Agency Is Universal, Research Time, 12/05/2014

Still working on the things that I’ve been working on for the last week or so, with no more interesting developments. I’ve also been taking advantage of the recent merger of my book collection with my girlfriend’s, which also includes some of the old books of her father, who departed just over two years ago. He had some more conservative political leanings that I don’t exactly agree with, but one of the books in his inherited collection that I’ve started to read was The Left at War by the cultural theorist Michael Bérubé. 

When she was in prison or demonstrating against Putin at
the Sochi Olympics, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was a hero.
What would those on the anti-imperialist left say now, only
a few months later, when she's lobbying the US Congress
for sanctions against Putin's Russia
, even though Putin is
now supposedly the ally of free people in the fight against
European fascism and the American Empire?
This book analyzes the political phenomenon that’s been angering me in my recent posts about the growing civil war and Russian intervention in Ukraine: figures on the democratic left lionizing Vladimir Putin as a heroic ally of anti-imperialism, just because he opposes corporate American interest. There are many reasons why this is a ridiculous point of view, not least because the very same leftists who have allied with him on Ukraine called him a villainous abuser of human rights during the Olympics when Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was publicizing how the gulag system of Russian prisons had survived and thrived in the modern era. 

Written in 2009, Bérubé’s book instead focusses on the left’s lionization of Islamist terrorist and otherwise radical groups (Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Ba’ath Party) for their resistance to American imperialism in the form of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under Bush-Cheney. He also focusses on the left’s virulent denunciation of Israel that often borders on anti-Semitic, histrionics which only serve to drown out and delegitimize the genuine issues regarding the disenfranchisement of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, and the violent politicization of the Ultra-Orthodox community. 

He calls this kind of leftism the Manichean Left, because of its stark division of the world into a simplistic Good and Evil. The United States, because of their position at the head of modern imperialist capitalism, is Evil, along with its allies, and Good is defined only in terms of opposition to the United States. This is how a democratic advocate for women’s and gay rights would assign herself common cause with Islamic fundamentalists who believe rape should be legal and that women’s literacy is an insult to God. Both oppose the American empire.*

* I, however, no longer believe that a single country can be at the genuine centre of an “empire” today, no matter how much the rhetoric of contemporary anti-capitalist activism, and even the wettest dreams of Dick Cheney, may think this the case. I don’t have the time to go into it now, but essentially, read Antonio Negri’s Empire and get back to me.

I’m just beginning my read through the book at the moment — it’s interesting, but not exactly the toughest philosophical meat in the world. So I don’t have a detailed case to present on its ideas. But I will offer one notion that perhaps speaks in its favour. Bérubé discusses how American meddling in Middle Eastern politics created the conditions for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Quite often, the focus was on the United States having helped arrange the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected president, Mohammed Mossaddegh, in 1953, to replace him with the violent rule of the Shah and his secret police, Savak. Osama bin Laden also justified his opposition to America in terms of their military presence in Saudi Arabian bases as an insult to Muslim people. But beyond this, bin Laden’s own motivations for instituting Islamic fundamentalist government in the Middle East were to restore a unified Islamic government over Arabia and North Africa — the Caliphate. This political unity was destroyed in the aftermath of the First World War, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk overthrew the Ottoman Empire and installed a secular regime in Turkey. 

This particular story complicates the typical narrative of that ever-so-mild gesture of sympathy, if not to bin Laden himself, then to the rise of Islamic fundamentalist resistance to American activity. Here is a motivation for a fundamentalist organization that has little or nothing to do with the direct actions of the United States. 

I consider the work of Edward Said a guide in understanding the meaning, history, and legacy of modern imperialism. And one of the central ideas he focussed on, as a definition of the imperialist attitude, was the notion that colonized peoples had no agency of their own, no histories. That they only held a valid existence insofar as they related to Western powers, peoples, and traditions. When you describe every political act of a formerly colonized people to assert some independence (whether that act is peaceful, violent, or oppressive in itself) as a reaction to the United States, you are essentially describing a world where the United States is the only active political partner. So the actions of a formerly or potentially colonized people would only have meaning in relation to the actions and goals of the United States. In perceiving and defending only the reactive agency of oppressed peoples, you oppress them further by engaging with them as if they had no active agency.

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