Patrick Higgins, whose work I’ve examined before as a case study of a particularly distorted US-centric perspective, is now running a new series of articles intended at least in part as a response to my criticisms*. Since they are at least in part addressed to me, it seems only fair to read them and provide some kind of reply.
In his introduction, he sets out his claim as being to argue against “a deeply liberal approach… that atomizes history [by] shear[ing] the events in Syria away from a wider Arab context.” This seems odd to me, because it appears that the effect of his work is precisely to atomize history by shearing some events in Syria away from the most basic context – the military conflict away from all the social struggles and repression leading up to the militarisation of the revolt, and the US intervention away from all the other foreign military powers intervening in the country, for instance. If you’re looking to add context, I would suggest that the actions of the Syrian state, and those states allied with it, might be one useful element to add.
He characterises my argument as “a question that should frankly be considered preposterous: why isn’t this article about Russia, Turkey or Iran, all of which are nation-states with military roles in Syria?” It’s worth clarifying this point: an article that read events in Syria solely through the lens of Russian, Turkish, or Iranian actions would indeed be as one-sided as one that took the US as its starting point (although I think one that started with an examination of the Syrian state might have some use, especially for addressing those events prior to the militarisation and internationalisation of the conflict). What’s needed is not to pluck one particular element out and examine it in isolation, but an understanding of the general situation, and how the various actors relate to each other. You know, context.
He adds that “such a question coming from US organizers indicates extreme cognitive dissonance, or at the very least an awesome inability to study US society holistically.” I’m not sure whether this means that I’ve suddenly gained US citizenship, but if I am indeed one of the “US organizers” being referred to, it’s pretty impressive that, when criticised for having a narcissistic perspective that views the world as essentially starting and ending with the US, he responds by assuming that his critics must be from the US, and disregards the possibility that we might be from anywhere else. That in itself feels pretty telling.
Anyway, leaving aside my sudden transformation into a yank, the complaint of “an awesome inability to study US society holistically” is another of the key points at issue here. I’m happy with people studying US society holistically, that sounds like a good and noble aim; my concern is that the same level of care and thought should be put into studying other societies holistically. Syria, for instance.
Trying to flesh out his sketchy theory that anti-war communists and internationalists are basically on the same side as the US ruling class, he offers up the example of an event “named “Speak Up for Syria’s Civilians” [which] assembled at the White House to demand “international leadership to protect Syria’s civilians, followed by a march to the Russian Ambassador’s House, holding to account the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity.” The language may be cagey, but it reads like a possible call for war with Russia.”
There’s a lot to respond to here, but one of the key points to note is that “reads like a possible” is not really a firm ground to rely on when categorising anything. I’m sure that there must have been plenty of marches which demanded international leadership to protect Palestine’s civilians and then marched on the Israeli embassy (if I recall correctly, there was a pretty memorable one in the UK in early 2009) – would these marches be automatically characterised as “reading like a possible call for war” with Israel?
Before being able to respond to this march in any meaningful sense, it’d be useful to know more about the organisers, and what their political background is. If they have strong links to the establishment, or have openly taken pro-war stances, then that should be discussed openly; but if there’s no proof of that, then we equally shouldn’t proceed as if that point was already established.
More generally, it’s worth asking: has Higgins any experience of engaging with movements that gather to protest horrific conditions (assuming he accepts that the slaughter in Eastern Ghouta is indeed a bad thing, a point where the cat appears to have got his tongue), but where a significant portion of the movement’s leadership are invested in putting forward solutions that are nationalist, or reformist, or otherwise undesirable? February 9th is far from the first time a demonstration has assembled in response to a real problem, but where politically dubious slogans and demands have been raised; for communists to abandon all such movements at the first sight of a demand that can potentially be read in a negative light is to cede the field to our opponents in advance.
He continues by warning that “Any US leftist who shares priorities with the two wings of capital is only helping to manufacture total consent for white supremacy”. As previously mentioned, I’m certainly not a chuffing US leftist, so I’m unsure what this has to do with my argument; but more to the point, I don’t think he’s established with any clarity what these supposed shared priorities actually consist of. A single demonstration, whose organisers are left un-named, with no information about who attended it, which raised slogans that could potentially be interpreted as pro-war, is not really proof of very much at all.
Saying “you share an opinion with this person” is a cheap trick, which can be used against pretty much anyone, and doesn’t actually mean anything: “you think that ISIS is not a progressive force? You’re pretty much the same as Donald Trump, then! Oh, you also think Trump is reprehensible? That’s exactly what Clinton would say!” and so on.
This kind of sophistry is one thing, establishing actual political collaboration is quite another. It’s justified and meaningful to speak of, say, the trans-exclusionary radical feminists involved in the Hands Across the Aisle coalition as working with the religious right, because they’re in an actual coalition with Christian conservatives; similarly, it’s fair to say that prominent anti-imperialist Brian Becker doesn’t just “share priorities” with the far-right, he actively hosts them on his show on repeated occasions. This kind of political collaboration actually means something; if there’s any actual evidence to show people collaborating with elements of the ruling class, or working to an agenda directly set by them, then it should be publicly documented, but in the absence of that kind of connection, talk of “shared priorities” is just empty, “Hitler-was-a-vegetarian”-style smearing.
Responding to my use of the phrase “imperial purity”, a concept named after Asad Haider’s discussion of “white purity”, Higgins objects to my suggestion “that anti-imperialists, in their narcissistic self-absorption, make “everything” about the US” and adds “I must ask, do these people know anti-imperialists outside of the US? There are quite a few, and their hatred for US imperialism could often be described as pure.”
Again, it’s still very funny to me that this weird yankee narcissism thing seemingly makes it impossible for those afflicted by it to even imagine that they might be reading words written by someone who lives closer to Rotherham or Hunters’ Bar than New York City or San Francisco**. Know anti-imperialists outside the US? My dear boy, I actually am one (at least in the dictionary sense, although I tend not to use that term, contaminated as it is by association with people who tend to be selectively against some imperialisms and wildly in favour of others).
But while my miraculous acquisition of US citizenship is amusing, it’s largely beside the point: the actual issue here was addressed in my original article, via one of the quotes I chopped and screwed from Haider: “not every [person from a colonized country] is on board with [imperial] purity. Many are, to be sure, because the secret reality which [imperial] purity hopes to obscure is that [people from colonized countries] are just as capable of a diversity of opinions and perspectives as [Americans] are.” As someone who understands and takes seriously the fact that people from colonized countries are in fact fully human, and just as capable of having a wide range of weird and wonderful opinions as Americans are, it doesn’t actually undermine my position at all to acknowledge that there are Syrians, such as the anti-imperialist fascists of the Syrian Social National Party, whose politics are far closer to Higgins’ than to mine.
He then proceeds to get indignant about my characterisation of him as “[adopting]…the viewpoint of capital and the state”, and illustrates this by… discussing the recent protests in Iran solely through the lens of how US politicians talked about them, as if Iranian workers only exist through the gaze of the US state. I think the limitations of this kind of worldview, an approach so totally uninterested in working-class activity and organisation, so single-mindedly dedicated to just inverting whatever the Big Bad Mum and Dad in the US ruling class have to say, are pretty self-evident.
Of course, capital will always try to integrate even the most radical acts and divert them to maintain the system one way or another; but to immediately declare movements to be off limits as soon as a ruling-class actor declares an interest in trying to recuperate them is to doom yourself to never being able to connect with anything at all. Consider what this approach, where you can’t show solidarity with Syrians or Iranians if US politicians also acknowledge them, would mean for movements inside the US itself: after all, blood-soaked warmonger Hillary Clinton has officially said that Black Lives Matter, so I suppose the only true anti-state, anti-establishment response is to now be neutral on the issue of police killings, or possibly to even side with the cops. Similarly, John McCain, Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney have all spoken out against white supremacists and endorsed counter-protesters, so I guess that means anti-fascism’s now off limits too. Wouldn’t want to share priorities with capital, now would we?
He then sets out an argument for “why a US antiwar movement is necessary”, which is somewhat beside the point – no-one is arguing against a US anti-war movement, or at least I’m certainly not. The question at issue here is what the political basis for such a movement should be: consistent, principled opposition to all militarism and imperialism, accompanied by a concerted effort to forge links with workers and revolutionaries in other countries, which necessarily means supporting them against “their own” respective ruling classes, or the kind of solipsistic, “what if a city on a hill but bad” American exceptionalism where politics is just a question of checking what the State Department has to say and then saying the opposite.
In the words of that investigation into the red-brown pro-Assad conspiracy theory swamp: “As radical leftist anti-fascists, anti-racists, anti-colonialists, and anti-capitalists struggling for liberation, we can fight against imperialism, against racism, and against fascism at the same time, and we can oppose the American war machine and oppose colonialism without siding with reactionary and oppressive entities. We can support liberation in Palestine, Bahrain, India, Venezuela and everywhere else where people are struggling against oppression without allying to fascists and/or liberals or allowing them to try co-opting our movements. We need to act on legitimately internationalist principles and oppose fascism, state power, capital and liberalism.”
Higgins waxes nostalgic about good old-fashioned internationalism, and how, back in the day, to be an internationalist “held a much different meaning than it seems to now”, and even, remarkably enough, how ““Making connections” was the phrase of the day.”
We can agree that it’s a good thing to “take the actions necessary to inhibit the offensive capabilities of the US military” – there’s a reason why I mentioned the Plowshares people in my original article, and that’s because I think that they’re a good example that should be emulated as widely as possible, as with the UK protesters who attempted to dismantle warplanes bound for Yemen – but I would still be interested to understand more about what it is that Higgins’ understanding of internationalism actually means. Does it, for instance, include trying to make connections with workers overseas and support their struggles? Because I genuinely can’t see how an internationalist perspective that sees, for instance, Iranian workers as being among our brothers and sisters in the global working class can possibly be reconciled with Higgins’ “a US politician said a nice thing about Iranian protesters, that means we can never talk of them again” shtick.
Moving on, Higgins considers the case of Christopher Hitchens, and advises that “We ought not dismiss what Hitchens, loathsome as he very well was, still has to teach us about the place in which we find ourselves simply because he discredited himself with too blatant an imperialist turn in supporting the invasion of Iraq.” Perhaps this is a minor quibble, but I think that it’s at least worth considering the possibility that the fact of Christopher Hitchens having died in 2011 might place some limitations on his relevance to a discussion of the current situation in Syria. Maybe this is just my liberal, atomized worldview speaking here, but I would have thought that, if we’re examining people who argue against anti-American/pro-Assad readings of the contemporary situation, it might be better to concentrate on people who’ve said something in the last seven years, rather than on someone who has said literally nothing about anything since 2011.
I understand that Hitchens is here meant to stand in for everyone on “the left” who doesn’t go along with the imperial purity worldview, but it seems to me that if Higgins wants to discredit my arguments, he would do better to engage with what I’ve actually said, rather than trying to squash me into the mould of someone whose opinions I disagreed with in life, and who doesn’t seem to have grown noticeably closer to my politics since his death. Similarly, it’s fine to argue against Gilbert Achcar, or Juan Cole, but you have to argue against those people based on their views, or at least do a convincing job of demonstrating the substantial similarities between their positions and Hitchens if you want a critique of him to stand in for them.
But if Higgins wants to talk Hitchens, then sure, let’s talk Hitchens. Noticeably missing from Higgins’ Hitchens is any consideration of his social role and class position. I’m less interested in the Marx of Christopher Hitchens than the Christopher Hitchens of Marx – examining the material basis to which Hitchens’ social consciousness corresponded.
I think the reasons Hitchens ended up on the particular trajectory he did were fairly complex, so I’m sceptical of any attempt to draw out a general type based on this one figure, but if we are interested in trying to identify a category of “Hitchens types”, then one key factor has to be the actual job the man did. He was a writer by trade, a professional opinion-haver, and just as people working in customer service inevitably have a distorted and alienated relationship to the people they serve, who appear as part of the conditions of their job, so too do professional ideas-mongers end up with an alienated relationship to their own ideas, which become part of the raw material which they have to turn into commodities.
In particular, it’s worth considering how the marketplace of attention works – “self-professed Marxist makes ridiculously un-Marxist claim that you would never expect a Marxist to make” is always going to be a much hotter take than “Marxist says some Marxist stuff, precisely the sort of thing you would expect a Marxist to say”. This is important because it means that becoming a cray cray ultra-contrarian is, in effect, an occupational hazard of the kind of job that Hitchens worked in, which seems not irrelevant if we’re attempting to understand how Hitchens managed to end up with a pro-World Trade Organisation version of Marx.
In turn, factoring in this kind of materialist dimension into our understanding of Hitchens has serious consequences for Higgins’ attempt to squash other people – like me, for instance – into his shoes. As an anonymous anarchist worker, who isn’t attempting to make any kind of career out of this thing, someone who does my writing in the free time I can snatch away from the pressures of waged work, housework, social/family commitments, self-care, IRL activity, and all the rest of it, someone who is very careful to keep the name the state and my employers know me by from getting attached to my ideas, because I’m very aware of the fact that I need to sell my labour in order to survive and the majority of bosses don’t look particularly favourably on this stuff, someone who has no desire to become a professional anti-imperialist by trade or any such absurdity, I’m simply not subject to the kind of market pressures that financially reward contrarianism in some cases.
This is what makes the attempt to link a critique of Hitchens and a response to my own positions so risible. I’m not just being conflated with someone who I disagreed with politically, and who, if we leave the question of an immortal soul aside, appears to have no opinions at all about anything that’s happened since his death in 2011, but with someone who played a social role, and had a material relationship to ideology, completely different to my own, and a social role which I have absolutely no aspirations to.
And just to make things even more bizarre, this attempted conflation comes from an aspiring academic, someone who, as far as I can tell, does appear to write under his own name, which leads me to suspect that he does aspire to the career of professional ideas-monger, and so to a position where he himself would be subjected to the kinds of commercial/ideological pressures that helped to shape Hitchens’ consciousness.
So much for that. Next up: “false regionalisms”.
*as a side note, really not a substantial point or anything, but I just find it really funny that his blog is called Robespierre Monument – leaving aside the inherent Great Men approach implied there, I don’t know what the relatable US equivalent to Lidl or Aldi would be, but I really enjoy that he’s managed to pick a name that simultaneously sounds like a supermarket own-brand knock-off version of Jacobin and of the Lenin’s Tomb blog, at the same time. Anyway.
** it was either this or reference that one Streets line, and I thought that might sound sexist out of context. I suppose both references make it equally clear that I’m ten years out of date, though.