of the 60s have grown nostalgic for that decade when there seemed to be real hope that oppressed – particularly the national liberation struggles – were reshaping the world by creating more humane, societies. Now, in so many situations, we don’t even know whom to root for, let alone how to take constructive action.
Nostalgia, however, is not an answer to social problems. Instead of lamenting the failure of world developments to follow our aspirations, we need to develop an analysis that comes to grips with current realities – “Butch Lee” and “Red Rover” attempt to start us down this road with Night-Vision, saying: “Today’s revolutionary need is to detox ourselves from the old, stereotyped political formulas from 20 to 30 years ago.” They don’t claim to have the answers for new strategies and programs – that will have to emerge from grassroots movements themselves – but they certainly raise some penetrating points about a rapidly changing world system.
The preface is exciting because it is bold in stating both the dynamic of a voracious capitalism, and our own need for new, creative thinking: “Capitalism is again ripping apart and restructuring the world, and nothing will be the same. Not race, not nation, not gender and certainly not whatever culture you used to have.” Their paradigm of a change from colonialism io neocolonialism opens up important insights but also leaves many gaps and loose ends. Night-Vision does not provide a definitive overview of our new world, but it is a wonderfully thought-provoking book that begins to thaw some of the ice blocks of our old conceptions.
The writing assumes a familiarity with Left analysis and terms, using, for example, “New Afrika” (to denote the colonization and right to independence of Black people within the U.S.) without first defining it. The authors can also display a caustic sarcasm toward those they see as sellout elements of various oppressed groups. The use of pen names blurs the authors’ own race, class and gender and their standing to take such swipes, but they do use the term “we” when referring to white women. Of course ultimately the value of the book rests on the validity of its analysis.
The concept of neocolonialism was first promulgated by the great African independence leader, Kwame Nkrumah, to describe imperialism’s shift after World War II from direct to indirect rule of the Third World. Formal independence was granted but local elites were used to maintain imperialisms essential economic and political control.
Lee and Rover move off this initial definition to use neocolonialism to stand for the system as a whole, including important developments within the Industrialized countries. Moreover, they focus on the shifts in methods of world rule since 1975 – after the U.S. military defeat in Vietnam and the emergence of a globally integrated economy. The modem dynamic of neocolonialism is to create vertical class structures, engendering capitalist forces tied to imperialism, within and among the range of oppressed groups – racial minorities, white women, gays and lesbians, workers, as well as the once colonized peoples. This dynamic is transforming those struggles and necessitates an anticapitalist strategy for all of them.
Not surprisingly, Lee and Rover are the clearest where the greatest body of material already exists. The rule over the former colonies has shifted from an era of imperialist rivalries (World Wars I & II) over monopoly control of directly ruled colonies to one of multinational corporations, managed world trade, a common interest in keeping the Third World open for a range of exploitation via the market, and the co-opting of native petty bourgeoisies into maintaining imperialist rule.
There’s been a parallel change in the role of New Afrika from white America’s chief economic asset for 400 years (with riches reaped from slave and near slave labor) to a liability in that national consciousness and resistance have become an obstacle to the smooth functioning of the system. The strategy has become a form of decolonization by adopting a few New Afrikans into middle class America while having a policy of genocide toward the rest. This analysis help’s explain today’s apparently contradictory reality of an increasing number of Black individuals in positions of wealth and prestige while the masses in the inner cities have been relegated to the devastation of cascading epidemics of unemployment, drugs, incarceration, homelessness, AIDS and tuberculosis. The old slogan of “Black unity” is not adequate if it entails unity with elements – from drug pushers to Supreme Court Justice – participating in the genocide.
The section on the political economy of neocolonialism, particularly pp. 93-113 is a tour de force. If you want to see if this book is worth reading start by checking out these 20 pages, which provide an unvarnished view of the vicious parasitism of the world economy.
- Just as slave labor was the greatest source of profit for early capitalism, Third World women and children have become the most important commodity today, ‘to be violently used up und discarded at a pace of exploitation so rapid that it is even cheaper than chattel slavery was.’ They are the main ones forced into the arduous and deleterious manufacturing jobs that pay as little as 7¢ an hour. Such slave wages are also the piston pressing many women into prostitution which, with the advent of sex tourism, has become a major hard currency industry in the Third World. Women also provide the bulk of crucial unwaged labor in growing food and raising families.
- Narcotics production and distribution has become a major industry, much bigger than steel, it is driven by the destruction of traditional agriculture in the Third World, and many governments are actively complicit in the trade.
- Imperialism has totally restructured world agriculture so that impoverished countries are exporting crafts to the West while their own people starve. (The issue isn’t one of our ‘charily’ to give food to Africa but rather the $ billions in forced tribute the West continues to extract from them. ) ‘The paradox [is] … the more food, the more deaths from the lack of food.’ Despite abundant productivity, something like 35 million persons worldwide, most of them children, die from hunger-related illnesses each year, and 700 million other people are malnourished.
As brilliant and searing as this analysis is, the authors seem to accede to that common Left canard that the export of manufacture to the Third World is taking jobs away from U.S. workers. Of course there is a shift from production to white collar jobs. But as the books own example shows – the Nike “Air Jordan” sneakers that cost $30 to make in Asia but sell for $130 here – the superexploitation of Third World labor supports many nonproductive advertising, sales, finance and management jobs here. At the same time, the export production actually causes unemployment at the receiving end, as traditional handicrafts and peasant agriculture are destroyed there. The reason that unemployment has become so bad throughout most of the world is based on deeper problems of capitalist stagnation and irrationality. These conditions in turn lead capitalism to treat increasing numbers of Third World people as “surplus population” relegated to genocide.
The value of Night-Vision is its emphasis on what is new and changing. One central development is how much the process of production has become internationalized. Behind the vaunted German engineering of Mercedes Benz, for example, are the chromium metal alloys mined by African workers, assembly lines manned by Turkish immigrants, and a major investment of Kuwaiti capital. This helps us see why the ruling class, now so focused on global profits, has become increasingly indifferent to the decline of national infrastructure. At the same time, the need to defuse national liberation and to make use of a range of talents and faces explains the growing number of Third World people and women in management positions – at the very same time that the conditions of life gravely deteriorate in the inner cities.
Lee and Rover argue that the very ascension of the global economy is the backdrop for the disturbing surge of ethnic and national antagonisms, as players below the world ruling class level frantically scramble to control pieces of territory in order to have some arena of power. (While this insight is helpful, it is not adequate because it doesn’t explain why these forces won’t instead ally in order to enhance their power.) There’s been a shift from a bipolar world of the colonizers vs. the colonized to a more fluid and chaotic world of transnational capital on top of a range of fragmented subgroups let loose to fight out their sectional needs. The resulting series of social conflicts are not moral issues to the ruling class but simply matters of the maximization of profit for capital. They are perfectly willing to let these subgroups fight it out for position – and then make use of the victors against the losers and of the conflict itself to maintain social control from above.
Night-Vision takes a forceful position that it is class changes that arc being manifest in struggles that appear to be about race, nation, and gender. On one hand, there are now significant capitalist strata within each of those groups, on the other, neocolonialism subsumes those old social categories to create a highly exploited proletariat, now consisting first and foremost of Third World women. As suggestive as Lee and Rover’s broad strokes are in this regard, they leave a lot of room for the oversimplification of collapsing race, class and gender.
For example, (some) Third World men are used to controlling “their” women, but many of these men are also highly exploited by imperialism. Nor should white women’s gains around abortion rights, even if achieved without armed struggle, be totally reduced to a convenience for neocolonialism. Similarly, the emergence of a multinational labor force and the breakdown of protected monopoly markets may well mean that capital is no longer willing to pay for the high standard of living given in return for the loyalty of whites: “Capitalism is now… demanding that white workers start to live low like workers…” (This analysis does help explain the growing anti-U.S. government tendency among white supremacist groups.) But the continued and crucial political role of a loyal, and even angry, home base should not be lightly dismissed. Race, gender, nation, and class still each have their own and interrelated histories and deep social realities, A big part of any revolutionary strategy is to correlate the needs and aspirations of various oppressed groups, under the leadership of the most oppressed, toward a universalist project of liberation.
Night-Vision doesn’t turn the prevailing darkness into radiant sunlight, but it has sent up some very useful tracers that provide streaks of illumination and expose critical targets. We all need to add our very best analytical fare.
Reviewed by political prisoner David Gilbert in The Downtowner 19.
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