As popular resistance to globalization and Western imperialism strengthens around the globe, something disastrous is happening: Leadership of the opposition is swinging steadily from the Left to the radical Right.
Right-wing forces around the world are gearing up to fight against capitalism’s new world order. Every day on the streets of Baghdad, of Mosul, of Tikrit, of Fallujah, of Samarra, of Basra, there is living, dying proof that rightists are in the vanguard of the fight against the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq. It is the same in Afghanistan. Indeed, as Western capital struggles to penetrate and control the so-called Islamic world, clerical fascist and other hard-core reactionary trends have spearheaded opposition in country after country. This right wing “anti-imperialism” isn’t confined to the Moslem-inhabited countries, either. Militant rebellious political movements on the Right are gathering strength everywhere, including North America. Often these trends are more radical, better rooted in popular culture and better armed than the current Left.
One would think that the Left would be galvanized by this phenomenon of right-wing “anti-imperialism”; would be bending every effort to understand it and combat its poisonous influence. In fact, the Left, with few exceptions, is doing its best to ignore it.
It’s not like we haven’t been warned. The catastrophe in Iraq is hardly the first time that the Left has witnessed powerful right-wing influence over anti-imperialist movements.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Left anti-imperialists fighting the Shah of Iran and his U.S. sponsors embraced a united front with radical right-wing Islamist fundamentalists. Most Iranian leftists (and their Western supporters) were convinced that anti-imperialist popular sentiment would “naturally” benefit the Left; they were sure that patriarchal fundamentalism would be quickly isolated and out-maneuvered after the revolution.
So when Iranian women struggled for their human rights, leftists criticized them for being “divisive.” It was alleged that women’s demands would weaken the anti-imperialist united front against America and its agents. Azar Majedi, an Iranian activist, recalls:
Women who had never before worn a Hejab [the Islamic head cover for women], put it on voluntarily for the sake of ‘society and revolution’….One common slogan in the demonstrations [was], ‘Sister, your Hejab is more potent than our guns.’
The sacrifice of women’s rights in order to appease the fundamentalists played a major role the violent decimation of the Iranian Left.
And again, in the 1980s, when Afghans were struggling to expel the Soviet invaders, many leftists around the world downplayed the difference between freedom fighters and right-wing fundamentalist criminals. Most of the Left (Soviet apologists excepted, of course) heartily endorsed any and all “popular resistance” to the Soviet imperialists, turning a blind eye to the actual program and practice of the rising Islamist reactionary groups. Afghan women’s criticisms of the fascist mujihedeen fell on deaf ears. After all, the jihadis were fighting for “national liberation”—that seemed, within the dominant Left paradigm, to trump everything.
Meanwhile, Afghan women’s organizations, and the secular resistance generally, were viciously attacked from two sides: the Soviets and the Islamist hard Right. It was the radical Right which ended up dominating that “anti-imperialist” war in Afghanistan. Today they dominate the armed resistance to U.S. intervention. The result is a shattered nation, endlessly brutalized within shifting combinations of imperialist genocide and clerical fascist terror.
Years after the Soviet defeat, some of the Western Left still clung to bizarre illusions about the political potential of the reactionary mujehedin. An Afghan revolutionary complained to the Journal of the Centre for Women and Socialism in 2001:
When Ahmad Shah Masood [the charismatic military leader of the Northern Alliance] was visiting France we heard that even ‘left’ organisations have supported him. A journal of [the] communist party of Italy had pictured him as the unique leader of Afghanistan and had suggested that Osama Bin laden and other terrorists should instead of blowing trade centres, use their ability to lead a revolution against ‘America’s Imperialism’ …Such organisations insist that they are leading the movements for freedom and justice. These kinds of attitudes make other left organisations unreal…in the eyes of people.
And now, there is the war in Iraq. Most of the Left was wildly euphoric about the early resistance in Iraq and the outpouring of mass global anti-war sentiment. Triumphal statements about the emergence of a new movement for social justice were the common currency of left-wing discourse. Larry Wing of “War Times” exulted that, “Most important of all, and underlying all the other developments, is the emergence of a new superpower: the world’s people. As one we rose up on Feb. 15 to smite the empire. Antiwar sentiment is so great in most countries that even most reactionary leaders dare not cross us.” Tom Hayden, not to be outdone, proclaimed, “There is rising a new movement in the world. It is bigger than the movement of the 1960s.” “A global anti-war movement unlike anything that has existed for three decades — that is, since the close of the Vietnam War,” trumpeted International A.N.S.W.E.R. According to the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, “The issue of the war and Bush military policy is beginning to coalesce an incredibly wide range of social forces: anti-globalization, anti-capitalists, labor, national movements, students, greens, liberals, anarchists, etc., etc. This movement is beginning to reflect, in embryonic form, the coalition of social forces that can ultimately transform society.”
Yes, but transform it in what direction?
Can it really be that leftists didn’t notice the actual politics of the forces leading the armed struggle against the Western imperialists in Iraq? Has the Left somehow missed the virulent global opposition to the Iraq war that comes from the Right? Can it be unaware that the “incredibly wide range of social forces” opposing the Bush and Blair regimes’ war includes millions of right-wing political Islamists, Baath Party torturers, reactionary Japanese nationalists, Hindu fascists, dozens of right-wing dictators, former heads of the CIA and NSA, the Pope, capitalists in every country, conservative Republicans, antisemitic Russian nationalists, Pat Buchanan, the hard right British National Party, generals and admirals, David Duke, and most neo-nazi organizations worldwide?
For some time after the anglo-american invasion, it was difficult to find mention—let alone serious analysis—of the role of right-wing religious fundamentalism, antisemitism, fascism and reactionary populism among the global forces opposing the invasion and occupation. In fact, the Left usually spoke and acted as if there were one big progressive anti-intervention coalition on the rise. There seemed to be an assumption that the Left was the natural vanguard of these forces. This assumption was—is—as false as it is dangerous.
With the passage of time and events in Iraq, this delusional attitude has become less and less rational. But that hasn’t provoked any self-criticism. Most of the Left still tries to downplay or evade the whole uncomfortable issue of right-wing anti-imperialism, hoping it will go away by itself. In fact some leftists have adopted an even more reprehensible course: They have decided to participate in an open alliance with the fundamentalists. These “super” anti-imperialists demand “unconditional support” for the “resistance,” and consider anyone uncomfortable with this formula to be liberal and chauvinist.
It’s as if the tragedies in Iran and Afghanistan had never happened. Once again, the Left is pushing women’s freedom to the sidelines, supposedly in the name of anti-imperialism. Once again, “politics” is being twisted into a struggle between imperialist men and “anti-imperialist” men—even if those “anti-imperialist” men enslave women.
It’s now glaringly obvious that right-wing Islamist fundamentalism has become a major actor in world politics; that fact puts the pathological denial among leftists into stark relief. But we should be clear that Islamist radicalism is only one version of the right-wing “anti-imperialism” in motion today. It might be most accurate to say that right-wing Islamist insurgency is the leading edge of a worldwide phenomenon. Right wing populism, with fascist elements contending for vanguard leadership, is coming to life in country after country. Including much closer to home than Iraq.
Militant right-wing “anti imperialism” is growing in the U.S. White supremacists and fascists like Louis Beam, Matt Hale and Tom Metzger hate the neo-cons and Bush; they despise globalization’s New World Order. Therefore they study Left-led movements, coopt their language and even try to attract the activists working within them. They reason that, as Beam writes, “The New American Patriot will be neither left nor right, just a freeman fighting for liberty…The new politics of America is liberty from the NWO [New World Order] Police State and nothing more.”
Many neo-fascists and Christian fundamentalists loudly “support” Palestinian struggle against Israel, and Left activists in the solidarity movement find that they are forced to weed antisemites out of web forums and events. Organizers against the Patriot Acts are consciously building a coalition between the Left and Right. “Third Position” neo-fascists in Europe and North America actively petition Leftists and progressives to a join in a common platform opposing U.S. interventionism and hegemony in the world. Today, just as in Mussolini and Hitler’s time, many fascists claim a “spiritual kinship” to the natural world and claim to “defend” it. (“Ecology is for Aryans too,” says Tom Metzger.) Criticisms of the New World Order and its negative effects on the domestic social contract in the metropolis now crop up everywhere on the Right; they sometimes sound indistinguishable from Left anti-globalization arguments.
Remarkably, some of the hard Right’s leadership is even moderating its public positions on race in order to pave the way for potential “anti-capitalist” alliances with non-white movements. Perhaps the races should be separate, they say, but we should all unite against the common enemy—global capital. James Porazzo, head of the neo-nazi skinhead group the American Front, argues for a program of “White autonomy, Black autonomy, Brown autonomy and death to the current twisted system. The only other obvious route would be an eventual winner take all race war: I don’t think anyone with any sense would want that.”
While the fascists are less developed in the U.S. than in Europe and other parts of the world, they are steadily growing in influence and organization. Their “anti-imperialist” views resonate widely within the ranks of militia members, Christian fundamentalists and ordinary conservatives, many of who are openly rebelling against the program of Bush and the neoconservatives—not just in Iraq but also on a range of domestic and international issues.
Judging by the reaction of leftists in U.S. antiwar movement, this is a good thing. Today, as rightists swell the ranks of anti-interventionists, they are being quietly tolerated, and frequently welcomed, by leftists. “What unites us is greater than anything that divides us,” says a leader of UFPJ. Anti-war speeches by Robert Byrd and writings by anti-war Christian fundamentalists appear on IndyMedia and other left-wing web sites. The Nation recently ran an entire article based on the pandering premise that Ronald Reagan, since he was a “true conservative,” would surely have pulled out of Iraq by now.
Left descriptions of the Iraqi resistance soft-pedal the right-wing forces that pervade it. Photos of huge all-male demonstrations in Muslim-populated countries are printed without comment; antisemitic slogans shouted at mass protests in Iraq and around the world are quietly edited out. Iraqi women’s fears about the possibility of a clerical fascist take-over of the country, widely reported in the mainstream press, are muted in the Left’s writings. Could it be that the Left is preparing to repeat, on a larger and larger scale, the mistakes made in Iran and Afghanistan?
It’s important to examine why there is a mass-based “anti-imperialist” right wing uprising in the world at this historical juncture and what that implies for the Left practically. Such an investigation may provide a window into the class changes enforced by the latest incarnation of global capitalism. It may also afford us perspective on the weaknesses of the post-WWII wave of revolutionary world struggle, weaknesses that allowed capitalism to surmount that movement’s powerful challenge. And finally, we may see hints of where we can look for the emergence of a new Left, able to survive and grow on the terrain of a transformed capitalist order.
A Right-Wing Class Struggle
For many years the international Left has been accustomed to thinking of the hard Right as an appendage of the ruling capitalists. To some extent, this is a conditioned reflex arising out of the realities of the post-WWII period. During this optimistic era of anti-colonial liberation and socialist revolution, anti-imperialism was virtually “owned” by the Left, whose forces were the ones challenging capital’s control over the Third World (and defending social contracts in the metropolis). The radical Right, whose international leadership was discredited and smashed in the world war, seemed to rely on patriotic flag-waving support for Western imperialists, racist frothing at the mouth, and kooky fringe politics. However, instrumentalist views of the extreme Right as a “tool of the ruling class” have never been particularly accurate, and are at any rate being rendered increasingly irrelevant by events in our time.
It’s crucial to remember that the fascist politics espoused by Hitler and Mussolini was much more than a stratagem of the bourgeoisie. In fact, prewar fascism was a mass revolutionary movement of the far Right, spun in freedom-fighting, anti-bourgeois terms. Rooted in class grievances and class ambitions, it was both populist and insurrectionary in practice. The radical Right worldwide is now adopting a similar rebellious spirit. This occurs in the context of massive global change, which is fundamentally transforming the capitalist system.
Part of what defines this change on the political level is that the wave of Left-led anti-colonial struggle in the world has largely exhausted its momentum, giving way to neo-colonialism and warlordism in case after case. The national liberation struggles of the 1950s, 60s and 70s shook world capitalism to its core. But capitalism has survived and metastasized, altering the dynamics of class struggle irreversibly in the process.
Once Left-led national liberation movements exerted an irresistible magnetic attraction on hundreds of millions of people; now we see huge reactionary mass movements gaining momentum using similar “anti-imperialist” rhetoric. This is a consequence of the onset of capitalist neo-globalization, which is shuffling the deck of world classes, causing despair and outrage among not only the most oppressed but also among middle classes desperate to protect ways of life, turf and privileges. Therefore a new social base—not just for right wing populism but also for fascist and other radical right-wing discontent—expands daily.
Neo-globalization has led to splits in the Right worldwide. Most fundamentally, it has caused a split between those who continue to cast their lot with transnational corporate capital (for instance, the neo-conservatives in the U.S.), and others, including most of the fascist Right, who see the new world order as a mortal enemy of their way of life—a threat, in fact, to the very existence of the classes out of which they emerge. Despite the ascendancy of a neo-conservative group in the current U.S. regime, the rebellious trend is the more dynamic side of this divide, growing in popularity and organization in many countries as it hones its “anti-imperialist” and “anti-corporate” message. Increasingly the international Right is positioning itself as the defender of the “little man” against an impersonal capitalist system (often seen as run by Jews) which is violating previously-sacrosanct national social contracts, caste systems, privileges and divisions of turf. It appears likely that the “blame game” sure to follow the neoconservative failures in the Middle East and the hollowing out of the U.S. economy will further energize the more rebellious tendencies.
Recipe for Rebellion
The place where the dramatic changes in class politics wrought by globalization are most sharply posed right now is in the so-called Islamic world—the very place where neo-globalization is most urgently projected by Western imperialism.
We know that capitalism must expand to survive, and Western imperialism, with its stagnant home economies, must penetrate the Moslem-inhabited countries in a whole new way to expand. On one obvious level, Western capital needs to continue to control the oil and other traditional resources in this part of the world. And from a geo-strategic point of view, whichever particular capitalists control the Middle East and Central Asia will have a tremendous advantage over their capitalist rivals, including rapidly emerging powers like China. This makes the race for penetration particularly pressurized.
But these imperatives explain only part of imperialism’s compulsion to expand—the part most familiar to the Left, since it is carried over from an earlier paradigm. On a deeper level, modern capitalism pushes to destroy and re-organize entire social structures in its drive for a new and different sort of economic expansion.
Capitalist neo-globalization seeks to enlarge and transform its presence in Muslim-populated regions, as elsewhere in the world, by means of extension, intensification and recombination. That is, it extends hungrily into all the remaining unexploited territories in the world, from the remotest regions of Central Asia to the Lacandon rain forest. In addition, it intensifies its commodification of all aspects of existence, including air, water, the airwaves, ideas, plant and animal species and human genetic material. (This is what Indian leftist Vandana Shiva calls “the new enclosure of the commons.”) It fosters and creates new “needs,” searching at an accelerated pace for ways to target, market and enhance consumption.
Finally, it “samples” and recombines formerly fixed economic and social elements—agriculture and manufacturing, labor forces, consumer markets, privileges, old and new classes, races, genders and nationalities. Thriving on fluidity, mobility and, significantly, on chaos, the new imperialism breaks down old borders, social formations and cultures, builds new ones, then breaks them down again.
In its drive to extend, intensify and recombine, neo-globalization promotes new technologies, especially biological and information technologies that allow capitalism to exploit human and natural resources faster, farther, more thoroughly and more flexibly. A central focus of neo globalization (as it has been for each stage of capitalism) is a dramatic reconfiguration of the means of controlling the proletariat, and especially proletarian women, whose exploitation is the foundation of the entire system. This is transforming traditional family and gender relations.
From the point of view of many classes in the Muslim-inhabited countries, the arrival of Western-led neo-globalization is an unmitigated disaster. Most of the Left is acutely aware of the savage impact of IMF-World Bank loansharking, commodity agriculture and hit-and run manufacturing on the poorest sectors of the colonial world. This pauperization leads to a tremendous rise in de-classed and desperately immiserated populations which constitute tinder-boxes for warlordism, ethnic conflict and radical populism of various sorts.
But we should also consider what Western globalization means for diverse middle classes, some of which comprise large populations and occupy significant niches in the national, regional and local capitalist economies of the “Islamic world.” For instance, the encroachment of globally integrated factory farming destroys the class position of even prosperous farmers in the Muslim countries. The new reach and thoroughness of global commodity markets undermines established ways of life for merchants, small bankers and regional or national manufacturers. Global homogenization of trade wipes out whole classes based on local or regional trading, transport and smuggling. (This is very much at issue in Afghanistan, which sits on top of one of the world’s most profitable smuggling routes.)
Local functionaries, clan leaders, intellectuals and professionals leading middle-class lives within existing national and local societies are well aware that they risk class demotion or extinction as global culture and centralized global authority moves onto their turf. Military officers, accustomed to influence and privilege, face an unpalatable choice between ceding power to a higher authority with its own agenda, or being replaced completely. Established religious leaders, who currently control dense networks of social, cultural and economic influence, realize that neo-globalization could eliminate or seriously weaken their position in society.
This is a pattern emerging in every part of the world: Many classes, including middle classes, are recognizing the new fragility of their economic and social status as the neo-globalization juggernaut advances.
Of course, some classes are actually benefiting, or hoping to benefit, from the changes. For example, some Indian middle classes which have caught a wave of cutting edge information technology and are riding it to a new standard of living. But overall, the pressure is downward on existing middle classes, since the whole former basis for social contracts between nationally based capitalists and “their” middle classes is disappearing.
During this time of transition, as the deck of classes is shuffled, old patterns of metropolitan privilege still provide some advantages. People with access to these privileges still do have a leg up in the competition for middle-class life within the new imperial order.
But this is likely to be a relative and temporary advantage, unlike what existed a generation ago. There’s not a whole lot of security of privilege today—in safety, in standard of living, in employment. One day you are a subsidized white settler in “Rhodesia,” the next day your farm is occupied by Africans, and you are planning your escape from Zimbabwe. One day you are sitting in a café in Belgrade sipping cappuccino, the next day NATO bombs are falling and you have no running water or electricity. One day you are a hot-shot systems designer in New York who can practically name his own salary, the next day your unemployment insurance is running out and you are reading about how well things are going in Bangalore. All this is excellent from the point of view of the giant corporations and finance capitalists. Global capital is shaking off the constraints of the old social order. Classes are being transformed and recycled at an accelerated pace; today’s social contract will likely end up in tomorrow’s dumpster.
At the end of the last capitalist era, middle classes had more options. Sometimes they supported the existing capitalist order (which, after all, had established roles for them). Other times they supported or allied with proletarian struggles that seemed to advance their class interests beyond the existing order. Today, many middle classes feel completely trapped. The former capitalist order is falling apart, and so is the former proletarian struggle. Global change is impacting their way of life, but they have virtually no political control over it. Therefore many middle-class populations are worried, angry, frustrated and nostalgic.
This is especially true in parts of the colonial world that are culturally and politically isolated from the centers of modern imperialist power—places like the Muslim-populated countries. Already angry about generations of old-style colonialism, discrimination and racist disrespect emanating from the Christian West, many middle classes in the Middle East and Central Asia now clearly recognize that they have little or no access to the levers and portals of the new global economy; that their social and economic functions are being treated as mere pawns and obstacles within Western-led globalization.
The middle classes endangered by neo-globalization are not all going quietly. And despite the hopes and expectations of the Left, some of them are linking up with desperate and de-classed populations of the poor—refugees, guerrillas looking for another war, the chronically unemployed, street gangs, etc.—in an alliance of reactionary anger against global capital. Frequently welded together by an ideology of cultural superiority and a traditionalist mythology, these political movements reflect a powerful yearning to turn back the clock to a time when their classes had leverage and hopeful futures.
But although they often fetishize the past, the forces of the rebellious Right are not just some exotic “traditional” holdovers from an earlier time. In fact the rebellious Right’s various trends embody very up-to-date attempts to defeat, influence or get a piece of the action within the new world order by struggling against the current leadership and agenda of world capital. This reflects an entirely correct understanding that only those who are prepared to fight will be able to survive and carve out space for themselves in the new capitalist landscape.
Men Against Neo-Globalization
Above all, various classes of men (worldwide, not just in Muslim-majority areas) have a special hatred of neo-globalization because it challenges their traditional ownership and control over women.
One of advancing neo-globalization’s key characteristics is that it accelerates the breakdown of traditional patriarchal family structures, in which individual men directly supervise and control women and benefit privately from their labor. Familiar forms of male dominance over women are being gradually replaced with post-modern systems of oppression that cut ordinary men out of the parasitic loop. For many men of the dispossessed classes, this is the ultimate loss, the ultimate insult.
Just as it did during earlier waves of genocide and colonialism, Western imperialism postures today as the world “protector” of women’s rights. And we are in fact witnessing the elevation of some women within the new capitalist order as a means of controlling the rest more effectively. This is part of the new style social contract that capitalists want and actively promote. Butch Lee puts it with characteristic bluntness:
Right now “post-feminist” women in the capitalist metropolis think life is just getting better and better. Hillary, women’s pro sports, flying jets over the Third World bombing away, and business opportunities, too. Who woulda imagined? It couldn’t be whiter for us. I think we are like those newly-enfranchised German women in the liberal Weimar Republic days during 1919-1933. Sleep walking on the edge of the precipice. For patriarchal capitalism is always dangerous to us. Deadly dangerous.” —(The Military Strategy of Women and Children, 2003.)
Needless to say, neo-globalization has nothing to do with “liberating” the masses of women. Quite the opposite.
Modern capitalism demands that more and more women and children be marshaled in concentrated, efficient commodity production and transnational service industries. It gathers them into large flexible labor pools directly tied to the world economy. Where this process is already well underway—for instance in the maquiladoras along the U.S.-Mexico border or the brothels of Bangkok or the burgeoning transnational domestic worker industry—it is revolutionizing gender relations: ripping young women out of traditional rural patriarchy and concentrating them into communities of women organized around their new work. Women’s lives are in many cases disciplined directly by the employer, who may control not just the workplace but also housing and access to health care, education, childcare and entertainment.
Simultaneously, neo-globalization creates significant sectors of unemployed, de-classed and often women-less men. Male street terror and warlordism feeding on this conveniently growing reservoir of outcast men plays a significant role in repressing women’s attempts at self-organization. This is a post-modern horror fitting to the current incarnation of imperialism on steroids.
The radical Right internationally is characterized by a united front of men of various threatened classes trying to protect or augment their role—their share of power—within capitalist patriarchy. From the perspective of many of these men, it’s better to die than to lose ownership of “their” women.
Broad support for the Right arises among men who live in traditional family settings and who feel endangered by the encroaching changes in capitalism. But the rebellious Right, and especially its rising fascist vanguard, is also populated by men who have basically already lost that battle. Within the warlord armies of the hard Right are whole populations of women-less men, such as the mujihedeen flowing out of the madrassas of Pakistan. Because of the chaos and radical reorganization of post-modern society, these men have little prospect of becoming the patriarchs of traditional, stable families. Many have hardly any “normal” contact with women at all. Instead, they have become outlaws in search of male power, dreaming of warrior empires where they can take whatever they want by force, especially women. At times, this fascistic fantasy becomes reality: post-modern world politics offers them chances to rule neighborhoods, whole cities (as in Iraq), or countries (like Afghanistan and Iran). There are endless opportunities to dominate, rape and terrorize women on a local scale.
The struggle around globalization currently raging between the rebellious Right and Western imperialism pivots around which men get to control women, and how. It’s no coincidence that gender figures so prominently in the unfolding of the dramatic confrontations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world. It will probably play a central role in every struggle over neo- globalization to come.
The approaching tidal wave should alert us. In country after country, right wing men are re-enslaving women as a subhuman class….This is the largest mass political movement in the world by far. (Butch Lee, The Military Strategy of Women and Children, 2003.)
In the U.S., Too
Neo-globalization impacts classes in various ways depending on concrete factors; it affects the colonial world differently from the metropolis. Yet there are class shifts generating rebellious right-wing trends almost everywhere. For example, U.S. society is undergoing a hollowing-out process involving the downsizing of its middle classes, including its bloated labor aristocracies. This has produced a large and sometimes militant resentment on the Right.
The New Deal is definitely off: global capital doesn’t need it any more, and the Left can’t do anything to get it back. The social, economic and political functions once usefully provided to imperialism by subsidized middle-class white populations are being gradually exported around the world. In place of an American New Deal, there is now a new, more flexible “distributed” multicultural web of middle classes being raised up in internationally to administer empire, develop and implement technology, organize production, enforce social stratification and soak up consumer goods.
This upsets millions of white people in the U.S. whose special way of life was supposedly guaranteed by the old social contract. It also upsets some non-white Americans, who see their chance for a piece of the American Dream evaporating along with the Dream itself. Many Americans understand neo-globalization as nothing less than betrayal by their own national capitalists, and they are prepared to fight to bring back some version of their old way of life.
One theme latent in the right-wing critique is that the older, “nation-based” capitalism was somehow healthier, freer and more caring than the new world order. From the standpoint of oppressed classes and peoples this is absurd. Nothing is ever likely to surpass the atrocities perpetrated in North America and around the world by “old style” U.S.-based capitalism. But among the millions of Americans who see their privileges dissipating, the real issue is that the capitalists used to be more loyal—loyal to their home societies generally, and to white middle-class American men specifically.
This feeling of betrayal constitutes an opportunity for the North American Left to discuss politics on a very concrete level with a lot of people. But as we have seen, this type of social discontent also constitutes a major opening for the populist Right, including the fascist right.
This danger is very much evident in current mass politics. What most of the people marching in U.S. anti-war demonstrations are most disturbed about is not the suffering of the Iraqi people. (How many demonstrated against the hundreds of thousands of deaths, mostly child deaths, caused by pre-war sanctions in Iraq?) Rather, their protest is aimed at trying to halt the relentless undermining
of middle-class life in the metropolis, which the Bush regime’s costly and “reckless” international policy seems calculated to accelerate.
A letter from Garth Talbott, a disenchanted soldier serving in Iraq, expresses this growing sentiment in a particularly honest way:
Didn’t we secure the oil fields? Aren’t we a capitalist country anymore? Can’t we sidestep OPEC now? Can’t we at least, somewhere in the midst of deception, half truths and outright lies, catch an honest break?
If we’re going to fight for a cause that isn’t known, get fired on by our own weapons, and get screwed out of our benefits, then at least for God’s sake give us something concrete to say we fought for—even if it’s as trivial as being able to fill our gas tanks for 98 cents a gallon.
(Chico News and Review 10/29/03)
The North American hard Right’s message of entitlement and anti-globalization is very much in tune with this sentiment. The rebellious white Right demands a return to the “good” old days, to the “natural” order of things—including stable colonial privilege and a familiar gender hierarchy.
We got a taste of how this looks in the fascist David Duke’s notorious column praising antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan:
Cindy Sheehan has a lot to be angry about. Her son was betrayed and his life lost by government officials who treasonably created and continue a war for Israel and the Jewish supremacist agenda rather than that of the United States.
We stand with Cindy Sheehan and the memory of her son which should spur all truly patriotic Americans to demand an end to this war for Israel, this war against America, the Iraq War.
It is not Iraq’s borders that need protecting, it is the American border with Mexico!
Support our troops…bring them home!
Thankfully, Sheehan repudiated Duke’s ugly brew of antiwar anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant venom. But we’d be naive to think that every “Gold Star” mother will do the same. Duke’s argument is deeply rooted in American culture.
Since the “premature fascism” of the Oklahoma City bombing, the American militia movement and the anti-government fundamentalism that spawned Timothy McVeigh has been regrouping, and some of it is professionalizing and going deeper underground. But it certainly hasn’t lost influence in America. On the contrary, its basic precepts have steadily migrated into the broader Right and mainstream conservatism. The evident failure of the neocon’s war on Iraq is accelerating this process rapidly.
A right-wing anti-war viewpoint has been adopted by widely read pundits like Pat Buchanan, Paul Craig Roberts and Charley Reese. It’s also been taken up by many right-wing libertarians, who see U.S. overseas adventurism as a Big Government assault on a free and sacred way of life at home. And many forward-thinking conservative politicians with their fingers on the pulse of middle-class discontent are also experimenting with this line of argument.
Here is part of the March 8, 2003 anti-war resignation letter of Jack Walters, chairman of the Boone County, Missouri Republican Central Committee—which is less inspiring than it is chilling:
What we are about to do in the Middle East is abhorrent to me. It is made doubly so since this is a contrived and fraudulently justified war with hidden objectives. The coming mass slaughter of innocents, the harm our own troops are being placed in, and the potential for wars on several fronts have brought home to me the sobering realization that by remaining Boone County Republican Chairman, I would be giving tacit approval to this imminent war, and tacit approval to the belligerent and reckless language coming from the White House. The safety and integrity of our country outweighs politics….I am resigning because I cannot support the Republican position on this war. I only sought the position of Chairman originally in the hope that I could recruit God-fearing, thinking, pro-life believers in our Constitution to stand for office.
Much what Walters says could have been written by a leftist. It was posted, in fact, on the left-wing IndyMedia web site as a positive example of growing antiwar sentiment. But Walters’ criticism is from the Right, not the Left. He hopes to “restore” America to its Christian fundamentalist, patriarchal roots.
The U.S. Left has been reticent about challenging this kind of mass politics directly. (This is not too surprising for the white Left, which has historically been notoriously susceptible to the lure of right wing populism.) Leftists want to agitate about the “domestic costs” of the war, and “support” young people trapped in the U.S. military, but we don’t know how to distinguish our appeals from what the Right’s. On some level the Left is aware, at least intellectually, that right-wing populist movements, often led by fascists, are a growing power overseas. But we don’t know what to do about that. And we don’t want to think that it could happen here, despite the fact that “betrayed” privilege has always been the mother’s milk of the radical right.
This confusion is evident in recent U.S. protests against globalization. Appeals for solidarity with the Third World mix freely with protectionism and defense of privilege. Trying to cut through the fog, J. Sakai writes about the class character of the anti-WTO coalition that demonstrated in Seattle. (This protest was widely hailed because of the participation of longshoremen and other unions, which gave it a special seal of approval among leftists.)
The average West Coast longshoreman earns about $60,000-80,000 a year. It’s not unusual for highly-skilled longshoremen or clerks who push overtime to hit $125,000-150,000 per year. With income guarantees and a full benefits package. This is the kind of income that lawyers, accountants, corporate middle managers, and successful small businessmen make. And union longshoremen have the vacation homes, boats, multiple cars, stock portfolios or rental properties that are common for the u.s. middle classes….
It is the old middle classes of the imperialist center that are in motion here politically [in the anti-WTO movement]. Commercial family farmers; small retailers; the labor aristocracy of highly-paid craftsmen and unionized industrial workers; that stratum of intellectuals (more than a few of them liberal or “socialist”) tied tit-to-mouth to the old welfare state. Plus the marginalized white lumpen-petitbourgeoisie, bitter at their social exile from paradise.
These are middle classes whose privileged but also precarious existence is bound up with successful national imperialism, and who look for security towards their old national economy and the insular national culture of the “good old days”. In a word, who deep down consider themselves rightfully part of the capitalist winners, not the oppressed “losers”. (Don’t forget that Tim McVeigh tried to be a career Army officer, while his comrade-in-arms Terry Nichols was a failed farm owner).
(“Aryan Politics and Fighting the W.T.O.,” 2002.)
That’s why Patrick Buchanan felt comfortable speaking from the steps of the Teamster building during the large anti-globalization demonstration in Washington D.C. That’s also why neo-fascist leaders heaped praise on the Seattle protests for their militant opposition to the new world order.
Since the Left is in denial about right wing populism’s significance, we tend to accommodate it in all kinds of united fronts. We seem to operate on the unexamined assumption that any enemy of globalizing capitalism is good, that all oppositional roads lead to the Left. In fact, when rightists oppose U.S. imperialism, the Left often interprets this as a sort of validation; a sign of how correct we were all along. (“If even a conservative like Robert Byrd can see that the war is wrong, then we must really be on the verge of great things.”)
As we see with the demand for “unconditional support” for the Iraqi “resistance,” some U.S. leftists have decided to go further and adopt parts of the Right’s program. This has happened in a variety of political arenas. Some (supposedly left-wing) environmentalists have agitated against immigrants and turned their backs on people with AIDS. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski is considered a role model in certain anarchist circles. Some “race traitor” theorists have glorified the right-wing militia movement, and written sympathetically about Timothy McVeigh. Workers World Party and other leftists (including influential intellectuals like Michael Parenti) have campaigned in support of the genocidal warlord Slobodan Milosevic as well as the despotic North Korean regime.
Both Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein have been the subject of mendacious “rehabilitation” campaigns cobbled together by leftists who think that anybody who is attacked by the U.S. must be progressive. (One of the most disturbing examples of this is the attempt to argue that Baathist fascism in Iraq was a positive force for women.)
The corrupt merger of Left and Right is more advanced in Europe and other parts of the world than it is in the U.S. Yet the bulk of the Left here habitually treats right wing populism with kid gloves, avoiding anything that seems “sectarian,” especially in public. Furthermore, North American leftists display an amazing capacity for rationalizing away practices of patriarchal authoritarianism, violence against women, state repression, forced conscription of children, drug-gangsterism, and macho posturing on the part of any world force that declares itself to be “anti-imperialist.” This isn’t an encouraging sign for the future.
Historically, when right wing populism is strong, it is perfectly normal to have crossover between Left and Right. Mussolini was originally a militant leader of the Italian socialists. The Nazis recruited among political leftists and within what had originally been left-leaning subcultures. In East Germany, rebellious anarchists and rebellious neo-nazi skinheads switched sides regularly. Former Soviet “communists” are now Russian fascists. Today, with the Right already leading powerful mass movements in the world, with fascists and other hard-core rightists in the metropolis infiltrating struggles formerly “owned” by the Left, with the violent Right here becoming more sophisticated and better organized, with the ground already prepared by widespread right-wing populism, we ignore right-wing “anti-imperialism” at our peril.
Why So Unprepared?
Why is so much of the Left, here and internationally, so completely unprepared to confront the danger posed by the rebellious Right today? Why are people who claim to stand for human liberation so tolerant of right wing populism, even after seeing the atrocities, the corpses, the enslavement of women, the shattered countries vulnerable to imperial plunder that have resulted from Left-Right “unity” in other places?
There are many answers, on many levels. For instance, we can understand how leftists who are heavily invested in an older anti-imperialist paradigm can get stuck in it. Having invested so much in that model, they are reluctant to cut it loose, even when it is rendered obsolete by world events. (This has happened to leftists at other nodal points in history.)
We can also understand that criticizing right-wing Islamist fundamentalism while the fundamentalists are fighting imperialism turns on a lot of caution lights. For generations, anti colonial movements have been forced to jealously guard their independence from those “supporters,” especially in the imperialist metropolis, who want to influence or control struggles of oppressed peoples for their own opportunistic purposes.
But to understand why leftists conciliate the anti-imperialist Right is not to excuse them for doing so. To put it plainly: The Left as a whole is betraying women; in the process it is betraying the proletariat. And the fundamental reason for this is that the Left is male dominated.
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems incredible that so many anti-imperialists actually believed that we could defeat the most powerful capitalists in the world without women’s full leadership and power in Left movements. Although the post-WWII anti-colonial struggles provided dramatic openings for women’s emancipation (which women certainly tried to take advantage of), the breakthrough to women-centered politics never took place. And after recent decades of defeat and back-pedaling, male leaders and male politics are firmly in control in the international Left. Not only are the most popular anti-imperialist “heroes” men, but many of them are partriarchal authoritarians.
Today, while the radical Right and the imperialists battle it out over ownership of women, the Left still acts as if it’s perfectly normal for men to represent women’s interests in the fight against imperialism. By default, the Left debates world events in terms of imperialism versus anti-imperialist men. This plays completely into the Right’s hands.
When embattled Iraqi women argue that patriarchal fundamentalism and imperialism must be fought simultaneously, they are basically ignored. As anti-imperialist women were in Iran when they resisted gender apartheid. As Afghan women are when they insist that imperialism and fundamentalism are equal dangers. Never mind that in much of Iraq, women can’t even leave their houses because of terrorism—from “anti imperialist” right-wing men as well as from the imperialists and their thugs.
Whoever questions the prevalence of this “see no evil” male attitude would do well to review the leaflets and documents of prominent North American Left groups opposing U.S. policy in Iraq. Early in the occupation, most of these groups refused to even mention the significant threat clerical fascism posed to Iraqi women and society. Instead, they typically labored to make Western imperialism the sole enemy while praising a (studiously undifferentiated) Iraqi “resistance” for fighting back. As this position has become more and more untenable, Left publications have started talking about the “violence” Iraqi women and secular forces face and throwing in an occasional mention about right-wing fundamentalism, always taking care to blame everything on Western imperialism. It’s particularly instructive to contrast the direct, uncompromising anti-fundamentalist public stands of leading Iraqi women’s rights activists with the carefully-diluted quotes that filter down in the Left press here.
What is even more amazing is that there is a steady stream of leftists interviewing, touring with and having photo opportunities with secular Iraqi militants—while ignoring how those militants analyze events in Iraq.
One of the most sought-after groups for solidarity tours and interviews is the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), founded in June 2003. OWFI is leading valiant organizing efforts by anti-occupation/anti-fundamentalist women in the war zone. Some of their activities include organizing neighborhood councils to combat violence against women, running a women’s shelter in Baghdad, holding street rallies demanding women’s rights, and publishing a newspaper called “Al Mousawat” (“Equality”).
But OWFI does not agree with the politics of the Western antiwar movement. They explicitly criticize “those who justify Islamic terrorism with the familiar 1970’s religious-nationalist and Third World-ist ‘anti-imperialism.’” OWFI opposes “political Islam” generally. An OWFI leader, Nadia Mahmood, says that Iraqi women are “caught between two programs”—the program of the Anglo-American invaders, and the program of reactionary Islamist forces (each of which she calls “terrorists”). She and other leading OWFI cadre insist on the need to fight both dangers simultaneously, and they disagree sharply with Iraqi Left forces that try to make deals with one reactionary force against the other.
The OWFI activists, supposedly a source of inspiration for the Western Left, see the Islamist armed “resistance” as a second “pole of terrorism” which is destroying their country from one side while Western imperialism destroys it from the other. They say this at every opportunity: It is their political line, which is shared by leading militants in the secular Iraqi trade unions, by organizers in the Union of the Unemployed, etc. Where is this analysis in Western leftists’ “report-backs” on their meetings with the Iraqi militants? Is it given careful attention as part of the antiwar movement’s solidarity rhetoric? Has it become an important issue of debate on the Left? No way.
In fact, when SOWFI, a multiracial committee of women in solidarity with OWFI, was formed in the New York area, Islamists on radio station WBAI smeared them as “racist”. This “progressive” station then completely refused to let SOWFI respond. The rest of the Left did its best to ignore the whole thing.
It should be obvious that when the Left takes this blinkered, male-centric stance towards right-wing anti-imperialist struggles, inside or outside the metropolis, we are objectively entering into a united front with the Right. And we are doing so on conditions wholly advantageous to the hard Right, which has no compunction at all about enforcing its will on women—or on leftists, for that matter. Left-wing anti-imperialism will have to do better than this to survive on imperialism’s new terrain.
As for the arguments about “respecting other cultures” in their attitudes towards women, we have heard them before in Iran and Afghanistan, and they have proven their mendacity and hypocrisy. They are excuses that men make for other men (even if some women go along with them). The Left in the imperial metropolis isn’t doing any favors for the women of Iraq, or those living in any fascist-infested part of the world, by ignoring the dangers they face from the fundamentalist Right, or by tolerating right-wing “anti imperialism” in our own movements. In reality, this is a particularly ugly form of metropolitan opportunism, which siphons whatever small support we have to offer away from those who need and deserve it most and funnels it to one of their deadliest oppressors. There can be no serious Left argument that oppressing, enslaving or physically attacking women is any sort of cultural “right.” Nor is their any legitimate claim to “self-determination” for slavemasters.
It’s time to acknowledge a prominent feature of the neo-colonial landscape: Rightists and reactionaries of all sorts increasingly adopt the language and forms of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle in order to seek legitimacy, protect their turf and eliminate opposition. And if we can’t talk about the difference between a fascist gang and a liberation struggle, how are we to accomplish anything?
Both Anti-Imperialist and Anti-Fascist
It is in the colonial world, of course, not the metropolis, that the question of how to relate to right-wing “anti-imperialists” has the most immediate consequence and is most explosive, and that is where it is being posed most sharply for leftists.
Crucially, there are parts of the international Left that have survived and evolved in the free-fire zones of the war between Western imperialism and the fundamentalist Right, and which are determined to fight both evils at the same time.
As we have seen, OWFI and other Iraqi activists are taking up this two-front struggle, against overwhelming odds. Iranian leftists are also regrouping and organizing to overthrow the right wing Islamic fundamentalist regime in their country. Needless to say, they have little sympathy for the old “Left-Right united front against imperialism.” The Iranian regime is deeply unpopular, and has been confronted with widespread protests in recent years. Many of these have been led by young women; veil-burning is one of the characteristic protest activities. As Ali Javadi, an Iranian activist told Against the Current, “In some sense, the current revolution in Iran could be a female revolution and, in fact, has all the signs of being one.”
Perhaps the most familiar example (at least in the West) of a Third World Left initiative that fights both imperialism and right-wing religious fundamentalism is the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. For decades, this organization has resisted not only Soviet and U.S. attacks, but also, simultaneously, the clerical fascists. Today they continue to organize—aboveground where possible and underground where necessary. Through a remarkable effort, they have pulled together schools and literacy programs, survival industries for women, hospitals and clinics and wave after wave of agitation for women’s rights and against the enemies of their people. They persist in their dangerous work in spite of the fact that they get relatively insignificant support from the male-dominated international Left.
RAWA has openly stated that opposing imperialism without also opposing fundamentalism is doomed.
We believe that any and all manifestation of deference and submissiveness on the part of certain social and political groupings and individuals and literary circles vis-à-vis the fundamentalists is abject cowardice, and assert that perpetrators of such cowardice are bound to ultimately reveal themselves as accomplices in treason with fundamentalist traitors. We shall therefore struggle unrelentingly to expose all such collaborators.
The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) hereby reiterates that only decisive and uncompromising struggle against fundamentalism is the key to the solution of the Afghan conundrum and the cessation of foreign interference in our country. We call upon all pro-freedom and pro-democracy Afghan organizations and individuals to wake up to the burden of the great sorrow of our people, to cast despair overboard, to consider any and all deals and compromises with the fundamentalist hangmen as high treason and to rally to mobilize the masses for the formation of a broad anti-fundamentalist front geared to exposing and ejecting religious fascists and establishing a society based on democratic values in Afghanistan.
(“On the 6th Black Anniversary of the Swarming of Fundamentalist Criminals Into Kabul,” 4/98)
What’s particularly notable in RAWA’s understanding of imperialism is how they link imperialist interference in their country to the warlordism and fascism of right wing men. This isn’t abstract theory for them, but a lived reality.
It is well known that the Western imperialists helped create, arm and organize the reactionary warlords of Afghanistan in order to weaken their Soviet rival. It was fine with Western capital that these men destroyed much of the country and enslaved its women. In fact, it was fine with them when one of these vicious groupings, the Taliban, took over Afghanistan completely. Fine, that is, as long as they played by Western capital’s rules.
But the Taliban, like the rest of the rebellious Right, had its own independent reactionary program. When they pursued their independent agenda too far, and it became a threat to Western interests, the imperialists slammed them down (destroying even more of the country in the process). This new war against their own former client led them to fund and sponsor an alternate group of clerical fascists and warlords, the Northern Alliance. These criminals, who now run most of Afghanistan, include some of the worst slavemasters, acid-throwers and torturers in the country.
Amazingly, the Taliban, despite having its gangster “anti-imperialism” seriously weakened, still has the ability to negotiate with Western imperialism while simultaneously engaged in armed struggle against it. They are living proof that the religious fascists of Afghanistan will do anything at all to maximize their turf and power. Despite their anti-imperialist rhetoric, they are determined players within the current world capitalist matrix. And the imperialists understand perfectly—it’s just normal male politics. If a suitable deal can be struck, fine. If not, then “bring it on!”
RAWA realized starting in the 1970s that it is a deadly mistake for freedom-loving women to permit fascistic men to pretend that they are fighting for national freedom. During the war against the Soviet Union, RAWA made every attempt to build a secular, democratic liberation struggle, refusing to moderate their anti-fundamentalist stance. They actually had little choice: fundamentalist men were attacking and murdering RAWA activists because they stood for women’s rights. Despite their best efforts, the secular resistance was marginalized and crushed.
RAWA argues that the clerical fascists have done nothing but weaken Afghanistan as a nation, leaving the country open to continued imperialist interference. Militant as RAWA is in their opposition to both Soviet and U.S. imperialism, they have never viewed the fundamentalist warlords as part of a united front for national liberation, but rather as a murderous enemy.
There are two ways to look at RAWA’s hard-earned analysis. One way is to argue that they are “putting the cart before the horse.” RAWA’s desire to bring forward the battle against religious fascism is understandable, we might say, but misguided. “Sophisticated” leftists know that the fundamentalists be attacked only after imperialism is defeated. That, in fact, is exactly what most of the Western Left is used to saying. But don’t we already know where that road leads?
The other way to look at RAWA’s analysis, and practice, is to treat it as a breakthrough in left-wing anti-imperialism, and as an opening to a new women-centered politics. Maybe RAWA’s experience confronting the sharp edge of contemporary neo-colonialism is something we should learn from.
Maybe we can’t postpone the fight against fundamentalism and right-wing populism until “after” we defeat imperialism. Maybe the Left will never defeat the current incarnation of imperialism until we learn how to destroy clerical fascism and its agenda for the enslavement of women. Maybe it’s time to address the fact that a growing populist Right, led by an armed and dangerous fascist vanguard, is working to hijack anti-imperialism and anti-Western struggle away from the Left. (And doing a rather good job of it so far.) Maybe we should really listen to the women of RAWA, and to the other anti-fascist Left forces being forged in the world’s battle zones.
In Europe and North America, some leftists—mostly women—are listening. Even though most of the metropolitan Left doesn’t treat it as a priority, feminists and others on the Left are supporting organizations like RAWA and OWFI. Some are also struggling to develop a new politics of anti-imperialism that explicitly repudiates male domination. Radical thinkers like Marie Mies (Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labor), Christina Thurmer-Rohr (Vagabonding: Feminist Theory Cut Loose) and Butch Lee (Night-Vision: Illuminating War and Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain, with Red Rover; Jailbreak out of History: the Re-Biography of Harriet Tubman) have tried to advance and modernize women-centered revolutionary politics in the metropolis.
Meanwhile, day by day and in full view of the world, the beat goes on in Iraq. Imperialist war criminals slaughter “anti-imperialist” Baath Party cadres, domestic and international Islamic fascists and local warlords, with absolutely no heed for civilian “collateral damage.” For their own part, reactionary “resistance” fighters, virtually all men devoted to brutal patriarchy, blow up whole city blocks—also with no consideration for civilians who get in the way. Iraqi women, largely pushed off the streets and, increasingly, under the veil, wonder which side will win, and what their fate will be, one way or the other. The small, heroic groups of militants who try to represent women’s own interests in Iraq do their organizing under the most extreme pressures and terrorist threats from both sides.
If there were a strong international Left today, perhaps we would take advantage of the contradiction between the two reactionary camps of modern world capitalism that are at war today. Wouldn’t it be good to let the imperialists and the fascists hammer each other while we built something radical and women-centered and survivable? Perhaps that’s actually starting to happen, on a small scale, where women have decided that they’ve had enough of being fought over by greedy vicious men. Perhaps RAWA is such a start, or OWFI. But this kind of politics certainly isn’t a major force in the world yet. And it definitely isn’t high on the agenda of the international Left or, for that matter, of the anti-war movements in the metropolis.
We live in the early days of a new capitalist era. Today, the Left is weak, the insurgent hard Right is stronger, and the imperialists are strongest. That’s the world balance of forces, whether we like it or not. At the heart of all the contradictions among these three forces is a contest over the fate of the proletariat, especially proletarian women. These women do not yet have a strong, independent, armed, organized presence capable of confronting global oppression on their own terms. That is precisely why the Left is weak: for better or worse, proletarian women’s future is the Left’s future.
The objective conditions for a radical new wave of freedom struggle are growing steadily as the old secrets of patriarchy are forced out of the closet; as class differences between men and women become more obvious; as millions of women are gathered into the heart of a reconfigured proletariat. If and when these women in their hundreds of millions break through the male blockade, entering the world political struggle not as part of somebody else’s agenda but acting directly on their own behalf, they will become the main force of a new international Left, one that will strike fear among fascists and imperialists alike. Isn’t it time that the Western Left started figuring out realistic ways to advance that process, instead of living in perilous denial and grasping at false male dreams of glory?
(Acknowledgement: This article reflects a lot of discussion among activists. It is based substantially on hard work and hard thinking by many others. In particular, it has been strongly influenced by the theoretical insights of Butch Lee and J. Sakai.)