The British Establishment Is Losing Its Mind Over Afghanistan
From "war on terror" praise to a Tony Blair lovefest, Britain’s political and media class can’t seem to quit its addiction to militarism and war.
- Interview by
- Luke Savage
Having initially warmly embraced the Biden administration, the media is now raking the president over the coals in the wake of America’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan. Britain, America’s erstwhile ally in the “war on terror,” has experienced much the same: as evidenced by rapturous elite reception of the recent intervention of Tony Blair, who called Joe Biden’s decision “imbecilic.”
In an interview with Jacobin’s Luke Savage, writer and author Richard Seymour discusses the British establishment’s crack-up over Afghanistan, its inability to quit Tony Blair, the storied history of liberal justifications for war and empire, and other issues raised in his recent essay “Disaster Liberalism.”
To set the stage a bit: the mainstream US media, which was having a kind of love affair with Joe Biden, has pivoted very strongly against him over the Afghanistan withdrawal. How would you characterize the British media reaction? Has it had the same kind of uniformity?
Well, inasmuch as the British media tends to tail the political class and the political class is overwhelmingly aligned behind more aggressive imperialism. Both are, in quite a delusional way, committed to the idea of British greatness, British global influence, such that when Biden made this announcement — which, to be fair, he was only doing what was minimally realistic from a sort of a Pentagon perspective — you had a number of speeches by, for example, Theresa May and various right-wing Labour MPs (who shall remain nameless because they’re eminently forgettable) arguing that this was a big mistake, that it was nonsensical, that it risked reducing Britain’s global role in the world.
Now, this was a critique aimed at Boris Johnson. But Boris Johnson was not in a position to compel the occupation to continue. He doesn’t have that much influence over Biden anyway. But I think there was an element of exploiting his weakness on this as they perceived it, and an element of genuinely petulant acting out. I think there’s still quite a strong delusion in this downwardly mobile, Atlantic, mid-level power that it can be a global power. Not, perhaps, a colonial power. I think there’s some people who think that this is colonial nostalgia and that’s always woven into it, but there was an idea with Brexit that Britain could be a global trader, that it could form great alliances across the world and be incredibly influential — really overestimating the extent to which people are interested in the British at all.
This is a bit of a secondary question, but how has Keir Starmer postured in relation to the Afghanistan withdrawal?
His reaction has been to criticize Boris Johnson from the right on this issue. I can’t recall his wording — as always, it’s completely forgettable — but his statement was to the effect that there were incredible dangers coming to British service personnel and dangers to Afghan civilians, and that this was a debacle. But he didn’t overtly call for continued, perpetual occupation. I don’t think he could get away with that, though I think it is what the Blairites around him wanted him to do — and you have to understand that the people that he’s appointed to run the Labour Party and the people who run his messaging, by and large, are people who came to salience during the Blair era as advisers, spats, and whatever else. But I don’t think that is his instinct per se.
I think his instinct is managerial, and I don’t think he’s an ideological zealot when it comes to war. But he’s got an idea in his head that his salability to the British working class — and particularly to those supposedly benighted red-wall voters who love flags and pints of beer, and whatever else — that if he can associate himself with the British state and with the security state and with the flag as much as possible, then they will come to love him eventually. Clearly, it’s not going to work because that’s not the locus of their nationalism, particularly insofar as we’re talking about nationalist speakers. But that is his instinct and why he’s taken the neither-one-thing-nor-the-other position on Afghanistan.
The interesting thing to say about this is that the clearest position came from Jeremy Corbyn, who articulated what is effectively the popular, common sense in the United Kingdom — and not for the first time. You may recall that, when there was a terrorist attack (a suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena in 2017), Jeremy Corbyn came out and very quickly issued a speech condemning the war on terror for having led to even worse atrocities. He was told by the very same people who are so keen to get rid of him and glad to see the back of him that this was insanity, that this was going to destroy Labour’s polling position, that it was going to be very unpopular, that it showed why he was unelectable. In other words, he gave them the wrong answer.
Labour’s position just went up in the polls. He became more popular. Most people agreed with him. So I think this is one of those situations where there is an elite consensus that is completely at odds with the popular, common sense — not to idealize popular, common sense. There’s a big part of, let’s say, mass antiwar opinion that is not particularly left wing. Some of it is just “Why should we be spending money on them when we don’t spend enough on our own people?” — that kind of thing. But the elite consensus is very rarefied: They talk among themselves. They don’t seem to understand any point of view that doesn’t emanate from within a fairly small radius of opinion around Westminster.
I think antiwar sentiment in America is similarly a bit of hodgepodge. There’s also been a very similar disconnect between what elite opinion is saying and what polls seem to be telling us about what popular opinion, broadly speaking, is saying. In the United States, there seems to have been a little bit of movement away from supporting the Biden withdrawal in the wake of the media onslaught. Has that been observable at all in the UK?
It’s complicated. Polls generally are quite contradictory in what they find. Because, depending on how you phrase the question, you will access a different part of someone’s structure of feeling about an issue. I think, by and large, there continues to be broad support for withdrawal. But, if you say to people, “Should British service personnel remain until such and such a goal is accomplished which is at odds with leaving on time?” then of course people can be persuaded to say, “Oh yeah, I think we should stay around until it’s being stabilized” or something like that. In other words: I don’t think there’s been a real shift. I just think that public opinion is contradictory, as on almost every other matter.
As for Biden, the only noticeable change that I’ve seen is that the Labour opposition dare not come out and attack him because they want to use his success and example for themselves. Which is a problem for them because Biden is outflanking them substantially to the left on a number of issues, to my amazement. But there has been, quite bizarrely, an ironic Biden cult emerging on parts of the Left. Don’t ask me why. But basically, in a contrarian sort of way, saying, “Well, he’s our guy now” and that kind of thing. He’s not. He never was, and he never will be. But there’s an element of provocation about it.
The catalyst for one of your recent pieces of writing was Tony Blair’s intervention into all of this — an intervention which really saw Blair, as it were, playing the hits from his days as Bush’s henchman in the war on terror. “The world,” he said, “is now uncertain of where the West stands because it is so obvious that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in this way was driven not by grand strategy but by politics.” He added: “Today we are in a mood which seems to regard the bringing of democracy as a utopian delusion and intervention virtually of any sort as a fool’s errand.” So, pretty much vintage 2003 neocon piety of a kind that in many ways scans as quite anachronistic today. You write, though, that “the British political class and its media outriders can’t resist him.” What exactly accounts for Tony Blair’s continued currency among the press and political class?
These people aren’t very smart — and I’m not merely being facetious about that. They skim along on the surface in terms of analysis. They read some opinion polls, they read some opinion pieces. They have PPEs from Oxford. They tend to have similar habitus and similar formation. Obviously, I’m speaking in very broad, generalized terms. There are of course exceptions and complexities and different internal mutations. But, speaking broadly, Tony Blair is, for that generation — for people who were formed by the decades in which he rose to power and then fell from power; who were formed by the long period of relative boom in capital’s terms and relative prosperity, particularly for anybody who owned a house, which would have included them — he is an object of nostalgia.
There’s a great deal of nineties revanchism, or recidivism, even in the United Kingdom. There’s a meme in British politics, the centrist dad. The centrist dad is the sort of guy who has box sets of Have I Got News for You, which your readers won’t know, but it’s a surprisingly popular comedy panel show featuring utterly vacuous satire. It was from an era in which there weren’t significant differences between the parties, so the satire was basically about personal failing, personal corruption, and occasional mocking the apolitical vapidities of New Labour, but was by and large completely co-opted into it. There was a whole cultural formation around this, and there’s quite a lot of fondness for the Blair era, particularly given that most journalists and most politicians are somewhere in the middle politically (though that’s probably decreasingly true of the Conservative Party given its long shift to the right). But that broadly reflects the political class and it probably reflects journalists.
There’s also Tony Blair himself. Say what you like about him: he may be dogmatic, he may be a maniac, he may be dripping in blood. But he’s charismatic, and he’s persuasive if you don’t know much about the subject. I’ve observed some of his interventions over the years and he’s good at picking his audience. Now, in this case, his audience is not the public. He’s not trying to persuade the public. And it’s important to recognize that since Blair was often accused of being obsessed with opinion polls and public popularity. He did a lot of things to aggravate the general public mood. He actually wasn’t that sort of person. He’s a meetings guy: he meets with movers and shakers. He meets with news executives with business executives, chief strategic planners in the military, etc. These are his people, and those are the people he’s talking to. He’s trying to shift opinion within the upper ranks of political, military, and economic power.
In this case, I think it was probably an intervention in Labour politics to stick in the spines of Starmer and the people around him — ultimately counterproductive because, as much as the media loves it when Tony Blair comes out with a statement on the latest issue of the day, it doesn’t really resonate. He doesn’t have much authority with the general public. There is a layer of people who still like him and always have, but it doesn’t shift opinion in any sense. The people who were going to be convinced already were convinced.
You called your recent piece “Disaster Liberalism” and, among other things, you situated the concept within the broader context of liberalism as a contradictory tendency — contradictory in the sense that it has historically been home to both egalitarian and universalist streaks but also to highly exclusionary and martial ones. What do you mean by “disaster liberalism” and why is it applicable in the current moment?
It’s pretty straightforward, this one. If you think about the arguments that were made for the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, they were straightforwardly liberal. I realize there is an aspect of this that’s neoconservative. But, if you look closely at neoconservative arguments, they are an interesting and contradictory fusion of Burkean conservative ideas and classically liberal ideas, and it’s the classical liberalism that I’m getting at here. So, of course there’s a tradition of liberalism that’s property-based — you can go back to Grotius and Locke and their justifications for colonialism and slavery. Grotius’s road to justification for colonialism was based upon the right to property, and even a justification for piracy based upon the right to property and the limits to where property could apply (so piracy on the high seas was no problem because ultimately no one could have property on the high seas!). It was perfectly permissible, provided you were punishing somebody who had done something wrong to you.
Locke argued that slavery was justified as a continuation of perpetuation of conquest. Essentially, they’re your captives and you deal with them how you like. It’s a right of war. Obviously, he favored the appropriation of territorial property on quasi-religious grounds (God’s command is that we improve the goods of the earth and make proper use of them, and if there are these tribes in North America who aren’t properly using them — and bear in mind he was a profiteer on this front — then we have every right to take that land and put it to good use).
I could go on, but I think it’s important to say this tradition opens up into warring camps, if you like. Although there is a critique of the racist, imperialist, and patriarchal aspects of enlightenment, it’s important to say that people like Kant argued against empire on fairly cosmopolitan and universalist grounds. Jeremy Bentham also argued against empire, as did Diderot. There was a strong anti-imperialist and universalist tradition within liberalism and that’s something to value. But, by and large, by the time of the 19th century, when empire is becoming its most bloody, you have people like John Stuart Mill and Charles Dickens — both sentimental liberal, moral reformers as far as the UK is concerned (perhaps that’s unfair to Mill, who I think was brilliant) — but when it came to the international order . . . I think I’d better read some quotes from him, because this is what he said: “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement and the means justified by actually affecting that end. . . . Until such time as they’re improved,” he went on, “to implicit obedience to an Akhbar or Charlemagne was their lot.”
In A Few Words on Non-Intervention, he argued for a strict dichotomy between the legal and political standards that you would apply to natives versus those that would apply to domestic citizens, and so on. It’s not based on biological racism, but it’s a strain of cultural chauvinism that should be reminiscent of the kind we saw in the war on terror, where there’s the constant argument around questions like “Is it fair to argue that the West is superior?” and a lot of muscular liberals saying “Of course it’s superior. You can’t say it’s all relative,” and essentially using that to justify Islamophobia.
You can find that in that tradition in Mill, Tocqueville, Roosevelt, Wilson (well, Woodrow Wilson was an out-and-out white supremacist, but he fused race thinking and blood thinking with some quite interesting liberal ideas about self-government). You can find it on the Left too: you can find it with the Fourierists, and to some extent in early Marx and Engels (where there are some quite brutal statements about the conquest of Algeria and the war on Mexico by the United States). You can find it particularly pungently in the Fabians who argued that essentially — again, I’m going to quote from them because it’s useful sometimes when people come out in such explicit terms — but essentially their argument was that Britain had an obligation to what they called the “non-adult races.” That was a term that they inserted into the Labour’s manifesto in 1919, which was otherwise a very radical manifesto.
Anyway, in response to the Boer War, in which there was quite a strong antiwar opinion in Britain — it was minoritarian but it existed — they argued that parliamentary institutions for native races was a dream that had been disposed of by the American experiments after the Civil War. In other words: letting black people rule themselves hadn’t worked. They were also impracticable in India, they said, and therefore the best that the natives could hope for was grandmotherly tyranny. So there’s an idea of racial uplift built into this strain of liberalism. It’s a paternalistic, benevolent kind of liberalism, which also turned out to be extremely bloody.
You have to understand that, at the time that these things were being said (for example, in relation to the Boer War) it’s a situation of concentration camps and mass murder. In relation to the Indian uprising and Mill’s justification for British power, it was massacres. At the time of the Indian uprising, Charles Dickens — who in other respects we think of as a conscientious liberal — wrote to his friend: “I wish I were commander in chief over there. I would address that Oriental character, which must be powerfully spoken to in something like the following placard: I, the inimitable, holding this office of mine, have the honor to inform you Hindu entry that it is my intention with all possible avoidance of unnecessary cruelty, and with all merciful swiftness of execution, to exterminate the race from the face of the earth, which disfigured the earth with abominable atrocities.” That’s an open call for genocide there.
In the context of the war on terror and liberal arguments being advanced, they began with, “We’re going to liberate these people, we’re going to emancipate these people from the twin despotism of Saddam and sanctions. We’re going to make their lives better. We’re going to bring them food.” This was Bush’s speech: “We’re going to bring them food, we’re going to bring the medicine, their lives are going to get better.” And then it becomes “We’re at war with Islamic fascism.” And then it becomes Christopher Hitchens saying, “Cluster bombs are pretty good, actually, because it’ll go straight through them and out the other side.” And then it becomes Sam Harris arguing that the people who speak most sensitively about Islam are actually fascists. You can see how quickly the fundamentally liberal argument for domination — a temporary domination, if you like — girded by the nineties revival of paternal imperialism under the rubric of humanitarian intervention, becomes vengeance. It becomes “We’re losing not because of anything we’ve done wrong, but because the enemy is barbaric, because the enemy is Al-Qaeda, because our enemies are psychopaths and murderers and rapists.”
As Hitchens said, “We can’t live on the same planet as them, and I’m glad because I don’t want to.” In other words: elimination, extermination. There’s always a danger in human tragedy of confusing the pleasures of aggression with virtue, and that has never been more pungently and obviously the case in my lifetime than during the period of triumphalist, chauvinist, browbeating, bullying, bloodthirsty, liberal imperialism in that era. And Blair was the most fervent advocate and champion of that era. So “disaster liberalism,” I would say, is putting it somewhat mildly.
Blair’s intervention seemed a bit anachronistic to me. What do you think the prospects are for this strain of liberalism after something like the Afghan withdrawal? There’s been this attempt to fall back on what you called 1990s revanchism, which we see rather limply running throughout the Starmer leadership (in other areas besides foreign policy). But to what extent do you think Blair’s intervention was a kind of last, desperate gasp of this strain of liberalism? Will imperial ventures continue to be justified in these terms and using this kind of rhetoric?
It depends on what register we’re talking about. Because, in a general way, capitalist empires tend to be liberal in their ideological justifications. There’s a structural reason for that inasmuch as most capitalist states are liberal democracies, and given that overt and biological forms of racism have been largely discredited and, further, that cultural racism (the Islamophobic variety, for example) is at least contested . . . there’s a need to have some sort of point of principle upon which you can say, “This time the violence is okay. This time it’s justified. This time, it’s exceptional.” And it’s always exceptional: it was exceptional in Vietnam, just as it was exceptional in El Salvador and Nicaragua, it was exceptional in Iraq, and so on. The latest war is always different from all previous wars, and that allows the liberal argument to continue.
However, I think the specific era of humanitarian intervention and “responsibility to protect” is gone. I think that it’s all dead. The era in which Bernard-Henri Lévy could go and find some allies in Libya or Afghanistan and call up the French president and get them to bomb someone on their behalf, that’s gone too. More generally, it’s fair to say that global power is being displaced. And I don’t mean that we’re in an apolar world because clearly the United States is the big power in the world and remains so. It’s nonetheless true that there’s a shift in the balance of global power in favor of other states like the People’s Republic of China and that their way of using economic soft power is posing a significant challenge to the future hegemony of the United States.
Indeed, it might be passé even to refer to his hegemony because, again, hegemony implies some sort of a values-based leadership, and it’s clear that that’s what’s falling apart. So I think it’s quite possible that we may enter a period in which, while there will still be brutal wars, it will be harder for them to be organized on the sort of basis that we inherited from the Cold War (in which the animating principle is about the “leadership of the free world” or something like that). Certainly, the civilizational motifs that were unleashed by the war on terror — unless something absolutely awful happens that unleashes this stuff again, which of course is not entirely unlikely — I think that stuff is in abeyance. However, even in the event of a major terror attack or something like that, the beneficiaries would probably be the far right. Not the liberals, not the neoconservatives, not the liberal internationalists.
We’re in a different era now, and there is quite clearly a recognition on the part of conservative parties, perhaps more so than parties of the center-left, that the old order is not sustainable; that things are shifting in ways that aren’t entirely predictable right now; and that, therefore, one needs to draw down one’s ambitions somewhat. It’s telling in that respect that the center-left parties of Europe are by and large more belligerent and more bellicose — especially the Labour right — than Biden and the people around him, who tend to be a bit more deferential to the Pentagon.
That old order is gone, but the pathologies that the era unleashed metastasized into various forms of militaristic chauvinism, nationalism, and racism. When you look at someone like Donald Trump, much as he claimed to be a big critic of the war in Iraq, he represented, in his own way, a concentrated expression of that strain of imperialism.