Khukuri: Barack, Badiou, and Bilal al Hasan

In what ways do (or should)  new configurations of capital and imperialism, seen globally, affect our analysis of policies of the US state and its tactical moves? In the following essay Don Hamerquist argues that, due to neglect of new structures of capital, the common left analyses of US imperialism and explanation of its policies are seriously deficient. Hamerquist goes on to give a beginning analysis of US policy (particularly in Afghanistan) and its objectives in a global context.

An earlier draft of this piece, with additional discussion, appeared in threewayfight.

We are living in the aftermath of an extended revolutionary process that had its debatable successes. But these were rapidly transformed into limits that are now obstacles to a more basic struggle against capital. To think seriously about revolutionary politics we must challenge some left presuppositions and develop new categories of strategic analysis that fit the qualitatively changed circumstances of the present period.

Barack, Badiou, and Bilal al Hasan

by Don Hamerquist

A few years ago I argued that significant changes in capitalist power and policy should require changes in the way the left approached global politics and working class revolution. At the time my focus was on globalization, the neoconservative phenomenon, and the war in Iraq.

This piece attempts to expand the discussion to include the impact of a global economic crisis and a different political face for the ruling class in the U.S. I hope to open up two questions: the first concerns the origins, objectives, and implications of ruling class strategic policy – particularly with respect to the flexibility to reconsider and change it. The other, and more important, question concerns the development of a more useful conceptual framework for the left. On the second point I rely substantially on Negri and Hardt’s critical treatment of the political framework associated with the Leninist theory of Imperialism – particularly as it was developed in their work, Empire. In case it is not completely clear from the context, this does not entail acceptance of major aspects of Negri’s approach to class analysis and revolutionary strategy. Some of these issues are considered in more detail in continuing discussions on the Three Way Fight website here and here. Obama has made his speech on Afghanistan and we should think about what it entails and implies.

The majority of the U.S. left looks at these issues in the context of classical conceptions of  imperialism, emphasizing the interests of U.S. capital in maintaining and extending its dominant position: in the first place against popular anti-imperialist movements; but with increasing frequency also against purported imperialist rivals.

Two examples:

“… this war is not about “defending the American people” — but establishing a stable U.S. domination over a highly strategic arc reaching from Iran…to Pakistan…It is a war for consolidating U.S. domination in large parts of the world.” Ely, Kasama.

“All this … is about oil. But not just oil, but all other resources, and not just resources, but the control of those resources and the fear of a rising multi-polarity being led by the Chinese with accompaniment by a renewed belligerence of Russia and the rising economic power of Brazil and India among others (the BRIC nations).” Miles, Znet (12/4).

I realize these short excerpts don’t adequately express either Ely or Miles’s full positions. However, taking them as they stand, whatever their other merits, neither helps explain why Obama is implementing this particular policy and not another – potentially quite different – one.

“…Protecting the U.S.”; establishing an “…arc of domination” in SouthWest Asia; acting against a, “…rising multi-polarity” within the global capitalist system, may or may not point to some of the motivations that underlie U.S. policy in general, but the goal of “U.S. domination” could arguably be implemented through policies which were quite different. Non-military interventions could be pursued rather than costly and unpromising wars.  A concentration on mounting problems closer to the “homeland” could be prioritized to ensure there there actually was a more “stable” base from which to expand “U.S. domination”.

The other day I ran across this in a column by Tom Friedman, perhaps the best known publicist for global capitalism:

“Frankly, if I had my wish we would be on our way out of Afghanistan not in, we would be letting Pakistan figure out which Taliban they want to conspire with and which one they want to fight, we would be letting Israelis and Palestinians figure out on their own how to make peace, we would be taking $100 billion out of the Pentagon budget to make us independent of imported oil…” Port Angeles Daily News, Jan. 18, 2010 (I’m not sure when or if this ran in the N.Y. Times, Friedman’s homeport.)

There is no question whether Friedman would prefer a stable U.S. domination over this section of the world – this “strategic arc – of course he would. There is no question that Friedman is worried about the weakening of U.S. economic power relative to its capitalist competition and to the challenges it faces – he’s written a number of irritating books on the subject. But there is also no question that he supports a substantially different approach from the current Obama policy. This possibility for substantially different ruling class policies from sectors and spokespeople of the class that share substantial agreements on assumptions and objectives, should motivate us to look beyond our own generic ‘explanations’. This is particularly true when, as is the case here, these explanations are firmly rooted in the political categories of a past where we didn’t do all that well.


So what “facts” support these postulated U.S. imperialist objectives in Afghanistan? Do the gas pipelines, the narcotics trade, the copper mining proposals and similar factors create a clear interest for U.S. capital that is appropriately pursued by this grotesquely asymetric use of military force? Which U.S. ruling class factions have organized to promote these interests?  Where is the trail of influence from these alleged interests to the adopted policy?

If the goal in Afghanistan actually is that of “consolidating U.S. domination,” one obvious objective would be establishing a friendly and stable pro-capitalist regime. Exactly how does a more consolidated domination emerge out of increasingly destabilized territories and regimes? An institutionalized and protracted external domination is certainly implied by the Obama policy, but this will make Afghanistan and the region less friendly and a whole lot less stable, not more so.

It is hard to see how a, “stable consolidated U.S. domination” might develop out of these policies under the best conditions. If it is also assumed that U.S. policy is confronting a “rising multi-polarity”, based in rival centers of capitalist power that are looking to gain some relative advantage, failure is virtually guaranteed. This leaves us with a postulated goal – stable consolidated domination – that would be completely at odds with the means – military conquest and occupation by limited forces. My firm belief is that the ruling class does not subject itself to stress tests that it has no reason to believe it can pass.  We must find better explanations for what is happening than these.

Let’s look a little closer at the “rising multi-polarity” version of interimperialist conflict that is presented by Miles. There is no doubt that there are inter-imperialist conflicts and contradictions in the region, but what is their relationship to this Afghanistan policy?  Does any potential inter-imperialist conflict over Afghan resources or its strategic location (U.S/NATO. vs. BRIC is the one Miles proposes) outweigh the historic conflicts in the region – between Russia and China, between China and India, between India and Pakistan? Does it outweigh all three country’s counterparty status or the dependence of the BRIC states on inter-imperialist coordination to maintain stability in the international financial and commodities markets? Does it outweigh their common interests in managing internal populist unrest – perhaps with Chinese Uighers and Russian Chechens – or threats to Russia’s interests in the formerly soviet ‘stans’? Does it outweigh the common interests of these rivals in combatting “terrorism”, such as that flowing from Naxalite peasant insurgency, from newly marginalized Chinese workers, or from neo-fascist tendencies in the ruling Hindi elites and among the Russian National Bolsheviks. I’d say no, inter-imperialist contradictions don’t outweigh these factors, and if there were any possibility that they might, we wouldn’t be in Afghanistan in the way that we are – nor in Iraq, for that matter.

(Thomas Barnett’s essay of a few years ago, “Recasting the Long War as a Joint Sino-American Venture,” provides a good picture of ruling class approaches to such issues and makes it pretty clear that these considerations are well integrated into the discussions of alternative policies in ruling class circles.)

In short, most left explanations of the underpinnings and objectives of Obama’s Afghanistan policy don’t provide an adequate explanation of the concrete policy: of the adaptations it might undergo in the future; of the policy alternatives to it – such as Friedman’s – that may or may not be viable. Actually they are worse than inadequate because, sometimes explicitly and sometimes by default, they contribute to the widespread left common sense that holds that it is not particularly important to look for coherent explanations of specific ruling class policies. Perhaps because, as Kolko has said, there are no such explanations since ruling class policies are just an incoherent resultant of the interplay of the most immediate and crass motives of economic and political self and sectoral interest.

Other analyses come to similar results without utilizing Kolko’s variant of chaos theory. They see U.S. capitalism being pushed towards desperation making it prone to fundamentally illogical, even irrational, positions – to ‘mistakes’. Such positions were more popular and more explicit during the previous administration – particularly with respect to Iraq policy. The Bush regime was easy to picture as ignorant and venal, mistake-prone and even incompetent from a ruling class perspective. It was easy but, I think, essentially wrong. This mindset contributes to a dumb left optimism in which analyses of ruling class motives and perspectives are regarded as unproductive and unnecessary. In the process the all important distinctions between a radical and a liberal opposition to ruling class policies gets muddy. For a case in point, look at the pervasive overestimation of the different policies that a supposedly more clear-headed incoming Obama administration would pursue. Many on the left went this route and are still scrambling to catch up.

In fact, except for some unimportant, largely cosmetic, trappings, Obama is much the same as Bush. In Afghanistan, Obama hopes to apply some lessons and experiences learned from Iraq and in doing so is incurring very real domestic costs and taking significant risks just as Bush did, most notably in Iraq. Despite much public rhetoric to the contrary (particularly from the remnants of the Bush camp now that it is removed from policy-making), the policy directions chosen by both administrations place the hegemony and domestic stability of the U.S., the “sole superpower”, at risk, but nevertheless are still rational attempts to defend and extend capitalist power when the frame of reference is global, not national, and the political, economic and social stability in the U.S. is not the primary point of reference. (I think that Panitch and Gindin and, particularly, David Harvey, have a parallel position on some of these points, particularly in terms of economic processes – however their political conclusions may be quite different than mine.)

Global capitalist interests

How might global capitalist interests be operative in Obama’s Afghanistan policies? A full answer, includes the structural elements of the current economic crisis and is beyond the scope this argument. However, there are clear hints of a partial answer in the language that Obama used to present his policy at West Point – especially when it is augmented by the language used a few days later in Oslo when he accepted his bizarre award of a “Peace Prize”.

Obama said that the policy towards Afghanistan was part of a strategic response to a “real danger” from; “…disorderly regions, diffuse enemies; and ‘failed states’.” In the Nobel speech he stressed in Bush-like phrases; “I deal with the world as it is…(and)…There is evil in the world”.

I wrote down the former phrase at the time I heard it, but I’ve seen no reference to it in the commentary on that speech. Hopefully, at least some of the Fourth Generation War websites will eventually pick it up. I’m sure that the invocation of evil in the Oslo presentation was not missed, but without the earlier passage as a context, it becomes a rhetorical flourish with only an ambiguous practical significance.

However, taken together, these phrases point towards a rationale for Afghanistan policy that makes some sense for a global ruling class facing a secular crisis, if not for a national U.S. ruling class, focused on internal stability and on maintaining its relative power position in a classically imperialist structure. Consequently, unlike Tom Engelhardt, I do not find Obama’s pursuit of a very expensive Afghan policy instead of a, “…reasonable jobs program at home…”, to be a “…strange wonder of the world..” ZNet 12/13/09.

This Obama statement opens some important questions: What is the danger in Afghanistan? Who is responding to the danger and in what ways? Focusing on these questions, not the logical errors and factual irrelevancies, and the bloated patriotic rhetoric which filled both the West Point and Oslo speeches, will open some possibilities to position what is happening within the context of global capital and international class struggle.

3 working hypotheses

I’d suggest three working hypotheses, recognizing that their validity is provisional. Their similarity with certain elements of the Negri/Hardt approach should be noted:

1.    At the end of the last century, the global capitalist system rapidly extended the penetration of what used to be called the ‘second’ and ‘third’ worlds. It now faces an growing difficulty profitably utilizing the labor that it has ‘freed’ and endowed with new needs and demands. This increasingly marginalized labor force is also increasingly mobile. This is one underpinning for a general populist threat to global capital that contains both liberatory and reactionary elements.The problems and conflicts, the social turmoil that this process entails, cannot be quarantined even under the best of circumstances and it now affects the entire system, including the capitalist core areas.

A variety of political projects with a diverse array of antagonisms and accomodations to the global capitalist system are attempting to organize this growing base of fundamental discontent. Global capital sees the populist threat as the major current challenge to its continued dominance and is focused on developing a response to its jihadist components. This is a real priority that is acknowledged and implemented by virtually all national segments of capital. It is not a pretext or a facade to provide space and resources to pursue other goals although it will certainly be used for such purposes, if and when the opportunity develops.

2.    The collapse of the global financialization system and the serious cyclical crisis that is related to it have exposed structural limitations on capitalist accumulation. The growing problems maintaining profitability and cultural hegemony within the core areas of the capitalist system are compounded by the emergence of the issues of the gap in the core. This has increased the awareness within capitalist elites of the need for major structural adjustments, but this awareness is constrained in the core by the increasingly limited flexibility for material and incorporative concessions to the working classes. The same limitations restrict the tools, particularly the non-military tools, available to deal with political challenges in gap regions – such as Afghanistan.

These factors combine to undercut the ruling class confidence that capitalist development has enough momentum to surmount the complex of emerging threats and instabilities. Certainly any confidence that these challenges can be dealt with simultaneously is weakened. In place of the eroding confidence that capitalism can automatically incorporate all potential futures, is a growing recognition that history may not have ended and that securing the future prospects for capitalism requires at least a major restructuring of its disciplinary apparatus and a risky reordering of political and economic priorities.

3.    There are major issues with the current organization and application of capitalist power. To efficiently advance the interests of capital, global political and economic considerations should determine the rational use of power, but this power is politically organized within an increasingly dysfunctional nation state framework. This is a problem at the top when military capabilities become inflexible and unwieldy – not properly oriented to asymetric non-state threats where specific and rapidly changing political factors must outweigh technical military considerations. At least potentially it is also a problem from below when the structures of privilege and subordinated participation through formal parliamentarism that have provided some stable national bases for capitalist power don’t work in the ways that they have historically.


I intend to say a few things about how I see these three points in play in Afghanistan policy. First, although it may already be apparent, I should make it explicit that these points assume the essential validity of Negri’s point in ‘Empire’:

“The United States does not, and indeed, no nation-state can today, form the center of an imperialist project.” (Empire, p. xiv)

It may be less obvious, but my argument will diverge significantly from another Negri position:

“The guarantee that Empire offers to globalized capital does not involve a micropolitical and/or microadministrative management of populations. The apparatus of command has no access to the local spaces and the determinate temporal sequences of life…” (Empire, p. 344)  I think that this is a mistaken and dangerous view. In my opinion such a “management of populations” is exactly what is being developed and with some success.

Remember a few short decades ago when Carter and Breszhenski schemed to bring down the Soviet union by giving it “its own Vietnam” in Afghanistan. Are any rival national centers of capitalist power oriented towards entangling the U.S. in Afghanistan this way? I think not – and also with respect to Iraq. This certainly cannot be explained by a fear of U.S. military and economic power which has demonstrated increasingly clear limits. I find the best explanation to be that, notwithstanding the talk of  conflicts with China and “a rising multi-polarity”,  the global ruling elites increasingly subordinate inter-imperialist rivalries to a growing appreciation of common enemies and common risks. This emergent sense of an over-riding common interest is reflected in the virtually universal support of every state for what is called a called the “war on terror”. It is reflected in the generalized cooperation to regain some equilibrium in global financial systems and commodities markets.

In distinction from Negri, who places minimal weight on all elements of consciousness and organization –including those that might impact ruling class policies, I think there is an emerging global capitalist project lurking beneath the Obama pronouncements, and it is important that we understand it. I want to speculate about this process in two areas: – one with implications for the gap (warzone), and particularly the “non-integrating” seams in the gap; the other with implications for the old core (homeland). (I’m assuming some familiarity with these gap/core categories from Thomas Barnett that I have been using, however their meaning should be obvious from the context.)

Afghanistan is both a specific problem and a manifestation of more general ones in an important regional zone of disorder. For global capital, Afghanistan is an opportunity to experiment with new ways to discipline increasingly unruly populations while maintaining and even extending capitalist control over global flows of capital and labor. It is an opportunity, as well, to develop better techniques to disorient and demobilize emerging challenges to capital’s global disciplinary regime. At its core I believe that the Obama “surge” is such a test of new methods and new tools. It is a concrete project in which most sections of global capital share definite common interests. Of course, it is not a project that represents an overt and thorough-going ruling class consensus. There are remaining conflicts and contradictions on important issues and these are sometimes quite evident in policy differences – particularly on questions of tactics. But, I think, the underlying common interest is pretty clear to capital and should be to anti-capital as well.

(Before getting further into these questions of ruling class policy, I would like to inject a parenthetical note of caution: It is hard to raise such issues without implying that ruling class policy is more consciously calculated and coordinated than the available evidence shows. What I say here will be subject to such a reading. So from the outset I want to be clear that I don’t mean to deny that there is, and will always be, a range of contradictory factors; elements of controversy and indeterminacy, not to mention incompetence, that go into the formation of ruling class policy. I hope what I say doesn’t lead to the substitution of assumed conspiracies for a concrete investigation of actual processes. This can lead to a host of political problems that frequently end in passivity and defeatism.

However, in this instance I’m more worried about the opposite problem, the underestimation of the extent and impact of the organization and planning that goes into maintaining capitalist power. The fact is that any approach we take to radical political organizing will have to make some operating assumptions on this issue before the investigations that could establish their validity are complete and when the most pertinent results are not widely available. In our situation, I think that it is prudent to adopt the protective principle of ecological science and work from the assumption of the worst case. Considering the massive resources the capitalist state devotes to its own defense and assuming that this produces some usable product, this is probably not only the prudent course, but the wise one as well. As Mao might have learned before leaving the scene, it’s very important to avoid any tendency to underestimate the enemy – and that means strategically, not just tactically.)

Strategy in Afghanistan

To me it seems that the Afghanistan surge is not premised on a victory over the Taliban, the eradication of Al Qaeda, or any type of nation building. I think that “winning” in Afghanistan is not about establishing a relatively stable pro-capitalist nation state that is a more docile part of a U.S. sphere of influence (a completely utopian objective under any scenario). Instead, consider Afghanistan as Obama described it; a “failed state”, in a “disorderly region” containing “diffuse enemies”. Afghanistan is the archetypical disorderly region, and it is not insignificant that it has many features placing it on the dark side of the establishment’s manichaean discourses on Evil. If the force structure focused on Afghanistan is clearly unable to achieve a traditional military victory that should indicate to us, not that it is some kind of a mistake, but that it is probably meant to achieve different goals.

A more likely goal of this policy is that it is a test, oriented towards developing and controlling balkanized enclaves through direct relations with empowered reactionary elements of civil society, bypassing centralized governmental structures including compradorial ones. This will be an attempt to relate directly to all sides of all existing social divisions, hoping to gain effective control over the resources of the underground and illegal economy and to fragment any potential nationalist or internationalist resistence that has an anti-capitalist aspect to it. In pursuing such objectives, the tacit assumption is that the “disorderly region”  will remain disorderly and that these methods of domination are being worked out for the long haul and have more than a provisional and local significance.

Notably the surge discounts the significance of the imperialist initiated “national” borders – with Pakistan, with the ex-Soviet stans, with Iran – while building up centrifugal pressures towards micro states and ethnic fiefdoms with their accompanying internal borders – both geographic and social. But even while implementing this segmenting project, the surge can and will utilize organizational forms and policies that are as transnational as those of the Jihadis, while providing an effective deniability of the blood trail back to the actual originators of the policy.

This approach can be detected in what was said and what was not said in the speeches. Note the careful reference to direct contact with local officials and leaders bypassing the Kabul central authority with its ethnic limitations that make further “military training” beside the point; note the careful reference to the surge of “civilian” experts on agricultural (read drug) policy  and other sensitive issues; note the careful lack of reference to the surge of “civilian” and military contractors which is equal or greater numerically and certainly in the breadth of function to that of the formal military forces. Note the lack of mention of any public accountability, benchmarks or timetables for these contractors, either military or “civilian”, or for the operation of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC, McChrystal’s last gig) which functions covertly throughout the region, well beyond the feeble political oversight that nominally constrains the CIA. Finally, note well the absense of any mention of who and what is involved in the expanding operations in Pakistan.

What is emerging out of this are secret intelligence gathering and arms distribution systems and other military capabilities, all of which is privatized, and – although this is far from the defining feature – all of which is exceptionally profitable. Elements of the U.S; ruling elite (with clear international connections) have actively pursued this goal since the mid-twentieth century. The pursuit intensified following the collapse of  the Soviet Union and the emergence of new forms of Muslim insurgency.   DYNCORP, L-3, FLUOR, XE Systems, etc., all of whom are acknowledged players in Afghanistan, are such assets for capital; able to circumvent the limitations on state militaries and provide deniability to actual policy makers; sufficiently flexibile and robust to respond quickly to shifting needs while bypassing the bureaucratic parliamentary filters.

Pinkertonized class warfare

This looks something like a rerun on a global scale of the Pinkertonized class warfare of the nineteenth century in this country. But it is more than that. There is a particularly modern character to these formations: they are operating within the context of a global capitalism, not within a national state; and they are confronted with structural limits on capitalism that were not a factor in the period of Molly Maguires or the Moyer, Pettibone, Haywood trial.

As emerging oppositions have become less susceptible to a gradual evolutionary political incorporation within the framework of capitalist expansion, they also have become more difficult to eliminate by traditional military or police methods because their social preconditions are constantly regenerated by essential dynamics of capital accumulation.      Consequently, I think that we must assume that the privatized, multinationally-staffed contractors that are already doing the targeting for the drones and the hit squads in Pakistan and elsewhere will have developed networks of covert operatives and agents of influence that will enlarge their potential uses and increase their importance in the near future. If these paramilitaries can develop sufficient information to accurately target jihadist leaders, they can also be positioned to more fundamentally affect the tactics of the resistance through systematic penetration and an increasingly tight encapsulization. One likely result will be more anomolies in the mold of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia – more of those “terrorists” most likely to demoralize a revolutionary population and expedite an expanded counter-insurgency.

These new tools do not and will not operate autonomously. Their oversight may be strategic rather than operational, but there is not much doubt who will ultimately provide the money and determine the jobs. It will not be any section of the state apparatus that is remotely accountable, you can bet on that…but it will be elements and appendages of the global ruling class, you can bet on that as well.

As capital develops these capacities with respect to jihadists, there will be ramifications shortly down the road for other situations and other resistances – think Haiti. These will impact anti-capitalist movements with radically different agendas and perspectives than most Islamic radicals. The capacities that are being developed in this privatized force structure will push beyond repression and suppression of external (to this country) populisms to policies to influence and distort the character and objectives of all oppositions, internally as well as externally, class-based as well as populist.

The gap and the core

To recap, capital currently faces a real danger from populism in the gap, and the gap is increasingly less defined and limited by geography because of the mobility of populations and the increasing access to information and new forms of communication. Moreover, the current crisis confounds all of the forms of capitalist triumpalism, including that of the Barnetts and the Friedmans (T. not M.), because there is no longer any compelling evidence that the gap is shrinking in any real sense. This means that the challenges to global capital from this populism will become larger and more urgent, rather than dwindling into only marginal significance.

Afghanistan is one of the regions of the world where for the historical moment global capital has some flexibility to respond to these dangers experimentally with minimal worries about issues of moral standing or legitimacy in the exercise of power. However, such operations can hardly hope to achieve a social equilibrium in Afghanistan in any meaningful time frame and they are even less likely to initiate favorable trends on a broader scale. The likelihood is that the more effective these new methods prove to be, the more they will make themselves needed – and the more expensive, economically and politically, they will become.

This points to the linkage between the issues in the gap and some emerging questions of capitalist hegemony in the core. The economic and cultural cushions that have supported hegemony in the core are wearing thin as the actual and prospective actions in the gap are becoming more costly, and now with significant elements of the costs in blood. That is the problem for capital and it is a large one. As more resources have to be directed at fundamental instabilities in the gap and their actual and potential spillovers into the core, the problems of maintaining an adequate hegemonic flexibility at home grow larger.

The global dominance of capital has rested on its hegemony in stable nation states in the core. For a variety of historical reasons, these are regions where the ruling class is, and probably must be, concerned with maintaining legitimacy in the exercise of power and avoiding the collateral damages from an excessive reliance on repression. In these base areas it has been possible to both maintain and disguise essential capitalist rule through a network of incorporative privileges – but these are increasingly hard to sustain, politically or economically, and it is impossible to expand them significantly except in the most localized conditions.

The requirements and conditions for capitalist stability change as a range of tensions emerge between its globalized pursuit of surplus value and its nation – based system of rule and, increasingly they will be set by larger issues of global power and profit. To avoid a general spiral down towards the pit, capitalist priorities cannot be limited within national borders or allowed to be overly influenced by nationalist sentiment. But this is no easy course. Certainly in this country it is almost hopelessly hard for the ruling class to politically explain the rescue of multi-national and foreign financial institutions while sacrificing Detroit; the borrowing of billions to finance wars that make no sense while a pathetic health care “reform” must be deficit neutral. If it happens as it well may, it will be hard to explain bailing out Spain, Greece, and Austria rather than California. But there is no framework of global capitalist legitimacy as a base from which to adjudicate the resulting conflicts.

An increase in authoritarianism and repression can only be an inadequate and partial, probably temporary, solution, because any general resort to reliance on repressive methods will accumulate its own risk factors. The maintenance of political equilibrium in the core nations depends on an essential passivity which contains grievances and undercuts capacities and potentials for mass collective resistance. Many aspects of capitalist discipline and control are obscured by this accepted subordination, more accurately a repressive self-discipline that limits natural resistances to oppression and authority. This culture is a major part of capitalist strength and resiliency and it is not an advantage that will easily be surrendered. Consequently, I think that major increases in repression, and, particularly, overtly imposing elements of a repressive authoritarian “world government” in the U.S. or elsewhere presents unacceptable risks – at least for now.


This leaves capital struggling to develop more effective methods to discipline new populations and regions, while facing growing problems maintaining social cohesion and a non-police centered discipline in its traditional centers where material conditions are also deteriorating. One possible general response of capital to this dilemma, the one that I believe will eventually predominate, is what has been called global social democracy. (Following Walden Bello, although he appears to have recently backed away from his conception.)

Since the vision of shared prosperity has become a pretty threadbare joke and significant improvements in material conditions are not a general possibility, such a new form of social democracy must provide an its own new alternative to the Fordist wage/consumption underpinning for class collaboration. And it is not hard to see what will be central to any such alternative. It will be fear:

“Fear is the ultimate guarantee of the new segmentations.”(Negri, Empire, p. 339).

The primary fear will be of an enemy that might emerge from the populist reaction to capital. An enemy consisting of “fanatics who hate us and our freedom” to paraphrase from the house of George. An enemy that is mainly in the gap, but that be expected to materialize in the core as well. An enemy pictured as anti-modern, anti-liberatory and neo-fascist – a picture that has plausibility because it points to significant reactionary elements of existing mass populist movements.

On the one hand, this fear will be generated from capital’s recognition and popularization of actual dangers from the right to its continued hegemony. It will be magnified and embroidered as segments of the ruling class appreciate the usefullness of a new set of  “enemies” to replace the popular narrative of the “communist danger”. (It’s beyond the scope of this argument, but I think that another largely fabricated contribution to this popular “fear” will emerge through the manipulation and marketing of the ecological crisis to confine alternative responses within an essentially Malthusian assumptions. Defining the essential ecological problem as too many “other people”.)

We had a major historical experience in WWII with a repressive right wing structure of authoritarian rule in this country. This was  not just a manifestation of imperialism at war. It was also a global response from capital to a perceived threat from a transcapitalist fascism and a potential threat from communism. This provided a framework that incorporated the willing participation of the overwhelming bulk of the left and progressive forces under the rubric of a popular front against fascism greased by a return to a militarized full employment. Despite its repressive content, the process presented itself and is still commonly viewed as a continuation of the social democratic momentum of the New Deal.

Currently, big sections of the near left – at least in this country and probably throughout most of the other “developed” areas – are more than open to a refurbished variant of the same structure. The other side of this possibility, and, in a sense, the proof of its real potential, lies in the lack of a militant anti-war movement after a decade of exquisitely rotten wars; in the lack of class conscious anti-capitalist militance, solidarity and internationalism at a time of capitalist crisis that is increasing exploitation, marginalization, and oppression around the world.

New categories of strategic analysis

What I have argued above is sketchy and tentative, but I am relatively confident of some points. We are living in the aftermath of an extended revolutionary process that had its debatable successes. But these were rapidly transformed into limits that are now obstacles to a more basic struggle against capital. To think seriously about revolutionary politics we must challenge some left presuppositions and develop new categories of strategic analysis that fit the qualitatively changed circumstances of the present period. However, while we cannot adequately deal with new political questions without a clearer understanding of the struggles of the past century, an understanding that avoids both nostalgia and meaningless recriminations, we are going to have to act, moving ahead with whatever intellectual, moral, and material resources are available to us, well before we have this adequately grounded understanding of our collective past.

I’d like to finish this piece with a more explicit treatment of attempts to refurbish one of the old categories – that of anti-imperialist national liberation. Given the emergence of important mass populist movements in the gap in response to a generalized crisis of living conditions there, it is logical that there would be a renewed interest in the revolutionary potentials of mass struggles of oppressed peoples against external political and economic domination.

A recent discussion on a more limited topic on the Gathering Forces website raised a point that I think is a good starting place:

“…we need to revisit the Third Worldist imagination – not the politics of the national bourgeoisie (radical or otherwise), but the masses who resisted and provided a potential alternative to capitalist Bandung modernization – the “third revolution”.”(mlove, comment on Economic Crisis in the Third World, 11/09)

I certainly agree that this “third revolution” should be revisited in light of the current conditions. But it should be clear from the outset that yesterday’s potentials are not easily resurrected. It is an illusion to think that the movement for national liberation can be rebuilt and produce different and better outcomes, if only some obvious mistakes are not made a second time. The weight of the past including its failures, combines with transformed present circumstances to qualitatively change what can and should be done in the future – closing some possibilities and opening others.  I’m sure that mlove would agree that the revisiting of the “third revolution” should start from a critical reconsideration of whether it still might provide a “…potential alternative to capitalist Bandung modernization…” –or if it ever did.

Here again I want to begin with a passage from Negri; although with the usual ambivalence because he offers so much else with which to disagree.

“From India to Algeria and Cuba to Vietnam, the state is the poisoned gift of national liberation.”      (Empire, p. 136, Negri emphasis)

In my opinion, cross class coalitions in oppressed nations, challenging imperialist power and demanding national independence and socialism were the most important element of the international struggle against capital for much of the last century. But I agree with Negri that they will not play that role going ahead. We aren’t confronting Lenin’s Imperialism, which for the benefit of the censors he called capitalism’s highest stage while actually thinking it was its end point – just a step short of international working class revolution. This conception of imperialism is no longer strategically relevant. The set of possibilities that constituted its antithesis, anti-imperialist national liberation, is politically exhausted and will not be revived by the new populisms which appropriate some of its characteristics – not even when these go well beyond rhetorical posturing and include a rejection of some elements of global capital, as they do from time to time.

The historic national liberation struggle was indelibly marked and is increasingly limited by the specific context in which it developed – a context which has been decisively modified. This changed context has two important and closely related elements: First; classically, imperial domination was a relationship between a developed capitalism and an exploitable “outside” as Luxemburg conceptualized it. Imperialism was an external force over the “Third World”, and the class alignments and attitudes in both metropolis and periphery reflected this. The most powerful imperialist states essentially pillaged and destroyed non-capitalist societies by appropriating their surpluses and dumping their economic and social problems on them.

The economic side of this process and its essentially transitional character are forecast in the well known passages on the tendency of capital towards the creation of a world market in the Grundrisse (p. 408-410). Now this transition is essentially complete and these ex-colonial societies for the most part have been thoroughly incorporated into global capitalist production and thoroughly penetrated by capitalist institutions and ideologies. They have developed into capitalist societies and while they are typically a different form of capitalism than in the core, they are still part of capitalism and are no longer an outside to its global system. Here it should also be noted that this capitalist global system has now also subsumed the “Second World” and is scavenging the carcasses of  “actually existing socialism” and obliterating any trace of that ‘different path’ to political and economic development.

The social classes of these post colonial regions have interfaced with globalized ruling and ruled class structures. Little remains to anchor a progressive multi-class front against a clearly defined imperialist oppressor nation. Instead, a progressive momentum requires coalitions of working classes and marginalized strata in the gap that have a more concrete anti-capitalist and internationalist orientation; an orientation that that aims for solidarity with all similar forms of resistance and that particularly opposes the forms in which domestic and foreign capital is combined into unified ruling structures and policies – in “their” states and quasi-states.

Second, during the classic period of anti-imperialist struggle in the mid-twentieth century, it was widely accepted that “socialism”, as embodied the so-called socialist bloc, was a real alternative path to modernization and economic development., It was believed that socialism, despite its problems, was a viable base from which to challenge both capitalist markets and capitalist culture. The more progressive and radical anti-imperialist movements all specified that their political objectives included national independence and socialism.

When this “actually existing socialism” proved illusory for the global working class struggle, it likewise disappointed the movements for national liberation. Any possible progressive trajectory for a cross-class anti-imperialist movement looking towards gaining state power in an independent nation and joining a socialist camp was rapidly eroded. No socialist camp; meant no sustainable alternative to the capitalist world market which translated to little genuine sovereignty and power from formal “national independence” and even less of  a genuinely liberatory content from the “victories” of national liberation movements.

“It is strange now to have to recall this amalgam of ideological perversions that grew out of the … democratic hopes of socialist representation… And while we say our farewells we cannot but remember how many ideological by-products, more or less fascist, the great historical experiences of socialism were condemned to drag in their wake, some merely useless sparks and others devastating infernos..” (Negri, Multitude, P. 255)

This dual historical failure of both ‘socialism’ and ‘anti-imperialism’ left more than political vacuums. They left a disillusionment and cynicism that provide a social base for the anti-capitalism of the right as well as for secessionist orientations that seek special solutions and unique benefits for some in a rotten combination with a general dehumanization of living conditions for many.

Badiou and Bilal al Hasan

In his late 2008 presentation; “Is the Word ‘Communism’ Forever Doomed?” (see Kasama, 9/30/09), Alain Badiou has presented a framework that I think is helpful in settling accounts with our collective past.  I’m a newcomer to Badiou and certainly don’t have an adequate understanding of his recent positions, much less his earlier ones. However, what I think I understand I like a great deal and it will be the basis of the rest of what I write here.

“Our problems are much more the problems of Marx than the problems of Lenin…” (Badiou, “Is the Word ‘Communism’ Forever Doomed”, p. 18, Kasama, 9/30)

The “problems of Lenin”, according to Badiou, fit within an extended phase of the revolutionary process; “…from 1917, the Russian Revolution, to 1976, the end of the Cultural Revolution in China… ” This is a phase that has ended with a generally acknowledged string of failures to achieve the fundamental stated objective – a rapid transition from local seizures of state power to an inclusive stateless communist society. As I have said above, I think that the massive upsurge of the national liberation struggle, the reason why it contained much greater revolutionary potential than the earlier nationalisms of the 19th century, is inextricably linked with this phase of the communist project and similarly tied to its failures.

We are left with the problem placed by Bilal al Hasan in a more limited context:

“…the question here is what comes after the end of a revolution and its failure.” (This was part of a commentary on the Palestinian movement on the Gathering Forces website.)

Badiou argues for a conceptual return to the standpoints of the 19th century, but not on the premise that a simple class polarization can be resurrected through some act of political will. He is concerned with an issue of philosophical stance – with posing the idea of communism in terms of the “conditions of its identity” – a 19th century problem – and not as a question of “…the victory of the communist hypothesis” – the problem of Lenin and the party/state and of the revolutionary movement for most of the past century.

This line of argument is relevant to the revisiting of third world revolution. Badiou indicates the elements of the communist hypothesis in the nineteenth century as combining, “…the idea of communism as a popular mass movement with the notion of savior of all.” (P. 15). The original conception of communism was that of a multiform struggle that would embody and culminate in universal emancipation through, the “…process of the Decline of the State.” (P.14)

In my opinion the core element in this conception is the inseparable linkage of the notion of, “savior of all”, stressing the universality of the project, with the destruction of the state – a state that is sometimes defined inclusively by Badiou as; “…all that limits the possibility of collective creation” (P. 14). The vanguard parties and revolutionary blocs characteristic of the 20th century had a different orientation. In Badiou’s terms they were party/state formations which might seize and hold power locally but could not transform social relations because their essential character incorporated features of a state. Thus they inevitably became the antagonist of the mass “Communist movement” (Badiou’s term). But only through such a movement, that is necessarily, “beyond the state” (Badiou), can communism be achieved.

It is quite clear that even the best of the national liberation fronts were essentially party/state formations. They functioned even more as shadow governments than did the vanguard parties. The discipline they enforced was more overtly military and not subject to even the more or less hypothetical democratic forms of vanguard parties or to the objective limits that are inherent in a defined class base.

These movements were nationalist, (including some more hopeful pan-nationalist and ‘continental’ formations that were of limited temporal and geographic duration). At their best, they  treated liberation as more a matter of autonomy and expanded rights of self determination, than of internationalism and solidarity. This is demonstrated indirectly by how unique the Guevara experience was. This view was supported in an ultimately damaging way by the Maoist version of Marxism when it elevated the conception of self-reliance, “juche” as Kim Il Sung presented it, over that of internationalism.

These issues are coming to the front currently around questions of the character of the populist resistance to global capital, particularly, but not exclusively, in the gap. To what extent do these developments project a fascist, rather than a liberatory, alternative to global capital? To what extent are they contained or containable within neo-colonial limits? These are important issues that I’ve written about in some of the discussions previously cited. I’m not going into them substantively here except to note the importance of recognizing that no general recognition of contradictory potentials can or should substitute for concrete evaluations of specific cases. And our goal in such concrete evaluations should always be more than clarifying problems and limitations, it must also include a real attempt to discover and build on the best possibilities.

That said, we should also be categorically clear that universal liberation is not to be achieved through movements structured to limit creative participation whether or not this is presented as an element of their ‘self determination’ and cultural autonomy. This is particularly relevant concerning the role and status of women and the attitudes towards the use of force and violence. I will leave these points as they stand for now, but feel obligated to confess that I’ve been around long enough to have made major mistakes on all conceivable sides of such questions.

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