by Bromma (March 2003)
[This paper contains shorthand summaries of several ideas relevant to the current world situation. Based substantially on published and unpublished writings by other people and on informal discussions, its aim is to promote debate.]
The political/military hurricane swirling around Iraq, coupled with the 9/11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan, confirms that old left-wing paradigms of capitalist rule and colonialism have been smashed beyond repair. As we brace for what looks to be a challenging and violent future, it’s crucial that we do our best to perceive the outlines of capitalism’s new form as well as the dynamic class forces unleashed by this new incarnation of our enemy. Otherwise we risk not only political obsolescence but possible physical elimination.
Perhaps this will seem melodramatic to some. But the current situation is dangerous well beyond what most metropolitan radicals acknowledge. Not only is Western imperialism on a colossal rampage, determined to remake and commodify every aspect of our world. But, in addition, this period is characterized by a tremendous international upsurge of neo-fascist and right-wing populism, which has already eclipsed left-wing revolt in size and power- especially street and military power.
This upsurge is no mere tool of imperialism, but rather tends to confront Western corporate capital as a militant opposition force. It has already engaged imperialism in armed struggle on several fronts, and has succeeded in thwarting key ruling class initiatives. War or economic collapse could quickly accelerate what are now only emerging trends. And therefore radical leftists who cling to antique forms of anti-colonialism and cartoonish versions of class struggle, risk actual liquidation if they are caught unprepared in the crossfire of two superior forces- both of whom hate us.
A NEW FORM OF CAPITALISM
Everyone agrees that capitalism is “globalizing.” As one comrade puts it:
Capitalism has become a global mode of production and not merely a collection of competing national economies.The exploitation of labor and natural resources is accomplished through processes that are supranational. Major mechanisms for the extraction and realization of value, e.g. the capital and labor markets, are not confined within the existing nation-state structures and are in increasing tension with these structures. (Don Hamerquist)
Globalization expands capitalism by means of extension, intensification and recombination. That is, it is extending into all remaining unexploited territories, from the remotest regions of Central Asia to the Lacandon rain forest. It is also intensifying its commodification of all areas of existence, including air, water, the airwaves, plant and animal species and human genetic material. Finally, it is recombining formerly fixed economic factors–agriculture and manufacturing, labor forces, consumer markets, plus old and new classes, races, genders and nationalities. A central focus of globalization is the reconfiguration of the means of exploiting proletarian women. (Previous patterns, based on traditional patriarchal family life and family farming, are in rapid decline.) Globalization is accompanied by new technologies, especially biological and information technologies, that allow capitalism to move faster, farther, and more flexibly.
It’s critical to understand that these changes in capitalism are not just incremental or evolutionary in nature. They represent a profound qualitative transformation of economic relations and, as a consequence, of the old class order. This is hard to swallow for many long time activists, who have invested everything in understanding and functioning within the logic of the previous paradigm. But it’s hard to argue with the facts. The destruction of traditional agriculture, where most of the world’s population used to be found, is really happening. Whole populations are migrating like never before. The rules of colonial domination have changed radically. Our old assumptions, the things we took for granted, simply do not explain events in front of us.
Under the old economic and political paradigm, the pivot of all change was the contradiction between imperialism and the struggles for national liberation that swept the globe. This contradiction determined or influenced all the others. It was within the national liberation struggles, or in spaces cleared out by those struggles, that women reached farthest for freedom, that proletarian organizing, culture and politics reached their highest evolution, that socialist ideology flourished. Third World anti-colonial struggles, rooted among billions of people, defeated imperialism in battle after battle. And threatened to win the war. (Because of chauvinist blindness, many metropolitan leftists never grasped the centrality of national liberation struggles. This makes the transition to another paradigm all the more confusing. But it doesn’t make it less urgent.)
The anti-colonial struggle presented a brutally direct challenge to capitalism: change or perish as a system. And capitalism, always wickedly creative, changed. Globalization embodies modern imperialism’s decisive victory over the post-WWII wave of anti-colonial struggle. The world capitalist system has transcended the old paradigm, and now functions on a hIgher level.
This phenomenon is visible everywhere, but nowhere more prominently than in the decay and corruption of the formerly socialist states–Russia, China, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Albania, North Korea, etc., etc., and the recolonization scores of states who won their national independence in the post-WWII period. It’s also reflected in the politically ambiguous, and sometimes downright reactionary nature of many movements or struggles claiming to be anti colonial today.
More to the point, the changing character of capitalism has set new classes in motion, and changed the prospects for existing classes. New class contradictions have come to the forefront, initiating political change.
NEW CLASS REALITIES
Among working classes, rapid shifts of fortune are becoming commonplace. Whole industries arrive, exploit, and leave in a generation or less. The ethnic, national and gender composition of the labor force changes constantly. In the US, for instance, the ruling class is expanding the use of Latino workers (as well as Latinos of other classes). While discrimination and exploitation are widespread, there are sectors of immigrant Latinos who are improving their standard of living in the North and gaining in confidence and visibility within US society.
At the same time, there has been a massive displacement of the African American working class from industry after industry. Some of the jobs have gone elsewhere, some have disappeared completely, and some industries now exploit other populations of workers.
We should think about this change and what it implies. African Americans were once Western capital’s most profitable (and exploited) workforce, situated at the nodal points of manufacturing and agriculture. This location, and the working class culture that went along with it, made Black workers the most consistent source of proletarian politics in North America for hundreds of years. Now Western capital looks overseas for its greatest profits. Furthermore, it is determined to never again let rebellious Black workers surround the chokeholds of economic activity, where they can threaten to bring down the ruling class, as they did in the 1960s and 70s.
On a world scale this is one small example of globalization’s power and logic. But on a human scale it’s no small change for Black people–it’s part of the ongoing genocidal attack on their peoplehood. And, it represents a big change for all classes in the U.S., because the whole social system was organized substantially around the exploitation of Black labor. For instance, the white classes that were once maintained in order to control African Americans are now on shaky ground–their fate is locked together, as it has always been, with those they were meant to confine and control. These changes account for much of the dizzying transformation of US politics in the last generation.
Around the world, transformations on this order of magnitude are happening. Not just among working classes, either. As part of the modern neo-colonial order, comprador classes have been created or expanded in the colonial world. National and regional elites are being integrated into global economic and political networks.
Moreover, new consumerist middle classes and labor aristocracies have been created all over the world, providing imperialism with a less centralized, more “distributed” system of privilege and complicity.
Today in even the poorest countries, there are classes of businesspeople, social service administrators, druglords and professionals whose way of life is virtually the same as that of their counterparts in the metropolis, right down to the choice of music and cars. Administering empire is no longer the white man’s burden–at least in most times and most places. Former national liberation parties and Ivy-League-educated, home-grown dictators implement the loan-sharking directives of the World Bank and IMF better than any colonial functionary ever could. Just as, in the ghettos and barrios of the US, the “occupying army” of white cops has been largely replaced by an army of Black and Latin social service workers, cops, prison guards and warlordistic street gangs.
To accompany this change, the ideology of bourgeois multiculturalism has gained the solid endorsement of the corporate ruling class. Race, national, gender and religious chauvinism have hardly diminished–in many ways they have sharpened within the chaos of neocolonialism. But they exist in a more fluid setting, so that no one population can count on being at the top of the heap indefinitely. (One moment you’re sitting in a cafe in Belgrade sipping espresso and making fun of Albanians; the next moment the street is in flames, you have no heat or water and your leader is a war criminal.) The bourgeoisie reserves the right to use or manipulate populations flexibly.
While some labor forces and middle classes are on the rise, then, many others are hitting the wall. In areas that Western corporate capitalism is newly penetrating, local farmers, traders, political bosses, shopkeepers, small industrialists, cultural and religious leaders, etc. are under intense pressure. They are being run over by the juggernaught of integrated global commodity production and exchange, which comes supplied with a potent superstructure of global finance, culture and legal relationships–a whole damn New World Order in the making.
In the metropolis, privileged white populations are finding their grip on privilege increasingly precarious. Imperialism has less need for white overseers and foremen; less desire to subsidize a privileged way of life for hundreds of millions of people from marginally profitable (or unprofitable) classes in the metropolis. Anxious white settlers in the US can look over their shoulder at what happened to their settler brethren in South Africa and Zimbabwe, while struggling to accept the fact that they must now obey orders from Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice and Clarence Thomas. (Even when those orders are dismantling their way of life.) Hotshot software programmers in Silicon Valley are standing on unemployment lines while equally-hot computer tech professionals in India pick up the slack.
There are still struggles for national freedom in the world, and struggles against colonialism. But they are no longer unified into a single worldwide anti-imperialist movement. And they are increasingly constrained by new realities. More independent countries are emerging out of the centrifugal breakup of old states like the Soviet Union and Indonesia–often under reactionary and chauvinist leadership–than are being freed through Left-led liberation struggles. There is in fact no model of self-reliant national freedom galvanizing millions of people like there was at the time of the Vietnamese Revolution.
At the more modest level at which resistance exists now, combatting colonialism in its new form requires experimentation and real creativity, such as that displayed by the Zapatistas, and that which is fermenting in zones of chaos in places such as Argentina and India. Of course, other, less benign forces are fermenting in these same zones.
Understanding the class structure of the emerging global order will likely be the work of a generation or more. A definitive understanding will only come out of the practice of a new movement that has not yet emerged onto the center stage of world politics. But in order for radicals to find basic orientation in a confusing time–and to survive–we will have to study the fundamental class interests of the major global forces in this period without the blinders of the last period’s orthodoxy. Removing those blinders will permit us to see how high the stakes are, to shed illusions about peaceful change, and to abandon all claims of easy victory, all phony united fronts, all conciliation of right-wing populism.
Here are some hypotheses about the current class conjuncture, with particular application to war on Iraq and the anti-war movement.
1. THE WESTERN RULING CLASSES ARE NEWLY-POWERFUL, BUT ARE ALSO POLITICALLY UNSTEADY AND STRATEGICALLY UNCERTAIN. In the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, they know that there is a finite window of opportunity for them to consolidate control over Eurasia and implement a viable form of global rule. But looming in the wings is the possibility of a challenge from China or a coalition of non-Western capital. And it’s possible that they will not be able to manage the chaos they have unleashed. There are currently major arenas of conflict that are interfering with business, such as the “Eurasian Balkans.”
Capital needs a political and cultural superstructure appropriate to the dramatic changes in capitalist production, but the process of developing one is filled with conflict and peril. While globalization has dramatically expanded capitalism, it has not stabilized it. Instead, one crisis follows another and the devastation of human potentials and natural resources proceeds at an accelerating pace. (Don Hamerquist)
Western capital’s parasitic home economies are unhealthy. The ruling class badly needs to expand its global reach. Yet Western capital has been largely unable to penetrate the Islamic world, especially Central Asia, which is vital both geostrategically and in terms of resources. (For a concise overview of post-Soviet ruling class strategic concerns it’s useful to look at “The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives,” written by Zbigniew Brzezinsky, former National Security Advisor for Carter and trustee of the Trilateral Commission. Basic Books, 1997.)
2. GLOBALIZATION HAS CREATED THE CONDITIONS FOR POWERFUL NEO-FASCIST MOVEMENTS. These are essentially reactionary united fronts of male classes who are disenfranchised or endangered under the domination of global capital. Or, to use J. Sakai’s definition, they are “revolutionary movement[s] of the right against both the bourgeoisie and the left, of middle class and declassed men, that arise in zones of protracted crisis.” Many of these movements are conscious that they are fundamentally incompatible with corporate globalization. While not themselves anti-capitalist, they are diametrically opposed to Western capital’s control of “their” resources–their women, their labor force, their markets, their trade routes, their resources, their privileges. Therefore they may adopt armed struggle against the state or corporate targets, and a rebellious, “liberationist” rhetoric.
PAN-ISLAMIC FASCISM–NOT SADDAM HUSSEIN, NOT THE LEFT, NOT THE “ANTI GLOBALIZATION MOVEMENT”–CURRENTLY IS THE BIGGEST IMPEDIMENT TO GLOBAL IMPERIALISM’S ATTEMPT TO IMPLEMENT A PROFITABLE NEW WORLD ORDER as it struggles to consolidate control of Eurasia. Although arising fundamentally out of internal contradictions, pan-Islamic fascism was boosted by two bourgeois policy actions. The first was to finance and support the systematic elimination of secular radical leadership and organization in Islamic countries. This policy was carried out in the belief that it was preferable for the bourgeoisie to deal with Islamic fundamentalist forces than secular left-wing movements. The clearest model for this policy was Israel’s covert support for Hamas, carried out while viciously repressing secular Palestinian activism. The second action was to bring together, arm, and train Islamic radicals from many countries in the crucible of Afghanistan as part of the campaign to undermine the Soviet Union.
Attempts by Western capital to fully penetrate the Islamic world (or “promote access,” as ruling class theorists like to say) have gone through stages. In previous years, the main strategic tendency involved using careful diplomacy and economic incentives, relying on surrogate regimes and banking on the US’s supposed prestige in its role as “liberator” of Central Asia from the Soviets.
This strategic orientation failed. Western capital completely miscalculated the independence and determination of the pan-Islamic movement it had helped set in motion. When Serbia under Milosevic ignited inflammatory and counterproductive conflict with the Islamic world simply for the sake of his own petty regional ambitions, NATO was used to try to cool things out. That response was too little, too late and too lame to mollify the Muslim street. At any rate, after literally explosive events in country after country, not to mention the 9/11 attacks, the ruling class now realizes it faces a truly formidable opponent with a significant mass base.
The campaign to occupy Iraq is an attempt to penetrate the Islamic world from a different direction, with a different strategy. Specifically it is a step toward taking effective control of two pivotal regional states–Iran and Turkey–as well as toward strengthening or replacing its network of client regimes in the region, which are faced with potential destabilization by the pan-Islamic fascist movement. US imperialism is positioning itself to confront this threat head-on. The Bush regime is intent on safeguarding its control of Middle East oil and expanding that control into Central Asia, which possesses enormous oil and gas resources and critical trade routes. Direct military control of Iraq and Afghanistan, military presence in Turkey, and powerful leverage over Iran would go a long way to insure that outcome–if it works. Possible invasion of Saudi Arabia and Iran are also being openly discussed.
By no means all–or even most of–the fascists emerging under globalization are Islamic fascists. Inside the US and Europe, for instance, the growth of revolutionary neofascist forces has been nourished by resentment over the loss of privileges and security within the middle classes. The neo-fascists, many of them fundamentalist Christians, increasingly believe (correctly) that the ruling class is determined to degrade their “entitlements” while outsourcing “their” jobs. The loss of what they believe to be rightfully theirs has fueled a burning desire to either overthrow corporate rule or, at the least, to organize independent, survivable political/military/cultural communities. Many radicals laugh at these “paranoid survivalists,” but these groups, for all their sick values, are actually operating on a more realistic level than the many Leftists who place their faith in the future of bourgeois legality.
Not all fascism in the world is at war with Western corporate capital, either. One of the largest fascist movements, that connected with Hindu fundamentalism in India, is currently cooperating with the imperialist ruling class in opening that country up to globalization. However, this marriage of convenience may not last, given the rising megalomania of the Hindu nationalist leadership and its drive towards wars of conquest. A fascist India’s main external target would be Pakistan, which plays an indispensable role in advancing Western capital’s interests in Central Asia and beyond.
3. IT IS UNCLEAR HOW UNITED WESTERN CAPITALIST RULING CIRCLES ARE ABOUT THE BUSH GROUP’S AGENDA. The evidence is mixed. The unilateral nature of the aggression against Iraq and the apparent desire to break with international law seem almost calculated to flush decades of careful geostrategic maneuver down the toilet, and open the US up to all kinds of negative blowback. Some sectors of Western capital openly disagree with Bush’s more extreme plans, including his haste to invade Iraq (although not his right to dominate in a more “appropriate” manner). Some major US policy gurus, retired military officers and business executives have criticized the Iraq invasion specifically, and go-it-alone imperialism in general. All this speaks to the possibility that invading Iraq is a sort of rogue operation; a major mistake by neo conservative ideologues that will eventually be repudiated by the ruling class as a whole.
On the other hand, considering what the stakes are, it’s remarkable how muted the overall ruling class reaction to Bush’s program has been, at least in the US. The contrast with the free contempt with which Clinton was treated is striking. The corporate media have been completely craven, failing to conduct exposures of even the most bald-faced lies of the administration. The Bush regime’s blundering in Afghanistan has been treated with kid gloves. Congress has prostrated itself on the Iraq war. From the March 9 L.A. Times:
The United States is teetering on the brink of war with Iraq. Edgy citizens brace for terrorist retaliation. The United Nations is consumed by the looming conflict. The Turkish and British parliaments are riven over U.S. war plans.
But back in “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” the U.S. Senate spent most of last week mired in a partisan brawl over a single federal judge. The House, meanwhile, squabbled over a tax bill laden with special-interest goodies and passed a resolution mourning the death of Mister Rogers.
The disconnect between Congress’ parochial preoccupations and the sense of historic peril abroad is a striking reminder that U.S. lawmakers have put themselves squarely on the sidelines of impending war against Iraq.
In voting last fall to give President Bush unchecked power to decide whether and when to launch an assault on Iraq, Congress essentially delegated its constitutional power to declare war.
It seems likely that even the biggest ruling class critics of the war will fall in line if the regime has a quick success in Iraq.
Finally, as more than one comrade has pointed out, the Bush team is hardly a bunch of stealth infiltrators in the White House. Parts of the ruling class worked hard to install these people in office, going to the extent of implementing a soft coup during the elections. The policy orientation of Bush’s advisors was well known in advance, including their attitude toward Iraq. Recently, Der Spiegel reported about a 1997 proposal of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) that forcefully mapped out “America’s global leadership”. On 28 Jan 1998 the PNAC project team wrote to President Clinton demanding a radical change in dealings with the UN and the end of Saddam. While it was not clear whether Saddam was developing WMD [weapons of mass destruction], he was, they said, a threat to the US, Israel, the Arab States and “a meaningful part of the world’s oil reserves”. They put their case as follows:
“In the short term this means being ready to lead military action, without regard for diplomacy. In the long term it means disarming Saddam and his regime. We believe that the US has the right under existing Security Council resolutions to take the necessary steps, including war, to secure our vital interests in the Gulf. In no circumstances should America’s politics be crippled by the misguided insistence of the Security Council on unanimity.”
This letter might have remained yellowing in the White House archives if it did not read like a blue-print for a long-desired war, and still might have been forgotten if ten PNAC members had not signed it. These signatories are today all part of the Bush Administration. They are Dick Cheney–Vice President, Lewis Libby–Cheney’s Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld–Defence Minister, Paul Wolfowitz–Rumsfeld’s deputy, Peter Rodman–in charge of ‘Matters of Global Security’, John Bolton–State Secretary for Arms Control, Richard Armitage–Deputy Foreign Minister, Richard Perle–former Deputy Defence Minister under Reagan, now head of the Defense Policy Board, William Kristol–head of the PNAC and adviser to Bush, known as the brains of the President, Zalmay Khalilzad–fresh from being special ambassador and kingmaker in Afghanistan, now Bush’s special ambassador to the Iraqi opposition.
But even before that–over ten years ago–two hardliners from this group had developed a defence proposal that created a global scandal when it was leaked to the US press. The suggestion that was revealed in 1992 in The New doctrine of deterrence used in the Cold War should be replaced by a new global strategy.
Its goal was the enduring preservation of the superpower status of the US–over Europe, Russia and China. Various means were proposed to deter potential rivals from questioning America’s leadership or playing a larger regional or global role. The paper caused major concerns in the capitals of Europe and Asia.
But the critical thing, according to the Wolfowitz-Libby paper, was complete American dominance of Eurasia. Any nation there that threatened the USA by acquiring WMD should face pre-emptive attack, they said. Traditional alliances should be replaced by ad-hoc coalitions.
These facts, of course seem to point in the direction of a ruling class consensus, or at least openness to the Bush regime’s agenda.
A third distinct possibility is that the ruling class is unclear and divided, and has been stunned and silenced by the rapidity of events and the decisiveness of the regime. Perhaps many of them are suspending judgement: hoping for the best, but reserving the right to change course later. The problem (for them) in that case is that Bush is doing some irreversible damage to important alliances, client regimes, domestic political arrangements, etc.
We should bear in mind that the attempt to create a new global framework of power has intensified, not lessened, intra- and inter-imperialist rivalry. Various sectors of international capital are maneuvering to control the levers and portals of any such framework. It can be hard to distinguish between this maneuvering and actual policy differences. For instance, there is much talk about France and Germany resisting war. But even a cursory look at their actual positions shows that the differences with the US are strategic and tactical, not fundamental.
4. Sanctions and military attacks targeting the Iraqi people are crimes against humanity and must be opposed. In addition, the anti-war movement provides opportunities for radicals to educate and influence masses of people who have been brought into motion by change and concern about the future. These are opportunities which should not be missed.
However, THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT ON A NATIONAL AND WORLD LEVEL IS ALSO A VERY MIXED PHENOMENON CONTAINING REACTIONARY AS WELL AS PROGRESSIVE ELEMENTS. This in itself is nothing new–most movements, including the movement against the war in Vietnam, have been diverse politically. Nevertheless, the defeat of the Communist-led national liberation struggles, the dynamic of globalization and the rise of right-wing populism and neo-fascism in our time have shifted the relation of forces considerably. It’s possible that the anti-war movement could end up benefitting reactionary forces who are against the war, not the oppressed or the Left.
A partial list of worldwide “anti-war” forces includes, in addition to proletarian and anti colonial forces around the world: Islamic fascists, US and European fascists, right-wing Republicans, capitalist rivals to US ruling circles, worried neocolonial dictators in the Middle East, and privileged populations in the metropolis.
POPULAR OPPOSITION TO THE WAR AGAINST IRAQ IN THE US IS ROOTED PRINCIPALLY IN ANXIETY ABOUT LOSS OF PRIVILEGES IN THE METROPOLIS, INCLUDING THE LOSS OF SAFETY CAUSED BY TERRORIST BLOWBACK AND THE LOSS OF ABSOLUTE SHELTERED STATUS IN THE WORLD LABOR MARKET. Nothing like the recent large protests was occurring while sanctions killed half a million children in Iraq. It is only with heightened fears about stirring up retaliation and the diversion of the subsidized economy onto a war footing that the citizenry has become outraged. This kind of sentiment is not the most favorable circumstance for the Left. In fact, movements with this character–feeling “betrayed” by capitalists and wanting to return to a mythologized past– can be fertile ground for the Right and neo-fascists, as many anti globalization activists have discovered.
Here is part of the March 8 resignation letter of Jack Walters, Boone County, Missouri chairman of the 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 of the language of Walters’ statement is the same used by leftists. It was featured on the left-wing IndyMedia web site as a positive example of growing antiwar sentiment. But Walters’ criticism is clearly from the right, not the left. He hopes to restore the old America–an America, in fact, that is Christian fundamentalist, and where there is no right to an abortion.
When an arch-segregationist like Robert Byrd is leading the opposition to war against Iraq in the Senate (with a few liberals hiding comically behind his coattails), when Patrick Buchanan is defending Iraqi sovereignty, when neo-fascists are protesting Bush’s “Zionist” war plans, when the mainstream slogans are “Win Without War” and “Let the Inspections Work,” we should really start thinking hard about our concept of a “broad united front” in the peace movement. While leftists congratulate each other over how fast antiwar sentiment is deepening, and how many sectors of society it includes, it is the Right is whose program is arguably better attuned to popular sentiment about Iraq, and about global adventures in general.
Recently one of the leaders of United for Peace and Justice, a veteran left-wing activist, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “We all see what a nightmare this war would be. That’s bigger than any of the differences between us.” But this isn’t true. Other “antiwar” forces–say, Islamic fundamentalists or Christian fascists–don’t look at the “united front” as generously as Leslie Cagan does, or plan on being quite so non-sectarian. In any event, what will happen if a war proves quick and successful (“Wins”)? And what political lessons will Americans draw from the movement, whatever transpires?
“Money for Jobs, Not for War” and similar “material interest” slogans certainly aren’t helping. Where in the world do these people think that the “Money for Jobs” (what odd phrasing that is!) comes from, if not from war and exploitation of the oppressed? That is, from profits extracted from people who never have “money” provided “for” them to have “jobs,” but who live lives of unending semi-slave labor? And what makes the activists think that they have a right to demand that the ruling class routinely redirect that parasitic loot into their pockets?
It’s one thing for middle class Americans to demand basic human rights and to struggle for a decent life. It’s another thing for these classes to feel that it’s their American birthright to live better than others, to hog the world’s resources, to get preference in the labor market and to live in a protected bubble–and then to feel angry and betrayed when imperialism is wasteful and “misguided” and doesn’t keep up its end of the corrupt bargain.
The metropolitan Left in general, and the white Left in particular, often tends to function as a social power broker, rather than a combatant against imperialism. When times get hard, the US Left has a history of threatening to defect to the side of the ruling class’s enemies in order to squeeze out more benefits for its own social base. “We’ll be loyal only if you take care of us,” is the sub-text. Let’s not confuse this dynamic with the actual struggle of the oppressed, which is usually extremely dangerous and subject to ruthless violence from the ruling class. Rather, it’s a kind of special-interest pressure politics that, in fatter times, used to help enforce a tacit social contract with the ruling class (back when the ruling class still cared about that sort of thing).
In the past, because of where class struggle was centered in the world, that meant that the white Left would periodically make some gestures of support to anti-colonial struggle. For the most part, this was an attempt to surf on the waves of real revolutions, like the Black Revolution or the Vietnamese Revolution. Characteristically, the politics would be heavily diluted (“civil rights” or “peace”), but the implied threat–withdrawn loyalty–was clear enough. It must also be emphasized that some leftists would go farther, breaking through the fog of complicity and going over fully to the side of the oppressed. But since the 1930s, this has been a minority of the white Left–usually a small minority.
Today the anti-colonial content has mostly drained away, but folks want to keep using those well-worn moves anyway. Now it seems to be okay for metropolitan citizens to attempt to gain leverage by hitching a ride on any opposition to corporate power, no matter who the opponent might be or what their goals are. Milosevic? Okay! Right wing Republicans? Great! For some US Leftists, worldwide opposition to war in Iraq seems to be a capital opportunity to leverage the ruling class into putting the money “back where it belongs”: in the pockets of people like them. Which is an understandable sentiment, maybe, but immoral. And not too bright politically, because the ruling class has already decided it doesn’t need the old arrangement any more.
THE “NEW” DEAL IS DYING, AND IT’S NOT COMING BACK. EVEN IF WE COULD PUT IT ON LIFE SUPPORT SOMEHOW, IT WOULD BE WRONG TO PRETEND THAT FIGHTING FOR THAT KIND OF SOCIAL CONTRACT BETWEEN METROPOLITAN CITIZENS AND IMPERIALISM IS SOMEHOW IN THE INTERESTS OF THE OPPRESSED. Or, for that matter, that that’s a principled reason to oppose war against Iraq.
Meanwhile, either from habit or out of less innocent motives, some Leftists are feverishly trying to cram a new situation into the old mold: US imperialism versus national liberation. Just as occurred with Slobodan Milosevic and, in some circles, the Taliban, there are now metropolitan leftists trying to defend Saddam Hussein. If he is not quite viewed as another Ho Chi Minh, he is at least admired for “standing up to the imperialists” and for “modernizing” Iraq. This goes beyond foolishness. It is actually the open adoption of a chunk of the right-wing agenda in a Left guise. We are likely to see more of this, in various forms, as time passes.
Unfortunately, it’s not just a few Workers World folks who misuse the legacy of the thirties and the sixties (although few are quite as frozen in the distorted time warp). Harkening to a previous paradigm, many leftists reflexively try to read progressive politics into every sign of resistance to Western capital that doesn’t have a big black swastika painted on it. Sometimes judgment is suspended in the name of “cultural respect,” other times in the name of being “non-sectarian.”
This knee-jerk, fundamentally conservative mentality leads people who should know better to lionize right-wing populists as anti-colonial heroes, and to attach their uncritical loyalties to movements that are seriously compromised by right-wing politics. This all helps preserve the illusion that they are connected to something larger and stronger–like they used to be.
In particular, this mentality leads leftists to pretend that there are no reactionaries involved in the anti-war coalition. The Turkish parliament temporarily balks at US troop deployment? Right on: The Third World resists! Jaques Chirac plans a UN veto? Right on: it’s a struggle against hegemonism! The Arab Summit warns of disaster? Right on: Arab unity! Robert Byrd speaks out on the Senate floor? Right on: even conservatives hate the war against the Iraqi people–we must be right!
Actually, what’s happening in the world is both much more specific and much dicier. Through its recent initiatives, including aggression against Iraq, globalizing Western capital is undermining a lot of vested interests. As a result, it’s whipping up resistance from all kinds of forces: not just the oppressed and their allies but everyone else who’s getting hurt, too: mass-based fascist forces, neocolonial dictators, other capitalist rivals, business elites with conflicting agendas, etc. All the while, a severely weakened Left struggles to find its bearings and stay out of the free-fire zone. And the proletariat–the reconfigured proletariat coming into being, that is- has not yet taken the field.
We should take advantage of contradictions among reactionaries whenever possible. But if the Left makes the mistake of welcoming right-wing elements and conciliating a defense of metropolitan privilege in the name of a “broad united front” against the war, if it fails to define a principled radical Left pole, then we risk (and deserve) having anti-imperialist and socialist sentiment progressively marginalized.
The sad fact is that nobody needs the Left around any more simply to explain how globalizing capitalism is a threat to the existing way of life and standard of living in the metropolis. Or to argue that individuals should get organized if they want to defend that way of life. Right-wing populists understand those points just as well as–maybe even better than–the Left does. And they have more spontaneous mass support, not to mention more money, weapons, and organization.
So what kind of alternative do we offer, and who are our friends and enemies? And how do we promote a politics that is really in the interest of and in solidarity with the oppressed? These are things we should be urgently debating.
One starting point is the recognition that THE HARD RIGHT’S MESSAGE OF REBELLION AND THE CONSERVATIVE MESSAGE OF THE REPUBLICAN WAR DISSENTERS EACH RESONATES MORE, SPONTANEOUSLY, WITH POPULAR SENTIMENT IN THE METROPOLIS THAN THE RADICAL LEFT’S DOES. Under current conditions, their programs are simply a better fit with Americanism and metropolitan class politics overall.
But even at the risk of being less popular, we have a responsibility to oppose the war on Iraq from a principled moral and political standpoint, one that puts the Iraqi people at the center of concern and that continually challenges the corrupt social contract between the U.S. ruling class and its middle classes (including its huge labor aristocracy.) We should explicitly target the US regime as war criminals and torturers. We should try to ensure that the Palestinian struggle does not get pushed aside by concerns about what’s in the interest of Americans. We also have a responsibility to fight fascist and pro-fascist politics just as hard as we fight corporate capital, even when the fascists’ program risists corporate capitalist elites and presents a rebellious, “anti-war” face. Anything less is short-sighted, opportunist, and ultimately dangerous.
5. Some have objected to the slogan, “No Blood for Oil,” arguing that it is simplistic. However, this is a basically good slogan, which does not have to be used simplistically. Oil and the price of oil are definitely a major part of what the Iraq conflict is about. It’s not only that Iraq has a lot of valuable oil, and that manipulating its supply can affect the price of oil and thus the state of the world economy. It’s also true that the occupation of Iraq can affect the ability of Western capital to penetrate the Islamic world, to reorganize control over the Middle East (with its oil) and to gain control over Central Asia’s huge oil resources. It is geopolitics as much as economics that makes the US regime eager to corner the market on a commodity (oil) that the entire industrialized world depends on. (Many observers have commented that invading Iraq will give the US a means to influence what happens in much more strategically-pivotal places- neighboring Iran, for example.)
A major virtue of the “No Blood for Oil” slogan is that it starts to pose the issue of the complicity of ordinary Americans in the plunder of the colonial world. Although big corporations profit the most from oil and oil-based economies, it’s obvious and inescapable that most ordinary citizens here have benefit as well. Therefore the slogan is partly an active repudiation of “blood money” (as well as of environmental destruction). This is a slogan that is hard for the Right to coopt, since they have no trouble with the idea of shedding other peoples’ blood for their own enrichment.
“Not in Our Name” is another current slogan that effectively distances protesters from ruling class actions. It’s catchy, and can attract lots of different kinds of people while still having a sneaky edge. However that is also its problem. It’s abstract, which means it could work for the radical Right as well as the Left. Not what in our name? Imperialist aggression? Unilateralism? Support for Jewish bankers? The slogan is too malleable.
6. The ultimate object of capitalist globalization is the reconfiguration, control, and intensified exploitation of the proletariat. The majority of the proletariat is women and children of the colonized world. Ultimately, women and children produce the majority of the value, the surplus value, the profit, that constitute capitalism’s lifeblood.
REORGANIZING THE MANNER IN WHICH WOMEN AND THEIR LABOR ARE OWNED, DISCIPLINED, PREVENTED FROM ORGANIZING AND SET TO WORK IS CENTRAL TO THE WORLD POLITICAL STRUGGLES OCCURRING TODAY. Notable in this regard is the proliferation of enterprise zones and maquiladoras, which concentrate women in huge manufacturing districts accessible to global capital. The process by which women, mostly young, are drawn into these zones is intertwined with the disruption of rural life and the substitution of factory farming for local family farming, which lead to impoverishment and the generation of new pools of available wage laborers.
At the same time, within the chaos of globalization, there is a rising phenomenon of groups of unemployed semi-proletarian or ex-proletarian men, living largely apart from women. (The male-only madrassas where young Islamic men are trained for the jihad is prototypical.) Organized into militias, pseudo-revolutionary guerrilla bands, street gangs and smuggling or drug mafias, these groups can be recruited or influenced by fascism, which promises them renewed control over “their” women or, at least, a fascist warrior’s reward: rape and mayhem against women.
These two trends: the concentration of colonized women into industrial enterprise zones, and the rise of warlordistic bands of uprooted men, appear side by side in stark form, in what has been called “The Laboratory of Our Future,” the maquiladora city of Juarez, Mexico. (“Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future,” by Charles Bowden, Aperture,1998, draws on Mexican press photography and a variety of other sources, including writings by Eduardo Galeano and Noam Chomsky, to graphically portray the situation in Juarez at that time.)
On the one hand, young women, many fresh from rural Mexican villages and towns, are recruited into the sprawling factories of U.S. and Japanese firms. Working under tight discipline for low wages, often with hazardous or toxic substances, they are exploited until they are no longer fast enough to compete with the younger women waiting to be hired. Many of the workers live in virtual communities of women: housed in company dormitories or crowded apartments, surviving partly within a network of informal economic life, barter and improvisation.
On the other hand, bands of young men roam the streets of the working class districts. Some serve brutal drug lords, some commit petty crime for kicks, some are just trying to survive or get a fix, and none of them is part of the legal, formal economy. In their world, violence and sudden death are constants.
In the past decade, at least 278 women in this city of two million have been murdered, many of them raped, tortured and dumped in the desert. The typical victim, according to newspaper reports, is between 16 and 20 years old, living in one of the poor barrios. She is often found mutilated, her hands bound with barbed wire. Marta Altolaguirre, president of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, says, “Common characteristics of the murder victims with those found dead after apparently being executed by organized crime lead us to think there may be some sort of involvement of some illicit network.” Activists are convinced that politicians and the police are hiding information about who is guilty; it’s obvious that the crimes are not being fully investigated. In November 2001, two bus drivers were accused of eight of the atrocities. They confessed, but showed signs of having been tortured. (One of them later died under suspicious circumstances in prison.) And the murders continue.
What’s happening here? Is rape and murder of women part of some horrific intitiation into drug gangs, or something else? Who exactly is part of the chain of complicity? We can’t know the exact answer yet. But it’s evident that this is an environment custom-made to terrorize the women of the maquiladoras. And also it is clear that very modern classes of men are objectively working together to control women and exploit them.
Throughout the colonial world, systematic atrocities against women are happening in one form or another as men pursue their agendas. In Thailand, destitute peasants sell young women and children into prostitution in the AIDS-infested brothels of Bangkok. In Guajarat, India, mobs of Hindu fascists gang-rape Muslim women and burn them alive while the government stands by. Afghanistan, even after the Western invasion, makes “The Handmaid’s Tale” look tame. On and on it goes. And everywhere women are discouraged from representing themselves, from fighting for their own power. Instead, their “saviors” are supposed to be men, or male-led movements. As if the KLA was going to liberate women in Kosovo, or the U.S. Army was going to free Afghan women.
No, women are not supposed to fight for themselves. They are there to be fought over–by globalizing capital and by fascism. Western capitalists want direct, flexible access to women’s labor, without “delegating” as much authority to the men in their families as in the past. That’s a big part of globalization. The breakdown of traditional rural life and conservative traditions is just plain good business for corporate capital. It creates pools of women proletarians and new ranks of commodity consumers of all genders. If women-less men, cut loose from production, can be used to terrorize women, so much the better–as long as they don’t try to be middlemen or get in the way of corporate profits.
The fascists can’t accept this demotion in their status for one minute. To them, it’s no way for a real man to live. Even if men are poor, and have nothing else, at least they must be able to personally own and dispose of their women. It’s the “traditional” way, after all. If the rise of globalizing Western capitalism means that they will lose ownership and control over their women, they would rather fight to the death. At least as a warrior, a “free man,” one can take what he can win in battle. Including the women.
This kind of reactionary gender/class politics has broad appeal and quiet acceptance even among men who are not overtly active in fascist politics. We should bear in mind that millions of ordinary “good men” in Afghanistan lived in the most intimate contact with the formal enslavement of their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters under the Taliban and other fascist forces. They might not have liked how harsh it was, but most of them weren’t going to spend their days organizing and fighting against it. (Would it be any different here?)
And where is the US Left in this life-and-death struggle? Have we fully taken the measure of how deeply male domination wounded the previous anti-colonial upsurge, possibly preventing its ultimate victory over imperialism? Have we really focused on the implications of male domination in the events in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq? Have we immunized ourselves from another round of male-led “revolutionary” movements (this has become a virtual oxymoron)? Have we come to grips with the issue of alliances with male-dominated political forces? Do we have a Left view of how proletarian women can survive and gain power in a violent world, battered between global corporate capital and fascism? Without dealing with these questions, we won’t even know where to look for a new revolutionary movement in the world, let alone figure out how to be one here.
This article was subsequently discussed in #7 of the 8th Route Readers Club Bulletin. To read this exchange click here.