Imperialism, old and new
FOR the best part of the past decade overly simplistic polemic has abounded with regard to Pakistan’s relationship with the US. Reactionaries depict themselves as the only committed patriots in the country and America as evil incarnate.
Liberals insist that it is the reactionaries that must be resisted at all costs and laud America’s commitment to doing so. The reopening of the Nato supply route has simply confirmed the hopelessly facile nature of this ‘debate’.
I take the subject of this column from a treatise written in 1965 by Hamza Alavi, one of the finest intellectuals that Pakistan has produced. Alavi was amongst the stand-out Marxist thinkers of the late 20th century who is unfortunately still not recognised as such in the country that he called home.
Like his contemporary Eqbal Ahmad, Alavi gained laurels for his intellectual and political pursuits the world over, and remained a committed anti-imperialist until his death in 2002.
The word ‘imperialism’ has, of course, gone somewhat out of fashion since the end of the Cold War, with the exception of those on the left of the political spectrum and certain right-wing academicians in the US that harbour no pretence about the role that Washington plays in global affairs.
In Pakistan the word has become almost exclusively associated with the religious right, especially since 9/11 and subsequent developments.
What is particularly unfortunate about this particular confluence of events (and interests) is the fact that progressives in this country have quite willingly ceded this ground to the right-wing, not only politically but also intellectually. There is now no consensus position of progressives vis-à-vis the US and its purported jihadi nemesis. We might not have reached this point if the cutting-edge ideas of thinkers like Alavi were not so alien to us.
Critically analysing what was more than half a century ago an already substantial body of Marxist literature on modern imperialism, Alavi confirmed the dialectical relationship between modern imperialism and the indefatigable, expansionary impulse of capitalism.
Yet he moved beyond the classic Marxist exposition of ‘imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism’ and emphasised the need to understand the linkages (and tensions) between economic and political domination (a theme that has been taken forward by subsequent radical thinkers into the realms of culture and ideology).
It is easy to forget in today’s Pakistan — especially for those who covet their liberal lifestyles and unbridled consumption of leisure goods — that the US and its allies have objectives beyond those that they otherwise claim. They say they are committed to the elimination of ‘terrorism’, promotion of democratic forms of government and infusion of liberal values into civil society.
But is that all there is to it?
Over the past four decades or so the US has, for all intents and purposes, ceded its global economic advantage to East Asia and China in particular. It has maintained its global power largely on account of its mighty military machine, and the fact that the US dollar is the default global currency.
It is in the production of arms that the US still enjoys productive superiority over other countries, and the munitions and related industries exercise tremendous influence, in conjunction with the corporate media, over Washington’s political posture towards the rest of the world.
In the post-Cold War period, humanitarian interventions have become the imperialist wars of choice.
Beyond the relatively high-profile examples of Iraq and Afghanistan, the self-anointed liberal democratic beacons of hope for the world, with Washington in the lead, have bombed and/or intervened in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Venezuela, Chechnya, Georgia and East Timor, just to name a few.
More recently there is Libya and, less directly, Syria. There will surely be more in the future.
It could be that erstwhile anti-imperialists really do believe that illiberal regimes and non-state actors must be dealt with through such interventions. But what of the economic and military logics that sustain such interventions? Are progressives now willing to support the capitalist ‘part’ of the modern imperialist project that in a bygone era was considered indefensible?
If so, they are effectively saying that anti-imperialism — like other planks of a leftist political programme — is now nothing less than an anachronism (or the preserve of the religious right).
In fact, it is intellectually dishonest to deny that imperial projects continue to shape our world in multi-dimensional ways. Notwithstanding what we would like to believe, these projects, as has been the case throughout history, will never benefit humanity at large because imperialisms, old and new, at best seek a kind of progress which inevitably leaves the mass of humanity to pick up the pieces (along with the ecosystem that sustains us).
Even if we can agree on nothing else we have to recognise that imperialism in the 21st century is another name for the power to declare exceptions.
Prominent thinkers in the western academy as diverse as Giorgio Agamben and Partha Chatterjee have made this point of view quite popular in recent times. Their basic contention is that imperial forces arrogate to themselves at one and the same time the right to declare what is the norm and also to engage in exceptional acts with impunity.
In our specific context, the US, China and Saudi Arabia (others could also be listed) pursue various imperialist objectives with relative freedom. The sad truth is that very few amongst the progressive intelligentsia concern themselves with the nature and consequences of these imperial projects (and their consequences), let alone agree on an appropriate political posture in this regard.
Indeed, I want to reiterate that the absence of a coherent and principled political position amongst those who consider themselves as progressives in today’s Pakistan is explained in large part by a superficial understanding of imperialism and the imperatives motivating the various imperialist forces that have set out their stall in the present conjuncture.
And where straightforward analyses would suffice, we are not willing to undertake them because they do not correspond to our biases. Take, for example, the cosy relationship between American and Saudi imperialisms. We take refuge in Washington’s grandiose proclamations of the cause of freedom and progress, while insisting that Riyadh is the bane of our existence. And never the twain shall meet?
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.