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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Imperialism and Modernity

Nasser in Syria, 1960
As to imperialism, it relies on two forces: the one positive, derived from its scientific and technological activity and we cannot confront this force except through adopting it and seizing this decisive battle as an opportunity to leap to the level of modern science and organization. We shall then be delivered once and for all from the vestiges of reactionary mentality and the absence of planning. The negative force of imperialism is derived from the shortcoming and loopholes, which still exist in our society and its conditions. The loopholes give imperialism collaborators among our people who are enslaved by their private interests and blinded by ignorance and prejudice. It is within our power today to wrest this weapon from imperialism in order to purify our internal front, isolate the conspiring elements and speedily and decisively tackle the causes of plotting and deviation. - Michel Aflaq, Choice texts from the Baath Party founders thought
It is a strange phenomenon that modernity in the colonized world has had to be constructed against the "Modern World". The Third World modernizers - Secular Arab nationalism, South-East Asian Marxism, Latin American left-wing democracy and Pan-Africanism - all had to fight a vicious and bloody battle against that inventor of modernity - The West - in order to implement the process of modernizing and secularizing the society. The West had first projected the characteristics of barbarity and reaction onto the colonized, and then later, as some Westerners became "aware" of his own complicity in the barbarity of imperialism, projected the imagery of the "noble savage", unfairly ripped out of their "natural" habitat onto the colonized. Neither of these projections allowed for a coherent modernity to develop in the Third world.

But neither of these projections had anything to do with reality. There was no "natural condition" of the colonized - they were neither barbarian tribalists slaughtering each-other, nor mythical peace-loving shamans living outside the corrupting influence of civilization. All over what is now referred to as the Third World there were complex civilizations, which developed science, trade and art, that were systematically and brutally destroyed by the West. In China and India, the British took advanced societies that had become the manufacturing centers of the World, and artificially converted them to impoverished nations.1  Subsequently, the West viewed the impoverishment of those people's as natural and given. The impoverishing of India also erased its history, leaving nothing for the Western gaze to see but the poverty and subjugation. Indians lived in the dirt, starving and miserable, because that was what Indians did. Both the Western idealization of the people of India as wise, noble savages and the demonization of them as ignorant primitives served the same function - to condemn the people of India to eternal poverty and subjugation. Against this notion, the poor of India have rebelled repeatedly. The communist movement, the Dalits, the resistance of the tribes that never seized in India for decades on end is not noted. In this way, the poor of India have their agency and self-determination robbed from them. They wanted to be neither the eternally barbaric animals of ignorance that the demonizers cast them as, nor the wise shamans that represent a "purer" life that the Western idealizers cast them as. We are left to ask, along with Arundhati Roy, what was the true liberatory act: Gandhi, a privileged member of the Vaishya caste, wearing the robes of a low-caste Dalit, or Dr Ambedkar, the Dalit, wearing a suit?2

But do the colonized of the World simply wish to repeat the modernity of the West - that modernity that was built on their backs? It is not quite so simple. The multiple contradictions that present themselves when considering modernity in the colonized world are endless. Modernity as such would always be tied to the West, and its colonialism. How were the colonized to respond? Consider Meisner's take on the development of Marxism among Chinese intellectuals:

As faith in Western democracy eroded and with  the internal political awakening stimulating new hope for effective and immediate action, the  Bolshevik message offered both a new intellectual faith and a new political model. Marxism was seen as the most advanced intellectual product of the modern West, but one that rejected the Western world in its capitalist form and its imperialist relation to China. The latter was most forcefully  demonstrated through the nationalist appeals of the Leninist theory of imperialism (which gave the colonial and semi-colonial lands a crucial international revolutionary role) and the new Soviet government's renunciation of the old czarist imperialist privileges in China. To become a Marxist was one way for a Chinese intellectual to reject both the traditions of the Chinese past and Western domination of the Chinese present. 3
Third-World Marxism, and other such "modernizing" ideologies, had to commit to a dialectical inversion in order to achieve their goals. They had to perform a double negation - a negation of themselves as dominated from the outside as well as the negation of themselves as dominated by their own past. Western modernity was predicated on the subjugation of the "non-moderns" in the sense that it had to actively prevent the rest of the world from effectively modernizing. Thus, being "non-modern" became a weakness, rather than a strength, in the fight against Western colonialism and imperialism. It was precisely that condition which the Western imperialists aimed to keep them in. But this inevitably created tension, because just as the West had prevented the independent development of the Third World, it had also systematically demonized or erased the cultural and social heritage of those peoples. How do you then create a "modern" identity without legitimizing the colonial erasure and demonetization of the older, "non-modern" identity? It was a contradiction that was difficult to overcome. The contrast between the secularism and progressive thought of Mossadegh and the Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah is an example of that contradiction.

What's more is that, while many of these countries thought modernizing would put them on equal footing to the West and enable it build relations with the West as equals rather than as between dominating and dominated, the West never allowed these countries into the "modern" sphere. Arab Ba'athism, once the agent of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment in the Arab world, was recast as another expression of Arab tyranny, its official secularism used as a thin veil for ancient religious sectarianism. China - one of the most modern countries in the World - is seen as an expression of the oriental Confucian despotism of old. Russia, by any standards a modern, industrial country, is also excluded from this sphere as long as it walks an independent path. As NED-stooge Carl Gershman explains, Russia "will be ready, sometime in the future, to become a modern European state" - if it is ready to accept regime change.4 Such rhetoric helps explain the dynamics of Modernity as an ideology - Modernity is The West, and people who work for The West. Any colonized nation that intends to modernize on its own has to face Modernity as an ideological, exclusionary construct that will not let itself be reduced to a simple formula of industrialization, bureaucratization and the invention of civil society. The "barbarity" of the un-modern colonized nation resisting a colonial occupation is seen as the exact same "barbarity" as the colonized nation modernizing itself, because the effect is the same. It undermines Western dominance. The "primitive barbarian" and the "modernizing Totalitarian" are two expressions of the same Western fear. 

Indeed, the development of the "totalitarian" discourse is a projection of colonial prejudices against the "primitive tribesman" onto a situation wherein the colonized attempts to gain access to modernity. Almost all societies that have attempted an independent road toward modernization have been demonized as "totalitarian." The entire narrative of totalitarianism has its roots in this racist, orientalist notion. See Arendt:

“When the Boers, in their fright and misery, decided to use these savages as
though they were just another form of animal life they embarked upon a
process which could only end with their own degeneration into a white race
living beside and together with black races from whom in the end they
would differ only in the color of their skin. They had transformed themselves
into a tribe and had lost the European’s feeling for a territory, a patria
of his own. They behaved exactly like the black tribes who had roamed the
Dark Continent for centuries. 
My point is not the awful, Conradian diction or even the stark conceptual separation
between the European and the African. It is the effect upon the Boers and
thence – so the retrograde diffusionist argument goes – upon Europe. We
“degenerate” into a race-based, primitive and nomadic, rootless “tribe” (or “race
organization”) no better than them.
Thanks to this contact with the primitive, not
only do we come to think in terms of race (i.e. in a racist way), but this mode of
thinking later morphs into a tribal nationalism that, in turn, becomes modern
anti-Semitism and totalitarianism
(“a whole outlook on life and the world”).
This last phenomenon “lies in the nature of tribalism rather than in political facts
and circumstances”
While it's true that many of these anti-imperialist modernizers have been repressive and that the rapid economic transformations they subjected their people to caused traumas and suffering, the condemnation of these societies as "totalitarian" by the Western intelligentsia is more than hypocritical. It is in effect a whitewash. Western modernization not only created the Dickensian conditions of the working class of its own countries, but built it on the colonization, enslavement and subjugation of the rest of the world. By comparison, these "counter-modernizers" were exceptionally mild. Yet, for daring to break the pattern of domination and exploitation, we call them "totalitarian", and cast them once more into the category of the primitive brute that must be destroyed. It doesn't matter how many people voted for them, and what their people think of them, the very act of independent development is a sure sign of totalitarianism. It's through this lens Hugo Chavez, elected president 15 times by the people of Venezuela, can be cast as a Latin American Saddam Hussein.

Third World modernization threatens not only the West as such, but capitalism as a whole. Even as many of these movements wear anti-communism as a badge of honor, and view the establishment of a national capitalism as their goal, the indirect consequence is a threat against the pillars on which neo-imperialist capitalism stands, namely - inequality between nations, neo-colonialism and unipolarity. Unlike many on the left, I do not view the BRICS-project as an emergent, competing imperialist capitalist structure that will resurrect the inter-imperialist conflict that resulted in WWI. The difference between the inter-imperialist conflict of the early 20th century Europe and the emergent BRICS-project is who is doing the fighting, and what they are fighting for. WWI was a conflict between Western capitalist powers over the control of the colonies, while the tensions between the US and BRICS is a conflict between the Western capitalist countries and the nations that were formerly colonized! What isn't recognized is the extreme fragility on which BRICS is a purely capitalist project. By virtue of being formerly colonized nations counter-modernizing against Empire, they are in effect slowly erasing the possibility to carry out the organized plunder of the Global South on which global capitalism is predicated. The bourgeoisie of the West and of the BRICS countries will find themselves in a world wherein the effective neo-colonization of another country will be increasingly difficult. There would be, if BRICS are successful, the creation of a vacuum in which international powers would be unable to exercise the concrete power needed to endlessly expand. In such a vacuum, the possibility of creating a powerful socialist movement presents itself.

Global production would be increasingly socialized as the competing bourgeoisie becomes unable to assert its dominance in a coherent fashion. This could certainly lead to heightened and more chaotic repression - but it also creates a global working class that can express its strength in a unified way. The bourgeoisie would, if BRICS succeed, be faced with a working class that is ever more inter-connected, with greater abilty to assert its interests. BRICS may fare great successes as national developmentalist projects, but as the contradictions of the capitalism they are building plays out, it risks undermining that very same capitalist structure. In that situation, it will only be the socialists who can carry out the task of fully modernizing the world - what Suzy Kim calls heroic modernism:

The revolutionary and emancipatory potential of Marxist thought that differentiates it from the liberal variety is precisely the elevation of the most downtrodden and exploited to the position of privileged subjects - the ones to bring about a better future for all humanity. Invoking the term heroic modernism, I mark socialist modernity as distinct from either capitalist or colonial modernity in its belief in the emancipatory potential of history through new forms of community. Socialist modernity embodied the capacity of people to boldly step out as political agents to make history, even if the conditions were not of their choosing and the outcomes were not what they intended. It is the very definition of heroism: the courage to try even at risk of failure. 6
With all this being said - we do not know if the "counter-modernizing" of the BRICS countries will be successful. With global tensions adding up, especially between the US versus Russia and China, the violence of global capitalism might just as well lead to a period of reaction and destruction. It is unclear for how much longer the US will tolerate the counter-hegemonic influence of the BRICS without a war. But what is certain is that the face of the old world is shifting its shape. The colonized world has shown that it's ready to take its own path. But is the West ready to face a de-colonized Modernity?

1  Mike Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts 
2  Arundhati Roy - The Doctor and The Saint 
3  Maurice Meisner - Mao's China and After

4  Carl Gershman - A New Opening For Democracy In The Post-Soviet Space
5  As quoted in this excerpt of From China and Orientalism: Western Knowledge Production and the PRC by Daniel Vukovich
6 Suzy Kim - Every Day Life in the Korean Revolution


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