Perspectives on Anarchist Theory

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Vol. 6 - No. 1
Spring, 2002

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Imperialism and Anti-authoritarian resistance after 9-11: Some Crucial Questions
by Mark Lance

A great deal of activist attention is now focused on the Middle East and Central Asia.  This is a good thing, but not primarily because the US is fighting a war in Afghanistan.  On the contrary, while there were many civilian deaths as a direct result of that war, and likely worse humanitarian consequences to follow, there are far more important geopolitical trends at work, and far more dangerous developments taking place, developments which are obscured by an excessive focus on the war. Indeed, the primary function of the “War on Terror” – whether against Afghanistan, against the “axis of evil” (to use the caricature-proof language of our president), or against as yet undisclosed enemies – is precisely to obscure these other political developments. 

It was, I think, clear from the beginning, that the US “War on Terror” marked a rapid acceleration of  a process which is functioning to create a new imperial regime in Central Asia, one built on a model currently in place across the Middle East.  Its outlines are as follows. One, the US will support brutal authoritarian governments in small states throughout the region. Two, these states will be kept dependent on the US through a process of militarizing their relations to their people.  (That is, none of these governments will have broad popular support, most will face active insurgencies, and all will thereby depend for their survival on US military support.  Of course the usual global capitalist mechanisms of control will also be extended wherever possible.) Meanwhile the US will establish permanent military installations throughout the region. Eventually natural gas and oil deposits in Central Asia will be exploited with the help of these regimes, as oil is now in the Middle East. 

With significant but for our purposes unimportant variations, this is the situation currently with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the small gulf states, Egypt, Pakistan, and others.  Current US actions are leading in the same direction for Uzbekistan (where a new permanent US base at Khanabad houses 1,500 personnel), Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan (where the US is currently building a transportation hub capable of handling thousands of troops) and Afghanistan.  In terms of new aid, Simon Tisdall reports in the Guardian that under new economic aid packages “Uzbekistan received $64m in US assistance and $136m in US Export-Import Bank credits in 2001. In 2002, the Bush administration plans to hand over $52m in assistance to Kazakhstan, some partly for military equipment.”

Israel is slightly different as it is not merely militarized, but a country with a nuclear capable, highly effective modern military, and with a popular government. And of course levels of US aid to Israel dwarf those to other countries.  Further, it has traditionally been useful for different reasons.  But Israel remains partially dependent on the US, given its complete isolation in the region, and largely subservient to US interests.  States like Iraq, which do not function well in the US imperial scheme are effectively destroyed, though still held out as threats to justify further imperial actions.  (This function – serving as a constant “threat” that can be tossed out to the press and public whenever an imperial project is in need of justification – is being taken over by the “war on terrorism,” leaving one to wonder whether the complete destruction of Iraq isn’t now on the agenda.) 

There is nothing subtle about any of this, and it is not hard to see the pattern.  The US now has military bases across the globe, in well over 100 countries, in virtually every major region of every continent. It has recently built bases in 13 locations in nine countries in Central Asia, bases that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz recently said would involve a long-term commitment.  In addition, the US now excercises substantial control over the economies of the majority of states in the world and effective veto power over political decisions taken by small countries throughout the world.  This is an empire, the largest and most powerful in human history. And the forefront of expansion is the Middle East and Central Asia.

Neither the empire nor the strategy of managing that empire through militarized insecure states is new, but the level of commitment to the strategy, the rate of expansion, and the sheer recklessness of its implementation have all risen enormously since 9-11.  The danger inherent in this strategy is significant for the people of the world. Most of the countries in the Middle East and Central Asia are so weak that their collapse is a real possibility.  The crisis is particularly frightening in countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.  Nor would the likely successor regimes be palatable.  In most cases the principle insurgency is a repressive religiously focused movement  and no anti-authoritarian can hope for such a change.  As significant would be the immediate human cost of widespread civil war in the region. At least Israel, Pakistan, and India are nuclear powers.  Other countries have nuclear reactors, and many have stockpiles of advanced weapons.  So the potential human cost of a regional meltdown are staggering.  

I don’t think there can be any question of whether anti-authoritarians need to confront the advancement of an imperial project that threatens millions of lives (not to mention one that is providing cover for a massive increase in police and state power in the US and Europe).  I don’t think there can be any question that this must be at the center of our work. The question, of course, is how to confront it.  What would an anti-authoritarian movement against US imperialism in the Middle East and Central Asia look like?  How would such a movement differ if it were to be built with an eye toward our eventual goal of an anti-authoritarian world, marked by mutual aid and solidarity?

These are hard questions. My goal in what follows is to impart a sense of urgency upon questions that arise for anti-authoritarian activists in light of these features of the current political situation.  While I have a few modest suggestions regarding answers, I have no settled views. Those we need to seek together.

Certainly anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarians should continue to work for the global justice movement, continue pushing for an anti-authoritarian agenda and anti-authoritarian structures within it, and try to do a much better job than they have in the past of integrating an opposition to militarism, war, and military support of repressive states into that movement.  The hard part, it seems to me, is the internationalism.

We absolutely must reach out to the people of the region.  Not only is it arrogant and contrary to principles of mutual aid to think that we can just organize among ourselves on behalf of people half a planet away, but it is also clearly a losing strategy.  Another effect of the whole process of power extension since 9-11 is a massive polarization in the populations of the Middle East and Central Asia.  In Pakistan, for example, secular resistance to the current military regime has all but disappeared, while repressive Islamic opposition is increasing.   The reason is quite simple: any opposition to Islamic groups is effectively portrayed as pro-US, a portrayal that radically discredits the group in question.  Thus, any group with a progressive or liberal agenda of any sort is finding itself less and less able to play a role in the political development of the region while power splits into a horrifying binary opposition of authoritarian clients of US imperialism, and fundamentalism.

Clearly this is a process we must try to confront by way of international solidarity.  We cannot simply organize at the center of empire while a whole region of the Earth spirals into disaster that could have profound effects on us all.  If the ideals of anarchism mean anything, they require of us solidarity and mutual aid with people in the midst of such a situation. But how, and with whom?

These, as I see it, are the hard questions we must now face.  More specifically:

  • How do we find groups, organizations, movements, and individuals interested in working in solidarity with an anti-authoritarian, anti-imperialist movement?  (In the extreme case, what if there are none? What if, say, the Palestinians simply opt for Jihad against Israel, and turn their backs on secular solidarity?

  • How do we navigate the deep problems that will arise from the profound political differences between our own groups and any movements we ally ourselves with?

  • How do we work collaboratively with these movements, without trying to dictate our own theories and techniques into contexts in which they are unfamiliar?

  • How do we navigate the very different security and safety issues in these countries?  How can we make political work safer for comrades in such regions of the world.

  • How do we make ourselves more open a range of issues that we prefer not to engage with?

I’ll close with some brief remarks on the ways these questions arise in two contexts: Lebanon and Palestine.  (I use these examples because they are the two cases in the region with which I’m most familiar.)   

In Palestine, there are many obstacles to international solidarity.  One is obviously Israel and the devastating destruction of Palestinian society that it has wrought.  The Occupied Territories are divided by an occupying military into an array of bantustans; the Palestinian economy is near collapse; human rights are non-existent in the territories.  Another obstacle, unfortunately, is the Palestinian National Authority.  Arafat’s government has proven itself to be corrupt, directionless, and more than willing to serve as a client of the US, even to the extent of shooting unarmed protestors of the US war in Afghanistan.  If he thought the population would allow him to get away with it, Arafat would, it seems to me, be happy to rule over an economically dependent and militarily threatened apartheid state.  Finally, one must deal with the various Arab states which try to use the Palestinian cause for their own ends, and various religious movements such as Hamas.  The latter, though easy to criticize from a non-authoritarian perspective, must be understood in terms of the role it plays in Gaza.  Hamas provides the majority of social services to the people of this oppressed and overpopulated strip of land.  Brutalized by Israel, and neglected by the PNA, Hamas has been the only group to take up the slack. Thus, organizing that rejects them out of hand or in all respects is simply impossible.

This applies even more to the role of Hizbullah in the south of Lebanon.  They provide  medical, pension, and most other social services there.  As a result, they are treated as the de facto government by the vast majority of people.  They, as well as a deep commitment to religion, are a fact of life in the area. 

I recently spent a week in Beirut meeting with numerous activists who are trying to put together a non-religious, non-aligned progressive movement in the country.  All were eager to build connections with the Global Justice Movement and the Palestinian solidarity movement in the west.  But the obstacles are enormous.  Direct and open protest can result in immediate arrest.  Communication is always subject to surveillance.  It is enormously difficult to remain independent of dominant political parties, which are generally tied to particular religious groups.  Thus, some students at American University in Beirut told me of trying to start a small weekly student paper.  Within a week of meeting, before publishing any copies, they were contacted by three national parties trying to pressure them to affiliate. 

The main point is to give a sense of just how different activist politics are in the Middle East and Central Asia.  The threats, opportunities, factional lines, assumptions, etc. are very different from what we are used to. Above all, and before anything, we need to learn about this. We must send delegations to countries at the front lines of US imperialism, simply to learn from local activists, and to hear their ideas about how we can work together for liberation. We need to be open to forms of discourse – especially religious ones – that are uncomfortable for many western anarchists.  We need to think creatively, openly, and together, about ways to connect our work, for our mutual liberation.  What the results of that thinking will be, I cannot predict.  I have no easy answers to any of this, but I know that much rests on our ability to make progress on these issues.~

Perspectives on Anarchist Theory - Vol. 6, No. 1 - Spring 2002