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Myths of Progress and the Temporality of Imperialism

It is commonplace in many intellectual and cultural spheres in the Anglo-Saxon world to refer to some places, regions, or states as “behind” others. For example, in the concerted attempt to synthesize feminist and neo-conservative rhetoric in the justification for the war and continued occupation of Afghanistan, the Bush and Obama administrations regularly referred to Afghanistan as being “behind” “the west” in terms of women’s rights, implying a linear progression from a patriarchal, tribal society which oppresses to women to a equitable, cosmopolitan one where women are nominally equals with their male counterparts. The selling of this particular narrative of progress was an important part of the CIA public relations strategy for shoring up support for the continued occupation of Afghanistan (see also: Stone, 2013).

Jorge Luis Borges once remarked that the lack of camels mentioned in the Koran proves its authentic origins in Arabia and the time of Mohammad: only an Arab author could have taken such an essential beast for granted so as not to mention it. The temporal discourse of some countries being “behind” and others being “ahead” (or maybe “on schedule” in rare cases) is much like the camel not in the Koran: it seems so normalized in our Anglo-American/European cultural worldview that the idea that temporal placement of individuals, groups, and countries functions as a means of making value-judgments about the subject goes generally without saying. Most readers of an Anglo-American background will know what is meant when Hillary Clinton says she won in the places that are “dynamic, moving forward,” while she lost in places that were “looking backwards”.

In the discipline of International Development Studies, which I am currently minoring in, this forward/backward notion of progress was quite explicit just a generation ago in Modernization Theory (McMichael, 2016). In the simplest terms, modernization theory proposed that liberal capitalist states were “developed” and “modern”, and therefore contemporary, while those “undeveloped” states in the socialist bloc and the third world were “behind” and “undeveloped”. The language of first, second, and third worlds also came from this period, which is also a value-judgment which implies these “worlds” are on different planes of existence based on their levels of development.

Empire, Optimism, and Time-Space compression

Before the 1900s, it would be extremely peculiar in European thought to imagine the future as radically different from the present. Even Enlightenment revolutionaries usually argued that what they were doing was restoring a correct and natural order which preceded the deformed order which oppressed them. The French revolution, arguably one of the most “progressive” political developments in history in terms of creating contemporary notions of sovereignty, democracy, and republicanism and overthrowing the aristocratic order, was largely rhetorically inspired by the Roman and Athenian republics and by the idea of Rousseau’s “state of nature”, rather than the idea of creating something entirely new.

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Progress, Restoration, or Both?

It was only in Victorian England, the centre of the British Empire and at that time widely regarded as the centre of the world economy, much like the United States today, (O’Brien and Williams, 2007) that the idea of “progress” as we now understand it began to have real intellectual legitimacy. The development of electricity and the telegram led to a kind of cultural time-space compression; things were happening faster, consumer goods were travelling further, information was more widely available – early indicators of what we now call globalization. Among the imperial bourgeois of England, deeply intertwined with the royal court of queen Victoria, this spawned the first generation of futurists, bringing together colonial officers, British industrialists, American tycoons, and professional inventors in a project to reshape the world according to a furious and destabilizing techno-capitalism.

It is around this period that we first see references to Great Britain being “ahead” of other civilizations at the time. New technology, regarded as “progress” in its own right, was seen as bursting forth from the Victorian form of social organization. This perceived techno-social supremacy accompanied the development of scientific racism and the idea of whiteness, where Darwinian evolutionary theory was hamfistedly applied to human societies to explain the apparent disparity in intellect between the Victorian “white race” and their colonial subjects. This notion of “social evolutionism” was at the foreground of early anthropology, as well as the Victorians’ own perception of self supremacy (Forte, 2016). Equally, social Darwinism came to explain the increasing stratification between capitalists and workers in industrial society, depicting the working class as dirty, uncouth, and holding on to old peasant ways which kept them from experiencing the full blessings that industrial wage-labour bequeathed them.

Think on Donald Trump’s recent remarks that a variety of Central American, Caribbean, and African countries are “shitholes”, or the affore quote from Hilary Clinton, who seems to place her voters at a higher stage of human achievement because they produce more GDP, while Trump voters (especially in the Midwest) are “deplorables”. Both these value-judgments imply superiority of the speaker’s own partisan political camp based on adherence and fulfillment of the Victorian ideal while revealing the disdain for various underclasses essential to such an elitist worldview.

The Victorian era also saw a number of norms and institutions that readers will likely see as resonant with contemporary “western” society: philanthropic charity (as distinct from classical charity), states of “permanent warfare” – recall Afghanistan from the introduction, which both Great Britain and the US became embroiled in, –  aversion to “provincialism” and preference for cosmopolitanism, and increased proletarianization and declining prospects for the majority of people (Forte, 2016).

Capitalist Realism, New Victorianism: Colonizing the Future

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/34/Square_Victoria.JPG/220px-Square_Victoria.JPG
Victoria Memorial, Montreal, QC

The Victorian “forward acceleration” in the realm of culture accompanied, and was basically synonymous with, the rapacious accumulation of capital via exploitation and plunder, of Britain’s colonies. It should come as no surprise that the society which used terra nullius to build a “Greater Britain” (Forte, 2016) through the genocidal settler-colonies of Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand regarded the future as terra incognita: unknown land, ripe for colonization (Morus, 2014). As residents of this “Greater Britain”, we in English-speaking North America have largely inherited the Victorian worldview. Pax Britanica has been succeeded by Pax Americana. Is it any wonder that all fantastical futures, from Star Trek to Elon Musk’s plans to populate Mars, are imagined as better, more benevolent forms of colonization?

Self-described “progressive” elites, everyone from neoconservative lobbyists to left-liberal academics, tell us that, “you can’t go backward,” or, “you can’t turn the clock back,” and, “a return to the past is impossible”. They insist that we are all going to be brought to “the future” – which seems to mean liberal democracy, globalization, and free trade. But this “progress” implies a perfect, linear arc of time through which history “progresses” towards an inevitable ontology. Such a constant acceleration, like the one imagined by the old Victorians and by today’s “new” Victorians (Forte, 2016), is neither reasonably possible nor desirable. Thus, while we are insistently told to subscribe to “progress”, we are also jarringly proscribed a “dead end” in liberal democracy.

With “progress” ending, so does history, according to liberalism/progressivism. This was Francis Fukuyama’s thesis, which suggested that liberal democracy and capitalism would eventually overtake the whole world, led by the imperial United States  (Fukuyama, 1992). Fukuyama has of course had to revise his thesis several times, as threats as varied as advancements in biotechnology to geopolitical rivals to the US shake his faith in the eventuality of global liberalism.

But Fukuyama’s thesis that there is no alternative to liberal capitalism continues to resonate in popular culture. We are presented at once with liberal utopianism about its own future and “capitalist realism” (Fischer, 2014) about the possibility of systems besides liberal capitalism. The 21st century, as an age of progress at the end of progress, is one that repeats older forms of optimism and progressivism in order to conceal the stagnation and decline of American imperialism. New Victorianism which mimes the old Victorianism of imperial Britain is one way we can see this, with the pattern of imperial decline being repeated in the US case. Another is the emergence of recyclable popular culture. The reader is likely familiar with how fashion, trends, and aesthetics seem to rise and fall in vogue in an increasingly rapid, cyclical fashion. The colour at the time of writing seems to be 80’s nostalgia, which recycles the “lost future” into a consumer package that at once satisfies nostalgia for a time when optimism seemed more tangible, and makes the return of optimism seem possible in spite of capitalist crises and imperial decline (Fischer, 2014).

There are two kinds of colonialism at play here which serve to narrow the popular imagination. On the one hand, the classical Victorian tendency insists that there is something valuable in the notion of progress – that we should take pride in being “ahead” and like messiahs we should spread our forwardness in the form of “nation building” and “opening up markets”. On the other hand, imagining a system besides liberal capitalism is forbidden, a colonial restriction of self-determination. Just as old and new Victorians said and continue to say that colonial subjects are incapable of governing themselves on their own terms, requiring them to accept liberalism, globalization, and capitalism, so too is imagining a system besides capitalism dictated as impossible. In fact, these two kinds of restriction on self-determination are interrelated, often to the point of being indistinguishable.

Dystopia of the Now: The view from Latin America

The silence on how Victorian progressivism and imperialism shapes our public imaginations is not only because ideology is often most effective when it is silent, but because public intellectual inquiry has been shaped to take its presumptions for granted. Bourdieu and Wacquant deal with the internationalization of US paradigms in their controversial piece “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason”. The US has thus created an “international lingua franca” that ignores local particularities, and they point to various examples of the “symbolic dominion and influence” exercised by the US (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999). This “US ontology”, a product of US imperialism,  among other things proscribes a temporal “forwardness” positioning some countries as “ahead” and others “behind”, to the point that we have very few other ways of talking about international inequalities.

In this privileging of the temporal, globalist, and ultimately imperialist notion of progress, mainstream academia often ignores local conditions and realities. In the case of Latin America, we can see how this ideology of progress, and the privileging of the advancing imperial centre, plays out in reality. The very phrase Latin America comes from “modernizing” elites; the English “Latin America” comes from the Spanish Latinoamerica, which in turn comes from Latinidad, meaning to have  “Latinness”. This distinction was made by liberal elites in the newly-independent Spanish colonies to denote their proximity to the “Latin” or “European” world (Mignolo, 2005). Disdaining the provincialism of their compatriots, they sought to replicate European and American models (Burns, 1980).  Progress was equated with Europeanization, which under the tutorship of Britain, France, and the United States, also meant urbanization and industrialization at the expense of Indigenous societies and local cultural traditions. The result was increased foreign penetration of Latin American economies and dependency (Forte, 2018).

In the case of resistance, the “provincial” peasantry and indigenous peoples, were denounced as ignoramuses. “Reason” was the exclusive claim of the liberal, urban, European elite. The “reactionary” peasants were stuck in the past, while the elites were in the future (Burns, 1980).

Despite this history of repeated immiseration through “modernization”, and the increasingly obvious failure of the US-imposed model even within the US itself, self-appointed experts continue to claim that  Latin America is “underdeveloped” due to the persistence of feudal and traditional pre-capitalist forms of production within their economies and that therefore Latin American states should “develop” further i.e. expand the reach of capitalism in order to achieve prosperity. There is a magic belief that capital is benevolent, when in fact capitalism often breeds poverty, disease, and death. One can also hear echoes of elitist denunciations of the peasantry in the way that US authorities condemn “tyrants” and “populists” in the region.

Today, there are millions in Latin America who might be described as “victims of progress”. Progress “is a deep cultural bias of Western thought,” and it is the hallmark of the deterministic thinking of the Victorians, accepting “survival of the fittest” indicting those who do not survive capitalism as “failures” (Fischer, 2014). As such, there are cycles of “progress” and “modernization” in Latin America. With each cycle of capitalist “development” – expanding, appropriating resources, and incorporating people, spaces, and things into commodity production – Latin America is repeatedly decimated and  bound as a net exporter of raw materials, capital, and labour value back to the global “metropolis”. The constant cycles of capital, rather than “modernizing” the continent, reproduce a peculiar kind of savagery.

progress-poverty.jpg
Progress?

While modernization theorists tend to view institutions like the hacienda and the landed elite of Latin America, notorious for indentured labour and brutality, as a feudal anachronism to be swept away by a more mature capitalist system of land ownership resembling the European plot farms, the reality is that the hacienda is fundamental to the sustenance not only of the local elites of Latin America, but the capitalist mode of production; representing the tendency towards monopolization in agriculture, rather than a non-capitalist anomaly. This was one of the great insights of world-systems theorists Andre Gunder Frank, which he called  “development of underdevelopment” (Frank, 1969a, p. 9):

“the latifundium, irrespective of whether it appears today as a plantation or a hacienda, was typically born as a commercial enterprise which created for itself the institutions which permitted it to respond to increased demand in the world or national market by expanding the amount of its land, capital, and labor (sic) and to increase the supply of its products” (Frank, 1969b, p. 14).

The “modernizers” thus produce “savergry” in need of civilizing.

The illusion of Victorian progressivism is that Latin America’s “backwardness” and Greater Britain’s “advancement” are unrelated. In the worldview of the world’s elite, Latin America has simply failed to conform with “progress” and this is the cause of its problems. The reality is that imitation of European or US models is not only undesirable because they do not reflect local conditions, but impossible because all current and historical US and European models of enrichment and “progress” are contingent upon the impoverishment of Latin America.

Conclusion

Linear, Eurocentric, universalist narratives of progress are deeply embedded in our cultural worldview, both the mainstream and a variety of self-described “dissident” currents in the west. They are comforting, magic tales with familiar myths that many people are encultured into, and are exported across the world through media, communications, commerce, and military might. Yet, they cannot and do not speak for the rest of the world and their proscriptions are anything but universal. This is not a call for total rejection of the European experience or European philosophies, but an important contribution to the tradition of cultural criticism. With this criticism in mind, a future besides capitalist modernization is more readily to be understood on its own terms.

Image result for technicians wanted NASA recruitment posterCover Image: From NASA’s “Technicians Wanted” recruitment poster

References

Burns, E. Bradford. (1980). The Poverty of Progress: Latin America in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre, & Wacquant, Loic. 1999. “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason”. Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 16, no. 1: 41-58.

Central Intelligence Agency, and Red Cell. 2010 (released). “CIA Report into Shoring up Afghan War Support in Western Europe,” Wikileaks.

Deaton, Angus. (2018). “The U.S. Can No Longer Hide From Its Deep Poverty Problem”. The New York Times

Fischer, Mark. 2014. Ghosts of my life: writings on depression, hauntology and lost futures. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.

Forte, Maximillian. 2017, “Progress, Progressivism, and Progressives: An Anthropologist’s Perspective.” Zero Anthropology.

Forte, Maximillian. 2016. The New Victorianism. Montreal, QC: Concordia University.

Frank, Andre Gunder. 1969a. Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America: Historical Studies of Chile and Brazil. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.

Frank, Andre Gunder. 1969b. Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man. New York, NY: Free Press Inc.

Lutes, Abram Johannes F. 2016. “Political Economy of Eurocentrism: The Post-WW2 “Development Project” As Colonialism.” Peripheral Thought.

McMichael, 2016. Development and Social Change. New York, NY: SAGE Publications.

Mignolo, Walter. 2005. The Idea of Latin America. New York, NY: Wiley.

Morus, Iwan Rhys. 2014. “Future Perfect: Social progress, high-speed transport and electricity everywhere—how the Victorians invented the future”. Aeon.

Nagle, Angela. 2017. “Enemies of the People.” The Baffler, No. 34.

Nitzberg, Alex. 2 November 2018. “‘The Troika of Tyranny’: Bolton Condemns The Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan Regimes“. Town Hall.

O’Brien, R. and Marc Williams. 2007. “The Industrial Revolution, Pax Britanica, and Imperialism.” Global Political Economy (2nd ed.). New York, NY Palgrave/Macmillan: 77-105.

Stone, Brendan. 2013. “Colonial Feminism, Liberal “Progress,” and the Weakness of the Left“. Zero Anthropology.

York, Richard, & Clark, Brett. 2011. “Stephen Jay Gould’s Critique of Progress”. Monthly Review.

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#Aleppo

If I had time, perhaps this post would be better organized and more thought-out. However, given the nature of the news-media cycle and the imperative to be timely, I present this post as-is with the reservation that it may be edited for clarity should the need arise. 
No doubt, this post and position it takes will receive backlash. Firstly, I apologize for the UK-centric aspect of this post. The bulk of the writing is from a UK newspaper, and most of my linked sources are also based in the UK. The unfortunately reality is that the press in the United Kingdom, of all places, seems to have a more critical take on the events unfolding in Syria.
Secondly, I understand that the situation in Syria is contentious and that there may be some “pro-opposition” or “humanitarian” individuals and everyday people who are genuinely concerned based on the coverage of Aleppo. This post is, to some extent, for them.
In the era of the Chilcot Report and Wikileaks, which has demonstrated that the United States and NATO are willing to develop elaborate lies about any government they consider a threat to their hegemony, I cannot readily accept dominant narratives about Syria. 
 The Syrian state has been under direct attack by imperialism for the last two and a half years (although the US and others have been “accelerating the work of reformers” for much longer than that). The forms of this attack are many: providing weapons and money to opposition groups trying to topple the government; implementing wide-ranging trade sanctions; providing practically unlimited space in the media for the opposition while enacting a blackout on pro-government sources; and relentlessly slandering the Syrian president and government. With a few notable exceptions, the western media and governments have  “created this climate that legitimates” a regime change project in Syria.
For example, most western and corporate-owned media claims the Syrian government is responsible for the “vast majority of deaths” from the war against Syria — yet NATO military airstrikes, crippling economic sanctions, and CIA-trained rebels ravage the nation. The lone fact that sanctions have been imposed  by the west is an act of war.

The primary source for these claims is pro-opposition outlet Syrian Observatory for Human rights or “SOHR”. The organization was founded and to this day is operated by one man living in the UK . Rami Abdul Rahman, the man behind SOHR, refuses to disclose his methodology, which led the UN to abandon its reporting of Syrian casualty figures in 2014. Interestingly, dubious as it may be SOHR’s own data shows “In the past year, more Syrian regime forces (17,600) died than civilians (13,000).”

With this in mind, I have provided two samples of an alternative narrative on the war in (or on) Syria, with a focus on Aleppo. It is not my intention to negate the genuine concerns people who are not already self-described anti-imperilaists might have for the people of Aleppo; I have forced myself to resist falling into the cynical notion that liberal concern cannot be directed elsewhere. Instead, by critique is of the “humanitarian” imperialist lens this concern is filtered through to reinforce the legitimcacy of empire and its practices.

EVA BARTLETT

EVA BARTLETTThe following biography is borrowed from Zero Anthropology :

Eva Bartlett is an independent Canadian rights and justice activist and freelance journalist. She has spent years in occupied Palestine, documenting Zionist crimes against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).

In November 2008, Eva sailed with the third Free Gaza Movement boat from Cyprus to the Gaza Strip, where she then joined the ISM in accompanying fishermen on the sea and farmers in the border regions (see compilation video here and her blog posts and reporting here). In both cases, fishers and farmers were violently attacked by Israeli army, injured, killed, or abducted.

During the 2008/9 Israeli attacks, Eva and other ISM volunteers accompanied Palestinian medics in Gaza, documenting Israeli crimes, including victims of White Phosphorous attacks and other war crimes. During the November 2012 attacks, Eva documented from a central Gaza Strip hospital.

In 2014, Eva twice visited Syria, for a period of a month, taking testimonies of Syrian and Palestinian victims of terrorism in Yarmouk camp, as well as Homs, Maaloula, Kessab and Latakia. She experienced first-hand the terrorists’ mortars on Damascus, including being shot at by a terrorist sniper. She reported on the Syrian Presidential elections from Lebanon, and re-visited Syrian a week after the elections. She has also interviewed the Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, Dr. Bashar al-Ja’afari.

Eva has given numerous talks on Palestine across North America, Ireland and Britain, and has also given many interviews. Her website is ingaza.wordpress.com

She is also a founding member of the Syria Solidarity Movement, which advocates for a sovereign Syria and against foreign intervention. She speaks colloquial Arabic and rusty French.

Eva Bartlett’s articles on Zero Anthropology (and highly recommended by Peripheral Thought) include:

  1. Interview with Syria’s Minister of National Reconciliation
  2. The Terrorism We Support in Syria: A First-hand Account of the Use of Mortars against Civilians
  3. Road to Victory: Syria’s Zenobians Stand to Win International Rugby Tournament
  4. Useful Atrocities

Bartlett’s latest exploit is a press conference regarding her work in Syria and the troubling implications of Aleppo coverage:

ROBERT FISK: There is more than one truth to tell in the terrible story of Aleppo

This story originally appeared in the UK Independent. Emphasis is added. I have also linked a relevant talk by Italian journalist Loretta Napoleoni, which Fisk references. 

Western politicians, “experts” and journalists are going to have to reboot their stories over the next few days now that Bashar al-Assad’s army has retaken control of eastern Aleppo. We’re going to find out if the 250,000 civilians “trapped” in the city were indeed that numerous. We’re going to hear far more about why they were not able to leave when the Syrian government and Russian air force staged their ferocious bombardment of the eastern part of the city.

And we’re going to learn a lot more about the “rebels” whom we in the West – the US, Britain and our head-chopping mates in the Gulf – have been supporting.

They did, after all, include al-Qaeda (alias Jabhat al-Nusra, alias Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), the “folk” – as George W Bush called them – who committed the crimes against humanity in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on 11 September 2001. Remember the War on Terror? Remember the “pure evil” of al-Qaeda. Remember all the warnings from our beloved security services in the UK about how al-Qaeda can still strike terror in London?

Not when the rebels, including al-Qaeda, were bravely defending east Aleppo, we didn’t – because a powerful tale of heroism, democracy and suffering was being woven for us, a narrative of good guys versus bad guys as explosive and dishonest as “weapons of mass destruction”.

Back in the days of Saddam Hussein – when a few of us argued that the illegal invasion of Iraq would lead to catastrophe and untold suffering, and that Tony Blair and George Bush were taking us down the path to perdition – it was incumbent upon us, always, to profess our repugnance of Saddam and his regime. We had to remind readers, constantly, that Saddam was one of the Triple Pillars of the Axis of Evil.

So here goes the usual mantra again, which we must repeat ad nauseam to avoid the usual hate mail and abuse that will today be cast at anyone veering away from the approved and deeply flawed version of the Syrian tragedy.

Yes, Bashar al-Assad has brutally destroyed vast tracts of his cities in his battle against those who wish to overthrow his regime. Yes, that regime has a multitude of sins to its name: torture, executions, secret prisons, the killing of civilians, and – if we include the Syrian militia thugs under nominal control of the regime – a frightening version of ethnic cleansing.

Yes, we should fear for the lives of the courageous doctors of eastern Aleppo and the people for whom they have been caring. Anyone who saw the footage of the young man taken out of the line of refugees fleeing Aleppo last week by the regime’s intelligence men should fear for all those who have not been permitted to cross the government lines. And let’s remember how the UN grimly reported it had been told of 82 civilians “massacred” in their homes in the last 24 hours.

But it’s time to tell the other truth: that many of the “rebels” whom we in the West have been supporting – and which our preposterous Prime Minister Theresa May indirectly blessed when she grovelled to the Gulf head-choppers last week – are among the cruellest and most ruthless of fighters in the Middle East. And while we have been tut-tutting at the frightfulness of Isis during the siege of Mosul (an event all too similar to Aleppo, although you wouldn’t think so from reading our narrative of the story), we have been willfully ignoring the behaviour of the rebels of Aleppo.

Only a few weeks ago, I interviewed one of the very first Muslim families to flee eastern Aleppo during a ceasefire. The father had just been told that his brother was to be executed by the rebels because he crossed the frontline with his wife and son. He condemned the rebels for closing the schools and putting weapons close to hospitals. And he was no pro-regime stooge; he even admired Isis for their good behaviour in the early days of the siege.

Around the same time, Syrian soldiers were privately expressing their belief to me that the Americans would allow Isis to leave Mosul to again attack the regime in Syria. An American general had actually expressed his fear that Iraqi Shiite militiamen might prevent Isis from fleeing across the Iraqi border to Syria.

Well, so it came to pass. In three vast columns of suicide trucks and thousands of armed supporters, Isis has just swarmed across the desert from Mosul in Iraq, and from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria to seize the beautiful city of Palmyra all over again.

It is highly instructive to look at our reporting of these two parallel events. Almost every headline today speaks of the “fall” of Aleppo to the Syrian army – when in any other circumstances, we would have surely said that the army had “recaptured” it from the “rebels” – while Isis was reported to have “recaptured” Palmyra when (given their own murderous behaviour) we should surely have announced that the Roman city had “fallen” once more under their grotesque rule.

Words matter. These are the men – our “chaps”, I suppose, if we keep to the current jihadi narrative – who after their first occupation of the city last year beheaded the 82-year-old scholar who tried to protect the Roman treasures and then placed his spectacles back on his decapitated head.

By their own admission, the Russians flew 64 bombing sorties against the Isis attackers outside Palmyra. But given the huge columns of dust thrown up by the Isis convoys, why didn’t the American air force join in the bombardment of their greatest enemy? But no: for some reason, the US satellites and drones and intelligence just didn’t spot them – any more than they did when Isis drove identical convoys of suicide trucks to seize Palmyra when they first took the city in May 2015.

There’s no doubting what a setback Palmyra represents for both the Syrian army and the Russians – however symbolic rather than military. Syrian officers told me in Palmyra earlier this year that Isis would never be allowed to return. There was a Russian military base in the city. Russian aircraft flew overhead. A Russian orchestra had just played in the Roman ruins to celebrate Palmyra’s liberation.

So what happened? Most likely is that the Syrian military simply didn’t have the manpower to defend Palmyra while closing in on eastern Aleppo.

They will have to take Palmyra back – quickly. But for Bashar al-Assad, the end of the Aleppo siege means that Isis, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and all the other Salafist groups and their allies can no longer claim a base, or create a capital, in the long line of great cities that form the spine of Syria: Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo

Back to Aleppo. The familiar and now tired political-journalistic narrative is in need of refreshing. The evidence has been clear for some days. After months of condemning the iniquities of the Syrian regime while obscuring the identity and brutality of its opponents in Aleppo, the human rights organisations – sniffing defeat for the rebels – began only a few days ago to spread their criticism to include the defenders of eastern Aleppo.

Take the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. After last week running through its usual – and perfectly understandable – fears for the civilian population of eastern Aleppo and their medical workers, and for civilians subject to government reprisals and for “hundreds of men” who may have gone missing after crossing the frontlines, the UN suddenly expressed other concerns.

“During the last two weeks, Fatah al-Sham Front [in other words, al-Qaeda] and the Abu Amara Battalion are alleged to have abducted and killed an unknown number of civilians who requested the armed groups to leave their neighborhoods, to spare the lives of civilians…,” it stated.

“We have also received reports that between 30 November and 1 December, armed opposition groups fired on civilians attempting to leave.” Furthermore, “indiscriminate attacks” had been conducted on heavily civilian areas of government-held western as well as ‘rebel’ eastern Aleppo.

I suspect we shall be hearing more of this in the coming days. Next month, we shall also be reading a frightening new book, Merchants of Men, by Italian journalist Loretta Napoleoni, on the funding of the war in Syria. She catalogues kidnapping-for-cash by both government and rebel forces in Syria, but also has harsh words for our own profession of journalism.

Reporters who were kidnapped by armed groups in eastern Syria, she writes, “fell victim to a sort of Hemingway syndrome: war correspondents supporting the insurgency trust the rebels and place their lives in their hands because they are in league with them.” But, “the insurgency is just a variation of criminal jihadism, a modern phenomenon that has only one loyalty: money.”

Is this too harsh on my profession? Are we really “in league” with the rebels?

Certainly our political masters are – and for the same reason as the rebels kidnap their victims: money. Hence the disgrace of Brexit May and her buffoonerie of ministers who last week prostrated themselves to the Sunni autocrats who fund the jihadis of Syria in the hope of winning billions of pounds in post-Brexit arms sales to the Gulf.

In a few hours, the British parliament is to debate the plight of the doctors, nurses, wounded children and civilians of Aleppo and other areas of Syria. The grotesque behaviour of the UK Government has ensured that neither the Syrians nor the Russians will pay the slightest attention to our pitiful wails. That, too, must become part of the story.

About Robert

From his profile on the Independent:

Robert Fisk is the multi-award winning Middle East correspondent of The Independent, based in Beirut. He has lived in the Arab world for more than 40 years, covering Lebanon, five Israeli invasions, the Iran-Iraq war, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Algerian civil war, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the Bosnian and Kosovo wars, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and the 2011 Arab revolutions. Occasionally describing himself as an ‘Ottoman correspondent’ because of the huge area he covers, Fisk joined The Independent in 1989. He has written best-selling books on the Middle East, including Pity the Nation and The Great War for Civilisation. He was born in Kent in 1946 and gained his BA in English and Classics at Lancaster University. He holds a PhD in politics from Trinity College, Dublin.

FURTHER DISCUSSION

If the US topples the government and turns Syria into a client state, history shows this means infinitely worse conditions for the people. There is no denying this. In the words of Hillary Clinton, it would mean “Killing lots of Syrians“.

In addition to my comments above, we should remember that a majority of Syrians conditionally support the government as does the Syrian left. Since I expect many will retort that parties like the Syrian Unified Communist Party are merely puppets of Assad’s Ba’ath party, we should remember that the left’s token favorites, the Kurdish YPG/PYD fought alongside the Syrian Arab Army in Aleppo

Even if one were to believe the absolute plausible worst about the Syrian government, intervention is unjustifiable. This puts the left in a similar position to Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” or Qaddafi’s “Viagra-fueled mercenaries“, these are colonial mythologies – “useful atrocities” in the words of Eva Bartlett, that exploit legitimate criticisms and opposition to these governments as justifications for  western imperialism.

Chavez AssadIt is saddening to see the left fall head-over-heels into this deception. Left movements and anti-imperialist governments in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua (pictured is Hugo Chavez with Bashar Al-Assad) and elsewhere have a much richer understanding of the meaning of solidarity and supporting self-determination for Syria.

Though, to be fair to the western left, the PR/ propaganda campaign against Syria has an extremely effective group advocating through humanitarian seduction- the white helmets. Despite having direct ties to the Syrian opposition (and in particular, Al Qaeda) and receiving generous funding and public relations support from western governments, they present themselves as a “neutral”, “humanitarian” arbiter in the conflict. This has had a particular allure to the “establishment” left such as the NDP in Canada.

To understand the moral hypocrisy of the imperialists and those supporting them in one form or another on “humanitarian” grounds, I will return to the three points of imperialist manipulation of morality as noted by Maximillian Forte which I have used before:

  1. Moral Dualism – Consider the hypocrisy of coverage of the reconquest of Mosul versus the reconquest of Aleppo.
  2. Moral Narcissism – what matters most are words and declarations, the positions that stake. It’s not actions that count, what we say we feel that matters most.This is how the White Helmets can call itself a “humanitarian” force while lobbying for western bombing runs, or how said bombing runs can be called humanitarian intervention.
  3. Demonization – Yet again we hear “Assad forces”, “murderous Assad”, etc.as typical labels by journalists and pundits, stripping away even the nominal objectivity of the corporate press. While some criticisms of Assad are of course valid and deserve due consideration, these kinds of labels are not concerned with a robust critique of the Ba’athist regime, but with decimating it.

It is clear that we are not seeing some sort of exceptional series of events, but instead a project consistent with NATO regime change efforts in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Haiti, Libya, and elsewhere. If you have reached this far in this post and are concerned about the future of the Syrian people, I encourage you to direct the energy you would have put towards supporting the dubious humanitarianism I have described above, and instead put that energy towards helping build the struggle to overthrow colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism. The events in Syria only show that the Empire has no moral high ground; it must be abolished.

Once again, I am indebted to Invent the Future and Zero Anthropology for providing a large number of my links and citations

I also highly recommend the “Non-Fake News Syria Reading List” which includes articles from mainstream sources with a critical perspective on Syria. The document is a collaborative project on Google Docs which anyone can provide comments, feedback, and request to edit. Thanks to Dru Oja Jay for alerting me to the project. 

PERIPHERAL THOUGHT SUPPORTS HANDS OFF SYRIA

“Our objective is to create the broadest possible united front for peace and justice by peace activists and organizations in the U.S. and around the world to fight for an end all violence, intervention and sanctions against Syria, which is now threatening world peace.” – Hands Off Syria Points of Unity

In light of this situation and the viewpoint expressed above,  I am endorsing the Hands Off Syria Coalition in an effort to advocate a just, lasting peace which ensures the self-determination of the Syrian people. I encourage all readers who have had the patience to survive this post to do the same as a first step towards advancing the struggle. Organizational endorsements are especially helpful.

There is, unfortunately, no Canadian equivalent to the Hands Off Syria Coalition, several Canadian signatories have signed the Hands Off Syria statement. Hopefully similar efforts will emerge.

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Hands Off Syria Coalition — Points of Unity Statement

Categories
USA

90 Miles free from Empire: A Tribute to Fidel Castro and the Cuban People

“It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba’s longest serving President. Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation. While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for el Comandante. I know my father was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away. It was also a real honor to meet his three sons and his brother President Raúl Castro during my recent visit to Cuba. On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends and many, many supporters of Mr. Castro. We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader.” — Justin Trudeau

(Statement by the Prime Minister of Canada on the death of former Cuban President Fidel Castro)

 The above statement by Prime Minister Trudeau pushed me the closest I have ever felt in my adult life to feeling national pride. Even this (I think quite moderate) praise of the achievements of the Cuban revolution has earned Trudeau considerable backlash, from neighbors in the other imperialist countries of the USA and Europe as well as right-wing forces around the world, despite the fact that political leaders representing over 3/4ths of the world’s population joined him in praise of the late Cuban leader.
I do not mean to present Trudeau as some sort of special rebel against the imperial establishment. In fact, he quite quickly backed down from directly defending Castro. I simply note that even “giving the devil his due” so to speak, as Trudeau did (probably begrudgingly) with his statement on Castro, is maligned in the current “end of history” media discourse. Despite plenty of history happening since Francis Fukuyama claimed it was over in 1992, mainstream media clings to a world where the liberal, capitalist-imperialist order reigns supreme despite the fact that this system is bursting at its seams. With the establishment in such a conundrum, it is no wonder they want to vilify such a powerful example of a working alternative as Cuba.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world mourns the death of larger-than-life revolutionary who helped lead his country, despite being only ninety miles from the coast of Florida, to expel US-backed dictator Batista and embark on one the most profound experiments in national self-determination the world has ever seen.

United States of Hypocrisy

To be sure, Fidel did not always have the moral high ground in the way he dealt with his enemies, though I would argue neither did they. In some ways, he was not even a “good” communist.  But for setting an example that shook the arrogance of the American empire to its core, he will be always remembered. 

No doubt, this time of mourning has provided an opportunity for the Empire to bite back at defiant Cuba. The United States maintains that Cuba has scores of political prisoners locked away, yet when prompted cannot produce a list of said political prisoners, when they were arrested, or where they are held. Implying either that there are no or very few political prisoners in Cuba or that the United States is incredibly good at guesswork. Meanwhile, numerous political prisoners languish in American jails on trumped-up charges, including (but not limited to) Chelsea Manning, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Oscar Lopez-Riviera, and others. The United States also has the world’s largest prison population overall. When they’re not in prison, Black people in the United States are targeted by police violence.

This is alone shows the utter hypocrisy of the United States and its partners, but it doesn’t stop there! We should not forget that the United States and American capitalism was built on a foundation of genocide and slavery. The United States continues to operate an international network of torture and intimidation, including in Guantanamo which it refuses to return to Cuba. The United States also continues meddle in other countries affairs either through direct intervention or regime change strategies, with costly human consequences.

Meanwhile, despite the United States acquiring vast amounts of loot from the rest of the world, everyday Americans are increasingly impoverished by neoliberal trade policies whilst Indigenous peoples live in pockets of third-world conditions.

And of course, I must comment on my home country of Canada. In addition to in many instances aiding and abetting the atrocities above (such as Trudeau’s “badass” defense minister’s role in torturing Afghan civilians), Canada is also built on genocide and exploitation in its own right. Canada’s reservations are, to this day, arguably even more atrocious than some in the United States, and Canada’s working class is living on the edge struggling to buy food.

I will not comment on Europe but I hope all readers are aware that each European power has committed more than its fair share of atrocities and genocides in the course of colonization and today plays an active role in NATO imperialism.

Whether you believe the ridiculous allegations against Cuba or not, none of the Imperial powers have any moral right to lecture Cuba on human rights.

NATO the Destroyer versus Cuba the Healer

For sure, all is not well in Cuba. There are serious problems impeding development and sustainability of the Cuban system which its leadership and its people will have to address together. However, I believe that such problems are extremely exacerbated by the massive embargo against Cuba enforced by the United States on the rest of the world, which the Cuban government estimates has an impact of $753.69 billion on the island. That’s a lot.

Yet, despite this, Cuba remains independent and resilient, continuing to build on the gains of its independence and share those gains with the world. Where NATO destroys, Cuba heals.

Below, I attempt to provide an outline of some of the most immense achievements and key elements of the Cuban revolution:

Self-Determination and Dignity for Cubans

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The current government of Cuba came to power in a popular revolution led by Fidel Castro,  which ousted repressive US-supported dictator Batista. The fact that the revolution ousted such a government is an achievement in and of itself. How could Cubans ever have any sense of democracy or self-determination whilst being culturally, politically, economically, and physically dominated by the United States and its lackeys? Whether you agree with the current direction of the Cuban government, is it not more “democratic” to not be dominated by an occupying power?

However, for those who think elections are the only indicator of popular power, elections do take place in Cuba. Elections to Cuba’s national parliament (the National Assembly) take place every five years and elections to regional Municipal Assemblies every 2.5 years. Everyone is allowed to participate, including liberal dissidents despite having almost no popular support on the island. Cuba’s current socialist constitution was approved by referendum, after all. To be sure, Cuba is what we would call a one-party state and not a liberal democracy, but the idea that liberal democracy is the only kind of democracy and that anyone living under any other system is oppressed is an ethnocentric notion (for more on Cuban democracy, see book Cuba and its Neighbors linked below).

The average Cuban voter can hardly be easily deceived by sham elections when education is free, universal, and of high quality and almost the entire country is literate, a passion project of Castro’s. Cuba is ranked at number 16 in UNESCO’s Education for All Development Index, higher  than the US, which is ranked at number 25. Cubans also enjoy zero homelessness as housing is considered a human right.

Medical Internationalism

“Cuba demonstrates how much nations can do with the resources they have if they focus on the right priorities – health, education, and literacy.” — Kofi Annan

Cuba’s healthcare system is one of the crowning achievements of its socialized economy. Cuba “boasts better health indicators than its exponentially richer neighbor 90 miles across the Florida straits” (emphasis added). Life expectancy is an impressive 79. Infant mortality is 4.83 deaths per 1,000 live births compared (better than the US figure of 6.0, and incomparably better than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean, which is around 27 deaths per 1,000 live births). Cuba has the lowest HIV prevalence rate in the Americas. There is one doctor for every 220 people in Cuba – “one of the highest ratios in the world, compared with one for every 370 in England” (emphasis added). These successful healthcare initiatives are based in communities they serve, oriented towards holistic health and prevention, and mostly free at the point of use as they are funded through state revenue from other industries.

In addition to rebuilding the health system of its sister socialist country, Venezuela, Cuba’s international medical aid has helped restore sight to millions of people across Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuba also has spread its hard-won expertise in the field of saving lives across huge number of other countries in the Global South. “A third of Cuba’s 75,000 doctors, along with 10,000 other health workers, are currently working in 77 poor countries.” Cuba is especially very active in the fight against the scourge of AIDS internationally, for example having helped Zambia to start manufacturing its own antiretrovirals, a project which reflects Cuba’s deep commitments to Africa (more below). Cuba also provides medical training to numerous countries through the  la Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina, including Black Americans.

Cuba, Caribbean, Africa

“As Fidel ascends to the realm of the ancestors, we summon his guidance, strength, and power as we recommit ourselves to the struggle for universal freedom. Fidel Vive!” (Black Lives Matter)

Image result for castro and malcolm xFidel was, to put it simply “an unwavering champion of racial equality, bumping elbows and building friendships with some of the most regarded members of the Black liberation struggle, especially Nelson Mandela, as well as more maligned Black and African radicals such as Malcolm X (pictured) and Moammar Qaddafi. Fidel embraced his own African heritage and Africa’s strong influence on Cuba and the Caribbean islands, long maligned by western-backed regimes. The revolution quickly started attacking racism at its roots, vowing to “straighten out what history has twisted.

Perhaps even more significant and monumental is Fidel and Cuba’s immense sacrifice to secure African independence from colonialism, a struggle which it continues to support. Cuban troops fought side-by-side with Angolan and Namibian revolutionaries to liberate their nations from the domination of European imperialism and the scourge of Apartheid. This culminated in victory at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale (“Africa’s Stalingrad”) after immense struggle by Angolans, Namibians, and their Cuban allies.

I cannot understate the power and significance of such solidarity. In the words of Nelson Mandela:

The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character… We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defense of one of us (emphasis added).

In addition, Fidel Castro has defended US political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and provided asylum for Asata Shakur and numerous other Black Panthers fleeing political repression in the United States.

With all this in mind, we should not be surprised, for example, at Colin Kaepernick’s tacit endorsement of Cuban literacy programs and support for African liberation, as this has directly benefited Africans and Afro-Americans.

Rainbow Solidarity, Gender Equality, and Fidel’s Self-Criticism

In a display of humility and honesty very rare for a politician, Fidel Castro admitted responsibility for the mistreatment of gays and other queer people in Cuba in the early decades of the revolution. This of course, should not excuse Castro and the Cuban government of further criticism in this area. However, I do think the attempts at reconciliation with the LGBTQ+ community of Cuba and the world are profound. As David Duran writes: “Cuba is leading by example and positively affecting the lives of not only the LGBT people who reside there but others all over the world who see these massive changes taking place so quickly in a country where most would think the topic of homosexuality would be off-limits.”

To emphasize this state support for LGBTQ+ rights, Cuba has instituted the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) campaigns for “the development of a culture of sexuality that is full, pleasurable and responsible, as well as to promote the full exercise of sexual rights.” This includes especially working to combat homophobia and to move away from elements of “machismo” culture often associated with Latin America.

In addition,  43% of parliament members are female. 64% of university places are occupied by women. “Cuban women comprise 66% of all technicians and professionals in the country’s middle and higher levels. Women are given 18 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay, with extended leave at 60% pay until the child is one year old.

“By several measures, Cuba has achieved a high standard of gender equality, despite the country’s reputation for machismo, a Latin American variant of sexism. Save the Children ranks Cuba first among developing countries for the wellbeing of mothers and children, the report points out. The World Economic Forum places Cuba 20th out of 153 countries in health, literacy, economic status and political participation of women – ahead of all countries in Latin America except Trinidad and Tobago.” (Emphasis added, Center for Democracy in the Americas).

The “New Indians” and Decolonization

This is an area where Trudeau could learn from Castro. As noted before, the conditions of indigenous peoples in North America is atrocious, exacerbating by colonial exploitation of their lands and resources. Castro immediately recognized the conditions on Native reservations and compared them to the impact of sanctions on Cuba. Castro understood that colonialism is a relationship of economic exploitation rather than purely cultural conflict, saying of Cuba:

we are the new Indians of this hemisphere. I was saying that in my opinion, when we analyze the social and economic situation of our peoples, I said that the level of exploitation is greater, and in my opinion, in this hemisphere our peoples have become net exporters of capital to the rich countries, to those who have exploited us for centuries, those who made themselves the owners…those that became rich with our sweat and blood, and today continue to exploit us”. (emphases added, Fidel Castro, 1990)

Because of this shared experience of colonial exploitation and repression, Cuba upon request recognized the Seminole Nation of Florida in 1960 as a sovereign nation with the right to independence. Cuba has also provided life-saving diabetes treatments to the Mohawk Nation. It is clear Cuba recognizes the importance of indigenous peoples and decolonization, which might explain the reemergence of the Taino peoples, which the Spanish supposedly exterminated, on the island in recent years.

Cuba and the Philippines: Fraternal Nations

As someone with an interest in Maoist politics, it is interesting to me that despite the Cuban revolutionaries choosing to side with the Soviet bloc over China (as was their prerogative) that the Cuban revolution remains important to Maoist movements despite their substantial differences. This is especially true of the Philippines, which also shares a history of both Spanish and American colonization with Cuba. Jose Maria Sison, leader of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and a prominent member of the Communist Party of the Philippines notes”While Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolutionaries were still in the Sierra Maestra, their revolutionary struggle caught the attention of the world and of course the student organization to which I belonged in the University of the Philippines. Our organization [the underground Patriotic Youth] was engaged in forming study circles for the purpose of resuming the unfinished Philippine revolution for national and social liberation against foreign and feudal domination.”

Even among non-revolutionary Filipinos, the Cuban revolution stands tall. President Rodrigo Duterte has sent emissaries to Cuba in hopes of emulating its healthcare system, de facto following the policy recommendations of the National Democratic Front’s think tank.

In short, according to Sison:

“There is a strong sense of solidarity and empathy between the Filipino and Cuban peoples because they have suffered under Spanish colonialism and US imperialism and struggled against these two foreign powers. They admire each other’s revolutionary struggles and victories. The Filipino people are inspired by the great victory of the Cuban people in liberating themselves from US imperialism and local reactionary classes of big compradores and landlords represented by the Batista regime.” (emphasis added, Jose Maria Sison)

The full interview with Sison by Julia Camagong appears below:

[Many thanks to Carlos Martinez for providing many of the sources cited above, which originally appeared in his article 20 Reasons to Support Cuba

Recommended Further Reading:

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Cuba and It’s Neighbors: Democracy in Motion by Arnold August

Arnold August’s Cuba and its Neighbours  “explores Cuba’s unique form of democracy, presenting a detailed and balanced analysis of Cuba’s electoral process and the state’s functioning between elections. By comparing it with practices in the U.S., Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, August shows that people’s participation in politics and society is not limited to a singular U.S.-centric understanding of democracy. For example, democracy as practised in the U.S. is largely non-participatory, static and fixed in time.” (From the book description). August is a Montreal, QC resident.

I also recommend people reading Dr. Maximilian Forte’s review of August’s book, where Forte discusses the concepts of Cuban and socialist democracy in greater detail and compares them to liberal democracy, which he terms “democratic elitism”. See Part 1 and Part 2 here.

Cuba: A Revolution in Motion by Isaac Saney

This accessible, up-to-date and comprehensive introduction to Cuba today provides both students and general readers with a sense of the changes-and continuities-in Cuba through the 1990s.  Saney describes the economic crash, new policies and subsequent recovery during the ‘Special Period.’

If like me, you are from the Atlantic region of Canada, Saney is especially engaging, as he teaches at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS and is regularly involved in socialist and anti-imperialist politics there.

Exit Music

There is so much more that I wish I could dedicate time to comment on concerning Fidel Castro and Cuba’s immense achievements. In addition to the accomplishments above, Cuba boasts a sustainable system of organic agriculture, excellent achievements in science,and  uncompromising solidarity with Palestine against Israeli colonization.

In short, rest in power Fidel; history has absolved you.

 

Other Commemorations to Fidel Castro:

Updates:

I am truly overwhelmed. I do not think I was using hyperbole when I said that 3/4ths of the world is in mourning this month (if not many more people). In addition to the two new commemorations I have added, one from the Chinese Premier and one from the ALBA Social Movements, the United Nations has held a minute of silence to respect Castro’s passing, and Cubans have turned out en masse to mourn their fallen commandante.