Many of the youth coming into the anti-imperialist movement today seem genuinely confused about what imperialism is – what it smells like. Off the top of my head, I can think of two reasons why this is. First, popular cultural American portrayals of imperialism focus mainly on nostalgic representations of Victorian society. As the United States is engaged at the height of its imperialism, this does not surprise me. While the empire’s enslaved may be mostly absent from films like Sherlock Holmes, there is a common cultural nostalgia for the fashion and manner of being of the Victorian era. This corresponds with the presentation of imperialism in most American history textbooks, such as when children are taught about the British Empire. Americans struggle to connect their present day culture with that of one hundreds of years ago elsewhere in the world. This makes imperialism, like fascism, something that happened in the past that is no longer with us, though still something we are culturally inundated with through Victorian nostalgia.
I believe the second main reason for the misunderstanding of imperialism is an association between anti-imperialism and broader anti-war activism. Anti-war positions and anti-imperialism, while sometimes coexisting in each other’s spaces, are not equivalent. To many in the anti-war camp, so long as there are no American boots on the ground, no official “war” so to speak, there is no need to fret. So long as the people in mysterious places abroad are accepting the tremendous amount of American aid money with smiles and open hands, we should not see imperialism here. We should instead see the Millennium Development Goals. Only when the fever pitch of war is at its height and the need to win over the American population the most essential do we see women blowing kisses at US soldiers on their way to Baghdad – clear propaganda. Otherwise, the smiles come from women showing off their ink-stained fingers after voting in an election made possible by US-NATO intervention – propaganda largely unchallenged. Because there is a near-complete absence in the discourse on what imperialism actually is, there is much confusion. Clarification is needed.
It is in this light that I would like to respectfully respond to Matthijs Krul’s article on imperialism and anti-imperialism.
I hope that many of my comrade scholars and organizers can agree that foreign aid money, not limited to the NED and other so-called ‘democracy-building‘ organizations, represents a rather naked form of imperialism. In fact, there is already a discipline to study this type of phenomenon: it is called development. Anyone still paying attention knows that the planet is currently facing a number of challenges, from climate change to human safety. From hunger to diseases and illiteracy. The core issue, however, is one of poverty. Any number of development economists, such as Harvard professor and millionaire Amartya Sen, write extensively on this topic. The focus of all development work is basically the same: how to fix the problems that imperialism has wrought upon the world? But instead of attacking imperialism as the main perpetrator of the above conditions, the development economist hopes to find a way that will solve these problems while keeping capitalism intact. This may be out of an ideological commitment to capitalism, but is just as likely adopted because of the desire to give their plans ‘teeth‘. Without the financial and logistical backing of the Pentagon and the US-NATO capitalist class, such development might never take place. Alternative modes of development that find success just as often find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun, as the powers that be and their relentless appetite for markets decide to drop bombs when their aid packages and foreign direct investment are not accepted.
This is why anti-imperialism is not simply about drones and boots on the ground, but also about the incredible lengths the class protected by US-NATO goes to shape the conditions in which decisions about governance are made. A country such as Iran may be relatively untouched by imperialism in a direct way, as far as shock-and-awe or billion-dollar investments are concerned, but the active proliferation of these mechanisms on their border affect their decision-making. They have agency, certainly, as does technically everyone on earth, but this agency is informed by the surrounding environment. One may have the choice between a noose or pills with which to kill oneself, but one hardly chooses the chronic unemployment, crushing debt, poverty, desperation and loneliness mediated by ubiquitous capitalist atomization.
So, the activist’s new rallying cry is “Hands off!” because imperialism isn’t just about bombs and guns, but hands that go into people’s pockets and livelihoods, into their voting booths, hands that seize their hopes for the future. Madeline Albright and others from the US-NATO’s pack of imperialist running dogs attended to the recent elections in Ukraine. She and other international observers assured us that the election was legitimate. Aside from the fact that the US-backed junta banned communist parties (as they have in Palestine and countless other places), we should also consider that gangs of armed fascists that were funded by American money and manned by US-NATO mercenaries terrorized the Ukrainian people. This included not just communists, but a broad coalition of people who were against a legislative agenda that called itself a “Kamikaze government” due to the ‘unpopular decisions that needed to be made’ for the sake of austerity. In Syria, the United States government calls the upcoming elections prematurely invalid because of the “conditions” within which such elections would take place, and while the US government called the elections in Crimea prematurely invalid because of alleged Russian interference, there was no outcry or allegations of a prematurely invalid election when Madeline Albright was the one confirming the veracity of the polling sites in Ukraine. This is precisely because the conditions under which the election takes place were already heavily influenced and endorsed by the United States. It’s impossible to say that elections in Syria will not be affected by the Americans. But the fact that the sitting Syrian government is on the ballot is precisely the reason why the United States calls it illegitimate. When the election was between alleged “warlords” in Libya, the United States did not object because it had already removed the most direct threat to its influence. After the new government, set up by the rebel groups funded and armed by the CIA, disappointed, Washington sent tanks rolling again to Benghazi, this time led by their own man from Langley. Imperialism is what sets the conditions for agency.
The fact that the United States and Russia are armed with enough nuclear weapons to destroy civilization many times over, the fact that we are facing a global catastrophe of epic proportions as the climate is radically transformed, these are all conditions that are both caused by capitalism and, at the same time, required by capitalism to subjugate the people of the earth. The main problem (contradiction) is that the constant immiseration of imperialism leads to eruptive civil unrest. This encourages another facet, what we call development, which is focused on delivering heaping spoonfuls of aid to the people who face their misery due to the present system. And yet, the people can’t get aid without first subjugating themselves to imperialism on a legislative and economic level. Each spoonful of aid comes with a truck full of this kind of poisonous influence. Each spoonful gives way to a feeding tube.
Now on to Matthijs Krul’s criticisms. He presents what me and many of my comrades see as a straw man of anti-imperialism. When the protesters shout “No Blood for Oil!” they are not speaking simply as if the United States is going to gobble up all the oil in Iraq. “No Blood for Oil” signifies something more important. As Harvey writes: control of the world’s oil supply and prices is what really matters. With a jackboot on the spigot, the United States-NATO suddenly commands not just the military capabilities of countries that do not have the same bottomless checkbook as the US-NATO, but also the rate of development for many countries. In this light, it is quite legitimate to use this slogan. And if the average protester does not understand wholly the conditions of the world petroleum market, how it works, they are still taking a correct stance against US Imperialism; that is: to condemn it.
There are those who are against certain US-NATO conflicts or intervention, but not all. This is a problem of educating people about imperialism. It warmed my heart to have attended recent meetings and marches in New York against US imperialism, where slogans were chanted in solidarity with several different fronts, not just one in particular. This is because anti-imperialism is not about weighing certain situations against others. It is a broad line. Demanding that people have room to organize without the oppressive conditions US-NATO puts down is the first, important step.
Anti-imperialists based in the United States should not be taking equal time to condemn countries facing the brunt of US-NATO military and economic power. Certainly, there are things to criticize about foreign governments, even things to criticize about all governments as they are currently structured. But behind each government that is allowed to exist on this planet is the background of the world imperialist system. Therefore these issues, such as the continued gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia for instance, are implicitly supported as a way to keep the situation conducive. The United States does not presently take decisive action in a number of fronts not because it doesn’t have the passive consent of the American population, but rather because it is taking different means to an end, using tactics that are more effective, clandestine and (most of all) profitable. When US-NATO takes action in a theater of war or strife in a decisive way, it’s because it is something worth investing in.
Before we proceed: we simply cannot equivocate this stage of US-NATO imperialism to those before the collapse of the Soviet Union. We should look at the present stage objectively. In this stage of imperialism, there is no threat that significantly checks imperialism such as the Soviet Union. The last minor remaining threats to complete US-NATO domination are currently being brought to heel. That which remains of the Soviet Union are hardly ideal models for governance, but US-NATO imperialism has helped decisively shape those very models. Whatever remains of elevated working conditions and a basic standard of living must be eradicated. Imperialism would rather eliminate any traces of a dictatorship of the proletariat. This is why countries such as North Korea, which experience frequent brown and blackouts, are portrayed as existential threats to US-NATO in films such as the Red Dawn remake, or in alarmist propaganda in the news media. These countries may not be much compared to the great power of the US-NATO armies, but they might be able to spur something of a larger challenge, and imperialism cannot abide it.
To call out Marxist-Leninists in the same language imperialist running dog Thomas Friedman assigns to Arabs – “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” – is a straw man. Marxist-Leninist anti-imperialist groups are clear that one should provide moral support to regimes facing the onslaught of US imperialism, but they are hardly ignorant, brainwashed, or naive.
To Marxist-Leninist anti-imperialists, the main condition that prevents the rising of the working class is the violent exploitation, terror, and flat-out murder of working people worldwide. Imperialism first and foremost seeks to strangle these sorts of uprisings in their cradle. As Lenin writes in To The Rural Poor, the people need space to organize in order to make socialism possible. And as we can see by the conditions worldwide, historically and in the present era, US-NATO influence precludes that space. Whether it is bombing infrastructure, training intelligence services and officer corps, or hand-picking cabinet members, the space for people to think, dream and plan a dictatorship of the proletariat are strangled by imperialism.
This is not an issue we can safely situate in countries halfway across the world – the United States itself is filled with oppressed nations living under the yoke of imperialism, and we have seen their constant oppression, especially with regards to working class or anti-imperialist movements. Untold millions of undocumented workers provide a source for murderous exploitation while African Americans, dragged from the African continent in chains and enslaved for nearly half a millennia, are routinely imprisoned, impoverished, and murdered with impunity.
We must, as Lenin says, fight to achieve this space for organization. We cannot equivocate the governments of US-NATO with those on the periphery. One bloc is focused on a global campaign of domination and subjugation and is armed to the teeth. The others are its shopping list: Syria, Venezuela, Russia, Honduras, North Korea, Ecuador, Ukraine. We really cannot scientifically equivocate here, and we shouldn’t be wasting time contorting ourselves in all sorts of bizarre positions to try and do so. The equation is simple, far from the “realist” view of international relations that anti-imperialists are accused of. No Blood for Oil! Hands off!
The goal for Americans should be to try to hobble the greatest threat to building a better world. This means being loud and unequivocal about our dissent. There will always be those cheerleaders for capital that dredge up dirty laundry and horror stories for the nightly news from fronts across the world, reasons why we should only be passive against imperialism. Anti-imperialism can’t earn the trust of oppressed peoples worldwide by speaking out against imperialism while parroting the talking points of the imperialists. As Audre Lorde said, we cannot destroy the master’s house using the master’s tools. They are tainted, exist only to serve the master.
The “Made in USA” brand earns distrust and resentment worldwide, it’s time we started to speak out against it, trash it. Those who count themselves as revolutionary anti-imperialists know that history text books are falsified, and they know that Victorian nostalgia is window dressing for deplorable crimes. What is needed is a program and organizational strategy towards mass education, an education that connects the plight of the worker here to the plight of the worker in sweatshops abroad, to those workers under fire by US-NATO weapons, those workers who struggle under US-NATO influence. We must have uncompromising solidarity with those people fighting against US-NATO domination or aggression and must insist that at this time, a country founded on dispossession, genocide, slavery, operating on the threat of nuclear weapons and the eradication of people’s movements worldwide has no place to determine the legitimacy of elections, much less determine the ‘superior’ system of government or economies.
This does not mean you need to support the atrocities of these besieged places, the mistakes they make, or the tragedies they oversee. There is a way to denounce and disassociate oneself without doing a favor for imperialism. But it is not alright to be on the side of the imperialists, and that means calling out propaganda for what it is. I’d never heard a supposed communist, even a concerned “leftist” call out the imperialist crimes of Muammar Ghadaffi before Libya was squarely in the imminent sights of US-NATO bombs. When anti-imperialists call out US-NATO support for the tyrannical governments of the Gulf States, they should do so only to expose the fact that US-NATO dictates the conditions in which such tyrannical governments exist – not to point out our alleged “hypocrisy” (Really, there is none!) towards human rights issues. Human rights are the wedge used by imperialism to pry open stubborn mouths to those feeding tubes of aid, arms and influence. If the good of humanity was truly US-NATO’s concern, we should find this current system of world domination immediately dismantled to allow socialism to be built. This is what we must be calling for as anti-imperialists. We do not shout for the end of imperialism and with the same breath embrace its inevitability. We do not shout to end imperialism because we want things to remain the same. We do not accept the conditions built around us. Ending imperialism will bring an opportunity to break this path towards ruination and immiseration, which US-NATO is invested in blazing at all costs.