Potential imperial co-option of the radical left in Syria

This interview with Josha Landis, an academic studying the Middle East and an expert on Syria, is quite a good dissection of the contradictory and incoherent nature of US foreign policy in the region.  I disagree with some of his points — particularly when he downplays the radical and democratic dimensions of the initial uprising by sidelining the importance of unarmed factions — but his analysis of the tensions in the US foreign policy and military establishments are spot-on.  There are strong desires to both 1) contain and roll back Iranian regional hegemony, and 2) contain and roll-back Salafi-jihadist organizations, but the kicker is that these goals can’t be accomplished at the same time since these two forces are primarily fighting one another.

These aren’t the only forces at play, however, and this passage from the interview raises the question of how the US relationship with the radical leftists of the Syrian Kurds and their allies will evolve.

The present critique among some think tankers in Washington is that Assad is too weak to reconquer Syria, so the United States will have to step in, particularly if it wants to defeat ISIS quickly. They argue that Syria is a land of many different social and cultural environments. The Century Foundation, the New America Foundation, and the Center for a New American Security have published policy papers advocating in one way or the other that the United States keep special forces on the ground and reinforce regional rebel groupings. They envision carving out autonomous areas that would give the U.S. leverage and presumably force both the Russia and Assad to the negotiating table. They refuse to say that they are for partitioning Syria. Instead, they talk about a framework of autonomous regions. But in the end, it is all pretty much the same thing. It’s about retaining control over areas of Syria to give the US leverage.

This rhetoric of Syria’s diversity of “social and cultural environments” and “a framework of autonomous regions” sounds a whole lot like the ideology of the Syrian Kurds and their allies, derived from Marxist and anarchist thought, which emphasizes a decentralized political system, local governance, and respect for religious and linguistic and ethnic diversity.  How much the US would actually be willing to support such a system is deeply questionable, of course, especially considering that there have been plenty of cool rhetoric from both rank-and-file members and officers in Syria about abstaining from any long term alliance with US imperialism.  But it is still very likely that the political vision of the Syrian Kurds and their allies will get rolled up into the US plan for the region, at least to the extent that it hampers the ability of the Assad-Iran-Russia alliance from pushing the US and the Gulf monarchies back out of Syria.

Opportunistic support is hardly a new thing for DC foreign policy and military elites.  Consider the fact that many of the ghouls and goblins in the incoming Trump administration have deep ties with a self-styled “Marxist Islamist” Iranian rebel group, which sounds like a caricature of what American right-wingers are supposed to have nightmares about.  One wouldn’t think that US elites would have any interest in such a group ideologically — but in geopolitics, ideology is easily trumped by whether one can poke at an enemy.

Automating away class struggle?

Sam Kriss wrote a pretty good critique a little while back in Viewpoint Magazine of the arguments of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams around automation, universal basic income, and futurism, outlined in their book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015).  Kriss talks about quite a few things, some more philosophical than others, but one argument that stood out was whether successfully winning UBI would actually put the working class in a better position to fight for real socialism/communism, and how this relates to the alleged tension between big, national visions and local “folk politics”.

To briefly summarize the book: Srnicek and Williams argue that the left has been paralyzed by what they call “folk politics”: a cluster of practices characterized by localism, horizontalism, prefiguration, direct action, and direct experience. All these forms privilege immediate suffering and immediate struggles – folk politics isn’t getting us anywhere, they argue; it fights small battles on fractured terrains, without any master plan for a transformed society, and even there it loses. We’re trapped in nostalgia for a lost era of Maoist revolution or social-democratic comfort, and all the while the world is slipping into a digitized apocalypse. To halt the coming catastrophe, the left needs to offer an enticing vision of the future, and Srnicek and Williams have such a vision. We should demand full automation of production, a reduction or elimination of the working week, a universal basic income, and “the diminishment of the work ethic.” …

…But the compensatory effects of UBI might not be as great as they imagine, and the proposals in Inventing the Future are not themselves intended to amount to communism. Its authors might argue that they only place the working classes in a better position from which to dismantle the existing state of things. I’m not so sure. While the workplace was never the only place where workers have historically struggled, it has always been an important site of radical agitation – it is here that the working classes exercise tremendous power and great capacity to disrupt production. While recent struggles have demonstrated the disruptive potentials of blockades, I’m skeptical that the disappearance of longshoremen or warehouse workers will necessarily advance our position. What forms could resistance take once the workplace is safely cleared on all human flesh, yet private property still remains firmly in the hands of the capitalists? One: nihilist terrorism. Two: protest marches, boycotts, and online activism. Or, in other words, folk politics.

This is a solid point, and builds toward a larger critique of Inventing the Future based on the lack of theorization around how socialist strategy (rather than programs) should be worked out.  Srnicek and Williams seem to have given much thought to programmatic policy ideas, but not to the strategic questions of day-to-day proletarian struggle.

However, I think more thought needs to be put into analyzing the actual impact of automation on the working class, and class composition.  I’ve been growing more skeptical about whether we’re realistically ever going to see the mass destruction of jobs, rather than a general recomposition of the working class to be more and more immersed in the techno-scientific labor of creating software, robotics, algorithms, etc.  There is huge and increasing demand for tech work, which has already been having an affect on educational institutions, and this trend will only increase.  Based on my own experience in the field, computational work — whether we’re talking about industrial automation, or data analysis —  isn’t really any less labor intensive than “traditional” working-class jobs.  Software requires construction and maintenance and troubleshooting, just like the physical things they control, like valves, pumps, cranes, conveyors, etc.  And capitalists would absolutely love to increase the supply of capable workers, and push down the relatively high wages and nice benefits that tech workers currently command due to their favorable position in the labor market.

Dislocation and displacement will almost certainly happen from the ports, factories, and warehouses, but this will probably simply imply a shift of workplace-based class struggle, rather than its disappearance.  But for class struggle to really manifest, the radical left will need to keep up with the restructuring of capitalism and penetrate these new emerging layers of techno-scientific workers.

The UAE in Afghanistan and beyond

Afghanistan was rocked by a number of bombings on Tuesday, killing nearly 60 people in total.  All were done by the Taliban — except, apparently, the one that hit Kandahar, which targeted the province governor’s guest house and killed 11, including a deputy governor and five diplomats from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  The Taliban denied carrying out that attack, even while claiming credit for the others; and indeed, it would be strange if they were responsible, considered the relatively pleasant history between the Taliban and the UAE.  They, along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were the first (and only) countries to recognize the Taliban government in the late ’90s.

But then again, the UAE hasn’t exactly been a overt supporter of the Taliban since then — on the contrary, they’ve been a major ally of US/NATO military operations in Afghanistan.  The UAE has been the only Arab country to engage in full combat operations in the country.  Economic ties, often parceled with counterinsurgency strategy, are also important; late last year the Afghan government was attempting to coax some $6 billion in energy and infrastructure investments from UAE companies.

This also raises a point about the general presence of the UAE across the Greater Middle East.  They’ve carried out direct military operations in Libya, and were a major partner of Saudi Arabia in Yemen in the war against the Houthis and the counterinsurgency campaign against al-Qaeda.  And let’s not forget its immense economic power in the region’s banking, telecom, and logistics sectors, which rivals that of Saudi Arabia.  Its worth keeping an eye on the UAE and its role in governing contemporary imperialism, particularly as US and Saudi relations become increasingly icy.


Anti-imperialist techno-science in India and China

I’ve gotten a short blog piece published in Hyphen, an Asian American magazine/blog, titled “The Subversive Roots of Asian Scientists and Engineers”.  It takes a look at the way nationalist anti-imperialist movements in India and China through the early and mid 1900s consistently merged with domestic engagement with science and technology, and the way this influenced education policy after the 1940s — laying the groundwork for creating a large mass of educated and skilled scientists and engineers who could migrate to higher-waged jobs in the US.  The underlying theme of the post is to look at the model minority stereotype from a more historical and global perspective, as well as in a way that reinforces radical leftist politics.

In light of this history, those who talk about how minorities need to stop talking about racism, and simply emulate Asian success, are asking for an irreconcilable contradiction.  “Asian success” is rooted in a history of political militancy and anti-racism, that put scientific and technological development and education at the center of their strategies, and which required major victories against imperial subjugation to fully play out.  If Black and Latinx people are to “follow” the example of Asians, then the first step would be a re-affirmation of ongoing liberation struggles against white supremacy and US imperialism.

Perry Anderson’s crash course on India

If you’re looking for an in-depth but accessible crash course on Indian politics, check out Perry Anderson’s trio of essays published in the summer of 2012 in London Review of Books, covering the ideologies and roles of key figures like Gandhi and Nehru, the complex religious politics of South Asia and how they evolved over the course of the independence movement, the centrality of caste, the various postcolonial insurgencies, and so on.

Some of the general arguments I find questionable, particularly the idea that the exit of the British Empire from South Asia was “inevitable”.  But overall, the essays are a fantastic dissection and critique of prevailing tendencies of India’s political elites.  Gandhi is shown to have helped laid the roots of communal violence in the way he infused the anti-imperialist movement with religion, and the Indian National Congress is shown to be a party of mostly upper-caste Hindu elites, whose politicking undermined inter-communal solidarity and class politics.  A spotlight is shone on the protracted and extremely bloody military occupations in Kashmir and Nagaland.  The fractured landscape of caste and religion is dissected, as is the way this fracturing affects prevailing nationalist ideologies, and influences various electoral coalitions.

While not discussed in much depth, Anderson elevated Subhas Chandra Bose, casting him as the only pre-independence nationalist leader of widespread popularity who could have united the subcontinent across religious lines, and someone of much more intellectual prowess than either Gandhi or Nehru — all of which makes it even more tragic that he was ultimately pushed out of INC leadership in the late 1930s, and was killed in a plane crash in the 1940s.

Subhas Chandra Bose, the only leader Congress ever produced who united Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in a common secular struggle, and would have most threatened [Nehru], lay buried in Taiwan: the political landscape of postwar India would not have been the same had he survived.

Here are some of the books that Anderson referenced that I have thrown onto my reading list:

People often have incoherent politics

Throughout this holiday season, I’m sure many of us are have had, or are going to have, the delight of watching family get-togethers devolve into vicious political shouting-matches.  So its a nice time to reflect on the messy and incoherent nature of many people’s political ideologies.

This fact is lost on many leftists who have gone through academia and have spent countless hours poring over dry theoretical texts and lengthy polemics, and have a relatively well-developed idea of what they believe and why they believe it.  But many people — maybe even most people — haven’t done any serious study on politics and social theory, and thus may (from the perspective of educated activists) exhibit bizarre and incoherent arguments and worldviews.

For example, one of my co-workers, an electrician, an elderly white man who listens to conservative talk radio, told me how he doesn’t believe in evolution because of his Christian background — and literally one sentence later, told me how he thinks that one show on The History Channel about ancient civilizations and aliens makes a lot of fascinating points.  Another day, he made some scathing comments about the “scumbag” homeless people who live in the creek next to the plant — and then a week later, told me how he’s spending his Thanksgiving volunteering at the homeless shelter.  Another example is my own father: his stated political identity will oscillate between “socialist” and “capitalist” depending on the day, and which news article he read last.

Much of this comes down to the role of politics in people’s day-to-day lives.  People who aren’t interested in studying political and social theory form their opinions and world-views based on what actually affects their day-to-day lives.  And oftentimes, this can mean that a person’s political practice ends up at odds with their stated ideological commitments — i.e. some of co-workers who are staunch supporters of our union are also, strangely enough, self-proclaimed conservatives, and listen to anti-union talk-shows.

For the radical left, the incoherence of people’s politics means that we ought to put more energy and effort into building spaces where people with potentially wildly different viewpoints and opinions can work together on concrete issues that benefits everybody involved — and in the processes, take down reactionary ideas and develop a higher level of political understanding.  Unions, of course, are a prime example of this, which is the main reason why Ray Valentine of Orchestrated Pulse centered labor organizing in his piece on how to undermine Trumpism, as opposed to vague appeals to “public debate”.

Union members are exposed to the same “public debate” as everyone else, but their immediate experience of the union provides practical reference points for a profoundly different conception of their relation to one another and to the wider economy and society. In a market society, workers ordinarily experience a fierce, zero-sum competition with other workers for scarce jobs, units of housing, educational opportunities, etc. Even when union membership is [a] “low-commitment, low intensity affair” …it brings people into contact with a concrete and coherent collective workers’ interest that can be opposed to the boss’s.

The relatively nonconfrontational union activities workers normally participate in today – union elections or card checks, collective bargaining, grievances, meetings with reps in break rooms – is more than sufficient to inculcate a mild labor-liberalism. More militant collective action like strikes, mass pickets, slowdowns, wildcats, sabotage, factory occupations, and direct confrontation with the coercive functions of the state, can raise workers to higher levels of revolutionary consciousness. Politically, the practical experience of material struggle is worth far more than the most compelling narrative that simply describes class cleavages to the masses.

You can have the most well-crafted polemic about capitalism and socialism and revolution — but unless its tied to a concrete struggle, and day-to-day organizing and collective spaces, its not gonna do much to overcome the inherent messiness and incoherence of many people’s views.

From slavery to imperialism

What were the continuities between the elites of the slave economies of the southern United States before the Civil War, and the elites that pushed the formal imperial expansion of the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s?

This was a question that crossed my mind earlier this year when I was doing some casual reading and reflecting on the aftermath of the Civil War.  Aside from the brief period immediately after the Civil War, when the slaver/planter elites were on the backfoot during Radical Reconstruction, the relative socio-economic and political power of these elites remained largely intact.  Thus, it stands to reason that the interests of these former slavers was a powerful force behind the expansion of US imperialism by the turn of the 20th century.

Jacobin has recently published an interview with the author of This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2016), which re-empahsizes the power of the Southern planter class in the US state, and which touches on issue of foreign policy.  One relevant argument discussed in the interview is that the US slaver elite saw slavery as necessarily being an international system, and pushed US foreign policy to act accordingly prior to the Civil War.  For example, on views on Cuba:

…many Southerners wanted to acquire Cuba, for all different reasons: some had immediate commercial interests involved, some of them wanted to project US power into the Caribbean, and of course there was the pure domestic political desire for Cuba as another slave state (or many slave states).

But other slaveholders were much more ambivalent about annexing Cuba. And ultimately, the most important thing for Southern leaders was not territorial acquisition, but the preservation of Cuban slavery. Whether Cuba was Spanish, American, French, independent, whatever, mattered far less than whether it was slave or free. They would much rather see Cuba Spanish and enslaved than American and free. It’s not fundamentally about political allegiance, it’s about the preservation of a certain kind of social system, and a certain kind of class power.

Another relevant book that I recently came across is The White Pacific: US Imperialism and Black Slavery in the South Seas after the Civil War (2007), which looks at the continuities between the southern slave economy and the slave/indentured-labor markets of various Pacific Islands. From the summary:

Worldwide supplies of sugar and cotton were impacted dramatically as the U.S. Civil War dragged on. New areas of production entered these lucrative markets, particularly in the South Pacific, and plantation agriculture grew substantially in disparate areas such as Australia, Fiji, and Hawaii. The increase in production required an increase in labor; in the rush to fill the vacuum, freebooters and other unsavory characters began a slave trade in Melanesians and Polynesians that continued into the twentieth century.

The White Pacific ranges over the broad expanse of Oceania to reconstruct the history of “blackbirding” (slave trading) in the region. It examines the role of U.S. citizens (many of them ex-slaveholders and ex-confederates) in the trade and its roots in Civil War dislocations. What unfolds is a dramatic tale of unfree labor, conflicts between formal and informal empire, white supremacy, threats to sovereignty in Hawaii, the origins of a White Australian policy, and the rise of Japan as a Pacific power and putative protector.

All of this just goes to show how important it is to trace the way class and capitalism undergoes a constant process of decomposition and recomposition.  Nothing in history is really “new”–its always built on the formations and movements and dynamics of previous eras.  A more optimistic look at this dynamic can be seen in the evolution of the radical left in this era: the Radical Republicans paved the way for the Knights of Labor, which paved the way for the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party of America.