Liberal Defence of Murder Relaunch

I was asked a few weeks ago to publish the text of a speech I gave at London’s prestigious Mosaic Rooms.  It was on the subject of The Liberal Defence of Murder, my book on the history of liberal justifications for war and empire, recently released in paperback.  This is the text I prepared, just in case anyone is still interested.

Good evening. So, this book was first published in 2008 in hardback, and at the time it seemed that the subjects of the book, the liberal imperialists, those who cheered on the Iraq war on the grounds of freedom and democracy and various liberal-humanitarian ideas, were on the retreat. They had suffered numerous defections. Even the most belligerent, bloated, malignant of the pile, Christopher Hitchens — *spit* — had begun to wallow in some narcissistic self-pity over the degeneration of his war of liberation in Iraq, which he had fancied was another Spanish Civil War, he its George Orwell, the Bush administration its POUM — an exaggerated case of Godwin’s Law if ever there was one.

And I said, at the time:

“The pro-imperialist liberals, once vociferous and united in defence of US wars, are in a mess. . . . In truth, this pathetic faction has never looked less politically viable.”

And for a brief period last year, I wondered if I had spoken too soon. Because I witnessed, in full dress, a rehearsal of just about every liberal pro-war cliché. This time, the subject was Libya, but in a sense that didn’t matter — not to the liberal imperialists, it didn’t. It was really, for them, an opportunity to revive the moral authority of empire — I’ll come back to this. And it looked like, general scepticism notwithstanding, they were winning the argument. This seemed like a stunning reversal, after months of revolutionary turmoil in which America’s grim, necrotic conception of “liberation” was exposed as a charade — how did Firdos Square look next to Tahrir Square? Well, my spirits were somewhat low, comrades and friends.

And then, Jason Russell was found naked and jacking it in San Diego. Some of you are looking at me in sheer bewilderment.  I shall oblige you with an explanation. Jason Russell is at the head of a campaign called “Stop Kony,” run by an organisation called Invisible Children. It exists ostensibly to challenge and help reverse the war crimes committed by a small Christian fundamentalist rebel group, responsible for atrocities in Uganda. But it has in its time supported the Ugandan military, which in conducting the counterinsurgency has been responsible for its own share of atrocities. It has also supported US military intervention on the side of the Ugandan military, and energetically campaigned to get public backing for mass campaign to apply pressure to the Obama administration to commit more money and troops to Uganda. The odd thing is, Kony isn’t in Uganda anymore; his fighters are a greatly depleted force; and the people whom “Stop Kony” claimed to be assisting seem to be rather resentful of them. So, their campaign could have been needlessly dangerous, and it would have been the triumph of the manipulation of social media, had it succeeded. But under the pressure of criticism, Jason Russell snapped, and was found strutting about in the nude on a San Diego street, pulling his portion for passing pedestrians.

And that was that. Last time I was in the US, I was in Boston giving a talk. And on the way there, my fiancée and I saw a Stop Kony poster — and on it someone had written: “BULLSHIT PROPAGANDA!” So, you have to credit Americans with some discernment and intelligence in these matters — that is actually the subject of my other recent book, published at the same time as Liberal Defence was reissued, American Insurgents.

So, just before expanding a bit on Libya — and I guess we can mull over some of what’s happening in Syria, a revolutionary process with some complex dynamics where rival imperialisms (Russia, France, the US) are certainly involved — I wanted to just revisit what is actually in this book, what is the core of its argument. And then I want to see how this can help us understand situations of the kind that we’re faced with. So, what is my case?

First, that today’s pro-war liberal intellectuals stand in a tradition extending over roughly half a millennium. We have seen that their humanitarian support for imperialism is underpinned by the dehumanisation of its opponents, and thus all too readily segues into bloody and vengeful rhetoric, and ultimately support for violent repression. Yet all the failings of today’s liberal warriors have, as it were, a genetic origin. Liberalism was born one of a conjoined quintuplet, linking capitalism, European colonialism, slavery and “race” ideology. Being in some respects an ideology of freedom and equality, it has nonetheless operated what Domenico Losurdo calls “exclusion clauses,” such that it was complicit in racial tyranny, imperialism and class domination. From Locke to Mill and Tocqueville, early to modern liberalism justified colonialism, usually on the grounds of its “improving” character and beneficial effect for natives. Much of the early European Left and labour movement, particularly those elements of it closest to liberalism, were influenced by this pro-colonial chauvinism. Nor was it purely a European affair, as such supremacism was never more pungent than in its Wilsonian form.  The Russian Revolution, subsequent anticolonial revolutions and the US civil rights movement, weakened the hold of this ideology. Yet it has been continually reproduced, though modified and adapted.

The unity of this ideology is pitched at a very abstract level, I should insist. I describe it as a “tradition,” which is deliberately nebulous. But what unifies these very diverse but somehow overlapping, resembling ideological formations is that liberal imperialism has a structural/systemic role in explaining, justifying and consolidating a liberal world system that is necessarily an imperialist system. And what motivated me to look at this was, of course, the fact that in the context of the “war on terror,” pro-war liberals started to sound an awful lot like colonial apologists. And I wondered why.

There are two ways of approaching this. Either you can say, this colonial ideology is relic, a remainder of an embarrassing and unresolved past set of antagonisms. Or, you can say something in the spirit of Stuart Hall’s observation about racism:

Racism is always historically specific. Though it may draw on the cultural traces deposited by previous historical phases, it always takes on specific forms. It arises out of present — not past — conditions, its effects are specific to the present organisation of society, to the present unfolding of its dynamic political and cultural processes — not simply to its repressed past.

This is very important because racism has often been seen as a remainder of unresolved past antagonisms, its present forms merely residual rather than something that is actively constructed. And one might be tempted by a similar view of colonial ideologies.

I would say that the return of liberal imperialist ideology in its almost colonial form in the 2000s arose from the crisis of what is called “the West” — more prosaically a crisis of the advanced capitalist states led by US imperialism. The fact was that a tiny group of jihadis seemed to these liberal pundits and intellectuals and planners to have posed a mortal danger to what they called “civilization,” tantamount — I shit you not — to the Third Reich. There was a sense of incredible doom, but also invigoration at this perceived challenge: so many intellectuals and commentators said, in effect, “this is an opportunity for America to overcome the decadence and frivolity of the last decade, to embrace a new seriousness.”

This might all seem very laughable, but you have to remember that the situation in the US had just been exposed as extremely precarious: you had a capitalist crisis, the bursting of the stock market bubble, the legitimacy of business was sinking amid Worldcom and Enron scandals, the Bush administration had come to power through a stolen election, the President was surrounded by tens if not hundreds of thousands of anticapitalist protesters wherever he went . . . there were multiple insecurities wracking the liberal bourgeoisie, and the world-historic mission of US capitalism after the collapse of the Berlin Wall seemed to be in some doubt. Here was both a personification of all these terrors and worries, a civilizational nemesis no less, and a perfect opportunity to coordinate a series of responses to it and to elaborate an ideology that, counter to the anticapitalists and the protesters, explicitly embraced and defended the social and institutional order of the advanced capitalist states as the best possible end, the nec plus ultra of humanity. The record of leftists who turned imperialist at this time is really a record of those who had already begun to make their peace with capitalism.

And so, in that context, intellectuals became far less wary of defining this civilization as an empire — in the tradition of Rome and Britain, in the tradition of what was defined as “the West” which historically has not coincided with a straightforwardly spatial definition, but has overlapped with the concentrations of white ruled states: apartheid South Africa and Australia were both considered part of the West, for example. So, the colonial project in this sense involved defining a frontier, a civilizational boundary where the riff-raff of the world were clamouring to get in and tear down the idols of empire — ’cuz they’re just jealous ’cuz we’re rich ’n free ’n they’re not — and saying “we as the civilized people have a responsibility to enter the domain of barbarism and bring the benefits of order and civilization to it, by force, and extirpate those who want chaos.” And you will find that in different forms in any number of liberal writers, such as Hitchens, Ignatieff, BHL, Berman, Sam Harris . . . the only difference they had with the neoconservatives, who were never embarrassed by the language of empire, is the emphasis they placed on trying to persuade leftists and liberals of this logic.

So, this brings me to another aspect of my argument, which is that the pro-war liberals perform a role of advocacy, communicating ideas to strategically important audiences that are less likely to be reached by Pentagon spokespersons or Donald Rumsfeld. And in the new afterword, I recast this argument in Gramscian terms: I say that the liberal imperialists described in this book form part of a family of intellectuals and ideological producers who help consolidate the rule of the dominant classes. These are the “organic intellectuals” of the bourgeoisie. This notion of Gramsci’s was central to his arguments about “hegemony.” A ruling class, he argued, constantly works to construct hegemony by incorporating allied classes and class fractions into a wider bloc which dominates the excluded, subaltern classes. The unity of this bloc is secured partially by a hegemonic discourse produced by intellectuals who explain to the power bloc what its interests are, why its interests are universally valid and how they must be fought for and defended. Obviously, within such a bloc there is no clear, determinate interest that unites everyone, much less agreement on a particular strategy. This is why organic intellectuals are required, in various modes of specialisation and reaching various kinds of audience, to provide moral and intellectual leadership.

The pro-war liberals vary greatly in terms of their locus of operation, their audience, and their degree of specialisation. Some, such as Michael Ignatieff and Samantha Power, successfully traverse the different fields of academia, opinion journalism and work within the state bureaucracy. Bernard Kouchner has migrated between the human rights industry, the French state and the UN with no great difficulty. Bernard-Henri Levy, with the resources of a French haute bourgeois at his disposal, is at will a philosopher, a documentary-maker, a diplomat, a publisher, a politician, a businessman, a journalist. Others such as Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman are content in the role of journalist, pamphleteer and polemicist. And while Ignatieff, Kouchner and Power have tended to focus mainly on human rights in foreign policy, Hitchens, Berman and Levy dilate comfortably on a variety of subjects.

What they have in common is that the aspect of ruling class power that they labour on, and work to solve problems in, is its international, imperialist power; and what they also have in common is that they operate not as isolated individuals, but as intellectual producers within larger systems (media conglomerates, academic institutions, state apparatuses) who disseminate their product to relatively privileged and powerful audiences. In this respect, they are not dissimilar to the neoconservatives with whom, I maintain, they share a vocabulary. Now they, along with the neocons, suffered a considerable loss of prestige and influence as a result of the failure of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

But the intriguing thing is that Obama wasn’t inclined to completely sideline them. He preferred to pivot his imperialist strategy on the Realists whom Bush had leaned on in his last, lame duck years. People like Robert Gates, but also the long-standing Democratic advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. But the Democratic Party basically founded what is called in the US “liberal internationalism” — basically this is liberal imperialism in the pattern established by Woodrow Wilson. And its institutions and personnel have strongly supported an aggressive foreign policy based on the idea that US capitalism has an historic mission to support a liberal world system — naturally, with the US at the head of it. And in that camp were people like Susan Rice, Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter. Slaughter, dean at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in Princeton University, was offered a position under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Susan Rice, a former Clintonite national security advisor, protégé of Madeleine Albright, and strong advocate of intervention in Sudan, was appointed ambassador to the United Nations. Rice played an important role in supporting the partition of Sudan. Samantha Power, who is believed to have been a key advocate within the administration of intervention in Libya, was made a national security advisor.

And there were many outside the administration pressing for a revived focus on humanitarian intervention. Former Clinton officials William Cohen and Madeleine Albright were heading the Genocide Prevention Task Force, who urged the incoming Obama administration to set up a “genocide alert” system that would be used to trigger intervention into crisis situations. Both had been responsible for the implementation of the genocidal sanctions policy toward Iraq. Such an assembly of forces in the Obama administration suggested, not a peace presidency, but rather a shift in strategy. US power would be resuscitated through a more cautious, multilateral policy focused on winning consent among allies, with the doctrine of “preemptive strikes” talked down. America’s immense military arsenal would be deployed more carefully — but it would be deployed. So, with that in mind, let’s turn to the Middle East revolutions, and to Libya in particular, and see what we can judge about that.

First of all, one of the forerunners to the Middle East revolutions was a growing crisis of Israeli legitimacy and, actually, military power — its defeat at the hands of Hezbollah, its loss of global authority after Cast Lead, its extraordinarily bloody and self-defeating assault on the Mavi Marmara, all seemed to be saying that Israel’s time as the South Africa you can’t criticize was coming to an end. Naturally, the liberal imperialists who vaunted democracy and human rights in Iraq showed nothing but contempt for the rights of Palestinians — let them starve under blockade, let them die in bombed ghettos, let them be hunted through the streets and exterminated like rats, because they have offended us by voting for Hamas and by not capitulating to Israel and by existing as a people, a political mass, and not merely as a defeated refugee population scattered to the ends of the earth.

Well now, even liberal imperialists have to show some consistency with their loudly proclaimed ideals. And when the Middle East uprisings began, I think you have to say, they really genuinely tried hard to be pleased about it. In truth, there was considerable ambivalence — will they now elect the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Will the Tunisians allow Rachid Ghannouchi to stand for elections? Will the wrong sorts of people take power? This was particularly a problem for the likes of Hitchens who, only a couple of years before the revolution, had been lavishing praise on the Tunisian dictatorship oweing to its moderation — why pick on mild Tunisia, he wondered? Moreover, when the revolution struck, he was at pains to say it had happened only because the lucky citizens knew they wouldn’t be gunned down in the streets like the Iranian Green movement. (For the record, the Tunisian regime killed more people than the Iranian regime did in the course of the Green uprising). But don’t think it was just the belligerati. People with real political power were saying these things. Tony Blair, and Vice-President Joseph Biden, had insisted when Mubarak was assailed by revolution that this was a good man for the Egyptian people, an ally of ours, and that his overthrow would create a vacuum into which the “extremists” might step.

Nonetheless, despite these ambivalences, and despite a certain suppressed sense that maybe this should unsettle all their previous imperialist convictions, the idea that democracy in the Middle East must come from the barrel of an American gun, the overall tendency among liberal intellectuals was to embrace it. And I suppose, in all fairness, that much is to their credit. But then the revolution spread to Libya in February 2011. And it didn’t take long for many of the liberal intellectuals to see an opportunity. I mean, despite the embarrassing collusions between American and British ruling classes and the Qadhafi regime since 2004, this was not a regime that they were so heavily invested in that they couldn’t drop. And the White House intellectuals I mentioned, the likes of Power and Slaughter — good names for imperialists — said that the process underway was a rebellion of the younger generations who were arriving in the Middle Eastern societies often as educated and sophisticated people, but with no opportunities.

And they said, this is the future: these people are going to decide what way the Middle East turns, and if America wants to have a stake in it, it has to be seen to be on the side of the revolution in some way. Meanwhile, Sarkozy — fresh from an embarrassing series of revelations about French relations with the dictators — was angling for European intervention to protect EU interests. So, there was some inter-imperialist competition here, and this actually was part of what decided Hillary Clinton in favour of intervention, and in turn led to Obama supporting a limited war and over-ruling the generals. And Sarkozy sent his top intellectual, BHL, to consort with the Libyan opposition. This is not as completely inane as it sounds, as BHL had in the past cultivated relationships with other armed groups, like that of Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan — indeed, when he introduced opposition leaders to Sarkozy, he characterised them as “Libyan Massouds”. What else can I tell you about BHL? Well, at this time he was the recent author of On War in Philosophy, in which he described Immanuel Kant, the pioneer of “democratic peace” theory, as an unhinged “fake.” In support of this judgment, he copiously cited the work of the renowned philosopher Jean-Baptiste Botul. Botul was not merely a biographer and critic of Kant, but the founder of an intellectual tradition known as “Botulism.” Lamentably, he was also a fictional character, created by the satirist Frédéric Pagès, whose work included The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant.

Anyway, at this time, the Libyan rebels were being crushed by Qadhafi’s forces. They had been forced into an armed insurgency by the military response of the regime, and while factions of the regime broke away to join the insurgency, not enough did to bolster the opposition militarily. So, BHL found himself negotiating with the leaders of a movement that had really developed in the heat of battle out of a very small and underdeveloped nucleus of middle class professionals, human rights activists etc. — nothing too permanent institutionally had been allowed to develop in the Jamahiriya — but which was increasingly dominated by basically ex-regime elements, sections of the bourgeoisie, basically people who already had some power and clout, and who were used to negotiating with the imperialist powers. And they were already looking, some of them, toward an alliance with some imperialist powers to help them overthrow Qadhafi and basically continue the course of neoliberal reform, free from the old entrenched state-capitalist elites. And it was they who more or less came to dominate the Transitional National Council in alliance with some people who probably had links to the CIA. Well, we know what then happened: the revolutionary process was essentially hijacked. And some less than savoury characteristics started to come to the fore: there was a tendency to racialise the conflict, as when “African mercenaries” (meaning black people and immigrants in Libya) were rounded up and lynched.

The interesting thing is that when the pro-war liberals started to clamour for intervention, they found it difficult to hide the fact that, for them, this was far more about America and the revival of American power, than anything else. They didn’t really talk about the internal dynamics of Libya’s uprising, because they didn’t really know anything about it. And why should they when the important thing was how quickly US helicopters and planes could get in there? So, you had the likes of Hitchens saying that this was an opportunity to recover some of America’s lost credibility after the embarrassing early months of the revolution. He also suggested that the war on Iraq had enabled these revolutions to come about. For Bernard Kouchner, this was an opportunity for Europe to define itself, and for the EU to strengthen its authority. For BHL, in his writing, the major strategic benefit from intervention (aside from the humanitarian remit, which he claimed personal credit for) was to validate the principle of the “right of intervention.”

So, in each case, there was something in it for them that had to do with reclaiming lost territory after the Iraq debacle. And the question is: did they succeed? Is liberal imperialism now resurgent in the way that it was during the Kosovo war for example? And I would conclude on this, the answer is no. The revolutionary process is far too unpredictable for the US to control it; its counterrevolutionary intent far too obvious for it to re-emerge as a bearer of humanitarian or democratic aspirations even to the limited extent that it was before. Nor is there any sign of American decline being reversed as yet, because it is not taking place purely on a “geopolitical” axis — it is taking place in the context of world capitalist crisis. Liberal imperialism looks strongest when the left, the social movements, the workers’ struggles, look weakest. It is when the historical possibilities for societies appear to be incredibly narrow, as they did after the collapse of the USSR, that the idea of the US as defender and emancipator rides high. But we are entering an epoch of upheaval and insurgency, and this — as we have seen in the Occupy movements, and the big protests outside the NATO summit in Chicago — will extend right into the heart and belly of the empire itself.