Lair Of A Squirrel Red


Historical Materialism Conference – Part 2 by korakious
November 12, 2007, 8:05 pm
Filed under: Historical Materialism Conference, Marxism, Palestine, Rob, Theory
Wow. Apparently my notes on the fisrt plenary session were pretty long. The notes for the next session ‘Islam and American Imperialism’ are a bit less so. Not becuase the talks weren’t interesting, but because I’d already sat through one long session and the lecture theatre was rather sophorific, owing to the temperature and layout.

The backdrop to the talks is the increasing resistance to American imperialism and the lack of a clear socialist alternative to it. This leads – on the part of the Socialist Register, who organised the plenary – to a crisis of agency. It therefore becomes necessary to analyse the new movements that have arisen so as to conceptualise the current conjuncture.

Gilbert Achar – Imperial Uses of Islam
Achar began his talk by examining the ‘clash of civilisations’ paradigm, one which he described as pervasive on both a conscious and unconscious level. This view basically suggests that Islam and the West are engaged in a clash of civilisation and there can be no middle ground between them. This view is common to both Western Islamophobes and Islamic fundamentalists – who tend to characterise Islam and ‘the West’ is implacably in conflcit with one and other, and view this conflict as defining our current age.

But Achar notes that this is not the view of Western governments. Western governments tend to differentiate (in their rhetoric) between ‘good’ Muslims and ‘bad’ Muslims, they don’t view things as a clash with Islam but a clash within Islam. Achar also argues that Huntington himself doesn’t hold with the way in which his theory has been interpreted. Achar argued that Huntington is in fact a ‘global multiculturalist’, insofar as he thinks it’s a good thing to have different ‘civlisations’ existing worldwide, he opposes mutliculturalism nationally because he wants to preserve Western culture in its heartlands. Furthermore, Huntington dismisses universalism as imperialism (in the perjorative sense) and argues that a project of imposing Western values will end in disaster. In other words Huntington appears as a traditional realist.

Achar argued that it is this realist Huntington that has informed US policy towards Islam. His first (and very good) example is the United States’ alliance with Saudi Arabia, a state which is in fact the US’ oldest ally in the Middle East. It has historically (and still does) served as the cornerstone in the US global stratey, particularly in combatting anti-imperialist nationalism. But of course Saudi Arabia is probably the most ‘fundamentalist’ state in the whole of the middle-east. In fact the US supported Saudi fundamentalism in Afghanistan. He further notes that plenty of fundamentalists were willing to colloborate with the US invasion of Iraq.

The point for Achar is that the US has used fundamentalism for its own ends and fundamentalism has often been (and is still) willing to colloborate with US imperialism when they had the chance. He then listed the examples of the Muslim Brotherhood and assorted other instances.

Achar’s basic point here was that at best we can call Islamic fundamentalism ‘anti-Western’ but it is only sporadically and inconsistently ‘anti-imperialist’. This of course has implications for how Marxists should approach Islamist resistance to US imperialism. At the very least when struggling with them it is necessary to view them with ‘distrust’ and attempt to spread our own ideas within their ranks.

One person’s attempt to critique Achar’s approach was based on the argument that notwithstanding our ‘subjective’ opposition to the domestic policies of the fundamentalists, they might nonetheless be ‘objectively’ anti-imperialist, since they are fighting imperialism. I wasn’t there was the response, but surely Achar’s argument is not about the political programme’s of Islamists, it’s about their record of supporting imperialists when they think it is to their advantage. Such a position of course means that while they may be ‘objectively anti-imperialist’ in a given instance the question is whether they will consistently hold this position. Achar’s analysis seems to suggest they won’t (and also that the imperialists won’t consistently target them either) so this has to be the position to proceed from.

Bashir Abu-Manneh
For my money Abu-Manneh’s speech was probably the most interesting of the lot, particulary because he engaged in some interesting theoretical anaylsis. Abu-Manneh’s speech was composed of three arguments:

  • The Palestinians have been in a state of seige since 1991
  • The Palestinian elite has collaborated with the Israeli state
  • The above two factors have led to the emergence of a specific form of resistance, one which has entrenched militarisation and depoliticisation

The first thesis is simple enough to understand. Israel has continuously interevened in the occupied territory, denying the right of freedom of movement throughout the West Bank and Gaza strip and within Israel itself. This process has culminated in the creation of the apartheid wall, which has formalised the process by physically closing off vast swathes of the West Bank. This – of couse – is all very uncontroversial stuff. But Abu-Manneh further argued that this has destroyed any meaningful sense of spontaneity amongst the Palestinians. It has tended to eliminate any proper sense of the Palestinians as a collecitive entity who are capable of collective action. Palestinians have been alienated into individuals, families etc.

The second thesis is another one which I think is uncontroversial. It seem incontrovertable by now that the Palestinian Authority has collaborated with and legitimated the occupation – corrupting and nearly destroying the Palestinian’s national aspirations. Abu-Manneh related an anecdote whereby the PA would always be there to stop attacks on settlers but would be mysteriously absent when there was an Israeli attack in the occupied territory. In line with this Abu-Manneh argued that the PA has consciously undermined any attempts to organise outside of the PA. To top it all off, when the PA did stop collaborating it was attacked by the Israeli authorities.

The combination of the two above factors leads to Abu-Manneh’s third argument. The point of these factors is that they have pushed Palestinian strategy towards militarisation. Firstly, this is because any meaningful political resistance seems impossible. The Palestinian’s traditional representation – Fatah – has been collaborating since Oslo. Furthermore, it is difficult – if not impossible – to develop political positions and mobilisation when freedom of movement is physically restricted. Furthermore, political action seems so difficult precisely because the Palestinians have lost their faith in their own capability for collective action. This depoliticisation means that solutions based on mass action seem impossible, which naturally seems to lend support to the idea that small acts of military resistance are necessary.

But it is not just the content (military acts) that are shaped by these social conditions, it is also the form. This is because the small military action per se is – in some respects – a collective political act. This would certainly seem to be the case when one considers the links between militants and political parties. The ultimate culmination of the tendency towards atomisation is the emergence of the suicide bomber as a ‘weapon’ in the struggle against of Israel. This of course makes a lot of sense, because the suicide bomber is the precisely opposite of a collective political struggle. Thus, the tendency towards atomisation and depoliticisation, combined with the concomitant process of militarisation tends to produce the ultimate individualist military act – the suicide bomber. Although, as Abu-Manneh points out, we shouldn’t exaggerate the degree to which suicide bombing has become the norm, and ultimately as a tactic it has proved counter-productive, since it tended to fit the Palestianian struggle into the discourse of terror.

What I really like about this analysis is the way in which it traces the particular configuration of Palestinian resistance back to the social conditions in which it operates. This is a much better position to take than just ‘condemning’ particular forms of resistance without understanding why they gain popularity or the opposite but related one of just saying ‘it’s understandable because they endure so much’. It’s therefore good to see someone take a materialist position on this issue. What’s also interesting is the degree to which Abu-Manneh’s position dovetails with Lukacs in History and Class Consciousness. This is because capitalism itself has a natural tendency towards depoliticisation (reification), alienation and fragmentation, of course these tendencies are often counteracted.

I think invoking Lukacs is useful for another reason. Abu-Manneh’s preferred solution to the problem is to replace this strategy of individualised militarisation with one of collective self-mobilisation. Well, this is fine in practice, but the whole point is that the situation Abu-Manneh outlined has already shown precisely why this collective self-moblisation is going to happen, and certainly not spontaneously. This is where Lukacs is especially relevant. Because Lukacs core insight is that the proletariat can’t just spontaneously organise against capitalism. What is needed is something that can take the viewpoint of the proletariat but do so in a way that transcends the reifying tendencies of capitalism. That is to say a vanguard party. In the Gramscian analysis this Party is composed of the organic intellectuals who arise from the class in the midst of struggle. And this is what Abu-Manneh’s analysis really seems to lack – the need for a conscious organising element of the Palestinian people able to mobilise them against the Israelis. But of course the other problem is that the people who you would expect to be able to fulfil this role in Palestinian society are – as Abu-Manneh argued – completely compromised. This – perhaps – is why he didn’t delve into this question, as it is one to which there doesn’t seem to be much of an answer.

Unfortunately I missed the last talk because I needed to get home, so I can’t comment on that. More stuff will follow over the rest of the week. This will reveal how horribly theory-obsessed I am, however, and no doubt I will be much looked down-upon for it.

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Historical Materialism Conference 2007 by korakious
November 12, 2007, 12:13 am
Filed under: Historical Materialism Conference, Imperialism, Marxism, Neoliberalism, Rob, Theory
As you probably already know, this weekend was the annual Historical Materialism Conference, which I had the good fortune to attend. Unfortunately I missed Friday’s sessions (prior commitments) which meant I didn’t get to see Zizek (damn, damn, damn, damn) but the rest of the Conference was pretty damn good. The first thing to say is that despite the current poisonous climate on the left (and particularly as between the SWP and everyone else) the atmosphere at the Conference was really good (bearing in mind there was a mix of people from different traditions there), everything felt very comradely (although of course the interventions were occasionally slightly cutting) and everyone seemed to get along well enough. So, as is usual in the old blogosphere I thought I’d give a [not so brief] summation of those sessions which I did attend.

Saturday

I rolled in a bit late on Saturday, so I missed the first session of the day. Not that I would really have listened to it much. The next session I attended was on ‘Marxism, Pashukanis and the Law’. In this session I actually ‘presented a paper’ on Pashukanis, Legal Nihilism and Legal Strategy, which I will probably put up here at some time (once I’ve cleaned it up a bit – the notes were really only intended for my consumption only). There weren’t too many people here (although there were a few), which was kind of predictable, as law is not a particularly glamorous topic for Marxist analysis. There were two other contributors aside from me – Andreas Harms presented a paper on ‘Commodity Form and Legal Form’ and Bill Bowring presented a paper on ‘International Law, Lenin and Self-Determination’. Both of the papers were of high quality and we got some good discussion in as well. It feels kind of weird summarising this session, so I’ll leave it for the atendees to do so (hopefully some of them blog).

There weren’t any more ‘sessions’ for the day, as it extended into a ‘meet the editors’ session and a lunchbreak, I did have some pretty interesting conversation during this period, so it was all to the good.

The next ‘session’ was a plenary one, featuring some rather big hitters, the talk was on ‘Neo-liberalism and Neo-imperialism’ and the speakers were Alex Callinicos, Robert Brenner and David McNally.

Robert Brenner
The central thrust of Brenner’s argument was the relationship between the war in Iraq and the US’ geopolitical strategy. Brenner argued that the Iraq war was a puzzling phenomenon which represented a real rupture with previous US strategy in content if not form. Brenner argued that during the 2000 election no one would have predicted that the Iraq war would come around in the time that it did. The Republicans seemed to have a fairly low-key foreign policy, certainly not the type of messianism that seemed to characterise them post-9/11. Furthermore, it was argued that the US had fulfilled its three key strategic aims (which it had held since World War 2); these aims were

  1. To freeze and weaken ‘communism’, third world statist nationalism and statism more generally so as to allow the free movement of [US] capital throughout the globe.
  2. Consolidate US hegemony in Japan and Europe – depriving them of their ability to disrupt the framework of international capitalism; key to this aim was depriving them of their military power and compensate them for this by providing them with security.
  3. As a consequence of the above two aims the US intended to implement a neo-liberal agenda throughout the world, with all the consequences thereof

Brenner argued that the US was willing to do this since US capital was so powerful that it didn’t require the formal protection of the US state. So on this reading the US had – according to Brenner – recognised the essential validity of the Leninist critique of imperialism – namely that monopoly-capital imperialist states vying for domination of the world’s resources inevitably culminated in war, which was not conducive to the continued position of the US and global capitalism. To combat this the US entered into a ‘radical Kautskyite’ project of restructuring the global situation as above – the only question was whether the US was disciplined enough to continue enforcing the consensus.

All of this was encapsulated in the term ‘New World Order’ as used by Bush et al. This meant that there was a new approach to the international use of force:

  • Don’t use force unless you can use massive amounts of force
  • Other conflicts should just be ‘policing’ or assymetrical conflict
  • Avoid committing ground troops if you can – use cruise missiles, bombs etc.

All of ths as summarised in a phrase by Madeline Allbright that ‘military force’ but not war should be used (which got a big laugh from the audience, but really the distinction isn’t as ridicoulous as it first, certainly international law tends to distinguish between the use of military force and an armed attack or war). This was basically a neo-liberal form of imperialism and one in which generally states toed the line (the thrid world accepted the neo-liberal consensus the [not yet] axis of evil was going to the table, etc.).

So US policy in Iraq has to be understood in relation to this. It is therefore necessary to view US policy towards Iraq in this context. What the context what seem to suggest is that no US adminstration would really want regime change in Iraq, as this would be internationally counterproductive – it would be costly, destabilising and could whip up Arab resistance across the Middle East. Futhermore, the Shia could not be trusted to serve as a counterweight to Iran. This is why Saddam was not overthrown following the first Gulf War and a policy of ‘containment’ was pursued in relation to Iraq.

Against this backdrop the recent war in Iraq does seem to be a break (and to a lesser extent so does Afghanistan). Brenner’s next task is to explain how this could happen. Brenner traces the strategic rupture to the ascendence of the neo-conservative movement within the American state apparatus and their huge influence within the State Department. It was only with 9/11 that they were able to gain control over foreign policy.

Brenner then gave an internal examination of this movement. According to Brenner the key theoretical position for the neo-conservatives is the ‘fungibility of force’. By this they mean that American military domination can be used to do anything, and the neo-conservatives were interested in ‘harvesting the fruits of military dominance’.

It is then necessary to understand how the neo-conservatives gained this power. Brenner roots the neo-conservative movement in the Republican far-right, who had taken over Congress in 1994. They had always had trouble gaining power and were only able to do so by pushing the foreign policy aspect. Once they had gained power they acted as a ‘Shadow Cabinet’ that pushed Clinton into all sort of things (like passing the Iraq Liberation Act) but they could only achieve limited success and certainly couldn’t impose their domestic agenda. But 9/11 changed all of this and gave the neo-conservatives the pre-text they needed to actualise both their domestic and international agenda.

Brenner’s analysis was pretty damn interesting (he’s also a very good speaker). I quite liked his focus on concrete, ‘micro’ US politics and the way in which they interact with the global sphere, a Gramsci quote seems particularly relevant here:

Do international relations precede or follow (logically) fundamental social relations? There can be no doubt that they follow. Any organic innovation in the social structure, through its technical-military expressions, modifies organically absolute and relative relations in the international field too. Even the geographical position of a national State does not precede but follows (logically) structural changes, although it also reacts back upon them to a certain extent (to the extent precisely to which superstructures react back upon the structure, politics on economics, etc.). However, international relations react both passively and actively on political relations (of hegemony among the parties). The more the immediate economic life of a nation is subordinated to international relations, the more a particular party will come to represent this situation and to exploit it, with the aim of preventing rival parties gaining the upper hand (recall Nitti’s famous speech on the technical impossibility of revolution in Italy).
Gramsci, The Modern Prince

So I actually thought that Brenner’s analysis was a niecly dialectical one, similar in the way that Gramsci presented it. I also see nothing a priori wrong with the ascription of such a decisive role to a ‘subjective’ factors. Especially as these subjective factors are in a dialectical relationship with the objective situation (Lukacs comes immediately to mind on this point). This isn’t to say that I think Brenner is entirely right, but I don’t think we dismiss his analysis out of hand.

Alex Callinicos
Callinicos delivered another pretty awesome speech (you will hear this a lot, because I thought the quality of this session was absolutely stellar, even if the sweltering heat of the lecture theatre left much to be desired!). Alex presented his argument as one diametrically opposed to Brenner’s. He argued that Brenner had only given us description, but no analysis – we can’t just see Iraq as a random event we need a larger perpective and so must look at the historical connection between liberalism and imperialism.

Callinicos noted that the US has always eschewed formal imperialism – and continuously legitimated itself with reference to this. He looks back to the ‘imperialism of the open door’ – in which the role of military power was only to enforce the conditions of a liberal world economy, this of course should not – as a rule – involve the use of ground troops. The predecessor of this type of imperialism was the ‘imperialism of free trade’ practiced by the British Empire in the 19th century and Britain relied heavily on informal empire in Canada and China. The US has a consistent, radical version of this.

Following World War 2 the US dominated the advanced capitalist world and built up a series of institutions, but this liberalism was only ever transnational. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the US was able to convert this transnationalism into global liberalism. This means that for Callinicos there was no fundamental break in the project – and it was one vigorously pursued by the Clinton administration. For Callinicos therefore, Clinton was the true pioneer of the fungibility of military power.

But of course hegemony is always about force and consent, and they are always combined in different ways. The manner in which these methods are combined is what differentiates the neo-cons from Clinton. Thus, for Callinicos this is a matter of quantity not quality there is no rupture. Callinicos further argues that the Bush administration was radicalised post-9/11 and that in this context the neo-cons cannot be considered ‘mad’. He argues that in the face of the increasing threat of China’s economic power a rational argument could certainly be made out for the US using its only comparative advantage in this conjuncture that of military force. Iraq was therefore important because rising captialist powers were dependent on its oil and the US needed to assert this.

The question Callinicos thinks we need to ask is ‘what are the interests of US imperialism’? When we do this we understand that the US ruling class is complex and the best strategy is always a contested question – we have to look at te question of the imposition of ideology on a world scale, and the geo-political is central to this.

All well and good – but I think Brenner responded pretty well by saying ‘we don’t really disagree on much’. I think this is probably the case – all they really disagree is whether there is a qualitative or quantitiative difference between Clinton and Bush (which sounds big but – meh – scales). Brenner just helps us to understand why it is that one side won the argument. But I’d actually go further than this. Callinicos seems to argue two contradictory things. On the one hand he argues that there is no rupture between Clinton and Bush, but on the other hand he seems to argue that China posed a qualitatively new threat to the US. Because of course post-WW2 there has been no capitalist power that posed a threat to the US in the way China has (although I guess the state-cap people would argue the USSR was a rival capitalist power, so maybe change the reference to post-1989?), since every other ‘threat’ was pretty damn friendly to the US, and were happy to allow the US maintain Pax Americana. So, on this reading, Alex seems to be arguing that the emergence of China has disrupted the ‘radical-Kautskyism’ of the US, since it doesn’t accept the US’ managerial role. But surely this would indicate a rupture, in line with Brenner.

David McNally
Although I really liked the first two talks David McNally’s was far and away my favourite (I think much of the audience agreed with this too). In contradistinction to the first two McNally’s position was to start from a general theoretical analysis and proceed from there. So for McNally the central point of depature was that of Marxist value theory. We need to begin from this perspective – so McNally argues – because we live in a world of alienated social relations and theory must de-fetishise them.

McNally’s talk revolved around 5 arguments:

  • Neo-liberalism involves radically extending and intensifying the commodity form
  • This is achieved through ‘monetarising’ more and more aspects of human life
  • This involves the extension of primitive accumulation
  • This occurs on a variety of levels and entails imperialism
  • World money becomes decisive

So McNally’s basic argument is that the phenomenon we call ‘neo-liberalism’ must be understood as the extension of the commodity form – not a conscious project of the capitalist class but a result of the value form itself. It is fundamentally connected to new forms of discipline, and is primarily exercised through the discipline of money – the IMF, the World Bank etc. This leads to a reversal of the partial decommodification of labour.

Dispossession is also fundamental to this (hence the importance of primitive accumulation) because land has to be converted into capital. But since this land is occupied by other people, they have to be turfed off. For this reason there is a nexus of land, violence and dispossession – which gives rise to new enclosures and modalities of class struggle arise against this. Furthermore, ecological disaster is incorporated into this, so disasters which displace people are taken advantage off (Hurricane Mitch was used to get rid of the Honduran indigenous population).

McNally further linked this process to militarisation – war is of course central in ‘clearing out’ areas of land, be that through death or fleeing. All of this has also led to a great rise in the industrial reserve army, which has grown massively as people have been forced out of their land in the process of dispossession.

McNally went on to criticise the approaches of David Harvey and Rosa Luxemborg, who he thinks failed to properly elaborate the ‘laws’ of this economic process – meaning they cannot properly theorise it. Instead they often remain at the level of (very powerful) description. [He also made a really interesting point about dialectics and subjects positing their own presuppositions – but I’ll ignore that]. Further, his problem with Rosa’s approach is that she assumes this form of imperialism requires permanent occupation, which is clearly not the case, as the discipline of money suffices to compel national elites to implement dispossesion.

McNally then went on to focus heavily on what he called ‘world money’. By this he means the currency which serves as the ‘global’ medium for exchange. He argues that there has beeen an intensification of unequal currecny exchange, with the global South losing out on this. But the concept has been under theorised, and it is important, because the state that issues ‘world money’ will get the surplus on exchange, and so can appropriate value. This means that different nation states struggle over who is to issue world money.

McNally argues that this can be illustrated by the Euro project in the European Union, where the states of the European Union have tried to create a currency with all the characteristics of world money. McNally describes this as a form of inter-imperialist rivalry and denies that such rivalry need be militarised.

McNally ended with the argument that we need to emphasise anti-neo-liberalism and anti-imperialism highlight the need for a de-commodification of labour – that is to say the socialist revolution (which earnt him a rousing cheer).

What I really liked about McNally’s talk was the way that he was able to articulate linkages between his theoretical paradigm and our practical trajectory. His analysis does explain rather well a lot of contemporary phenomena in a basic theoretical way, and I think this is to be welcomed.

Ultimately, I think all of these talks worked well, and frankly if we could have combined them all into one big talk it would have been awesome. So David sets the economic-theoretical scene for us, Alex embedded it in a broader historical context and Bob examined the specific way in which ruling classes responded to the broader need for the expansion of value. Each therefore had the merit of contributing to a totalising perspective, and with a little work we could trace the analysis of value directly into Alex’s and Bob’s talk. Of course this is the inherent weakness of the short talk format, but nonetheless I was impressed by this session.

OK, I’ve clearly gone on long enough, so I’ll stop now, and do something else. Tomorrow (maybe?) I want to at least outline the talk on ‘Global Flashpoints’ that was also on Saturday, particualrly as I felt it offered a really interesting perspective on the Palestinian resistance.