(For context: this is part of an ongoing discussion about leftist “anti-imperialist”/anti-American narratives. This is a response to an article called “False Regionalisms”, which is in turn partly a response to an earlier piece I’d written, and so on.)
Introducing his argument about “false regionalisms”, Higgins claims that those of us who prefer internationalism over the imperial purity approach want “to suggest that the US does not have a larger strategy in West Asia. Instead… US actions are largely contradictory, confused, or improvised.”
I don’t deny the existence of a US strategy, but I view it as being constrained by external factors – I seem to remember that someone once said something about people making history, but not doing it exactly as they please, because they do it under conditions given to them by the past, which seems relevant here. The attempt to factor in these kinds of external constraints is one of the most basic dividing lines separating a materialist worldview from illuminati NWO lizard stuff.
To take a few specific examples: undoubtedly, the US ruling class found 9/11 a very convenient pretext to exploit when pursuing their pre-existing agenda, but was it an unexpected event to which they responded, or, as prominent anti-imperialists like Michael Chossudosky of Global Research argue, was it something that they planned all along? Similarly, US politicians are happy to exploit tragedies like the Sandy Hook and Parkland massacres to further their domestic aims, but does this mean, as Assad supporters like Alex Jones and White Helmets Exposed claim, that these massacres never really happened and were staged by the elite as part of their strategy? Or how about the Holocaust – again, it’s certainly an event which the Israeli ruling class is very willing to invoke in order to prop up its legitimacy, but should this lead us to conclude, as the likes of Kevin Barrett, Ryan Dawson or Israel Shamir claim, that the whole thing was a hoax manufactured by a sinister Zionist conspiracy as part of their strategy?
These are not just idle questions: serious political implications follow from the answers. Personally, as someone who opposes the US and Israeli ruling classes but doesn’t believe that they’re directly responsible for every bad thing that happens in the world, I’m glad that there’s a clear political gulf between me and the InfoWars/Red Ice/21st Century Wire/Global Research crowd on these issues.
We could also add the ascent of Trump, when the mainstream of the US state and capital, as represented by figures such as Colin Powell, George Bush Sr, John Negroponte, and former CIA head Michael J Morrell, clearly favoured Clinton as the candidate most suited to maintaining the long-term stability of the empire, as proof that US strategists sometimes have to contend with events that they didn’t directly mastermind, if proof of such a very basic fact is really needed.
Moving on, Higgins engages with the criticism that nation-states are always sites of class struggle, but somehow manages to read this as if the point was just that he doesn’t spend enough time scrutinising the US. But by just talking about the US state’s ability to act as a unified actor, he misses the vital point that his state-focused geopolitics erase the class dynamics at work inside the countries that are targeted by the US strategy, so, for instance, Assad’s state can be taken as simply representative of “the Syrian people” with no further questions asked.
His attempt at nuance on the subject of Israel is, once again, focused entirely on that country’s state and ruling class, glossing over the question of whether class conflict exists inside Israel. Is there any potential for Israelis to be part of anti-imperialist/anti-war/anti-Zionist movements? How should we assess IDF refuseniks or groups like Anarchists Against the Wall? Certainly, it seems that if those living at the very heart of the imperial beast – for instance, grad students whose research is funded by an imperial institution like the University of Houston, home to the Department for Homeland Security’s Borders, Trade and Immigration institute – can come to an anti-imperialist consciousness, it seems only fair to extend the same possibilities to Israelis. But there’s no hint of such complexities and contradictions in the kind of writing that just talks of “Israel as an entity” and “Zionist state managers”, and refuses to approach the question of whether people in Tel Aviv can achieve the kinds of consciousness that those living in Houston can.
Apparently operating under the misapprehension that he has to convince me that US military intervention is a bad thing, Higgins offers up a list of wars including “the Black September War of 1970; the October War of 1973; the Lebanese War of the 1970s and 1980s…” adding that “In some of these wars, the US provided military aid: to… the Phalangist-led Lebanese state (against the PLO and allied Lebanese National Movement)”.
If Higgins wants to talk about things like the Lebanese War of the 1970s and 1980s, then certainly, let’s talk about the Lebanese War of the 1970s and 1980s. Let’s talk about the War of the Camps. Let’s talk about the bombardment of Palestinian refugees at Tripoli. If we’re talking about imperialist forces providing military aid to Lebanese Phalangists, then let’s talk about imperialist forces providing military aid to Lebanese Phalangists, for instance at Tel Al-Zaatar. If joining with the Israeli military or Lebanese fascists to carry out mass slaughter is disgusting when the US does it – and it most certainly is – then it’s disgusting when anyone does it.
One wonders what kind of observer looks at things like the War of the Camps, and the joint Syrian-Israeli bombardment of Tripoli, and sees only the hand of the US, with apparently no other actors present.
In response to my earlier article, where I pointed out the case of the Saudi-Qatar confrontation as an example of a situation that cannot be satisfactorily explained by Higgins’ preferred US-centric narrative, Higgins gives an extended consideration of Qatar’s relationship with Hamas, adding that “Qatar’s contact came… amid inter-regional jockeying and competition”.
This is actually a really important breakthrough for Higgins, and reading it makes me feel like a proud teacher. It took a lot of prodding, but Higgins has finally acknowledged the fact that various non-US, and indeed non-Israeli, ruling class cliques and factions exist in their own right. This may be a fairly basic point, but it’s one that took Higgins a long time to grasp, so I’m very proud that it seems to have finally clicked.
In the following paragraphs, Higgins gives an overview of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood showing an impressive ability to recognise that not everything revolves directly around the US, and adds that even in the exceptional case of Saudi-Qatari tensions “the Palestinian issue… remains paramount”. We can ask whether it’s the only issue, and whether Saudi Arabia issued any other demands to Qatar dealing with other points, but on the whole I think this section shows Higgins making some real progress in coming to terms with the fact that non-US actors exist, so I would like to thank him for acknowledging and confirming my point.
Next, he discusses Egypt, mentioning that Egypt’s “head of state… invites Israeli bombings in Egyptian territory of the Sinai. This is a case of neocolonialism par excellence.” Again, I certainly have no wish to defend Egypt’s rulers, but I am curious as to how we should classify the actions of a certain other state during, say, the slaughter at Tel Al-Zaatar, or the Israeli bombardment of Tripoli.
But again, I’m glad to see Higgins note that understanding recent Egyptian and Palestinian history means understanding how they were affected by “a conjunction of “external” and “internal” factors”. This is a really positive development from his earlier piece, which appeared to only see external factors, and only US-shaped ones at that.
But the temptation to slide back to state-focused geopolitics is still there: Higgins talks about “the trajectory of the Arab Republic of Egypt from its revolutionary high point between 1956 and 1967, to its subsequent Thermidor culminating in the Camp David Accords of 1979” and concedes that “it is certainly easy to make critiques of Egyptian leadership by noting how the 1956 victory was attained through the mobilization of popular militias, standing on guard to defend the Egyptian homeland against imperialist invasion, while the 1967 defeat lacked a strategic resort on behalf of the periphery nation to People’s War.”
Is an insufficiently inventive military strategy the only thing that Egypt’s ruling class can be criticised for during those years? Did anything happen inside Egypt during that time that might be worth considering? I have no particular fondness for the Communist Party of Britain, but if Theresa May outlawed them and jailed much of their membership, I might well consider it to be a point worth mentioning in my assessment of her career.
Moving on to Yemen, Higgins then professes his outrage at the thought that the Saudi ruling class could be considered actors in their own right and not just simply treated as an outgrowth of the US. Arguing against what he sees as my “underestimation… of the US contribution”, he asks “why has the US stepped in… to bomb Yemeni targets directly whenever it has deemed the Saudi Air Force unfit for the task?”
Which I think rather supports my point – if we were talking about a war where the US carried out the majority of the bombing, with the Saudi Air Force stepping in on occasion, I wouldn’t hesitate to characterise it as a US air war with the Saudi state playing a supporting role; but seeing as the Saudi Air Force is doing the vast majority of the bombing, with the US stepping in on occasion, calling it a US-backed Saudi war seems entirely accurate.
He then adds a quote about how “the Obama administration went ahead with a $1.3 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia last year despite warnings from some officials that the United States could be implicated in war crimes for supporting a Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians.” Again, this is literally providing further evidence to support my description of it as a US-supported, Saudi-led campaign.
Higgins warns that “destruction is intrinsic to the entire U.S. imperialist enterprise… as long as the United States is an empire, there will be smaller and weaker nations reduced to rubble and flames.” This I would wholeheartedly agree with, but surely it’s possible to take the logic much further: unless we think that, say, Britannia, Spain, France or Portugal ruling the waves was that much better, it would be simpler and clearer to say that “destruction is intrinsic to the entire imperialist enterprise… as long as there is an empire, there will be smaller and weaker nations reduced to rubble and flames.”
Higgins praises Yemeni protests in solidarity with Palestinians, and reproaches me for seeming to view Yemen and Palestine as far-off and entirely separate countries. I think Higgins is operating a serious double standard here (“Yemeni solidarity with Palestinians? Great! US solidarity with Syrians? Warmongering imperialists!”), but I’m acutely conscious that, when responding to a double standard, there’s a risk of just inverting and so reproducing it, so it’s worth being careful here: I am always in favour of people (Americans, Yemenis, or whoever else) showing their solidarity with people resisting oppression anywhere, whether that’s in Palestine, Syria or anywhere else.
On the other hand, I’m also very much aware that our main enemy is always at home, and stirring up resentment against a foreign enemy has traditionally been a favoured method of social control, used to distract attention from domestic problems – in the US, that’s often been Russia, but could also be one of a number of other countries, in many Arab states, the enemy of choice has often been Israel, the Israeli ruling class have similarly encouraged Israeli workers to take aim at their neighbours, and so on.
This means that, for ordinary people in those countries, if we want to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters being oppressed by a state that our state is currently hostile to, we need to navigate the tension of making sure our movement is independent of those elements of “our own” ruling class who wish to co-opt it and redirect it into nationalism and militarist war-fever.
The challenge of recognising that our immediate enemy is always at home, but our friends are everywhere, and so their enemies are our enemies too, can be a fairly complex one at times, but it’s vital.
In closing, Higgins proclaims his opposition to “false regionalisms”, which encourage Arab peoples to see themselves as “distinctly Palestinian, Jordanian, Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi, etc”, instead of forming a pan-Arab movement. But that’s the whole point, false regionalisms have to be defeated, and solidarity has to be forged beyond just a single ethnic group. Having a class perspective means that we can recognise that working-class Arabs have shared interests not only with each other, and not only with their Kurdish, Turkish or Iranian neighbours, but, crucially, that common cause and sense of solidarity has to be forged, as difficult as it may be at times, with Israeli, British and indeed US workers as well.
False regionalism is to say that we can support the Stansted defendants against the cops, or the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers, or Ahed Tamimi, or the likes of Kris Thompson or the Michigan antifascists, but that we’re not allowed to have the same response to Viktor Filinkov, Yelena Gorban and Alexei Kobaidze, or Niraz Saied or Reza Shahabi and all those rounded up in the last wave of protests in Iran.
False regionalism is to say that we’re allowed to show solidarity with the Picturehouse, UCU and Fujitsu disputes, or the West Virginia strikes (assuming we’re even allowed to support these – perhaps Higgins would view them as being spoiled imperialist labour aristocrats, who knows?), but not the Ahvaz steelworkers or Haft Tappeh sugar cane workers.
In his original piece, Higgins cited Liebknecht, and it’s worth returning to Liebknecht’s clarity here:
“The main enemy of every people is in their own country!
The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists.”
Or indeed to Rosa Luxemburg:
“So long as capitalist states exist, i.e., so long as imperialistic world policies determine and regulate the inner and the outer life of a nation, there can be no “national self-determination” either in war or in peace… Imperialism is not the creation of any one or of any group of states. It is the product of a particular stage of ripeness in the world development of capital, an innately international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognisable only in all its relations, and from which no nation can hold aloof at will. From this point of view only is it possible to understand correctly the question of “national defence!’ in the present war.”
Higgins promises at least one more installment, dealing with “the centrality of the Palestine issue”. I don’t think I’ll respond to that one, because texts like “Thoughts on Syria, Palestine and Discourse” by Mohammed Sulaiman, “A Palestinian Response to Troubling Discourse on Syria”, and Budour Hassan’s “How the Syrian Revolution has transformed me” and “Can You Hear Us?” already do such an effective job of completely demolishing the worldview that tries to use Palestine as support for a pro-Assad perspective.